What Is Toxic Masculinity?

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As part of my Senior Project Paper literature review for my psychology modules I studied in detail the different kinds of masculinities present within society. Although my paper focussed specifically on a South African context I soon came to see that the four main types of masculinities are present across most western societies. One of these is known as Toxic Masculinity (henceforth referred to as ‘TM’).

Importantly, masculinity itself denotes those constructed norms ascribes to the way men should behave and interact within their societies. As researchers have noted, these norms are not fixed and change over time, and that the different masculinities possess different levels of power. Hegemonic masculinity is the academic term for the “dominant” masculinity within society (more on this in a separate article).

Returning to TM, TM refers to socially-constructed ideas of the male that are entirely negative (i.e. “toxic”). Ascribed to TM are the traits that the masculine gender role is unemotional, violent, and sexually aggressive (1). Perhaps a leading researcher in this field is professor Terry Kupers of The Wright Institute school of psychology. Kupers describes TM as being “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence” (2). Kupers examines its ominous presence within prison settings as it is expressed in the frequency of fights on the prison yard, assaults on officers, the phenomenon of prison rape, and other hyper-competitive interactions between male inmates. I believe that this is the major difference between hegemonic masculinity and TM. Whereas the former can often ascribe oppressive and suppressive traits to the male gender role (such as suppression of emotion, self-reliance, dominance, and competition) the latter includes numerous moral evils that are both vindictive and damaging to the male himself and to those he interacts with.

According to feminist theorists, TM, as a concept, is not intended to demonize men, or masculinity, but rather identifies the conformity to harmful traditional masculine ideals and behaviours (3). For example, undergirding TM is the narrative that to be a “real man” one must necessarily be strong, and that showing emotion is incompatible with being strong. Consequently, it is not uncommon for some men to call other men derogative names such as “mangina” or “p*ssy,” these being terms used to signal out men who are deemed weak and unworthy of manhood. TM also possesses a sexist attitude that is derogatory towards women as it uses female genitalia to stand in for something taken to be weak and shameful. Often anger is the exception to this rule or is not even seen to be an emotion. TM also enforces the notion that real men cannot be the victims of abuse and that talking about abuse is shameful. Some have wondered whether or not this silence due to shame correlates with men under reporting being victims of rape and other sexual abuses. For example, as explained by the NSW Education Centre Against Violence “It has been found that immediately after the assault, most male rape victims deny to themselves and to others that the assault has happened. This is because they fear the stigma of being thought of as “weak” or fear that others will accuse them of having permitted the rape” (4). Unfortunately, 90 to 95% of men do not report being raped (5). TM also affirms a specific narrative about sex, especially in how one’s manhood is shaped by it (6). This narrative includes the concept that to be considered a real man, the male must have had sex with one or more women. Thus, sex is considered pivotal pillar in the transition from boyhood into manhood.

Some argue that pervasiveness of TM in certain settings is harmful to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of men (7). According to professor Kupers, TM within prison entails the suppression of emotions, social isolation, and aggression, and thus plays a role in suicides among male prisoners (8). Writer Suzannah Weiss agrees that “By dictating that men must be strong, have no feelings, and dominate women, Western ideals of masculinity lead men to miss out on aspects of life that should be available to all people, regardless of gender – things like emotional connection and nurturing” (9). Consequently, many men are unable to develop close relationships with their partners, children, and peers. Further, where mental health is concerned, men who adhere to toxic and traditional masculine norms which include dominance, primacy of work, need for emotional control, desire to win, and pursuit of social status tend to more prone to depression, stress, substance abuse, and having body image problems (10).

References

1. Weiss, S. 2016. 6 Harmful Effects Of Toxic Masculinity. Available.

2. Kupers, T. 2005. Toxic masculinity as a barrier to mental health treatment in prison. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61 (6): 713–724.

3. Hess, P. 2016. Sexism may be bad for men’s mental health. Available.

4. When A Man Is Raped. Available.

5. Foreman, B. (1982). Reported Male Rape. Victimology: An International Journal. p. 235-236.

6. Lewis, K. 2017. Through a millennial lens: Toxic masculinity hurts… Available.

7. O’Malley, H. 2017. The Difference Between Toxic Masculinity and Being A Man. Available.

8. Friedman, H. 2015. Encyclopedia of Mental Health. p. 71.

9. Weiss, S. 2016. 6 Harmful Effects Of Toxic Masculinity. Available.

10. Wong, Y. et al. 2017. Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64 (1): 80–93.

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