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Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: How Toxic Masculinity Produces Sexual Assault

Poison Tree, Poison Fruit

In the legal world, there exists a doctrine called “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Used as a rule to exclude ill-gotten evidence, the metaphor claims if the source- or the “tree”- of evidence is tainted, then anything gained- the “fruit”- is tainted as well. This image of a decrepit rotting tree, high atop a hill, with its suspicious looking fruit hanging within arm’s reach, also serves as a wonderful metaphor for toxic masculinity.

The Toxic Masculinitree bares numerous fruit. Racism, domestic violence, general violence, homophobia, transphobia, and sexual assault all hang as products of the negative attitudes adopted to protect the male ego. And if these byproducts are the fruit, then dominion is the sunlight allowing them to grow on the vine. After all, it is the need for control that pushes the ego into negative areas. Racism is the thought that one race is superior to others. Domestic violence is the dominion of a spouse or partner using physical, emotional, or economic weapons. And sexual assault is the control over a person using sexual activity.

While you probably do not need me to define things such as rape, sodomy, or sexual abuse, it is important to look at these acts to see where dominion turns sex into a crime. Though part of the reason I studied law was to escape the mathematics requirement of other majors, the sexual assault equations are easy to grasp:

Sexual Activity + Consent = Positive Sexual Encounter

Sexual Activity - Consent= Sexual Assault

And it is the second equation where dominion meets its nasty cousin: entitlement.

The Soil

If dominion is the sunlight that allows the Toxic Masculinitree to grow, then entitlement is the soil, rich in nutrients, that strengthens the roots. It is that initial thought that as men, we are somehow owed something due to our penis, that makes way for the use of dominion to claim our target. When dominion and entitlement combine, the fruit of sexual assault blossoms on the Toxic Masculinitree. And once harvested, this fruit leads to the sex crimes we hear about, both on amplified mediums such as the evening news and in hushed tones from those close to us.

For an example of entitlement and dominion at work, take look at the Incel Community. The Southern Poverty Law Center currently describes the Incel Community as “part of the online male supremist ecosystem.” It is listed alongside other hate groups dining on the fruit of the poisonous tree such as the Ku Klux Klan, Neo Nazis, and Neo Confederates.

The Incel community hasn’t always been as nefarious as they are today. The earliest online use of the term “Involuntary Celibate” can be traced back to the year 1993 and a Canadian woman identified by her first name only, Alana. Curious why she, as an undergraduate at Carleton University, had never had sex or even a boyfriend, Alana created an all text website called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project.” The website’s purpose was meant to be a supportive and inclusive community for men and women who, like Alana, were lonely and unlucky at love. And that is exactly what her Incel group was: a friendly community of lonely hearts, connecting to one another and providing each other support as they navigated through the romantic jungle. A few years after founding her website, Alana would start discovering her bisexuality, begin dating both men and women, and ultimately move away from the site, turning it over to a “man she didn’t know.” Years later, Alana would be horrified at what her supportive community had become.

Today, Incel communities exist all throughout the internet. Gone is the supportive community and in its place is a cesspool of misogyny, sexism, and men who feel owed a sexual relationships. Instead of taking personal responsibility for their romantic situation and seeking betterment, the modern day Incel is fueled by entitlement which leads them to blame women for not succumbing to their physical desires . The modern Incel views women as objects and openly expresses anger for his lack of sexual control over them. In many cases, Incels will openly fantasize abut committing acts of sexual violence against women, even calling for their rape as a means to obtain some perverse form justice against these women who have the audacity to not want to have sex with them. The combination of entitlement and dominion (in this case, the lack of) are the elements that keep the roots of toxic masculinity strong in this once supportive online community.

Planters of the Seed, Pruners of the Branch

While understanding Toxic Masculinitree photosynthesis is important, it is also crucial to know how these trees get planted in the first place. Typically, a culture of toxic masculinity is generational. In fraternities and sports teams, it is culture that is passed down from generation to generation, rarely questioned and largely accepted. Baylor University found the public spotlight on their football program in 2017 when a woman sued the university, alleging she was gang raped by members of the football team in 2013. Her lawsuit described a “Show ’Em a Good Time” culture of sexual violence the school fostered for years, which included taking underaged recruits to strip clubs and arranging for women to have sex with prospective recruits.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, 2015 would uncover a sex scandal at the University of Louisville where it would come to light that the Director of Basketball operations hired a self-proclaimed madam, to provide women to dance for and have sex with players and recruits of the men’s basketball team for a four year period. This would lead to the team being forced to vacate their 2013 National Championship. Both Baylor and UofL stand as examples of a long standing Toxic Masculinitree being systematically planted and pruned for years by authority figures in their respective athletic programs, and never being questioned by the student athletes that dined of its fruit of sexual objectification.

The same can be said in the family structure as well. The son does as his father before him, as his father before him. In 2016, Dan Turner’s teenaged son was on trial for three counts of felony sexual assault that took place when he was a student. Dan’s son was convicted on all three counts. When it came time for sentencing, Dan read a letter out loud, begging for mercy for his son. The most outrageous portion of Dan’s letter stated:

“His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That’s a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

Three felony counts of sexual assault for digitally penetrating a passed-out woman (Chanel Miller) behind a dumpster, reduced to “20 minutes of action.” If this is how the father minimizes and views sexual assault, then it is no surprise that the son, Brock Turner, would include sexual assault in his masculinity profile. The Turners are just another example of the patriarchy hard at work — using the branches of toxic masculinity to prod its members into the laws and traditions needed to maintain the status quo of control. And part of that control, of course, is using women’s bodies for sexual pleasure.

Be it a family setting or organizational student activities, Toxic Masculitrees are typically planted by elder authority figures and maintained by senior members throughout the years. The world of psychology shows us the tools used to allow these trees to stand strong. Operant conditioning is defined as using reinforcements and punishments to teach a desired behavior. Likewise, observational learning is described as the process of learning through watching others, retaining information, and replicating the observed behavior. Both are present in organizational and family constructs.

Younger members of social organizations and family units observe the behavior of older members of the group and take note of what behavior is rewarded in contrast to behavior that is punished. Rewards can include awarding arbitrary points or even membership itself to those who engage in desired behavior. On the other end, punishment often includes the public shaming of members who do not conform to the desired behavior of the group. Through observing the operant conditioning used to continue the organization’s culture, members find themselves with only three options: leave the group, endure the ridicule, or fall in line. And, for a lot of these young men, fitting in, being liked, objectifying women as a bonding tool, and avoiding the insults of their peers is a much easier life than the alternative.


So how does one go about removing a Toxic Masculinitree? Simple: cut it down. But what is the process of doing so? I have a tree that loses branches every so often and one day, a storm and knocked down a sizable branch right in my front yard. Realizing I could use said branch in my backyard firepit, I purchased a hatchet from Lowes. I had never cut wood before and was under the impression that it would be an easy process, requiring only a few hacks. What I quickly realized was that chopping wood is a much more difficult procedure. It requires numerous swings of the ax and is often a tiring process. And it certainly requires more than a small hatchet. After watching my struggle for about twenty minutes, a neighbor mercifully came to my aid and helped break the branch down.

Just as breaking down actual trees is a difficult task, so is chopping down a Toxic Masculinitree. You can attempt to do so yourself, but just like me in my front yard, you will realize that this a daunting solo task. It is a task that will leave one tired and often dejected. It is a task that could very well lead you to giving up because success will come very slowly, if at all. Instead, just as my neighbor gave an assist, Toxic Masculinitree excavation is more practical as a team project. And various men are doing just that: teaming up to strike it down.

Here are a few examples. The group A Call to Men rallies together to spark conversations about heathy and respectful manhood with men in positions ranging from professional athletes to members of the Department of Justice. Fraternities at California Polytechnic State University team up annually to produce an entire week of events designed to educate men in the Greek system on what it means to practice healthy masculinity in their groups. The players and coaches of the Willamette University Men’s basketball team, work to foster a culture of healthy masculinity that not only grows their players as athletes but also as human beings. The site Woke Daddy has created and nurtures a community for fathers to challenge the conception of masculinity and support one another in personal development. The #HeForShe movement builds upon the fantastic work of #MeToo by inviting men across the globe to stand together in solidarity with women and encouraging allyship in the fight for gender equality. All in all, men are working together in numerous venues to chop down Toxic Masculinitrees. And as a result of their collaboration, the wood is chipping and cultures are changing.

Once a Toxic Masculinitree has been uprooted, the soil will be ripe for a new tree to be planted; a tree that bears the fruit of compassion, respect, accountability, and consent. And this will be the fruit that nurtures and grows those who eat it.

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