When Masculinity is Toxic
By Stephanie Thurrott
We hear a lot about “toxic masculinity” these days—a term often loaded with assumptions and stereotypes. Is being masculine toxic? Are men toxic? Is it just a buzzword used to discriminate?
In fact, the phrase is not aimed at men or boys. It’s related to the idea of gender that skews masculinity in a way that encourages violence.
Aylin Kaya, a researcher with the University of Maryland who focuses on gender studies, says toxic masculinity involves some of the following damaging ideals:
- Encouraging a restricted range of emotions (“Boys don’t cry.”)
- Avoiding things that make men appear feminine
- A tendency to use aggression or violence when feeling challenged or threatened
- The idea the men are supposed to be dominant over women
“It is this idea of masculinity that is restrictive and ultimately harmful to men and women,” says Kaya. This form of behavior in men creates a perception of strength, but even something as innocuous as a boy wearing nail polish can be perceived as a threat against all men. “It’s an interesting paradox,” she says.
Women can face danger when they challenge the belief that males should be dominant. “Men may respond to the threat to their masculinity with violence. They carry the reminder that they are the head of the household, they are the one in charge, and that they hold the most power. They may assert that power through violence,” Kaya says.
She suggests the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft, for further insight as to how a rigid, idealized version of masculinity can lead to men exhibiting controlling and abusive behaviors.
These Things Factor into How Men See Their Roles
“Toxic masculinity hurts both men and women,” Kaya says. Men who are encouraged to behave in the ways outlined above may have a lingering sense that something isn’t right, and research shows that men who adhere to the traits of toxic masculinity are at risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.
Not surprisingly, men and boys who bury their feelings are less likely to seek help for mental health problems, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). In the APA’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, the group advises psychologists to look at several factors when dealing with toxic masculinity or, as they say, “enhance gender-sensitive psychological practice.” Among them, social and cultural norms, gender identity changes as one ages, a father’s involvement, quality of education and privilege all factor into how a boy or man views how his gender defines him.
The guidelines say that men who follow a doctrine of strict gender roles are often the most likely to commit intimate partner violence.
“Feminist scholars have argued that some men use violence and control in relationships as a way of maintaining sexist beliefs and dominance over women.” Later, the guidelines say, “Men who understand their privilege and power may be less apt to rely on power, control, and violence in their relationships.”
Building a Healthier Understanding of Masculinity
A challenging aspect of toxic masculinity is that some of its traits are seen as normal or desirable in our society—think classic action heroes or male celebrities.
“It can be very easy to view this as normal. If you have a man in your life asserting this power, you may be socialized to think it is normal. You may feel as though you’re supposed to be in a lower position,” Kaya says. “For women it’s hard. If you idealize this type of manhood it can confer certain rewards and societal approval. There are always going to be some women who support this toxic masculinity and think that’s what a real man is.”
It’s not the responsibility of women to end toxic masculinity, but being able to recognize it is a powerful tool. Women can seek relationships that give them a sense of equality.
Men, too, can start by recognizing their own gender biases. Read, “Men Can Stop Rape” to learn more.
Our cultural representation of what men can look like is growing. But for holistic masculinity to replace toxic masculinity our society will need to look for solutions—and it’ll start with this next generation. Middle schools, high schools, and colleges can talk about what equality in a relationship looks like, the same way they cover sexual and physical health and consent.
People can also make sure that family members, mentors, doctors, teachers and other role models embrace and support a holistic view of masculinity that’s in view for the next generation to absorb and internalize.
Understanding What Equality Means
Domestic violence survivors may not know what a healthy relationship looks like—they may never have experienced one. The equality wheel can help identify behaviors where both partners respect and support each other.
Kaya points to a commercial by Gillette that challenges the beliefs behind toxic masculinity. “It was very controversial and started a huge discussion,” she says.
Both women and men can educate the next generation, so children don’t learn and fall into the same patterns of toxic masculinity. “It’s important to have men who model a holistic sense of masculinity that doesn’t depend on oppressing women, being aggressive, or only showing anger,” Kaya says.