Why Toxic Masculinity Hurts Men as Well as Women

Feminists and progressives need to highlight toxic masculinity’s poisonous effects on not just the marginalized, but men as well.

Susan J. DouglasJuly 18, 2017

A man drinks a beer on a Texas beach during Spring Break. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

Tox­ic Mas­culin­i­ty. Google the term — which refers to a ver­sion of man­hood pred­i­cat­ed on sto­icism, dom­i­na­tion of oth­ers, sex­u­al aggres­sive­ness, vio­lence and misog­y­ny — and more than 500,000 hits pop up. The con­cept has been gain­ing cur­ren­cy in the past year or so, what with our pussy-grab­bing preda­tor-in-chief installed in the White House, Bill Cos­by elud­ing jus­tice for ser­i­al sex­u­al assault, cops get­ting away with mur­der­ing unarmed boys and men of col­or, chron­ic mass shoot­ings by dis­turbed men with guns, a con­gres­sion­al can­di­date cold­cock­ing a jour­nal­ist and still get­ting elect­ed, and a rogue, cal­lous Con­gress seek­ing to fur­ther strip women, chil­dren, the poor and the elder­ly of what­ev­er remain­ing con­trol they might have over their health. In Feb­ru­ary there was yet anoth­er lethal fra­ter­ni­ty haz­ing, when Tim­o­thy Piaz­za at Penn State was urged to over­dose on alco­hol and sus­tained fatal injuries after a fall because his broth­ers” refused to call an ambu­lance. Vir­u­lent trolling of women, espe­cial­ly fem­i­nists, is now an accept­ed part of mod­ern life. No sur­prise, then, that arti­cles in Slate, Forbes, The Atlantic and Play­boy, and fea­tures on ABC News and Fox News, to name a few, have not­ed the phenomenon.

One norm most “consistently and robustly” associated with negative mental health was the desire for “power over women.”

While fem­i­nists are espe­cial­ly con­cerned about it, tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty was not a term we coined. It ini­tial­ly emerged out of the men’s move­ments of the 1980s and 1990s to refer to what they saw as a nar­row, social­ly con­struct­ed ver­sion of man­hood that com­pelled men to deny their true feel­ings and to com­pete with each oth­er rather than bond.

But the con­cept also came to be used in social and clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy to ana­lyze how this extreme ver­sion of mas­culin­i­ty not only hurts oth­ers — espe­cial­ly women, chil­dren and gay men — but also how it hurts tox­i­cal­ly mas­cu­line” men them­selves. Var­i­ous stud­ies have shown a link between men who embrace and act on tox­ic masculinity’s behav­ioral codes and a range of prob­lems, from fraught rela­tion­ships to depres­sion, alco­holism, rage dis­or­ders, assault and oth­er crim­i­nal behav­ior, and sui­cide. A 2016 Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty sur­vey of 78 research projects involv­ing near­ly 20,000 par­tic­i­pants found that men who embod­ied stereo­typ­i­cal­ly macho behav­iors were much less like­ly to seek help for such prob­lems and had poor­er over­all men­tal health. One norm most con­sis­tent­ly and robust­ly” asso­ci­at­ed with neg­a­tive men­tal health was the desire for pow­er over women.” The authors’ sum­ma­ry? Sex­ism can be harm­ful to men, too.

The word tox­ic” has become a light­ning rod for the Right; there has been a back­lash against the term as con­ser­v­a­tives have dis­tort­ed it to sug­gest it’s sim­ply about hat­ing men. When Fox News jour­nal­ist Todd Starnes learned that some col­leges were offer­ing cours­es designed to under­stand and com­bat tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty (a response, in part, to the rates of sex­u­al assault on cam­pus­es), he said they were try­ing to con­vince men to grow lady parts.” The Fed­er­al­ists arti­cle was titled, sim­ply, The Tox­ic Mas­culin­i­ty’ Trend Blames Boys for Being Born Male,” and insists that men’s innate wiring is wrong, stu­pid and even tox­ic.” In fact, researchers are argu­ing the oppo­site: that this tox­ic behav­ior has noth­ing to do with innate wiring. Just as the defi­ant (and racist) All Lives Mat­ter” retort utter­ly miss­es the point about struc­tur­al racism, so, too, they hate men” occludes how vio­lence and misog­y­ny can be struc­tured into some men’s lives through vio­lent upbring­ing, eco­nom­ic hard­ship and bru­tal envi­ron­ments or peer relationships.

Mis­rep­re­sent­ing what is, in fact, a seri­ous and, yes, cul­tur­al­ly con­struct­ed, gen­der-based prob­lem is glib and myopic, espe­cial­ly with a pres­i­dent who lux­u­ri­ates in, and legit­i­mates, its pre­cepts and encour­ages oth­ers to do so. We may need a bet­ter word than tox­ic.” But the Right is doing a major dis­ser­vice to many in its own base through its knee-jerk dis­missal of what is a lethal pub­lic health prob­lem. Mean­while, fem­i­nists and pro­gres­sives, while con­tin­u­ing our out­rage over vio­lent masculinity’s most fre­quent vic­tims — women, peo­ple of col­or, chil­dren, the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty — also need to high­light its poi­so­nous effects on men in gen­er­al, which is not just strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant, but cru­cial to com­bat­ting the prob­lem. With Trump’s ver­sion of bul­ly­ing mas­culin­i­ty (which mil­lions of men do not embody and, indeed, many deplore) so ascen­dant right now, it’s easy to over­look how it does griev­ous harm not just to the mar­gin­al­ized, but to many men, too. 

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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