Gary Raymond on just one of the many mini anti-rituals of toxic masculinity that could bring the world to its knees.
Just last week I was using the facilities in a busy city centre pub in Wales’s fair capital, as is my want. After the call of nature had been answered, I turned to one of the two sinks in the gents to find a peculiar set of circumstances that would usually – although, even then, rarely – only occur at the odd summer festival. There was a queue. Okay, so there were five of us; two washing their hands, and three more, including me, waiting for one of the two sinks to become vacated. I stood in the ramshackle line. There was a beat. Slowly all five of us made awkward eye contact – usually verboten in these spaces. There emerged the beginnings of wry smiles at the corners of mouths. But they faded quite quickly. We men were realising the layers of meaning behind our amusement. First: Odd, isn’t it, that we find ourselves here, doing this, washing our hands, forced to queue. Then: why is this so odd? Then: It really shouldn’t be odd. Then: It is probably bad that we find it odd, that we were briefly amused by the requirement that we fulfil a basic contract of common social decency. Hygiene.
A few days before, in the toilets at a cinema multiplex after a movie, a row of six of us men began to sing in chorus the “Happy Birthday” song as we rolled our hands in liquid soap at our respective sink units. Either that or I had accidentally stumbled into an audition for Coronavirus: The Musical. That was more jovial, more upbeat, and we men bonded, connected. Very similar to what living through the Blitz must have been like. (Perhaps a few Brexiteers could confirm whether that’s accurate or not for me. Thanks in advance).
This “incident” in the pub toilet (a phrase that doesn’t feel as sinister as it otherwise might, all things considered) most definitely did not end up leaving an imprint of glorious solidarity in the face of daunting odds. It felt much murkier. Men it seems, have to be told – by the World Health Organisation, no less!!! – to wash their hands after urinating. Grown men! Of course, those of us who are grown men have always known many men don’t do this. We see them every visit to a public convenience. In recent weeks it has been interesting to see the reactions of my women friends to this breaking news that men are mostly disgusting. I honestly thought they already knew.
Now, this is the part where I offer up my self-righteous pompous, smug-af mortal body as the beacon of hope that I always knew one day it would be. I am a man, and I have (for the most part) always washed my hands after going to the toilet. There are several reasons for this, but most fundamental is that I was brought up by parents who taught me at a very young age that it was the correct thing to do, that it was the natural thing to do. It was part of the process, not an optional add on. As important as all the other stages of the inescapable inconvenience of taking a piss. The washing of hands should be as endemic as doing up your fly. Or, indeed, undoing it, literally beforehand.
I’m not saying that over the years I have never missed a chance when heading to the exit of a public lav to wash my hands, but then there have also been occasions when I’ve forgotten to do up my fly. We are all human. I’m not proud of the times I haven’t washed my hands. But I consider these slips in decorum as evidence of my fallibility as a person, not as some signpost to my manliness, as I suspect, somewhere in the deep recesses of social evolution, many grubby-handed blokes will find the reasons for their grossness.
If social media has taught us anything it is that men are essentially just little boys in big man suits. Much of toxic masculinity comes from the dangerous and sometimes fatal endeavour of reminding or introducing men to this fact. Much male behaviour is an unconscious attempt to hide the childlike essence of the Man’s World, to try and beef it up, harden it, make it something not fit for kids, dangerous for women, and a place where it’s easy to “separate the men from the boys” even when those “boys” are also “men”. It may seem ridiculous, but take it from a man, not washing your hands after taking a pee is part of that toxic masculinity. It is a miniscule, synaptic contribution to the depressing and ugly culture of male entitled arrogance, like not indicating when driving, or refusing to ask for directions, or refusing to see a doctor when you’ve hammered a nail through your thumb. It is a notice to men from men that safety, decency, is… well… weak. It is part of a peculiar belief that some Darwinian principle is what makes a man a man.
In the week between the choral audition in the cinema toilets, and the heads hung in shame in the pub loos, I lost count of the number of men I saw walk from urinal to toilet door without stopping at the sink and hand dryer first. A global pandemic is simply not enough to get some men to stop for twenty seconds and wash their hands. For some, surviving Covid-19 is just another test in the ongoing puerile game of proving themselves not a child, not in need of help or advice, not needing to ask for directions, not having to read a map. The washing of hands is trivial. The business of real men is not trivial. This week the UK’s Manchild-in-Chief Boris Johnson stood in front of a gaggle of reporters and told the country more people are going to die and we’re going to have to just suck it up. On Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show last week Johnson said he had some sympathy with the view that just letting Covid-19 run its course would be a viable strategy, suggesting he has in fact paid attention to his chief advisor’s musings on the allure of Eugenics. All Johnson has really offered so far is to tell people to wash their hands, advice he is fully aware some men will continue ignore for fear of handing over some pin badge of the masculinists club. Some men won’t be happy with too much advice, too much mollycoddling. Johnson knows this. They’re his core voters. I am not a child anymore, mummy, they pout. Well, it’s time to grow up, boys, and wash your damn hands.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.
In case you need a recap in the most effective way to wash your hands: