What Is Toxic Masculinity?

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There are several variants of masculinities present within a society, one of which is toxic masculinity (hereafter referred to as TM).

Masculinity denotes constructed norms ascribed to the way men should behave and interact within their societies. As researchers have noted, these norms are not fixed and change over time. Different masculinities possess different levels of power. Hegemonic masculinity is the term for the dominant masculinity within a society.

TM refers to socially-constructed ideas of the male that are entirely negative (i.e. “toxic”). These include traits that the masculine gender role is unemotional, violent, and sexually aggressive (1). 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 presence within prison settings as 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. This suggests a 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 encompasses what many consider moral evils. These vindictive and damaging to oneself and to those one 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). Underlying TM is the narrative that to be a “real man” one must necessarily be strong, and that showing emotion is incompatible with being strong. It is not uncommon for some men to call other men derogative names such as “mangina” or “p*ssy.” These terms are used to signal out men who are deemed weak and unworthy of manhood. TM possesses a sexist attitude that is derogatory towards women. It uses female genitalia to stand in for something taken to be weak and/or shameful. Often anger is the exception to the rule in that it is the appropriate emotion while other times it might not even be viewed as an emotion. TM also enforces the notion that real men cannot be the victims of abuse and that talking about abuse is shameful. It is possible that feelings of shame correlate with men under reporting being victims of rape and other sexual abuses. The NSW Education Centre Against Violence  says,

“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).

Statistics suggest that 90-95% of men do not report being raped (5).

TM affirms a specific narrative about sex which is taken to shape the concept of manhood (6). It says that to be considered a real man, the male must have had sex with one or more women. Sex is considered pivotal in the transition from boyhood into manhood.

Some highlight that pervasiveness of TM in certain settings is harmful to the emotional and psychological well-being of men (7). According to 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).

Many men might be unable to develop close relationships with their partners, children, and peers due to TM. 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 to 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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