If you Googled “toxic masculinity” today, you’d be forgiven for believing that men and women are in an epic fight to either keep or modify their gender identities. The issue of toxic masculinity and the harm it causes particularly flared in January 2019 from two events. First, the American Psychological Association released a study that men who see themselves as having power over women, or adhering to “playboy” behavior, are significantly more likely to have psychological problems than those who conform less to masculine gender norms — and they’re also less likely to seek help” (Gregoire). Gasoline was thrown on that fire a week later when Gillette released an ad inspired by the “#MeToo” movement that asked men to reexamine the phrase “boys will be boys,” work to end sexual harassment, support boys emotionally, and intervene if they see bullying. Both releases provoked an outrage from supporters of traditional masculine values, arguing they were being pressured to change their masculine identities into something they didn’t want.
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There are big questions the debate brought to light. To what degree is masculinity a problem in the United States today? What ideal balance for masculine values should we strive for? Should traditional masculinity be abandoned because of harm done and its link to sexism, or are there some forms of masculinity worth preserving? The case I want to make is that, unfortunately, masculinity today has lost its way in many American men, to the point that some behaviors are worth correcting for the sake of decency and creating a safer society. However, I also find that many traditional values have been very constructive in building society and keeping it, and men would do well to return to these values that are helpful to others. Of course, as in all things, there must be a balance: masculinity untampered can be harmful to men and women alike, so the big concern is channeling masculine habits like aggression, ambition, and protectiveness so that they do not infringe on other peoples’ rights, but instead contribute positively to other other people.
It is useful to define key terms in the subject of gender issues so that there is an understanding of what’s being discussed. The term “toxic masculinity” didn’t actually start out with women’s’ movements, but actually with mythopoetic men’s movements in the 1980s and 90s formed as a response to second wave feminism (Salter). Toxic masculinity refers to harmful behaviour and attitudes commonly associated with some men, such as the need to repress emotions during stressful situations, and to act in an aggressively dominant way. Through male-only workshops, wilderness retreats, and drumming circles, the men’s movement promoted a masculine spirituality to rescue what it referred to as the “deep masculine”— a protective, “warrior” masculinity—from toxic masculinity (Salter). For the purposes of this essay, these “deep masculine” traits are my definition of “refined masculinity”: the constructive channeling of stereotypically masculine values in ways that benefit society. Lastly, I seek a definition for hegemonic masculinity. The concept of hegemonic masculinity is based on the existence of a dominant form of masculinity. According to Connell, men position themselves in relation to it, and therefore internalize personal codes of behaviour that contribute to its reproduction. She goes on to write, “Hegemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which… guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell 76).
Toxic masculinity physically manifests itself in America in disturbing ways that generate a harm to our society that is numerically quantifiable but immeasurably damaging on a human level. Intimate partner violence (IPV), a prime example of dysfunction, reflects the feelings of distress males experience in situations that they feel pressure to execute their idealized masculine identity (American Psychological Association). Data from 2017 showed the effect IPV perpetrated by men has on women in the U.S.: 1,686 murders included female victims and male perpetrators and 93 percent of the victims were murdered by a male they knew. In addition, worldwide, 38 percent of murders of women are perpetrated by a male intimate partner (World Health Organization 2). In the U.S., men represent more than 90 percent of perpetrators of criminal violence and 78 percent of the victims (Bureau of Justice Statistics 9-10). Men and women from minority populations are at increased risk due to greater exposure to high-risk environments and less support when violence occurs (American Psychological Association). With data like this, we have to admit there is a huge disconnect between our societal values of loving and respecting your partner, and the actions of these violent men.
As a police cadet with a violent Bay Area city, I saw the effects of toxic masculinity close hand. Each day would bring several domestic disturbance calls, many of which were for male on female IPV. (To be fair, female on male IPV also exists.) One particular case that will stay with me forever was responding to a call of a man who had beat up and hospitalized his girlfriend, and had also beat up his mother. The man was quickly dragged out of his car and arrested, immediately saying, “I didn’t hit her, I didn’t hit her” before he was actually informed of the reason for the arrest. However, his mom came out of the house and started arguing with the officers and I. I could see the bruises on her face from when he beat her too. It’s sad enough to say that IPV is to be expected in policing, but for a man to assault his own mother is another level of depravity.
The effects of toxic masculinity recently manifested itself in our politics as well. With the 2016 election of Donald Trump, “His macho-isms, his penchant for dividing the world into winners and losers, his lack of empathy for anybody but himself — it all reminds me of home, and the sense I had, even as a boy, of a system of privilege that has ailed this country since its beginning” (Sexton). President Donald Trump in his campaigned tapped into a demographic of voters — white, blue collar men — that felt effectively forgotten by the economy and society, and reflected values of a previous time that resonated with them. Filipovic writes, “Trump styled masculinity… is less John Wayne and more Tucker Max–and a revealing insight into American male anxiety” (Filipovic). Even President Trump’s style of masculinity doesn’t have historical origins. “It’s not quite right to say that Trump is a throwback to mid-century sexism. At least in those days, negative behavior towards women and family members was restrained by the chivalry code. Political candidates didn’t go attacking their rivals’ wives based on their looks. Trump’s ego is uncontrolled. It’s pure ego completed with a pornogrified behavior” (Brooks).
Evidence of toxic masculinity can be experienced by many women just walking down the street. An Instagram account called “@catcallsofnyc” documents the arguably degrading cat-calling that New York City women go through in their daily lives. “I was walking home from school, and a man shouted at me ‘That ass thick!’” wrote one girl who shared her story. “I’m twelve! I crossed the street and started walking faster so he followed me and whistled ‘Damn, you’re so sexy.’ I asked him to leave me alone and he yelled ‘Are you scared, you little bitch?’” (Cat Calls of NYC). This example of toxic masculinity objectifies women unethically, reducing them to their body parts.
I have seen the effects of toxic masculinity in my close friends, too. One particular friend I want to highlight is my friend Joshua, whom I have known since high school. We are friends because we went into the military together, our political views align, can tolerate each others’ company, and like to think about business ideas together. As a Marine Corps infantry sergeant and later a mercenary, Josh was in a highly militarized and warrior-cultured environment. As a veteran, he continues to embody the ethos of a traditional male and practices Odinism, and ancient Norse religion that praises masculinity, strength and aggression. Perhaps what is most noticeable is his views towards women. I cannot understate that he is an expert womanizer, and every week it seems he has new tales of sexual conquests from dating apps like Tinder or Bumble. Joshua married his sweetheart after graduating high school, but that marriage quickly fell apart when she cheated on him while he was deployed.
Since that divorce, Joshua sought to maximize the volume of sexual encounters with women, practically turning what is supposed to be an intimate act into a game of racking up points. The aim is to court women to the point of them having sex, and then leaving for the next encounter. Josh frequently objectifies these women, complaining how annoying they can be, and generally referring to them as sluts and whores that we would never actually date long term. In hindsight, this could be described as an addiction to sex, but the dehumanization of women to a mere score like he’s playing a game is a far cry from the values of respect, and quality over quantity of relationships, that men would be better to have. This hopping from one woman to the next indicates that he is never fully content with females.
When we go to bars on Friday nights, he often pressures me to approach women and try to have sex. He has said things such as, “I bet that fat chick in the floral dress would fuck you if you asked,” and, “Yeaaahhh Dale go get that Asian pussy!” as an Asian girl walked in the bar. I am currently in relationship and I don’t desire to date other women right now, but when I tell this to Joshua he frowns in disapproval and calls me a “pussy”. There are times that I question why the hell I continue hanging out with him, because he seemingly never feels relaxed and always projects the need to “one-up” me.
However, there are indeed good features to masculinity that should be preserved. The same features of violence and aggression that when out of balance can be attributed to toxic masculinity, can be very constructive when channeled in ways that are productive. The same aggression that can cause harm to others can be harnessed by the military in national defense. The ambition for power and to create has been channeled by male entrepreneurs creating businesses that produce all the goods that we use today, as my family, friends, and myself have done as entrepreneurs and investors. And when I rode in a squad car with lights and sirens blazing to a domestic violence scene, it was a dedicated, courageous man with a badge that was answering the call to help. I would and will never ask men like these to suppress their “masculinity” to appease a contemporary social justice debate.
But perhaps most importantly, good men influencing their children as fathers has the biggest societal benefits. Allie Stuckley, a conservative commentator, writes,
When you try to make men more like women, you don’t get less “toxic masculinity,” you get more. Why? Because bad men don’t become good when they stop being men; they become good when they stop being bad. Aggression, violence, and unbridled ambition can’t be eliminated from the male psyche; they can only be harnessed. And when they are harnessed, they are tools for good, not for harm. (Stuckley)
If men are not brought up the right way, to be “gentlemen,” many will become destructive men. If they are not trained by good men, they will be trained by bad men; if they have no good males to follow, they follow bad ones. The most male-free environment in America exists in black communities, where only 38.7 percent of African American minors can say that they live with both parents (United States Census Bureau). This hasn’t made black boys less violent; it’s made them far more prone to criminality than their non-black peers. Many of these boys follow teenage role models, many of whom have lacked fathers themselves, and lack the training to be a gentleman: “They live in a world of risk that requires masculine defense but have no one to teach them to distinguish between defense and aggression” (Shapiro). While blacks make up only twelve percent of the national population, they comprise thirty-three percent of the U.S. prison population (Gramlich).
The current debate over masculinity place in society many men confused and searching for meaning. If they are not the embodiment of their values, what are they?
One positive example of masculinity in my life has been my journey in Freemasonry. As a Freemason I am a member of the world’s oldest fraternity, and the purpose of this fraternity (conspiracies about power aside) is to build better men through allowing them to examine their purpose, and through charitable service. I have met various men in my lodge alone that have been great role models. They are family men that are successful in their careers, financially wealthy, and loving to their wives. The fraternity is indeed all male, because it serves to provide an honest environment for its members where they can communicate one on one with another without the pressure of females being in the conversation. This has positive effects, because men feel less constrained by what they can discuss with an all male crowd, and we are able to not only recharge but also address issues in each others’ lives in a dynamic community.
A powerful male elite continues to dominate the upper echelons of corporate America, as only twenty-four of the Fortune 500 largest companies in the US had female CEOs (Mejia). Males also are overrepresented as a share of the population in government, evidenced by all US presidents being male. But, ordinary men are not in a good place today. Millions of men are falling behind in school or dropping out. Males as whole are overrepresented in suicide statistics, and their median wages are lower than they were a generation ago with inflation taken into account. Today’s impressively low unemployment numbers conceal a dark figure that nearly 31 percent of working age men are neither working nor seeking employment (Mankiw).
Researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Essex developed a new way of measuring gender inequality is fairer to both men and women, and presents a simplified but more accurate picture of peoples’ well-being than previous calculations. The new Basic Index of Gender Inequality (BIGI) focuses on three factors — educational opportunities, healthy life expectancy and overall life satisfaction. Surprisingly, their survey indicated that men are, on average, more disadvantaged than women in 91 countries compared with a relative disadvantage for women in 43 countries. BIGI sought to correct the bias toward women’s issues in existing measures and at the same time develop a simple measure that is useful in any country in the world, regardless of their level of economic development. The study found that current equality measures are generally biased to highlight women’s issues and thus are not really measures of gender equality. (Stoet & Geary).
I want to make a rebuttal to the APA’s report from January. Citing more than 40 years of research, the APA warns against the “masculinity ideology,” which it defines as “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure risk and violence” (American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group 6). This assessment fails to distinguish between useful masculine features that are essential to society and toxic behaviors that actually do deserve to be punished and minimized. This is just too broad a stroke to paint men in, and in terms of therapy and getting distressed men back on their feet, can be counterproductive. The view that APA takes of encouraging men, in the text of their report, to wholeheartedly discard their masculine ideology and suppress their values in the long run can do more harm than good. A suppressed masculine identity can only serve to make men even more confused about themselves and make society worse off, as men with no stake in their community become disconnected from it. I believe the APA is right in seeking to address destructive mental tendencies in men, but I conclude its “cure” in the long run isn’t a cure at all.
Steering men, young and old, to a better form of masculinity goes against centuries of ingrained thinking. Men should police each other by addressing disrespect and unwarranted behavior head on. Teachers and fathers usually do it, but friends ought to do it to each other. This may be a difficult shift, as humans in general don’t want to be disapproved of by their groups, but it would be the most consistent way to change customs of behavior. Another thing we should allow men to express a wide range of emotions. Men are arguably compelled by their role to put on a stoic and emotionless appearance to appear tough, but allowing men to be honest with themselves and express themselves publicly would be psychologically beneficial to the individual man, and society for having less emotionally eruptive men. Part of the responsibility for change would be on society’s shoulders as well, as it other men and women must be accepting of this change in display, and not repeat the mantra that such men are weak. There should be openings for men to share their experiences and feelings without fear of ostracization, and I think that has been one of the greatest benefits for me being in an all male fraternity. Men must be willing check in with others needing help, or be confident enough to get help themselves.
Gender conflict won’t be solved overnight. Masculinity, however, can be harnessed in a force for greater societal good. Ultimately, the balance we should seek to achieve is allowing males to embrace their masculine values and express it, provided that it is used in constructive purposes and is not manifested in harming others, or in depriving women (or other men) from achieving the same positions in society. The same forces that cause men to commit crimes produce men that endeavor to protect the public from crime. The same aggression innate to masculine ideology has created institutions and economies that have in the long run sharply reduced violence. The answer to toxic masculinity is not a suppression of males wholeheartedly, but making better men.
- American Psychological Association. “Intimate Partner Violence: Facts and Resources.” American Psychological Association, 2019, https://www.apa.org/topics/violence/partner. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Men and Boys. American Psychological Association, Aug. 2018, https://www.apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf. PDF.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. Family Violence Statistics Including Statistics on Strangers and Acquaintances. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, 2005, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvs02.pdf. PDF.
- Brooks, David. “Opinion: The Sexual Politics of 2016.” The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/29/opinion/the-sexual-politics-of-2016.html. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Cat Calls of NYC [@catcallsofnyc]. [Photograph of chalk on sidewalk describing a cat-calling incident.] Instagram, 5 May 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/BxF4Sithiyn/. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Connell, Raewyn. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: UC Berkeley Press, 2005.
- Filipovic, Jill. “Opinion: What Donald Trump Thinks it Takes to Be a Man.” The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/opinion/sunday/donald-trump-masculinity.html. Accessed 20 June 2019.
- Gramlich, John. “Gap between number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking.” Pew Research Center, 30 Apr. 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/30/shrinking-gap-between-number-of-blacks-and-whites-in-prison/. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Gregoire, Carolyn. “Sexist Men are More Likely to Have Mental Health Problems, Study Finds.” The Huffington Post, 23 Nov. 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sexism-masculinity-mental-health_n_58348925e4b01ba68ac31155. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Mankiw, N. Gregory. “Why Aren’t More Men Working?” The New York Times, 15 Jun. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/business/men-unemployment-jobs.html. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Mejia, Zameena. “Just 24 female CEOs lead the companies on the 2018 Fortune 500—fewer than last year.” CNBC, 21 May 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/21/2018s-fortune-500-companies-have-just-24-female-ceos.html. Accessed May 2019.
- Salter, Michael. “The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity.” The Atlantic, 27 Feb. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/toxic-masculinity-history/583411/. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Sexton, Jared. “America’s Toxic Masculinity.” The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/opinion/donald-trumps-toxic-masculinity.html. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Shapiro, Ben. “We Need Fathers to Teach Manliness.” Newsweek, 15 Jun. 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/ben-shapiro-we-need-fathers-teach-manliness-opinion-977142. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Stoet, Gijsberg, and David Geary. “New measure of equality reveals a fuller picture of male well-being: Measurement tool acknowledges the challenges men face that researchers say have been underestimated in some countries.” Science Daily, 3 January 2019. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190103152911.htm. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- Stuckley, Allie. “Make Men Masculine Again.” PraegerU, 5 Aug. 2018. https://www.prageru.com/video/make-men-masculine-again/. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- United States Census Bureau. “The Majority of Children Live With Two Parents, Census Bureau Reports.” United States Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, 17 Nov. 2016, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-192.html. Accessed 20 May 2019.
- World Health Organization. Understanding and Addressing Violence Against Women: Intimate Partner Violence. World Health Organization, 2012. PDF.