Toxic Masculinity: What Is It and What Are the Solutions?

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Toxic masculinity is the belief that “real men” must be strong, tough and independent. Toxic masculinity encompasses the social ideals of masculinity that are pushed to force the image of a ‘real man’.   

Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist with the Clinical Psychology Program at Wright Institute, has defined toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence”.

The term is common in pop culture (and social culture too) but is often thrown around. The true meaning of toxic masculinity gets lost in the noise of feminist discussions, discussions on gender equality and conversations about people’s experiences with men.

Where Does the Term Originate?

Some people believe that toxic masculinity developed during the second wave of feminism, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. However, the term stems from the mythopoetic men’s movement in the 1980s. Some men felt that they weren’t being allowed to express their traditionally male features and characteristics in a way that was socially acceptable.

The movement aimed to provide men with an outlet for their ‘manliness’ by providing workshops and therapeutic activities. Members of the movement claimed that if men were not given a suitable outlet for their manliness, they would have no option but to resort to violence against women.

What is Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity has developed out of traditional ideas of what it means to be masculine. These ideas are not truly ‘what makes a man’ but are simply rejections of ‘what makes a woman’. Toxic masculinity is a concept that devalues anything that could possibly undermine the “superiority” of manhood. As a result, men are forced to avoid all traits and activities that are considered feminine. Toxic masculinity is more of a reflection of what a man is not, rather than what he is.

Masculinity is something that is earned. It’s not simply awarded at birth. A man has to work for his title as a man.

Researchers have identified key features and traits that are considered masculine. These include suppressing emotions, physical strength and using violence as an exertion of power. The majority of traits that we see as masculine are typically developed from the fact that young boys are not taught how to properly express emotions. The only emotion that men are told to express freely is anger, which leads to violence and aggression.

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Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Those with fragile masculinity are highly susceptible to the influence of toxic masculinity. Security in their gender comes externally from the perceptions of others. Their gender identity is validated by people’s opinions of them rather than their own opinion of themself.

Men are taught to exert dominance but they are also taught that the only way to do so is through physical violence. This leads to physical fights, sexual assault, murder. This has resulted in entire cultures built around violence against women. Rape and sexual assault are so common that we use the term “rape culture” to describe society’s mistreatment of women. 

Breast ironingfemale genital mutilationforced marriagemarry-your-rapist lawsforced pregnanciesbride burningfemicidesex traffickingchild sexual initiations, and fetish slavery are just a few examples of the many cultural practices that are employed to oppress and exploit women.

Read: 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced assault/harassment.

Internationally, men use war, terrorism, genocide, and even rape to assert dominance by creating fear in other countries. Women and children are raped in front of their families by soldiers. They use rape as a tactic to build fear and force these communities to comply.

This is men’s language of power. The only language that they are specifically taught to communicate. Toxic masculinity is not just about behaving ‘like a man’. Instead, it involves the intense pressure of having to act in a way that causes harm and damage.

Toxic Masculinity in Culture

When we see men in large groups, as an organisation or a community, it’s usually built around hate. We can see this quite clearly in the current political and social landscape. We have all sorts of predominantly male activist groups. Most of them are built on the dislike of another community, rather than support of their own community. The ones that are most publicly known and gain the most attention are always anti-something or other and never advocate support.

Anything that is considered ‘for boys’, is something that girls just aren’t allowed to participate in. This is because male spaces are, of course, masculine. The second that women are allowed into those spaces, they’re not so masculine. So men and boys gatekeep things that are meant for “the boys”.

Outside of those spaces, women and girls aren’t allowed to enjoy anything without being mocked. We live in a culture of misogyny. Anything that is designed for women and girls (anything “feminine”) is ridiculed and looked down on. Women aren’t really allowed to enjoy anything. Not makeup. Not films. Not dolls or toys. Not fashion. Anything that’s too ‘girly’ is criticised and made fun of.

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Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Women are bullied for wearing makeup and then bullied for taking it off.

Women are bullied for playing videogames and then told they’re boring when they aren’t interested.

Women are told that sports aren’t for them but then laughed at when they don’t know the names of players.

Women are told not to spend so much money on hair and nails but when they aren’t done they’re told to go and “get pretty”.

Women are told to lose weight but when they exercise they get harassed at the gym; bullied for “just working on their butts” or fat-shamed all over again.

There are a million and one examples. The bottom line is this: anything that is targeted at women (makeup, films, songs, celebrities, hobbies, etc) is always looked down on because modern ‘masculinity’ is nothing more than the complete individual absence of femininity.

How Is Toxic Masculinity Affected by Race and Ethnicity?

A 2013 study showed that white college students view Asian-American men as less masculine than white or black American men.

Men are required (as part of their masculine image) to remain stoic and unmoved by social adversities. ‘John Henryism’ describes the high amount of effort African-American people put into dealing with racial discrimination. A 2016 study found that John Henryism is directly linked to an increase in depression and mental health neglect.

Also, I often see black men performing for the validation of white men. They do this in a number of ways. The most common: putting down black women. Black men put down the women of their own race to secure social validation from white men.

Historically, this can date back to after slavery was abolished in the US. Black men were barred from work and employers wouldn’t hire them but black women were able to get work as nannies or servants. White patriarchy demanded that the men be the breadwinner of the household. So, the masculinity of black men was threatened by the fact that they weren’t able to support their families. Instead, many asserted their dominance another way: through violence.

Today, I see a lot of black men on social media putting down black women. They are clearly performing for a white male audience, rather than even a black male audience. I’ve even seen black men claiming that racism today is black women’s fault. They claim that “black guys and white guys have moved on and we’re just waiting for you [black] women to stop complaining”.

How Can You Notice Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity manifests in a number of ways. It’s actually very easy to spot in social situations and interactions with men. The unfortunate truth is that most – if not all – men tend to embody toxic masculinity in some way or another. It’s a concept that all young boys are taught to follow. This means that for most men it’s an idea they have to actively unlearn – which most men don’t.

The most common and clear-cut way to notice toxic masculinity in a man is misogyny. There are endless examples of blatant misogyny. There also many examples of subtle misogny that usually go unnoticed in conversation or simply ignored. They might be behaviours or comments that are normalised and accepted (but are still misogynistic). Examples are things such as:

  • “Girls just don’t play videogames”
  • “People don’t watch women’s sports because they just aren’t as good”
  • “Girls shouldn’t wear makeup”
  • “Frankie Grande/Taylor Swift is just so annoying”
  • “I don’t really like female rappers”
  • “My ex girlfriend was a psycho”

All of these statements (and many more) just have very anti-feminine, anti-woman connotations that are blatant signs of misogyny.

Of course, there are many other ways to notice toxic masculinity. One of the most obvious is when a man tells another to “man up”. Or when a man claims that “boys will be boys”. This is definitely one of the most harmful phrases in the English language when it comes to gender equality. “Boys will be boys” disgustingly glosses over violent and abusive behaviour.

Main Issues With Toxic Masculinity

Social Isolation

Studies have shown that men who promote and support toxic masculinity are likely to become socially isolated as they age. This mindset has proven to have noticeable negative effects on mental health, wellbeing and overall happiness. One study looks into how toxic masculinity affects the confidants and social spheres cisgender men keep and lose. This study was done by Stef Shuster who is an assistant professor at Lyman Briggs College and the sociology department at Michigan State University.

Shuster claims that “if people only have one person that they can share information with, or sometimes even no people, they don’t really have an opportunity to reflect and share”. If people aren’t given the opportunity to reflect or to properly engage with others (ideally who have different identities/perspectives), they aren’t able to open their minds to new ideas. They’re simply trapped in a negative psychological state that will have a big impact on their mental health.

“If people only have one person that they can share information with, or sometimes even no people, they don’t really have an opportunity to reflect and share.”

Stef Shuster

Mental Health Issues

Toxic masculinity devalues femininity and feminine traits. This means that toxic masculinity is based on what a man is not – what he shouldn’t be and shouldn’t do – rather than what he actually is. Raymond Buscemi (the core faculty member with the Wright Institute Master’s in Counselling Psychology Program) states “you have a profound emptiness, a lack of what it actually might be to be a man whose manhood is not defined by the fact that he’s not a woman”. “You have a profound emptiness, a lack of what it actually might be to be a man whose manhood is not defined by the fact that he’s not a woman”.

“You have a profound emptiness, a lack of what it actually might be to be a man whose manhood is not defined by the fact that he’s not a woman”.

Raymond Buscemi

One of the most obvious issues is the fact that toxic masculinity prevents males from exploring their own identity. From birth, males are assigned their gender that then has strict rules of conformity that they are forced to follow in order to “fit in” with the other boys. The process of gender socialisation instructs us to fit gender roles and norms. We teach young boys that they must embody certain images which leave no room for self-exploration of their own sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.  

The lack of proper social skills leaves boys and men at a “disproportionate risk for school discipline, academic challenges and health disparities” according to the American Psychological Association. This includes heart issues and most commonly substance abuse. An investigation of masculinity attitudes, gender, and attitudes toward psychological help-seeking in 2015 found that men, who follow the traditional ideals of what it is to be a man, hold much more negative attitudes towards seeking help with their mental health.

John Henryism’ is the term used to describe the high amount of effort African-American people put into dealing with racial discrimination. Men (most significantly black men) are required to remain stoic and unmoved by social adversities. A 2016 study found that John Henryism is directly linked to an increase in depression and mental health neglect.

Violence and Misogyny

By Buscemi’s definition, there is no real image of a man, other than the fact that he isn’t a woman. Manhood is entirely dependent on how un-feminine someone is. This leads only to misogyny – the hatred or dislike of anything feminine. Socially, we can see the vast impact of this in many issues: androcentrism, violence against women, domestic abuse, male privilege and more.

Men are severely overrepresented (especially men of colour and black men) in prisons. Men are far more likely than women to commit violent crimes. They’re also at greater risk of being a victim of a violent crime because of the violence from other men.

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Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Additionally, violent crime (both on a mass and individual level) is mostly committed by men. Rape and sexual assault are often thought of as a desperate bid for sexual satisfaction. However, rape is often used as a violent assertion of masculine dominance. Rape is used as a war tactic to terrorise people into compliance. It was used during slavery in a similar way. Women and girls are all taught to fear sexual assault at all times, which forces us to comply with modern patriarchal rules. Women aren’t supposed leave the house after dark, dress a certain way, talk to certain people, etc.

A 2019 study, in the Journal of School Psychology, found that men who perceive themselves as more ‘masculine’ are less likely to act in a situation where someone needs help. So they are not likely to intervene when a person is being harassed, assaulted, bullied or abused and they are even less likely to console a victim or call for help. Men with toxic masculinity are more likely to assume there will be negative social consequences when it comes to being an active bystander.

Solutions

Raymond Buscemi states “we haven’t yet found a way to create or sustain on a mass scale less toxic or even healthy masculinity”. Toxic masculinity is being explored in depth in the fields of sociology, psychology, women’s studies and more. Realistically, it’s going to be around for a while but there are some things we can all do (big and small) to make safer spaces and more progress.

Individuality and Self-Assurance

Wade Davis, a former NFL player who now speaks popularly on these issues has said explicitly that there is no better forum for men to confront their issues with masculinity than to engage in conversations with other men. He says in The New York Times “I think it’s the work of men like myself who need to be talking to our brothers, fathers, our friends”. Davis describes how it’s men’s responsibility to redefine their own authentic image of what it is to be a man and be the man that they want to be.

Redefining masculinity

Society needs to create a new widespread and positive image of masculine traits. New definitions of manhood are starting to involve openly expressing emotion, interdependence, vulnerability, cooperation and proper communication with others (especially women), kindness, affection and the ability to provide care. By incorporating feminine traits, masculinity can no longer be centred around anti-femininity.

Instead, men can be taught the ability to express themselves freely and naturally. Many claim that with the way gender identity and gender roles are evolving, masculinity is self-defined. So a person’s gender (identity and expression) is defined and decided by them. In this concept, your masculinity is whatever you want it to be. It could be different for everyone.

Gender Roles

This doesn’t mean abandoning other masculine traits, such as physical strength and bravery. A big part of the solution involves dismantling forced gender roles and the idea that men must be masculine. Allowing men and women to incorporate their own elements of masculinity and femininity in their own authentic manner doesn’t force conformity in the way typical gender roles do. The idea is that men can be as masculine and/or as feminine as they want.

Safe Spaces

There are many changes to be made but toxic masculinity will not be eliminated overnight, nor will its effect on society. We can change aspects of our own lives to better impact ourselves and those around us to make our circles a better and safer space for men.

A huge part of this is communication! If you are a man, surround yourself with people that you feel well and truly comfortable with. These are people that you should be able to confide in and express your true self around.

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Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

For your benefit, it is definitely best to always keep a diverse friend group – including men, women and people of other races, religions and backgrounds. This opens your mind up to so many other narratives that can widen your social perspective greatly. This doesn’t mean that you have to be in constant discussions about major social issues and heavy topics. It just means being empathetic and open-minded to other people’s stories and experiences. A positive social sphere genuinely makes a lot of difference among young men.

Another thing that anyone can do is to listen and show empathy when another person expresses their emotions. It’s not just about men being able to show their own emotions but also about men being comfortable around other people’s emotions. Create a safe and open space for people and communicate with them to make them feel reassured. Men should be able to develop emotional maturity and empathy. This will help them in social environments and also teach them to correctly express their own emotions.

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