‘Toxic masculinity’ is a term that is commonly used to refer to the negative aspects of masculinity. The use of the term has risen in popularity, with some people finding it illuminating and legitimate, while others believe it has become a way to demonize men.
The psychiatrist Terry Kupers argues that toxic masculinity can be defined as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence." It is the socially destructive side of masculinity. But masculinity as a whole isn’t toxic, according to Kupers. The positive aspects of masculinity include “pride in [one's] ability to win at sports, to maintain solidarity with a friend, to succeed at work, or to provide for [one's] family".
The evolutionary scientist Gad Saad, on the other hand, believes that the term toxic masculinity is being used to pathologize and stigmatize masculinity as a whole, including its positive characteristics, such as bravery and risk-taking. He dismisses the concept as an “ideological attack on masculinity," and regards it as stemming from radical feminism.
Especially when viewed through Saad's perspective, ‘masculinity’ has become a dirty word in our culture. It is commonly referred to as toxic but not so often discussed in a positive light. The result is that a lot of men feel uncertain about their ‘masculine’ identity, about what it means to be a man in this day and age. We could say that trying to fit some mold of a ‘true man’ is unproductive since self-esteem shouldn’t depend on cultural expectations about manhood or based on what most men are like.
However, it is hard to shake the feeling that our identity is wrapped up, in some way, with our gender, with our sense of being a man. We want to feel confident that we are being a decent male role model, a good husband, father, brother, and son. This can come down to the fact that there are biological sex differences, which can be explained in evolutionary terms. These differences in psychology between most men and women can help to explain how culture shapes masculine gender roles and identities. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with innate tendencies in men and women. Differences between men and women don’t have to lead to dominance and subordination.
Toxic masculinity, though, seems to be more of a cultural phenomenon. It relates to some traits that are obviously toxic, and other traits that only become harmful based on how strongly men identify with them. Particular masculine traits may be rooted in psychology, yet they lead to mental health and societal issues because of the narrow way in which they define manhood. For instance, sensitivity, care, and gentleness never used to be excluded from ideas of masculinity – these traits existed alongside toughness and heroism.
The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CNMI) is a widely used measure of masculine norms, roles, and behavior. It helps to shed light on the way in which masculinity harms boys and men, women, and society at large. It consists of 11 traits that are typically perceived as masculine norms:
- Emotional Control
- Primacy of Work
- Power Over Women
- Pursuit of Status
Some of these traits are clearly toxic (e.g. violence and disdain for homosexuals), whereas others may or may not be, depending on the context. As a case in point, we may think of self-reliance as a virtue. Someone who is self-reliant is independent – they can use their own resources to meet their needs and flourish as a person. However, we also know that men who strongly identify with self-reliance are at a higher risk of suicide than those who don’t. The masculine trait of self-reliance means that asking for help and support is often viewed as unmanly. Which has serious consequences for men’s mental health.
In a similar fashion, controlling your emotions (another masculine trait) may be useful or virtuous in some circumstances. But when this becomes the default, with emotional expression excluded from notions of masculinity, then men feel encouraged to hide their pain. This bottling up of emotions (except anger) often leads to poor mental health and can put a serious strain on a man’s most crucial relationships. Other research shows that men who place a high value on being a playboy or having power over women have worse mental health outcomes than male counterparts who care less about these masculine norms.
When men don’t conform to certain masculine stereotypes, they can experience uncertainty about their identity, low self-esteem, and a huge drop in self-confidence. Toxic masculinity, which leads to dominant and violent behavior, also restricts the emotions that boys and men feel comfortable expressing. The expectation to be macho means that men have to constantly deny and hide their true selves. Masculinity has come into conflict with men’s authenticity.
But we don’t have to completely discard masculinity because it has a toxic element. Some men may reject the term toxic masculinity, believing it unfairly characterizes men as being a destructive force in the world. But the truth is, there are negative aspects to both genders, and as men, it's important to address the shortcomings and challenges that affect men's roles in society. We should be as willing to talk about toxic masculinity as many men are willing to discuss its counterpart, toxic femininity – those feminine norms which harm the mental health of women and lead to the mistreatment of men.
Many men dislike the term toxic masculinity, associating it with misandry, radical feminism, and men who feel ashamed to be men. And it’s ok if you don’t want to use the term based on its connotations or if it makes you cringe a bit. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize those aspects of masculinity that are harmful. When you look at gender in an honest and self-reflective way, you can strive to be a virtuous man while prioritizing your well-being and respecting the interests of others.