"Is there such a thing as nontoxic masculinity?"
That was the first question I was asked Friday evening at Black Cat in Washington, D.C., a music venue I found quite different from past experiences there watching Punk Rock Karaoke a couple of years ago. But times have changed.
If there is such a thing as "toxic masculinity," I couldn't find it among the crowd who paid $15 to hear "drunk TED Talks" on the subject of the "masculine swamp."
The room was packed for "Drunk Education," a series featuring writers and artists who "make slideshows about stuff they're really into." Past topics include the "horniness of St. Augustine" and the "history of mansplaining relayed through the plot of Love, Actually."
Friday's theme was the #MeToo movement, and I braced myself for two hours of Trump-bashing and man-hating from liberal crusaders donned in pink pussy hats.
But the night was a series of paradoxes and confusion, the embodiment of mangled liberalism in the age of identity politics on steroids. For instance, the lefty millennial crowd railed more against the sins of Democratic men than they did Trump, who, to my surprise, was hardly mentioned. During a game of Mad Libs, the first impulse of a woman in the audience listening to talks about empowering women was to yell out, "Sluts!"
The night started in safe enough territory for the left, hitting all the right marks: "Rampant oppression of women, sexism, and ‘American patriarchy.'"
"I want to do a very brief introduction to this where I talk about very obvious facts about how a lot of men are bad," said the host, Eric Thurm, whom an audience member quickly observed was a "classic white male." He was wearing a t-shirt that read, "The Future is Feelings." Not exactly Gary Cooper.
The first speaker, Marin Cogan, a writer, critiqued embarrassing excuses men have used against accusations of sexual misconduct. She started with simpler times, back when Anthony Weiner "had just leaked his own dick selfie" and blamed it on his account being hacked.
Cogan hit Mark Sanford, Al Franken, and Garrison Keillor, and spotlighted Harvey Weinstein as the worst example of attempts to excuse bad behavior.
"The worst thing about this is that he tried to invoke the NRA, as though saying that he was going to take on the NRA would somehow distract us from the horrible things he had done," Cogan said. "Harvey was engaging in this really unfortunate mistaken belief, which was that as a public figure you would be forgiven for treating women like shit privately, as long as people liked his politics publicly."
"And I don't know where he got that idea, but I think maybe it had something to do with this guy," she said, as a picture of Bill Clinton flashed across the screen.
"We need to have this conversation, right?" Cogan said, to applause and yells of "Yes!" from liberal hipsters.
The second presentation by Tonya Riley, a research associate for Future Tense, was a protest against the men of Silicon Valley. There was not a lot of love for Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg, who was mocked for his political aspirations and phony meetings with working-class Americans.
"But they're really dumb," Riley said. "They're not that different from the people we already have in D.C." Fair point.
The night couldn't be all Democrat bashing. The evening would not have been complete without the purveyors of sexual identity politics' favorite obsession: Mike Pence.
The natural follow up to railing against men in power who abuse their female subordinates is to lampoon a powerful politician for choosing to use discretion in how he interacts with women in the workplace. The obvious criticism to the "Pence Rule"—resisting temptation by not eating alone with women who are not your wife or getting drunk with them either—is to call Pence a lesbian.
"Mike I'm a Dyke" was the final presentation of the night, delivered by Jennifer Bendery, a senior politics reporter for the Huffington Post.
Bendery engaged in a mean-spirited criticism of a man who has not been accused of sexual impropriety. She blamed the Pence Rule for making it "impossible for women to advance or [be] taken seriously" at work and slammed it for being "unbearably straight."
The speech was peppered with crude sexual jokes, which we've learned are never acceptable for men to make about women in the workplace, but okay for lesbians to make about straight, white, religious, Republican men.
Bendery's jokes included imagining locking second lady Karen Pence inside a closet and dressing up Pence in drag.
"He wouldn't want to be called deepthroat," she said. "He'd probably go by, ‘Never before penetrated anus.'" Her question for Pence: "Why he always has this look on his face like he just sat on a lemon and his asshole is puckered."
But the toxicity of the night was only beginning.
"All gender is toxic," the stranger sitting next to me informed me. But maybe he had a point. The first dose of toxicity I encountered was waiting in line for the restroom. Neither was marked for male or female, making it a free for all with a woman using a toilet as two men used urinals just a few feet away.
"This used to be the women's bathroom [on the left], and the guys' bathroom [on the right], but they took down the signs … but are there urinals in there?" a puzzled woman in line asked. "Yeah, you can just do anything now."
"It used to be gender separated, but now it's like, whatever."
I opted to wait for the door on the left.
Things really turned poisonous once the presentations were over, and the audience had its turn to speak.
"How do you deal with male feminists?" "What was your first experience with a cat call?" "How do we stay sex positive?"
Next was a question about if any men had admitted to the panelists that they had engaged in coercive sex. The answer was no, prompting Thurm to reply, "I guess we have good taste in people."
"If you had good taste in people there would be people of color on the stage," an audience member sniped.
Awkward minutes went by before the audience member demanded the panel address the alleged lack of diversity.
"I need to take a second to pretend that I didn't drink that last Whiskey Ginger, so I can actually say something coherent and interesting," Thurm said awkwardly.
"That's not a good answer," someone shouted. "Or the women could talk," said another.
"What are we even talking about now?" asked Bendery, after Thurm attempted to appease the crowd, saying he is a one-man operation, but could do a better job booking.
"I've actually worked with speakers who have refused to be on panels if there is not a person of color on the panel, and I'm disappointed in myself that I did not think about that," Riley confessed.
"I got an email asking me to do this event for RAIIN, the Rape Abuse Incest International Network," said Cogan. "And I'm really happy to do it, but it is a good point that we should have thought more about it and tried to make a much more diverse panel."
Their guilt wasn't enough.
"These women are bad asses and we can all agree about that, BUT we need to have diversity perspectives, and I would encourage you that if you're ever having a show, don't do it unless you have a person of color," a white female audience member said.
Suddenly the message of the evening, though already full of contradictions, had evaporated. The opinions and arguments of the three women didn't matter, only the color of their skin.
Kind of toxic, if you ask me.