There’s been a lot of discussion in the media over the last couple years about the topic of “toxic masculinity.” Some commentators seem to blame it for all the world’s problems, while others feel the term itself is an attack on all men, no matter what their backgrounds. It is difficult to find a measured view of what toxic masculinity is, detached from personal opinions and judgments. If you look at Twitter conversations on the subject, you will find anger and rhetoric, often along political lines.
But toxic masculinity is an important concept in the field of psychology. Understanding it in such a way that it is helpful rather than harmful, is necessary in order to address the actual problems.
What is “Toxic Masculinity”?
As soon as we use the term “toxic masculinity,” we hit a point of contention. Are we saying that masculinity is toxic, or are we saying that there is a kind of masculinity that is toxic? For the purposes of healing, it is crucial that we maintain the latter approach. In a psychological sense, a person or group of people are never the problem. Rather, it is a behavior or set of behaviors that is problematic.
Masculinity itself is not easily defined. When we get down to the biological basics, men and women are not all that different. Aside from the obvious physical differences, our brains are almost exactly the same. Most of the differences we perceive between the genders stem from social and cultural constructs of how we expect men and women to behave.
So masculinity can be defined as a set of traits or even a culture we consider masculine. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being a man or associating with masculine traits, which is why it is so important to separate masculinity itself from the concept of toxicity.
In the context of toxic masculinity, toxicity refers to behaviors, feelings, and thoughts which have a negative impact on the individual and those around them. Toxicity therefore refers to when traits considered masculine are exaggerated to a point at which they become harmful, as well as traits which if expressed at all will harm others.
For example, a man can be proud of his physical strength and even consider it an aspect of his masculinity. However, if he uses it to abuse, exert control over or denigrate others, it has become toxic. At their worst, toxic traits can lead to rape, murder, and other forms of violence. Similarly, if his self-worth is bound up in how physically strong he is, it has become toxic to himself.
When considering toxic masculinity, psychologists are therefore concerned about two separate but related themes: the harm it causes to woman and the harm it causes to men.
Many women speak to their therapists about the effect of toxic masculinity on their own lives. It comes through in their relationships with bosses, romantic partners, or family members. It comes through in their near-constant, realistic fear of rape. It also comes through in how they see themselves. Since the toxicity does not refer to masculinity itself, one does not need masculine traits in order to exhibit its effects. A lot of women have implicitly bought into toxic conceptions.
Its expression in men is markedly different. Many men speak to their therapists about how difficult it is to be vulnerable without feeling like they’re not real men. But most men don’t speak to therapists, or anyone, about this at all. The toxic idea that men should never show signs of weakness, should never cry, and should never ask for help, is literally killing men.
The statistics consistently show that more women are depressed than men. However, twice as many men commit suicide. The disparity between the numbers mostly comes down to the simple fact that men are far less likely to admit to themselves or others that they are struggling.
It is in this and other ways that toxic masculinity harms men to such a degree as to be fatal.
Not All Masculinity Is Toxic (Not Even Most)
It is therefore imperative to note that masculinity in and of itself is not toxic. Many experts emphasize that there are many masculinities. There are many traits and even cultures that men and women consider masculine which are not toxic. Most of these “masculinities” are healthy and are to the detriment of neither men nor women.
Toxic Culture vs Toxic Masculinity
There are those who would rather we didn’t refer to it as toxic masculinity at all. They point out that it is not masculinity, or even one of many masculinities, that is toxic. Rather, it is a toxic culture of masculinity. Author Mark Greene explains the difference as such:
“Culture is a construct, formed and shaped by all of us. It represents not us as individuals, but a collective agreement on how we should behave.”
Calling it a culture makes the clear distinction that this is not something inherent in men or masculinity itself.
In gender studies, there is a concept known as hegemonic masculinity. This refers to a culture that legitimizes men’s dominance in society and justifies the subordination of women. It is a significant part of what most people think of when they hear or say the term toxic masculinity. It can be an implicitly held viewpoint, or a philosophy to which an individual knowingly subscribes.
What Can We Do About It?
Toxic masculinity, or the toxic culture of masculinity, is deeply rooted in most societies across the world. It is perceptible in gender norms, career expectations, work environments, and even the way we educate children. With this perspective, the concept may seem too overwhelming to counter.
However, a culture exists among individuals, and by making the choice to change your own ideas and behaviors, you make an immediate difference, regardless of your sex or gender.
From a psychological standpoint, therapy is the perfect space to carve out your individual sense of self. Therapy can therefore help you challenge your own beliefs about masculinity, particularly in how they manifest in your life. Women can learn how to see themselves without the lens of the culture. Men can learn to let go of the expectations which are holding them back.
We need a nuanced understanding of toxic masculinity in order to deal with its effects on both men and women. You can begin by challenging the way you think of masculinity, as it relates to yourself and others.