Today, women living in the U.S. are more likely to be killed by a spouse/partner than anyone else. Men commit the vast majority of violent and non-violent crimes in the U.S, including nearly all mass shootings. And men are much more likely to face accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. That includes instances occurring at home, in schools and in the workplace. (1)
Why is this? To help explain this phenomenon, many use the concept called “toxic masculinity.” There are various ways to describe toxic masculinity, depending on who you ask. According to the Teaching Tolerance website, the phrase toxic masculinity is “derived from studies that focus on violent behavior perpetrated by men, and — this is key — is designed to describe not masculinity itself, but a form of gendered behavior that results when expectations of ‘what it means to be a man’ go wrong.” (2)
Not only is toxic masculinity harmful to women, but it also hurts men themselves, both physically and mentally. The World Health Organization believes that risk-taking behaviors and lack of willingness to seek help are among the most important reasons for higher rates of negative health outcomes among men. This includes ailments like heart disease, COPD and other respiratory diseases, depression and alcoholism. Men also experience shorter life expectancies compared to women.
Beyond that, suicide rates are about four times higher among men, according to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (3) And even men who don’t suffer physical health consequences due to toxic masculinity likely deal with issues like feeling emotionally cut off and misunderstood.
Let’s take a deeper dive into toxic masculinity, including the three specific phrases you should ban from your vocabulary.
What Is Toxic Masculinity?
What is the definition of toxic masculinity? Toxic masculinity can be thought of as “hyper masculinity,” a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.
Another term tied to toxic masculinity is “hegemonic masculinity.” This is defined as a practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women, and other marginalized ways of being a man. (4)
Urban Dictionary considers toxic masculinity to be “a social science term that describes narrow repressive types of ideas about the male gender role and that defines masculinity as exaggerated masculine traits.” Toxic masculinity can also suggest that men who act too emotional or aren’t violent enough are not “real men.” (5)
Below are some examples of ideas/beliefs associated with toxic masculinity:
- Manhood is defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.
- Men should not be interested in “feminine things” because this makes them appear weak
- Men shouldn’t display “feminine” traits such as emotional vulnerability.
- Men and women can never truly understand each other or just be friends, for reasons like men are always interested in sex.
- Real men are strong and don’t show emotional signs of shame or weakness.
- Anger and violence are useful ways of solving conflicts.
- Men are not suited to be single parents/the dominant parent in a family.
The Origins of Toxic Masculinity
To understand more about toxic masculinity, it helps to understand the background of masculinity theories in general.
What is “the masculinity theory?” Masculinity is defined as “possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.” The theory of masculinity enormously impacts the field of gender studies. Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell is one of the first researchers to form a theory of masculinity. Her theory is still considered to be one of the most influential in the field of men/masculinities today.
According to a 2009 article published in the Journal of Gender Studies, Connell published her book Masculinities originally in 1995. There, she provided “a critical feminist analysis of historically specific masculinities whilst at the same time acknowledging the varying degrees to which individual men play in its reproduction.” (6)
A 2015 article published in the journal Culture, Health and Sexuality states that “the concept of hegemonic masculinity has been used in gender studies since the early-1980s to explain men’s power over women … Although men are structurally related to women in a superior position and inherently benefit from this (what Raewyn Connell called the patriarchal dividend), they do have a ‘choice’ about whether or not to actively occupy oppressive positions.” (7)
Connell argued that there are many ways to act masculine, and that it’s up to men to choose which types of characteristics they adhere to.
To be clear, toxic masculinity is not only a critique of men by women. In fact, males are very involved in discussions of toxic masculinity. And they have been from the start. For example, in the 1990s, researcher Dr. Ronald Levant played a significant role in the development of masculinity ideology. He explained how cultural belief systems and attitudes toward masculinity defined men’s roles.
Since the origins of masculinity theory, both men and women use hegemonic masculinity as a way to describe: a set of values, established by men in power, that functions to include and exclude, and to organize society in gender unequal ways. It combines several features: a hierarchy of masculinities, differential access among men to power (over women and other men) and the interplay between men’s identity, men’s ideals, interactions, power and patriarchy.
Currently, discussions of masculinity, femininity and gender distinctions remain complicated. They’re tied to gender roles and gender norms. And those are complex topics. On one hand, some feel that gender norms first developed thousands of years ago. Why? Because men spent more time dedicated to hunting, while women generally raised the family. Females are more involved in the process of birthing children, which some say triggered males to compete with each other for women’s attention.
However, according to other theories, early human behavior wasn’t largely differentiated by gender. Some argue that we didn’t see huge gender differences in society until recent agriculture-based developments. And for this reason, we shouldn’t assume that modern-day masculinity has biological roots, but rather that it is really influenced by our culture.
Masculinity vs. Toxic Masculinity
Masculinity is not the same thing as toxic masculinity. It’s possible to be “masculine” without exhibiting toxic masculinity characteristics.
- Men can have physical power without being violent or aggressive.
- While violence is best avoided, defending others in certain circumstances can still be a valiant goal. At the same time, men should not assume that their role is to protect the vulnerable or that women are always more vulnerable and helpless than men. We can benefit from thinking of both genders as both “protectors” and “nurturers.”
- Masculinity does not need to be at odds with sensitivity and empathy. These should be considered gender-neutral traits. Other gender-neutral traits include kindness, honesty, discipline, consideration, and being protective, strong, rational and even clever.
- Men can have relationships with women without engaging in objectification of women or being interested in sex.
5 Ways to Stop Toxic Masculinity
1. Share Facts About Gender Research
Masculinity describes a pattern of behaviors, but it doesn’t describe biological or inherited traits. While many people may assume that men and women act differently due to biological differences, research tells us otherwise. In other words, not every masculine man is engaging in toxic masculinity.
Studies show there’s very little difference between the actual brains of men and women. The rigid societal norms created around femininity and masculinity are what actually cause the two sexes to act differently. For this reason, experts tell us that it’s important to shift the discussion away from sex and biology determining our behavior, and toward gender and culture. This helps to end men being excused for aggressive behavior because “it’s their nature.” Instead, it makes each man more personally responsible for his actions. If leaders, parents and teachers stop assuming that “boys will be boys,” then males will have to take more personal responsibility for their actions.
2. Limit Use of Harmful Phrases and Comments in the Home
Experts tell us that parents play a huge role when it comes to shaping their sons’ behaviors and ideas about what it means to be a man. Parents are discouraged from expecting violent and rough behavior from their sons and acting like this normal. Young men should not be excused from any consequences for behavior that harms others (mentally or physically).
Parents can also teach their sons that there is more than one way to be a boy or “act like a man.” It’s important for parents to stop telling boys and men to “man up” and act tough, and to make it acceptable to show emotion, tenderness or pain. Parents can also create an environment where it’s possible for everyone in the family to to openly talk about their roles, relations and expectations.
3. Discuss Masculinity and Gender Roles In Classrooms
Toxic masculinity can be a difficult topic for teachers to discuss with their classes, but many experts feel that as educators, it is teachers’ responsibility to openly communicate what types of remarks, bullying and behaviors will not be tolerated. Teachers can also help shape the beliefs of students as they’re forming ideas about gender roles. In some classrooms, teachers are now turning to films and other resources, including documentaries Tough Guise 2 and The Mask You Live In. These help explain problems with gender expectations.
Among some college campuses, leaders are creating “safe spaces” where men can openly discuss gender concerns. For example, at Brown University, current programming includes: Masculinity101, a weekly discussion group for students to unpack and unlearn toxic masculine norms. The Men’s Story Project: Looking Within and Speaking Out, is a large-scale storytelling event featuring the stories of males.
4. Community Outreach Programs (Especially for Boys/Men Who Are Most Susceptible)
Research shows that masculinity is constructed in ways that reflect poverty or power, regional cultures and neighborhood dynamics. Destructive and exaggerated ideas of masculinity often develop among socially marginalized men living in urban areas of poverty, where the desire for power and force is emphasized. These same men may be more prone to experience violence in childhood, something that can create enduring psychological impacts that may fuel toxic masculinity later in life. This includes a lack of empathy and remorse and increased acts of aggression.
While this isn’t an easy problem to fix, a key intervention seems to be promoting more models of positive masculinity.
Outside of the classroom, a number of male-oriented clubs and organizations now involve men in sexual assault prevention courses, helping to change how they think about maleness and treating women. According to an article on this topic published in The Atlantic, “club members are walking examples of respectful male students, ones who choose conversation over clenched fists.” (9) There have also been a growing number of well-known public speakers addressing the topic of toxic masculinity, and books written on the subject — including several authored by athletes, musicians, and so on.
5. Highlight Examples of “Positive Masculinity”
The media can also help by displaying examples of men who are comfortable in their masculinity, but also respectful, polite, ambitious and kind. Community leaders can also help by showing what real-life examples of positive masculinity look like. This includes pastors, priests, teachers, business owners, politicians, and so on. Public figures can serve as powerful examples, showing that it’s okay for men to ask for help, fail and feel pain. And the less that “successful” adult men publicly degrade minority men, gay men or women, the less likely it is for younger males to learn that this is acceptable.
Women can also help fight toxic masculinity by “talking up” positive masculinity and celebrating the differences between femininity and masculinity. One way for women to do this is to form relationships with men based on mutual respect, a sense of safety and trust. As mothers, wives and friends, women can show men that it’s safe to express their feelings and that they shouldn’t fear being viewed as “soft” when they do.
- Toxic masculinity (also referred to as “hegemonic masculinity”) is defined as a practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women. It also includes other marginalized ways of being a man.
- Ideas/beliefs that are associated with toxic masculinity include: manhood defined by violence, sex, status and aggression; the idea that men should not be interested in “feminine things”; men should not be emotionally vulnerable; men and women can never truly understand each other or just be friends; anger and violence are useful ways of solving conflicts; and men are not suited to be single parents/the dominant parent in a family.
- Interventions to help stop toxic masculinity include: sharing facts about gender research, parents setting good examples and limiting uses of harmful phrases in their homes, teachers discussing gender issues in classrooms and public figures serving as positive role models for vulnerable young men.