Toxic Masculinity: A Danger To All Genders
“Shockingly lonely”. These are the words one young man used to describe social expectations of masculinity in 2021. Toxic masculinity seems to be a byword of our times. As conversations about both sex and gender become more nuanced, yet also incredibly binary between opposing sides of the culture wars, the term toxic masculinity pops up again and again. As a young feminist, perhaps I overuse it - my scapegoat for many of the ills of the world is often toxic masculinity. But can I be blamed? As a woman, I have seen the effects of toxic masculinity on everyone in my life. Male family and friends who struggle to express their emotions, worsening their mental health. Female friends treated terribly by men moulded into archaic notions of what a man should be, guided by machismo. Experiencing sexual harassment that can undeniably be traced back to male entitlement and lad culture. To me, toxic masculinity is the common thread linking so many harmful interactions in our society today. This is not to blame men themselves, but the social norms and expectations surrounding masculinity. However, this is rarely how it is received - toxic masculinity is often described as an attack on men.
I would define toxic masculinity as negative, but deeply ingrained, societal expectations of men, perpetrated by patriarchy, harming all genders. It involves emotional repression, the normalisation of aggression (including sexual aggression), the need for social dominance, and more.The American Psychological Association defines it as centred around “power, privilege and sexism”. According to the APA, in Western cultures, socialisation of men into masculine ideals of “toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity and connectedness” starts young. The APA presents toxic masculinity not as inevitable, but as occurring when negative ideals are upheld.
However, despite this seemingly undeniable definition, there is certainly debate among the psychological community about the concept. The APA is not always correct - until 1973, they classed homosexuality as a mental disorder - and, as always, there is debate. I interviewed, over email, two psychologists with very different opinions on the concept of toxic masculinity.
Dr Anthony Synott, a professor at Concordia, is critical of the concept, seeing it as “far too narrow” to describe masculinity. He argues that it distorts masculinity, presenting men solely as villains, and is “merely another stick” for feminists to attack men with, using selective emphasis. To Synott, there are “toxic men and women, but not toxic masculinity or femininity”. To solve toxic men, he believes, we must determine whether it is culture or biology that causes them, and then attempt to remedy this, rather than blaming all men for the actions of a minority. This perception of toxic masculinity as an attack on men is a common theme in those criticising the concept.
I can understand how this emerges, but believe that it is a fundamental misunderstanding. My issue is not with individual men, but the system that socialises them into behaviours that harm themselves and others. Dr Samantha Smithstein agrees that the term "toxic masculinity" itself may ultimately be problematic, because men “tend to take it personally”, misunderstanding that it is toxic to all genders. In Smithstein’s words, it is not about being a man, but about “our toxic ideas of what gender means and what traits are acceptable”. Once we acknowledge how harmful this system is, and that we are all traumatised by it, albeit in different ways, Smithstein argues that we can begin to change it. She uses Martin Luther King’s description of “the deep harm that violence causes on the actor committing the violence” as an analogy, arguing that men, in order to participate in the global, toxic system are forced to shut down empathy”, harming not just others, but also themselves.
Consensus seems to be moving closer to this view, but equally important is what young men themselves think. Is this something that applies to their life? I asked a group of young men what they thought about toxic masculinity, and how it affected their lives. Granted, I am from a privileged and liberal background, so this is unlikely to reflect the experiences and opinions of all young men, but what I discovered was certainly illuminating. It was also heartbreaking. Aside from one, all nine men acknowledged that toxic masculinity had negatively affected them, or others in their lives.
Their experiences are backed up by the statistics. In 2019, men made up ¾ of British suicide deaths, with nearly 6,000 men taking their own lives.Toxic masculinity can also lead to physical health issues - men are statistically less likely to go to the doctor when ill, perhaps due to fears of appearing vulnerable. YouGov has reported that 61% of British 18-24-year-olds felt pressure to “man up”, and less than 1% associate masculinity with kindness. This is incredibly damaging to men, but the repercussions of toxic masculinity reach far further: the recent outpouring of women’s pain following Sarah Everard’s death shows the side of toxic masculinity that damages women too. 97% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed, and this is not just by older men. Toxic masculinity is the insidious breeding ground for lad culture, a lack of respect for women, and an unhealthily macho view of sexuality.
The young men I interviewed acknowledged that toxic masculinity was not a personal insult, but a societal structure, although several explained that they found the term upsetting, or unhelpful, seeing it as overly generalised and personal. One argued that toxic masculinity was actually no longer prevalent in the West, seeing it as only the most extreme forms of violence and aggression. However, most defined it as centring around social expectations of men that encouraged negative and harmful behaviour, and had certainly noticed it growing up - especially at school, amongst groups of male friends. One made the point that he felt the way many men acted was not a true indicator of their character, but that they undertook certain behaviours to feel validated.
A promising sign, most of the men I spoke to said they feel comfortable expressing emotions to friends, family, and partners - although with the caveat that several felt much less comfortable talking to male friends about how they feel. However, those that decided to come forward to an open call interview about toxic masculinity are perhaps those who may already understand it, and are therefore trying to mitigate its effects. Regardless, ideas of masculine “stoicism” are directly linked to male mental health issues; there has been psychological research for decades that being emotionally open, and talking to loved ones, improves mental health. Toxic masculinity also endangers male mental health through the bullying and exclusion required to maintain these structures. Several interviewees discussed the homophobia inherent in toxic masculinity: one described how, at school, anything remotely feminine was desrcibed as “gay”, which was taken as an insult. Particularly, body standards were described as a significant indicator of toxic masculinity, with many acknowledging the pressure to look a certain way as a man. And despite the power of social media to demonstrate alternatives, it was described as simply an “echo chamber” in which unhealthy standards were reinforced.
So, what next? It is hard enough acknowledging the systemic problems of the flawed societal pressure on men, let alone then trying to change this. According to Smithstein, there are too many to name, but the most important is to be “conscious and thoughtful about how we raise children”. This tallies with what the men I spoke to said. One mentioned that we must teach men to listen, as well as to express their emotions. We can encourage men to open up, but if it is met poorly, this only reinforces the harmful system. Things like this may seem like intrinsic skills, but, realistically, they are socially learnt, and must be taught by parents and schools from the very beginning. As well as this, Smithstein believes we should be promoting intersectional rights, to changing the narratives of books, TV shows and movies, and valuing women.
One of the main things, I believe, is for men to first acknowledge their privilege. One of my interviewees believes that defensiveness towards ideas of toxic masculinity is “deeply rooted in a comfort of unacknowledged privilege”. Until this defensiveness is dealt with, and men “consider how they have benefited from their identity and place within society”, they will continue harming themselves and others.
Perhaps those who are already outside the structures of traditionally accepted masculinity can lead the way. One of the men I interviewed felt that, as a queer, Black man, he was denied the standard inclusion into traditional structures, so was able to build his own perceptions of what masculinity could be. However, he admitted that this isolation took a severe toll on mental health, which explains why others excluded by such hierarchies may go the other way, and attempt to compensate by further reproducing toxic behaviours.
What becomes clear is that our definitions of masculinity are well overdue an update. Standards for women have changed massively in the last 200 years, and although many prejudices and oppressive structures remain, we have theoretically expanded what we can be as women. Feminism, through struggle, and the activism of some of the most marginalised groups in society, has expanded femininity to become almost anything we want. The same expansion of gender roles has yet to take off for men - although the fact that discussions of toxic masculinity are so prevalent suggests that this change may be occurring now. In fact, one of the men I interviewed believes that these gender structures have already crumbled, or are changing rapidly. Some may be threatened by this, but he believes it will be liberating for upcoming generations. He also believes that debate over whether this is good or bad is irrelevant, as it is too late to stop this change. I believe that this may be true in certain social spheres, but there is still a way to go.
This is a project men must feel they can take on for themselves. Gendering different qualities and characteristics is only going to hold all of us back. Toxic masculinity may not be the right terminology for this - blaming young men for the society in which they were raised seems unlikely to lead to change - but the concept holds strong. It may not be the fault of young men, but it is now their responsibility to challenge these social structures, following in feminist footsteps, not only for their own sake but for the sake of all of us who have also suffered under the pressures of how men are expected to behave. Women and other marginalised groups, as well as men, are still being limited by stunted definitions of what men can be. For all genders, men must finish the job we have started.
Words: Millie Lord
Art: Fempower Art