What is toxic masculinity? The term has become ubiquitous over the past few years after lingering in obscurity for the better part of three decades. Coined by Shepherd Bliss, the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement activist who spent the 1980s exhorting men to reconnect with their “preindustrial” emotions, it became popular in academic settings well before emerging as the catchall description of gendered shittiness. The coinage is now used to explain mass shootings, sexual assault, why baseball players stand on yellow high-chew buckets, and Alec Baldwin’s personal life. The Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year? Toxic.
Google searches for “toxic masculinity” have climbed steadily since May 2016. More than 90,000 news articles and 150,000 videos (and climbing) indexed on Google deploy the term. And, as ever, there’s a commercial element to the term’s rise. Want a baby onesie that says “I’ve got 99 problems that stem from toxic masculinity”? That’ll be $19.42.
How did the term get so much traction? Social media had a lot to do with it, but so did social science. In 2004, journalist Amy Aronson and sociologist Michael Kimmel put “toxic masculinity” in their seminal book Men and Masculinities: A Social, Cultural, and Historical Encyclopedia. It stuck with people — so much so that when Kimmel’s Jessie Bernard Award from the American Sociological Association was suspended amid accusations of abusive behavior towards grad student researchers, the man who popularized the term wound up looking straight down the barrel of it.
But what does it mean to be guilty of toxic masculinity? Hard to say. For how much the term is bandied around, it remains poorly defined. The toxic bit is simple enough, but masculinity has always been difficult to pin down.
Whereas feminine ideals are fairly consistent over the course of Western history, masculine ideals are not. Anthropologists claim that three Ps — providing, protecting, and procreating — define modern American manhood, but that’s a localized phenomenon. The only consistent truth about masculinity has been this: Men have always feared having it taken away. This is why serious gender researchers are increasingly dismissive of the idea of toxic masculinity, which suggests that manhood itself is some form of congenital defect. What seems to be more plausible is that toxic behaviors are a reaction to perceived threats to the masculinity of a subset of men with poor self-esteem. Put a different way, what’s toxic isn’t masculinity — there’s nothing ultimately wrong with masculine behavior — but the creeping suspicion that it can be taken away and the juvenile actions that this suspicion triggers.
“The idea that manhood is something that has to be earned is fairly widespread,” says social psychologist Joseph Vandello, who, along with his colleague Jennifer Bosson at University of South Florida, proposed an alternative to toxic masculinity in 2008: Precarious Manhood Theory.
Bosson and Vandello concluded that many men view masculinity as a sort of currency that can be earned and stolen rather than as a fixed trait. They found most young boys working hard to earn manhood and a smaller population of men preoccupied with protecting this valuable social status. These men, the ones who worried about their masculine status being taken away, demonstrated a tendency to lash out if not externally validated. By contrast, girls tended to view the transition to womanhood as physical rather than social. Questioning their femininity was unlikely to trigger much more than a laugh.
Bosson and Vandello posited that men are quite a bit more anxious about gender than women. But why? The answer seems to be more cultural than biological. In almost every culture, boys begin to police each other as they approach manhood, deeming only specific behaviors acceptable and demanding, in many cases, that aspirants to masculinity perform feats of social and physical strength.
“Basically being a man is ultimately more valued in society, and being a woman is more devalued,” Maxine Craig, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, explains. “Because men are more valued in society they have to watch their step in order not to lose that position.”
Gender is performative in general, and women certainly experience social pressures and have hierarchies. That said, because there’s less social status attached to the feminine, women may enjoy more freedom to be fluid than men. Feminists lampooned by their enemies for being too masculine — Lady Gaga has, for instance, been accused of hiding a secret penis — tend to shrug off the jokes, while the men who make them struggle to grant the premise that gender roles are oppressive. Understanding that they have more to lose, men flee the conversation or prepare to fight.
If the precariousness of the male identity is more potentially destructive than masculine behaviors, one would expect the most toxic behavior to occur in the most precarious groups. And that’s exactly what is happening. Roughly three-quarters of violent crimes in America are committed by men, and the peak age for every form of criminal activity surveilled by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program is under 25. (The exception is gambling.) The median age for most crimes is under 30.
Who engages in dangerously toxic behavior? Young men, the people that worry most about their gender status.
Although a young man in a privileged position may have the resources to assert his manhood in constructive ways (excelling academically, professionally, or even athletically), more marginalized young men who don’t have healthy outlets are less likely to receive external validation. Communities with a high density of underprivileged young men without access to validation tend to be high crime communities, in which manhood is expressed through substance abuse, homophobia, sexism, harassment, extreme risk-taking, and violence. This is toxicity, but the problem does not seem to be masculine ideals. Kids in America’s toughest neighborhoods and Afghanistan’s toughest provinces all have positive male role models. What they don’t have is a sense of gendered stability.
Testosterone tends to shoulder the blame for poor male behavior and it is true that higher testosterone levels are linked to low-risk aversion, aggression, and violent tendencies. Men with higher sex hormone levels are also more sensitive to masculinity threats. But Vandello is reluctant to blame biology for men lashing out when their manhood is threatened. Social rules, consequences, and the policing of masculinity reinforce the idea that men have to perform and defend it. Men must be convinced that their manhood is suspect. This is not an innate anxiety.
“The construction of gender identity for men is more fragile than for women. In many cultures, one is born a woman — and one becomes a man,” psychotherapist, podcaster, and author Esther Perel recently wrote on her well-trafficked personal site. Perel, the mother of two boys, was teasing a conference dubbed “The Paradox of Masculinity,” at which she spoke to a packed room of therapists in Midtown Manhattan (and to an international audience via a video link) about the need for a better understanding of what makes men tick. One of the five pillars of male identity she discussed in her keynote was trauma. She explained to her majority female audience that most men experience rejection tied to masculinity at some point in their lives and that this often leaves a profound mark. To illustrate this point, she shared a clip of the documentary The Work, about men in group therapy in a prison. In the clip, a man describes being sent away by his engineer father for not understanding how to help work on a car. Decades after he was told to go find his mother, the wound is still clearly fresh. He cries.
Perel’s audience respectfully scribbled notes. But not all of her colleagues have been so pleased to have a woman looking under the hood of maleness.
“A handful of men that I respected professionally went straight into attack mode,” Perel recently told Psychotherapy Networker. “They immediately went into diatribes that implied they thought this couldn’t be anything other than an organized attack on men or a misguided woman’s attempt at feminizing their gender.”
This was predictable.
Precarious masculinity seems to show up everywhere. But the most obvious place most people encounter it is in humor. Research indicates that men do not typically prefer sexist and homophobic humor. But psychologist Thomas Ford has found that men who believe masculinity can be taken away are more likely to respond positively to sexist and homophobic jokes. Interestingly, this group of insecure men do not seem to have acquired a taste for racist jokes. Why not? Presumably because sexist and homophobic humor has a uniquely gender-affirming quality. Jokes allow men to reassert their masculinity by distancing themselves from perceived femininity.
That’s the low-stakes stuff. The high-stakes stuff is much more disturbing. Perceived threats to masculinity lead to higher incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault. Despite having some of the highest rates of gender equity in Europe, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have the highest rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault in the EU. Dubbed the “Nordic Paradox,” this troubling phenomenon may also be occurring in the United States. One study of more than 4,000 families found that women who were the primary breadwinners were more likely to be victims of domestic violence when their partners held more traditional beliefs about gender roles.
“Some men see that as a zero-sum game. That women’s advancement must come at a cost for men. That’s not the reality, but it’s the perception,” Vandello says.
The data indicates that men have a problem with the precariousness of masculinity rather than the toxicity of it, but the core issue is that too many boys and men struggle profoundly for self-worth without the help of outside sources.
“Toxic masculinity is more of a sign of lack of self-worth and self-respect,” psychotherapist Hanalei Vierra, who’s counseled men for over three decades, told Fatherly. “Underneath all that instability and anger is a wounded little boy who was never taught to value his authentic and genuine experience of himself.”
Clinical psychologist Daniel Sher echoes those sentiments, adding that there are some men who see masculinity as stable, biological, and a relatively arbitrary construct, or some combination of the three, which reflects more psychological maturity and likely a higher quality of life. “This reflects a different psychological makeup and the potential for ambiguity is denied,” Sher adds. “If we’re talking psychoanalytically, the people who acknowledge the constructed and performative nature of masculinity are further along the psychic developmental trajectory.”
Vandello acknowledges that some men are able to reject the notion that manhood is unstable and needs to be regularly proven, especially as they get older. But many of these men who privately reject this still buckle when subjected to the social consequences of nonconformity.
“It matters less what you believe and more what the cultural rewards and punishments are,” Vandello says.
Aside from the uncertainties of masculinity, what clinicians and social scientists overwhelmingly agree on is that making manhood the enemy may not be a constructive way to push for change. The floating of the term “toxic masculinity” has a tendency to start vicious cycles rolling downhill. Why? It is itself an affront to define masculinity and, as such, a pretty lousy means of striking up a constructive conversation. Proving this is not hard. One only needs to try to participate in a discussion about gender on Twitter.
One example: In August, author Rollo Tomassi tweeted “Children from single-parent households (overwhelmingly single mothers) account for 80% of rapists motivated by displaced anger. Congratulations feminism, you’ve literally bred and raised the ‘rape culture’ you claim to fear.” To this provocation, a user named Miss Stirr replied that “43% of boys are raised by single mothers. 78% of teachers are female. So almost 50% of boys have 100% feminine influence while at home & an 8/10ish chance of 100% influence at school. Toxic masculinity isn’t the problem. Lack of masculinity is.”
The discourse devolved from there, divided between people supporting, insulting, and questioning Stirr and Tomassi. “So what are you saying, boys are being neutered?” Bruce Schwab asked. “Toxic femininity is a problem,” David Hunt added. William Dickson was more critical, tweeting “If your understanding of simple math is so poor, you may not have a strong grasp of complex social issues.”
Other responses were just strange, like one from a “HipGnosis,” who claimed being raised by a single mother taught him that “even approaching a woman is harassment” (naturally, his bio reads: “Retweets mean we’re engaged”). Finally, a man named Nick derailed the thread entirely with “Canadian public school is child abuse.” No one learned anything.
Still, coddling or talking past problematically insecure men is not a viable solution to the problem presented by gender insecurity. So what is?
Strangely, the answer may be demanding more. Each expert interviewed for this article independently noted positive aspects of performed masculinity — heroism, action-based empathy such as protecting others, expertise, amassing resources, and work ethic. Demanding men meet these standards and celebrating those who do might positively refocus the energies of men afraid of having their masculinity stripped from them.
The good news is we’ve already seen this work: Arguably one of the healthiest forms of modern masculinity is engaged fatherhood, a fairly new masculine ideal. Caregiving demands a lot of men but can be ennobling and, if positioned correctly, masculinizing. There’s a reason that the heavily branded movement toward male parental involvement has been largely fronted by athletes who pose fatherhood as a challenge. There’s a reason the initial and rather unsubtle tagline for this publication was “Win Parenting.”
“A lot of men look back at their own fathers and think, I don’t want to be this way,” Vandello says, “I want to deal with my problems in a more constructive way.”
Instead of rejecting masculinity as toxic, it’s possible to use its ambiguity to ask more of men. It’s possible that this may encourage more generational progress among men who cling to and defend their manhood the most fiercely. Masculinity will not likely cease to be important to these men, but if the values attached to it become healthier so might the men plagued by it. Perhaps the ultimate twist in the myth of the toxic man is that an evolved and intrinsic form of masculinity might be the solution. Vandello admits that it’s entirely possible for manhood to become less elusive, more attainable, and healthier. It’s even possible that having a strong sense of self-worth regardless of what others think could be considered manlier over time. If masculinity is a construct that needs to be reinforced for some men over and over again, make it bear repeating.