What Exactly Is 'Toxic Masculinity'?

Feb 14, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

When discussing the behavior of a few men, like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump, the term "toxic masculinity" is thrown around a lot — but what, exactly, does it mean?

Based on some of the insightful feedback I received from strangers on the internet, I should start by clarifying that toxic masculinity is by no means saying that all aspects of masculinity are toxic. It's not. Rather, the idea refers to a cluster of traits that equate masculinity with dominance, limited emotional expression, violence and devaluation of women, according to Dr. Kelly Moore, a clinical psychologist. And in the context of relationships, toxic masculinity can result in gender inequity and acts of dominance over women, she adds.

"What makes this [behavior] 'toxic' is the harm that these traits cause men and society as a whole," Moore tells SheKnows. "The impact on the psychological well-being for boys and men socialized to suppress any emotion except anger is that they may be less likely to seek psychological support for depression, anxiety and other emotional challenges."

In other words, the notion that men and boys must act strong and devoid of most emotions all the time is not only a problem for women and LGBTQ folks — it's harmful for straight cisgender men as well.

More: Are You Raising a Boy or a Toxic Man?

"There is a lot of risk for men in being vulnerable enough to display behaviors and characteristics traditionally deemed 'feminine' by our society: crying when hurt, staying home to raise small children while their partner works, being emotionally sensitive," Erin Wiley, a licensed clinical psychotherapist tells SheKnows.

As a culture, Wiley says, we have made emasculation the worst thing that could happen to a man. As a result, she adds, we have "programmed half of our population to work to present themselves in a disingenuous light in order to be considered valuable and worthy of praise, desire, attention and love. It creates a situation for men where they are behaving in ways that are incongruent with who they truly are, and it makes them emotionally sick."

According to Alexis Jones, the founder of ProtectHer, a program that works directly with young male college athletes in locker rooms around the country to reeducate them on manhood, toxic masculinity and its associated behavior has become something both men and women accept as the norm because we're all socialized to believe men need to be strong, aggressive and unemotional and that women should be gentle, meek and unambitious. This, she says, has created an unhealthy and distorted vision of how men and women should interact.

"Ninety percent of men learn about sex from porn," Jones explains. "Can you imagine how that affects them and their thoughts about girls when given a misogynistic lens right out of the gate? Of course it impacts how they think about women and the way in which they treat us. I'm not excusing the behavior; I'm just saying I understand why some have a tendency to disrespect the females in their lives. It's literally how they have been programmed and people would rather talk about their bad behavior than where they actually learned the behavior in the first place."

This programming has taken many forms, says Matt C. Pinsker, an adjunct professor of homeland security and criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, including "everything from the most dangerous jobs being primarily occupied by men to men being more inclined than women to fight one another to even stupid activities, such as men filming stupid stunts and placing them on YouTube."

Pinsker also adds that not all societal expectations for men are harmful, but "it is difficult to have a meaningful conversation on toxic masculinity because so often, individuals discussing it have an agenda or are using it in a manner which is politically charged and divisive."

What can we do about it?

To start with, Moore says, we have to start socializing children differently.

"We have to stop using the phrase 'boys will be boys' as code for justifying and/or encouraging boys to be violent or sexually aggressive," she explains. "We have to stop socializing girls on how not to be the object of physical and sexual assault in the absence of teaching boys the importance of consent and communicating their romantic interests in a manner that shows respect."

On top of that, Moore notes, we have to socialize all children to expect equal and fair treatment regardless of their gender, race, faith, identity or other factors.

More: What the Aziz Ansari Allegations Teach Us About Our Limited Idea of Consent

Furthermore, Jones says men have been trained to believe they are the problem, but she sees them as the solution.

"Rather than just highlighting the problems, since clearly that's not working, why don't we engage the men in our lives and invite them to participate in this conversation," Jones suggests.

For instance, she says we should start by asking them for help and inviting them into the discussion.

"I always say, 'Treat people how you want to be treated.' Coming in pointing fingers and pointing out all the things they're doing wrong wouldn't inspire me," Jones adds. She also urges people to highlight the work of men who are listening and acting as allies.

Another strategy is for women to explore better ways to support each other as we resist the demands on us to affirm men, says Dr. Amy Gannon, cofounder and director of entrepreneur development at the Doyenne Group, who has also worked with numerous nonprofits to reduce gender inequity in the workplace.

"Competing with each other to be the woman that men find acceptable or most desirable or to be seen as 'one of the guys' only perpetuates the problem," she tells SheKnows. "We can stop accepting that there are only a few slots for women that we all need to compete for and instead engage as if there are plenty of opportunities for women."

Ultimately, the fact that we're discussing toxic masculinity at all and are working toward ways to address and curb it is a step in the right direction, but there's still a lot of work to do.

"The time, energy and effort all of us put into affirming (and not threatening) male egos — by both men and women — could be much better spent building a better world," Gannon adds.

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