What is Toxic Masculinity
The term toxic masculinity refers to a group of socially regressive male traits that may be prescribed to men who act in a particular way that adheres to the values of traditional masculinity.
The term toxic masculinity originated in the 1980s as part of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. The term was created to highlight the distinction between positive masculine traits, and those traits resultant from expectations placed on men through societal pressures to behave in ways that foster domination, control, and violence.
Is masculinity toxic?
Whilst the term can be misinterpreted, toxic masculinity is not about condemning all forms of masculinity and its traditional characteristics as being toxic. Instead, the term is used exclusively to refer to the more negative and patriarchal masculine traits that are often normalised and linked to the expectations associated with traditional male behaviour.
Masculinity that is not deemed “non-toxic” allows boys and men to behave more as they would like to – allowing a freedom of expression without being subjected to societal pressures or conforming to social norms, expectations, and judgements.
It also enables boys and men to explore their gender identity and determine what masculinity looks like to them, beyond the traditional notions and definitions of masculinity, which may negatively impact confidence, self-esteem, and long-term mental health.
Deconstructing toxic masculinity
In order to question the veracity of toxic masculinity, it is important to deconstruct the concept. This helps to provide a better understanding of why toxic masculinity exists and for what purpose, if any, it may serves.
Toxic masculinity can generally be defined as a tool to keep men from behaving outside of a particular set of social expectations, pressures, and normalities.
It serves the purpose of influencing men to conform to the boundaries society expects of them.
Through toxic masculinity, modern society enforces a view of how to be a “real man”. These masculine normalities (or norms), include discouraging men from showing emotion, or avoiding engaging in activities perceived as “feminine.” Another example includes encouraging boys to value competition and winning rather than cooperation and participation.
These norms maintain a strict definition of what makes a man (usually in complete opposition to their definition of a woman) and are used to influence men and their behaviour. In addition, masculine norms may allow for poor behaviour to be dismissed as being “part of the male experience” such as harassing others or committing violent acts.
Toxic masculinity is often used as a tool to enforce strict gender roles within a society. An important concept to realise is that our gendered expectations of “masculine” and “feminine” exist outside of the biological differences that exist between “male” and “female.”
The enforcement of traditional , roles, and expectations upon young boys and girls can often prove to be harmful. For example, the cultural expectations of men often emphasise power, domination, physical strength, violence, and aggression.
These qualities are often portrayed as diametrically opposed to the expectations we have for women, which are to be weak, passive, and submissive. Common behaviours and phrases will enforce these expectations – with boys being told to “toughen up” or that “boys don’t cry” from a young age.
The gendered expectations we hold for men often place men in a position wherein if they behave in ways that are perceived as traditionally feminine, they are responded to negatively. Traditionally feminine traits may include being nurturing, soft and caring, being emotionally present for others, performing caregiving, being maternal or domestic, and supporting others.
Men that refuse to reject these qualities may have their masculinity questioned, in addition to their place in society. This also may occur if a man engages in what is perceived to be a feminine career path, such as childcare, nursing, cleaning, or teaching.
Expression of toxic masculinity
Toxic masculinity may be expressed under a variety of contexts and circumstances. Common examples include men being taught to suppress their emotions and mask their distress – often to the degree where it has become more acceptable for men to express their feelings and emotions through anger, rather than crying.
This encourages men to avoid positive emotional outlets such as talking, singing, or dancing. Accordingly, men often find it significantly harder to seek help for mental health difficulties.
Society also rewards men who are ambitious and forceful in their striving for success. Males who are nurturing and easy going are often perceived as weak or lacking. We also consider it more acceptable for a young girl to experiment with looking more masculine through their selection of clothes and hairstyles.
Boys, in contrast, are stifled in their desire to express their femininity through experimenting with more feminine clothing. As a result, they may be judged harshly or ridiculed for expressing themselves in ways perceived as “feminine.”
As mentioned, violence and aggression are seen as the primary “acceptable” masculine expressions of emotion. Thus, men are tacitly encouraged to perform aggressive, dominant, assertive, or physical acts such as fighting, yelling, name calling, asserting dominance, breaking or hitting things, making threats, scowling, or adopting a large physical presence to intimidate others.
These behaviours often have a detrimental impact on men. For example, men have a higher risk of academic failure and school disciplinary action, find themselves over-represented in prisons (as they are more likely to commit violent crimes, some of which may result from a build-up of emotions), are at a much higher risk of suicide, and are more prone to drug and alcohol abuse than their female counterparts.
Men are expected to maintain an appearance of “Hardness” or “Manliness.” This often involves men policing each other for behaviours they deride as “feminine” or “weak”, which only serves to further damage their mental health.
In order to reinforce their concept of masculinity, men may criticise, chastise, or put down women as a derided “other.” This may involve behaviour such as catcalling, harassment, or denigrating women in an attempt to reinforce their status as “manly.”
For men exhibiting toxic masculinity, this may give them a temporary sense of self-importance, hide any self-esteem issues present, and help mask their insecurities. Relatedly, men are more prone to risky or dangerous behaviours and more likely to succumb to peer pressure for this reason, not wanting to lose face or appear weak. It is also common for men who do not conform to masculine stereotypes to find themselves bullied or attacked by their male peers.
Toxic masculinity promotes (and is promoted in turn) by the violence conveyed through numerous mediums that glamorise and advocate for stereotypical men and their behaviour. These media may encourage men to become desensitised to the violence they witness, resulting in a reduced frustration for tolerance and a lower threshold for triggering violent reactions.
Male stereotypes convey the notion that men are naturally powerful and can have what they want and are entitled to take it. This effect may be observed through the higher rates of incarceration for violent offences committed by men compared to women.
Men from areas with greater adherence to toxic masculinity often see increased levels of violent crime, domestic violence, and sexual assault. The perception that men must behave in dominant, often violent ways, reinforces a culture where men feel justified in behaving violently.
The longevity of toxic masculinity
Research has found that toxic masculinity in many cultures may arise when there is a gender disparity in the environment (i.e., with there being more men than women present.) Through competition and by forming groups, these men enforce strict expectations of masculinity upon each other.
Baranov, Haas, and Grosjean (2021) in their article “Men. Roots and Consequences of Masculinity Norms” investigated whether there was a connection between toxic masculinity and areas in Australia that historically had more men than women.
They concluded that social expectations formulated during our early convict periods have continued to influence our society as it exists today. They found that within those areas where a greater gender disparity existed historically, problems associated with toxic masculinity were maintained into the future.
Even with factors such as education, income, and religion accounted for, these areas maintained higher rates of assault, bullying amongst boys, sexual assault, and male suicide. Men in these areas were additionally found to have higher employment in stereotypically masculine careers.
Psychological guidelines surrounding toxic masculinity
The American Psychological Association (APA) has maintained strict sourcing guidelines when investigating peer-reviewed studies on masculinity in order to create new guidelines for the psychological treatment of men and boys. In response, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) has created similar guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys.
The APA guidelines were instituted due to the high rate of men being victims of violent crime, committing suicide, and having significantly shorter life expectancies than women. These differences signalled that guidelines specific to boys and men were necessary to be created. Academic research institutions have concluded that men are simultaneously benefited by the patriarchy they have created, whilst also being restricted in their options due to it.
Research into mental health and toxic masculinity has found that men who adhere to traditional expectations of masculinity are less likely to engage in preventative healthcare or seek medical help when they require it.
These men are also more likely to engage in risky behaviours including smoking, dangerous driving, substance use, drinking, and even avoiding the eating of vegetables.
The avoidance of medical help is also evident when men do not seek mental health assistance when needed. The expectations placed on men by toxic masculinity are in direct conflict with seeking help with mental health: The masculine ideals of self-reliance, strength, and stoicism may be seen as conflicting with the idea of a man requiring help from others for his mental and emotional health.
Male suicide rates
According to Lifeline, nine Australians commit suicide each day, with 75% of these individuals being male. Suicide remains a leading cause of death for young Australians between 15 – 44 years.
Toxic masculinity may form a contributing factor for suicide, as men who are struggling with their mental or physical health may not seek help when they need it. In general, men are not socialised to embrace their emotions and the vulnerability they may face in a healthy way.
This makes it difficult for them to reach out and accept assistance when facing a mental health crisis. Men in the LGBTQIA+ community attempt suicide at a rate 14 times higher rates than their peers, largely due to social ostracization as a result of toxic masculinity.
In order to move away from toxic masculinity, men must no longer be pressured to adhere to strict and confining traditional masculine norms.
Moving away from these allows men to embrace both positive masculine and feminine traits without the meaning and status of the man as an individual being questioned.
Through embracing a more complex understanding of “what makes a man”, men can be helped to form their own perceptions of masculinity outside of the strict binary enforced by toxic masculinity and society at large.
Promoting Mental Health
Toxic masculinity plays a key role in men avoiding help for both physical and mental health issues. Therapy can help men to unpack some of the expectations that toxic masculinity has placed on them throughout their lives. Through engaging in everyday therapy, men can deconstruct their ingrained sense of “what makes a real man” and grow to embrace a broader, healthier view of masculinity.
Traditional therapy, involving talk therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy, may help men in working through the expectations they hold for themselves regarding what they should think and how they should behave. Therapy is instrumental in promoting a healthy gender identify, and is more accessible today than ever before thanks to telehealth phone and video sessions that are available.