“Toxic masculinity” (sometimes called “harmful masculinity”) is often used as a catch-all term for the behaviors of men and masculine folks.
In reality, though, there’s plenty of room for someone to be masculine without being toxic or engaging in behavior that’s dangerous or hurtful.
So, what does the phrase actually mean? Generally, toxic masculinity is an adherence to the limiting and potentially dangerous societal standards set for men and masculine-identifying people.
Before we unpack the ins and outs of toxic masculinity, it’s important to understand that masculinity is not inherently bad or toxic. The same goes for men and male-identifying people.
Traits of toxic masculinity include themes of:
- unconditional physical toughness
- showing physical aggression
- being unwilling to share emotions
- showing discrimination toward people who aren’t heterosexual
- practicing hyper independence
- exhibiting sexual aggression or violence
- exhibiting anti-feminist behavior
- championing heterosexuality as the unalterable norm
- being violent
- being dominant
- having emotional insensitivity
Toxic masculinity typically shows up within men and masculine-identified folks, but it can be upheld by anyone.
Toxic masculinity doesn’t just involve obvious displays of aggression or discrimination. Often, it shows up in subtle ways you may not even recognize.
Consider the following two phrases.
A man is talking about how he’s concerned about his male friend who seems to be going through a tough time. “I’m just really rooting for him. He’s such a nice guy,” he says, and then quickly follows up with the phrase “no homo” to let everyone know his words don’t mean he’s sexually attracted to his friend.
The societal standard for masculinity requires attraction to a cisgender, straight woman. Anything that resembles something different, such as affection for a male friend, is seen as a threat to masculinity.
This colloquial “joke” is a way to quickly dismiss that threat via heterosexism, one of the traits associated with toxic masculinity.
‘I’m a guy, what do you expect?’
Sound familiar? This often comes after conversations surrounding topics like sports or cleanliness, but it can also be connected to more serious issues, like emotional regulation.
Sometimes, for example, men are excused from doing introspection or controlling their anger in relationships.
Imagine a heterosexual couple having an argument. The woman feels hurt that her boyfriend forgot about their date, causing her to wait at a restaurant for an hour. When she confronts him, he shrugs and says, “Oh, I totally forgot, my bad.” She says this doesn’t feel like a real apology. Exasperated, he throws his hands up and says, “I’m a guy, we’re not good at that stuff!”
In reality, effective communication, including the ability to make a meaningful apology, is a skill that everyone needs, not just women and feminine-identified folks.
It’s hard to pinpoint a singular cause of toxic masculinity, largely because the concept of masculinity varies across different cultures, religions, and classes.
Even within a single culture, religion, or class, masculine ideals can vary across age groups.
In the United States, toxic masculinity is often reinforced by societal attitudes. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that respondents attributed protective behavior as a positive trait for men. Being nurturing or emotional, however, was seen as something negative.
Toxic masculinity is often seen as being harmful to others, but men and masculine-identifying folks face real harmful effects from it, too.
While toxic masculinity definitely has effects on individuals, it can also have larger societal effects.
Here are just a few of them. Keep in mind that, while toxic masculinity plays a contributing role in these issues, it isn’t always the sole cause.
Toxic masculinity ideology tends to treat cisgender women as sexual conquests, contributing to ongoing issues, like rape culture.
This refers to the tendency to remove blame from sexual assailants and place it on the victim.
“Boys will be boys” might sound harmless when it comes to kids roughhousing on the playground. But it can evolve into excuses for violent behavior or not respecting boundaries.
Toxic masculinity also teaches men and masculine folks that aggression and violence are key to solving problems — unless you want to appear weak.
The resulting violence, which can show up in many forms, including intimate partner violence and gun violence, can have far-reaching effects on those who aren’t even directly involved.
In addition to creating more violence, this line of thinking also robs men of learning other, more effective coping skills and communication techniques.
Again, there are plenty of men and masculine-identifying people who don’t display traits of toxic masculinity. Still, these folks might be affected by those who do display those traits in the form of social exclusion.
Especially among children and teens, those who don’t fit inside that predetermined box of what it means to be masculine might find themselves ostracized because of it.
There’s no single answer to addressing the problem of toxic masculinity. Doing so requires societal shifts around several things, including gender stereotypes and the stigma surrounding mental health.
But, if you’re a man or male-identifying person, there are a few things you can do to reduce the effect of toxic masculinity in both your own life and the lives of those around you:
- Be OK with acknowledging where you are: Everyone has a starting point. There’s no way to change or move forward if you aren’t able to be honest about the traits you want to alter. Maybe you weren’t a great communicator in past relationships. Or maybe you’ve relied on your physical size or strength to intimidate others. Don’t beat yourself up about past actions. Focus instead on where you currently stand and how you can move forward.
- Have tough conversations: Ask your friends — especially those with gender identities and expressions that are different from yours — for their perspective on how you handle tough situations or your biases in relation to masculinity. Do your best not to get defensive, and really listen to how your actions have impacted others. You might be surprised that certain things you did or said came across differently from how you intended.
- Do the work: Above all, undoing toxic masculinity as a man or male-identifying person involves being true to yourself, not some false idea of the person you should be. Finding your true self is a process that takes time. A therapist can guide you through this process and help you alter unhelpful thinking patterns.
Toxic masculinity is so ingrained in society that most people experience its effects at some point.
Identifying and acknowledging it is a good first step for dismantling it, followed by making an effort to avoid assigning certain characteristics to specific gender identities.
Being comfortable with who you are, regardless of your gender identity and expression (or anyone else’s), is a step in the right direction.
Taneasha White is a Black, queer lover of words, inquisition, and community, and has used her role within both literary and organizational spaces to make room for folks who are often cast aside. She’s the founder and editor of UnSung Literary Magazine, a flash fiction and poetry publication focused on offering artistic space for marginalized voices; a guest editor with Quail Bell Magazine; and co-host of the podcast “Critiques for The Culture,” where media is dissected through humor and a sociopolitical lens. You can find more of her work here.