Toxic Masculinity: What It Means, How To Fight It
And what does healthy masculinity look like?
Toxic masculinity describes unhealthy or harmful behaviors — such as violence or abuse, emotional suppression, or sexual harassment. Awareness around toxic masculinity has sparked a cultural revolution, as unhealthy or harmful traits, previously normalized and accepted as “boys being boys,” are no longer tolerated.
As the model of manliness changes, it leaves a question: what does it mean to be a man? The answer isn’t straightforward. Fighting toxic masculinity starts by identifying gender stereotypes, saying “no” to toxic behaviors, and working towards a more considerate, compassionate, and heartfelt definition of masculinity.
Toxic Masculinity Is Not the Same as Masculinity
Masculinity describes qualities and behaviors associated with men and boys. It is linked to gender, not biological sex. Gender describes a person’s attributes, whereas sex describes biological characteristics, such as male, female, or intersex. Masculinity as part of the male gender stereotype is a mixture of biological factors and social constructs.
You can think of this as a template for what it means to be a man. The traditional model might be someone who has a full beard, big muscles, doesn’t show emotion (other than anger), is into sports and drinking beer, and doesn’t like the color pink. All of these criteria are a mixture of biology and expected behaviors, which together create the template.
As the name implies, toxic masculinity points to harmful behaviors often associated with the masculine gender stereotype. It doesn’t describe unchangeable elements of the male sex, fixed to a person’s biological makeup, but socially constructed behaviors. The behaviors themselves aren’t only demonstrated by men, either. But the template of masculinity makes men more likely to demonstrate them.
Traditional Male Behaviors and Toxic Masculinity
Although you are born male, female, or intersex (we won’t diverge into the finer nuances of the science here), no one is born a gender. Many expectations are internalized through the culture in which you grow up. For example, parents who have internalized gender stereotypes may not allow their sons to play with dolls, wear a dress, or outwardly express upset or sadness. These traditional male behaviors are reinforced at school, with teenage boys having to hide their sensitivity.
The stereotype of men being stoic has big repercussions — studies have found a link between toxic masculinity and suicide risk, and males are four times more likely to die by suicide than females. As an extension, many traditional male behaviors encourage emotional suppression, aggression, or sexual harassment. Other examples of toxic masculinity include linking masculinity with power, believing men are more valuable, intelligent, or deserving than women (gender inequality), and physical or emotional toughness.
There is a constant relationship between the societal construct of masculinity, as a cultural or spiritual illness, and the way men behave. Many men might feel the need to live up to the stereotype, to prove their manliness. That in turn reinforces the stereotype. But as we’ve seen with the revolution of masculinity, a change in stereotype can influence behavior, and a change in behavior can influence the stereotype.
What Does Healthy Masculinity Look Like?
Perhaps a bigger question is: what is healthy masculinity? It’s easier to point out issues with toxic masculinity than to offer alternative behaviors or approaches. It’s likely that, eventually, a new model of masculinity will emerge, which includes the best of traditional male behaviors and gets rid of the worst, in a process of evolution. But that requires clarity around what men should aspire to be. According to A Call To Men, traits of healthy manhood include:
- Emotional vulnerability.
- Not being afraid to cry or share difficult emotions.
- Validating the emotions of other boys and men.
- Valuing the lives of women and girls.
- Having an interest in women and girls outside of sexual conquest.
- Enforcing gender stereotypes to bully or ridicule others.
- Avoiding violence or aggression.
Part of evolving the concept of masculinity is to understand gender exists on a spectrum. Some men are more feminine, some men are more masculine, and all are valid expressions of manliness. However, understanding healthy masculine traits can encourage men to cultivate their masculinity, not reinforcing traditional male behavior, but connecting to masculine values.
For example, protecting vulnerable people and acting with nobility and integrity can all be seen as masculine traits. To further illustrate this, Jungian analyst Robert Moore identifies the four archetypes of the healthy masculine as the King, the Warrior, the Lover, and the Magician. Connecting to these symbols of masculinity is one way to connect to healthy masculine energy.
How to Fight Toxic Masculinity
Finding a solution to the crisis of masculinity requires two approaches. The first is to continue to expose toxic masculinity and challenge the gender stereotype. For all men, this means cultivating self-awareness to look at their own behavior.
When noticing toxic masculinity within, be compassionate, and see it as an unhealthy internalized behavior. Do all you can to change and make amends for any harm caused. When noticing toxic masculinity in others, don’t be afraid to call out that behavior, in an appropriate way.
The next step is to aspire toward healthy masculinity. For each man, that requires insight into their own balance of masculinity and femininity. There’s no expectation or pressure to meet any template, but there are healthy masculine traits you can cultivate, to find greater balance.
No one wins from toxic masculinity. Many men struggle to live up to unfair standards and don’t feel they can authentically be themselves. Many women and men are on the receiving end of hurtful behavior, under the name of masculinity. The more people stand together — avoiding the temptation to demonize all men — the greater the chance of fighting toxic masculinity.