What is “Toxic Masculinity?”

Ray Williams
7 min readMar 1, 2022
Image: mocostudent.org

“When looking at the attributes associated with masculinity in the US, the same researchers identified the following: winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy, self- reliance, primacy at work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality, and pursuit of status.” — Brené Brown

Some researchers had defined “toxic masculinity” as a group of beliefs and behaviors that include the following:

  • Suppressing emotions or masking distress.
  • Maintaining an appearance of hardness.
  • Believing violence makes you more powerful.

Toxic masculinity develops by teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they must be “tough all the time”; thatanything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak.

According to the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.), aggression and violence are taught by parents, significant others,and our society, leaving boys and men at “disproportionate risk for school discipline, academic challenges and health disparities,”including cardiovascular problems and substance abuse.

Some Beliefs Reflected in Toxic Masculinity:

  • Men should not be interested in feminine things because this makes them appear weak.
  • Men shouldn’t display “feminine” traits such as emotional vulnerability, which show weakness.
  • Men can’t just be friends with women
  • Showing anger and being violent are the best ways of solving conflicts.
  • Parenting is not men’s main responsibility.
  • Men can never truly understand women.
  • Men and women can never just be friends.
  • Men should never admit they were victims of abuse; they should feel shame if they were.
  • REAL men always want sex and are ready for it at any time.
  • Men should always be the dominant one in the relationship.

A predictable conflict has accompanied the increased use of the expression toxic masculinity.

Many conservatives allege that using the term toxic masculinity is an attack on manhood itself, at a time when men already face challenges such as higher rates of drug overdose and suicide. Many progressives, in contrast, contend that the “detoxification” of masculinity must occur before gender equality can be realized.

Many people misunderstand how toxic masculinity functions. When people use the term, they tend to diagnose the problem of masculine aggression and entitlement an illness — something that has infected today’s men and leads them to reproachable acts. But toxic masculinity itself is not a cause of destructive behaviors. Today, there are more subtle nuances, including institutional and system structures that allow toxic masculinity to flourish.

Toxic masculinity was coined in the men’s movement of the 1980s and ’90s, motivated in part as a reaction to feminism.

Men’s aggression and frustration was, according to apologists for toxic masculinity, the result of a society that feminized boys by denying them the necessary rites and rituals to realize their true selves as men.

Since the late 1980s, new perspectives on masculinity have rejected the traditional view. Sociologist Raewyn Connell, for example, argued masculinity was the product of relationships and behaviors, rather than a fixed set of identities and attributes.

In one of the most important conclusions, Connell and researchers who agreed with him, theorized that common masculine ideals such as social respect, physical strength, and sexual potency become problematic when they set unattainable standards.

Not being able to reach that standard can make boys and men insecure and anxious, which might prompt them to use force to feel dominant and in control. Male violence in this scenario isn’t innate and not a natural part of masculinity itself. Rather, it comes from men’s expectations based on social norms, which then create inner conflicts social over social expectations and male entitlement.

In a 2005 study of men in prison, the psychiatrist Terry Kupers defined toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” Kupers argued thatprison generates toxic masculinity and this toxicity is just a reflection of what exists widely in society, rather than something that was unique to being in prison.

Republicans and White Christians

Culture punishes men “Just for Acting Like Men,” most Republicans say, according to a 2020 survey released by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). According to this survey, most Republicans and white Christians –46% — say theAmerican way of life has changed for the worse with about two- thirds of GOP voters agreeing society has become “too soft and feminine.”

Far fewer Americans overall agree with conservative sentiments toward gender roles and masculinity, according to the survey. Only 38 % from all political and religious affiliations say men today are punished simply for being men. It’s clear from the survey that predominantly white evangelical Protestants and fewer white mainline Protestants say society is far too embracing of feminine qualities and doesn’t let men “just act like men,” the survey finds.

According to the survey, 50 percent of U.S. male adults say society punishes men for being men, compared to 30 percent of women who agree. All these attitudes are statistically unchanged from the same 2016 survey.

Whatever Happened to the Strong, Silent Type?

According to a new study examining the long-term repercussions of practicing toxic masculinity, Pop culture’s idea of a “real man” has changed in recent years. Decades ago, however, boys grew up idolizing movie stars like Gary Cooper and John Wayne; men who projected who characters showing little to no emotion such as sadness or compassion or dependence on others.

While more and more men are abandoning the traditional idea of what it is to be a man, many still cling to the idea that men should never talk about their feelings or show weakness, especially in front of a woman. There is a price to pay for this. Researchers from Michigan State University have found that practicing the ideal of traditional masculinity can lead to social isolation, poor health, and overall unhappiness later in life.

“When we age, there are certain ways that we can ensure we maintain our health and well-being,” says Stef Shuster, MSU assistant professor in Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Sociology, in a press release. “Having people with whom we cantalk about personal matters is a form of social support. If people only have one person, they can share information with, orsometimes even no people, they don’t really have an opportunity to reflect and share.”

“When you’re 30 years old and successful, it’s easy to feel invincible,” Shuster says. As time passes, both sexes encounter more health and financial hurdles. Careers wind down and our bodies age. Suddenly, being able to handle the emotional and mental fallout is important for mental health.

A report by Promundo and AXE titled The Cost of the Man Box: A Study on the Economic Impacts of Harmful Masculine Stereotypes in the US, UK, and Mexico, concludes the following:

  • Internalizing harmful masculinity puts young men in the “Man Box,” and it has serious consequences for all of us.
  • Young men in the Man Box are up to six times more likely to have sexually harassed; up to seven times more likely to have used physical violence; and twice as likely to have had suicidal thoughts in the previous two weeks.
  • If we got rid of the Man Box, we could reduce sexual violence by at least 69% and eliminate at least 41% of traffic accidents, 40% of bullying and violence, 39% of suicides, 7% of binge drinking, and 4% of depressive symptoms amongmen (18–30) in the US, every year.
  • The minimum cost that could be saved annually by the US economy if there were no Man Box is $15.7 billion.

“We already know that when guys have stereotypical ideas about manhood — like they need to be tough, not ask for help, and seem cool at all costs — they might be closed off, rude, or tell a sexist joke. What our study confirms is that the impact of these ideasgoes even further, and that they have real, economic costs,” says Gary Barker, CEO of Promundo. “This includes costs to those who survive and are harmed by men’s use of violence, those who survive and are harmed by traffic accidents, the family members and dependents of those who die due to suicide, the employers whose staff miss time or underperform due to drug use or depression, and ultimately young men themselves when their lives and possibilities are cut short, “ he says.

Laura Van Berkel and colleagues published an article in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, reported that “We found that both men and women rated masculine traits — like “independent” and “competitive” — as significantly more American than feminine ones.” They added “Because attaching gender stereotypes to certain traits can be relatively subjective, we also asked our subjects to simply tell us how central they thought masculinity and femininity were to American identity. Sure enough, people thought masculinity was more important than femininity. Finally, participants listed five people they considered examples of Americans. They could include anyone, from celebrities (Oprah) to historical figures (George Washington) to family members (mydad). The participants were seven times more likely to list a man than a woman.”

In a study of what it means to be a man in America, by researchers Islam Borinca, Vincenzo Iacoviello and Giulia Valsecchi published their findings in the journal Sex Roles. They argue: “There are countless examples of men defying stereotypes on the red carpet and in magazines, from Harry Styles’ appearance as the boy with the pearl earring at the 2019 Met Gala to Pharrell Williams’s Moncler gown by Valentino on the cover of GQ. In view of these trends, can we assume that men have conquered their pressure to appear as “real men” and are free to behave as they want? We discovered that men who held less stereotyped views about what it meant to “be a man” were less uncomfortable with performing feminine behaviors in the social change condition than in the traditional masculinity condition or control condition. The reason why was that the social change condition freed them from social pressure and potential sexual orientation misclassification, so they were comfortable performing feminine behaviors. However, such was not the case for men who held more stereotyped views about what it meant to “be a man” regardless of the information they read.”

Image: Ray Williams



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others