What is it and how to fix it
“Toxic masculinity” (sometimes called “harmful masculinity”) is often used as a catch-all term to refer to the behaviors of men and men.
In reality, however, there is plenty of room for someone to be masculine without being toxic or engaging in dangerous or hurtful behavior.
So what does this phrase actually mean? In general, toxic masculinity is an adherence to limiting and potentially dangerous societal norms set for men and those who identify as masculine.
Before I unpack the ins and outs of toxic masculinity, it’s important to understand that masculinity is not inherently bad or toxic. The same goes for men and people identifying a man.
Traits of toxic masculinity include the following themes:
- mental and physical harshness
- stoicism, or not showing emotion
- heterosexism or discrimination against people who are not heterosexual
- emotional insensitivity
Toxic masculinity usually shows up in men and people identified as masculine, but it can be supported by anyone.
Toxic masculinity does not only involve obvious manifestations of aggression or discrimination. Often times, this manifests in subtle ways that you may not even recognize.
Consider the next two sentences.
A man shares how concerned he is with his male friend who seems to be going through a difficult time. “I’m really supporting him. He’s such a nice guy, ”he says, then quickly follows up with“ no gay ”to let everyone know his words don’t mean he’s sexually attracted to his friend.
The societal norm of masculinity demands an attraction to a cisgender, straight woman. Anything that looks like something different, like affection for a male friend, is seen as a threat to masculinity.
This familiar “joke” is a way to quickly dismiss this threat via heterosexism, one of the traits associated with toxic masculinity.
“I’m a guy, what are you expecting?
Seems familiar? It often comes after conversations about topics, like exercise or toilet training, but it can also be linked to more serious issues, like emotional regulation.
Sometimes, for example, men are dispensed from introspecting or controlling their anger in relationships.
Imagine a heterosexual couple having an argument. The woman feels hurt that her boyfriend forgot about their date, making her wait in a restaurant for an hour. When she confronts him, he shrugs and says, “Oh, I totally forgot, my pain.” She says that doesn’t sound like a real apology. Exasperated, he puts his hands up and says, “I’m a guy, we’re not good at this stuff!”
In fact, effective communication, including the ability to offer meaningful apologies, is a skill that everyone needs, not just women and those identified as female.
It is difficult to identify a single cause of toxic masculinity, in large part because the concept of masculinity varies across cultures, religions, and classes.
Even within the same culture, religion or class, male ideals can vary across age groups.
In the United States, toxic masculinity is often reinforced by societal attitudes. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that respondents attributed protective behavior as a positive trait for men. Being nurturing or emotional, however, was seen as negative.
Toxic masculinity is often seen as harmful to others, but men and people who identify with masculine also face real harm.
While toxic masculinity certainly has effects on individuals, it can also have larger societal impacts.
Here are some of those impacts. Keep in mind that while toxic masculinity plays a contributing role in these issues, it’s not always the only cause.
The ideology of toxic masculinity tends to treat cisgender women as sexual conquests, contributing to lingering issues like the rape culture.
It refers to the tendency to shift the blame away from sexual abusers and shift it to the victim.
“Boys will be boys” may seem harmless when it comes to children hustling around the playground. But it can evolve into an excuse for violent behavior or for not respecting borders.
Toxic masculinity also teaches men and men that aggression and violence are essential for solving problems – unless you want to appear weak.
The resulting violence, which can manifest itself in many forms, including intimate partner violence and gun violence, can have far-reaching effects on those who are not even directly involved.
In addition to creating more violence, this line of thinking also deprives men of learning other, more effective coping and communication skills.
Again, there are many men and people who identify with the masculine who do not exhibit toxic masculinity traits. Yet these people could be affected by those who do display these traits in the form of social exclusion.
Especially in children and adolescents, those who do not fit into this predetermined box of what it means to be male can find themselves ostracized because of it.
There is no single answer to solving the problem of toxic masculinity. Doing this requires societal changes around several things, including gender stereotypes and stigma surrounding mental health.
But, if you are a male or someone who identifies with a male, there are a few things you can do to reduce the impact of toxic masculinity both in your own life and the lives of those around you:
- Agree to recognize where you are. Everyone has a starting point. There is no way to change or move forward if you can’t be honest about the facets you want to change. Maybe you weren’t a great communicator in past relationships. Or maybe you’ve relied on your physical size or strength to intimidate others. Don’t worry about past actions. Instead, focus on where you are now and how you can move forward.
- Have difficult conversations. Ask your friends – mostly those whose gender identities and expressions are different from yours – their take on how you deal with difficult situations or your prejudices about masculinity. Do your best not to get defensive and really listen to how your actions have impacted others. You might be surprised that some things you did or said were different from what you wanted.
- To do work. Above all, negating toxic masculinity as a man or as a person who identifies with a man involves being true to yourself, not a misconception of who you should be. Finding your true self is a time consuming process. A therapist can walk you through this process and help you change unnecessary thought patterns.
Toxic masculinity is so ingrained in society that most people feel the effects at some point.
Identifying and recognizing it is a good first step in dismantling it, followed by an effort to avoid attributing certain characteristics to specific gender identities.
Being comfortable with who you are, regardless of your gender identity and expression (or someone else’s), is a step in the right direction.
Taneasha White is a black and queer lover of words, inquisition, and community, and has used her role in literary and organizational spaces to make room for people who are often overlooked. She is the founder and editor of the literary magazine UnSung, a flash fiction and poetry publication focused on providing an artistic space for marginalized voices; a guest editor with Quail Bell Magazine; and co-host of the “Critics for The Culture” podcast, where the media are dissected through humor and a socio-political perspective. You can find more of his work here.