Toxic Masculinity: An Essay
“The crisis facing our boys today is not masculinity, rather it is toxic patriarchal hyper-masculinity. In many ways, our boys are constantly clashing within themselves between who they really are and who they are expected to be. The stress of guarding and protecting a false self creates a deep wound in the male psyche.”
(Melia Keeton Digby, The Hero’s Heart)
To date, I’ve written several essay on Medium that have addressed toxic masculinity (here, here, and here) and one that addressed toxic femininity (here). In the comments to one of these essays, a reader asked that I define toxic masculinity. So, here’s an attempt.
Recently, the attitudes and actions of Donald J. Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Brett Kavanaugh, Luke Parker, Brock Turner, and so many others have been offered as examples of toxic masculinity. But just what does the term mean? How is it different from “masculinity?”
In an essay entitled “Race, Class, and Corporate Power” (2017), Bryant W. Sculos argues that toxic masculinity consists of “a loosely interrelated collection of norms, beliefs, and behaviors associated with masculinity, which are harmful to women, men, children, and society more broadly.” Under this broad definition, Sculos suggests that toxic masculinity includes behaviors such as hyper-competitiveness, self-sufficiency, the glorification of violence, sexism, misogyny, traditional gender roles, heteronormativity, and last but not least, a sense of entitlement to sex with women (see my essay on Incels here). What Sculos suggests is that these particular attitudes and behaviors are harmful to individuals and institutions within society. However, these behaviors are not masculinity, per se, but “associated” with masculinity — though, arguably, more and more aligned with it.
So, the problem is not masculinity in and of itself (though I would rather see the genders confounded more thoroughly — that’s another essay). As Michael Salter writes in The Atlantic (2019), the term “toxic,” then, attempts to distinguish negative and harmful traits from the “healthy” traits of masculinity. However, Salter, working through the theories of Raewyn Connell, argues that that approach is misguided. For Salter and Connell, toxic masculinity cannot be reduced to a set of behaviors or types. Instead, toxic masculinity must be understood in its origins, in its causes. Toxic masculinity, like any and all gender, is culturally specific. That is to say, what constitutes “masculine” in one community may well be different from what is masculine in another community.
So, what they are suggesting is that any community sets up standards of masculinity, and then boys and men compare themselves to those standards. These standards of masculinity are always ideals, and are never attainable (in full) by any one individual. What is the consequence of that? Connell suggests that (some) boys and men, feeling inadequate and not sufficiently masculine, then act out. That individual might act aggressively or violently in order to try to live up to the standard.
It’s a fine distinction to make, but instructive. For Salter and Connell, if we simply look at the set of behaviors and blame culture and socialization, then we miss the real causes. If we miss the real causes, then we’re unlikely to be able to affect change.
Unsurprisingly, I would like to take a stance between these two arguments.
For one, Connell’s argument is not new. It is precisely what feminists have been saying about femininity for decades. Girls and women hold themselves up to ideals that cannot be attained, and act out in order to attain them.
But here’s the thing, when women do that, it often results in harm to themselves. They go on extreme diets; they undergo plastic surgery; they ride the Peloton exercise bike that their husband gave to them.
When men act out, when men feel frustrated and emasculated, they too often cause harm to others. They shoot up a school (or church, or bar, or festival, or movie theater); they bully a co-worker; they rape women at a party. Of course, men, too can engage in activities that can harm themselves, including working out at the gym or taking steroids (which sometimes end in violent rages).
I suggest another way in which toxic masculinity affects men themselves. What about the much lamented fact that men live shorter lives, have more heart attacks, and suffer from depression? Boys and men are told to hold it in, to be strong, not to show their emotions. That is part and parcel of manliness and masculinity. Nothing wrong with being strong. However, these negative physical effects are direct consequences of masculinity. When a man cannot and will not show his emotions, when he will not ask for help or seek treatment, he is likely to suffer for it. Men are less likely to seek psychotherapy. Men are less likely to even acknowledge that they have a problem. And when masculinity reaches that stage, when it affects men in that way, then it has become toxic.
So, speaking from a purely US-based standard, we expect boys and men to be strong. We expect them to be physically strong, mentally strong, and emotionally strong. Very different things, to be sure, but related. We’re told to “buck up” and to “man up,” and that there’s “no crying in baseball.” What happens when a boy or man cannot physically live up to the ideal? What if the (for example) workforce changes so much that his strength is no longer an asset? What happens when social standards tell that man that this aspect of his identity is no longer socially desirable?
Also from a US-based perspective, boys have historically been taught to chase girls, to desire girls, to get the girl and support her and her children. They have been taught to admire the female form, to want sex with the female body, and that sex with her amounts to a right. (Until 1984, a married man in New York State had a legal right to his wife’s body.) Not that long ago, I had a male student respond in class, “Why else would I get married?” What happens when the laws change and he no longer has that legal right to sex? What happens when social norms change and she no longer has to defer to him? What happens when women learn that they need not settle for just any man — or any man at all? He still views women as objects, and he still believes that he has some masculine right to them.
Donald Trump felt as though he had a right to women’s dressing rooms, and to physically grope them. Jeffrey Epstein saw girls and women as objects and he manipulated them for his own benefit. Brett Kavanaugh thought he had a right to get a woman drunk and rape her. Brock Turner thought he had a right to sex with a woman and had the right not to let it interfere with his promising career!
Finally, though, I would suggest that the Salter and Connell model has its own limitation. In their model, we would have to psychoanalyze every individual man, every individual act of toxic behavior. Impractical and best left to the professionals. Instead, what I have focused on in my earlier posts has been the toxic effects that the attitudes and behaviors have had on others. Yes, something is going on inside the individual. Yes, maybe we need to get inside his head if we want to change his behavior. But at the same time, his attitude and behavior is having a toxic effect on our society, and on individual and groups of individuals on a daily basis.
So, in addition to whatever personal growth Trump and Kavanaugh and Turner need to do, we must socially make it unacceptable. We must make it clear that that behavior is unacceptable and criminal. We must make it clear that we will not stand for such behavior.
Every single person in this society would benefit from an absence of toxic masculinity. And that must be our goal. One way (personal growth), or another (social disapproval and criminalization).
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.