Let's Dissect Toxic Masculinity
This post was prompted by some mild Facebook arguing, which is as useless as it is disingenuous, so c'est la vie. I'd also like to assuage any men out there who fervently believe that any woman who uses terms like "toxic masculinity," MUST be a man-hater. We don't hate men, we're just kind-of-actually-totally-tired-of-fighting-to-prove-our-worth, which is not furthered along by man's insistence upon being right and/or best.
Let's begin at the beginning: where did the term "toxic masculinity" come from?
The term “toxic masculinity” was first used by psychologist Shepherd Bliss in the 1980's. Bliss was trying to separate the negative traits of men from the positive ones and used the adjective "toxic" to do so. The term "toxic masculinity" came from a man. Bliss defined toxic traits as "over-aspiration for physical, sexual and intellectual dominance” and the “systematic devaluation of women’s opinions, bodies, and sense of self.”
To state the mundane and obvious: masculinity isn't toxic in and of itself. Words like "masculinity" and "femininity" are pretty subjective anyway, and grounded in specific social norms that are only as real as we make them. What is masculine to you might not seem masculine to me, and so forth. Further, femininity isn't commonly called "toxic" because we still live in a patriarchy where men hold more social, economic, and physical power. Women can act in toxic ways, yes. But we cannot do so in ways that disenfranchise another sex because men are already doing that to us.
Men are toxic when they misuse their power, stature, and privilege to harm or put down women, children, or other men. Masculinity and toxic masculinity are at opposite ends of the spectrum: masculinity is confident but kind, protective but not diminutive, strong but not egotistical. Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, characterized by violence, sex, status, and aggression.
So why do some men embrace toxic masculinity? In part, because we culturally condone male aggressiveness. We teach men that strength trumps emotions, and that sex and physical domination are to be applauded. It's not really fair to the young boys out there, who learn to embrace hyper-masculine traits or risk social isolation. Jackson Katz did a TED Talk that's a useful starting point for dismantling the myths surrounding toxic masculinity. But to be succinct, toxic masculinity helps men who don't feel masculine enough gain more social, economic, or physical power. Violence is an easy avenue to gain power, and toxic masculinity is inherently violent.
But wait, isn't masculinity a good thing? Yes, and toxic masculinity and masculinity are not the same thing. The term toxic masculinity has taken on a life of it's own, often to it's own detriment. Michael Salter writes in The Atlantic that we blame toxic masculinity for any number of social ills: increased gun violence, the election of Donald Trump, campus sexual assault, the underlying need for the entire "Me Too" movement, etc. But sweeping these behaviors and occurrences under one roof is over-simplistic at best, ignoring the underlying reasons sexism exists in the first place and clumping men everywhere into categories that may not make sense. "The problem with a crusade against toxic masculinity is that in targeting culture as the enemy, it risks overlooking the real-life conditions and forces that sustain culture."
An easy example is alcohol, an industry that has funded research to deny the relationship between alcohol and violence, instead blaming “masculinity” and “cultures of drinking.” However, this argument ignores the density of liquor shops in a given geographic area (usually impoverished ones) and ignores the association between alcohol consumption and domestic violence. While toxic masculinity is in part to blame for domestic violence, it cannot bear the entire burden, separate from the culture in which the toxicity exists. A culture, that is, that equates drinking alcohol with manliness, class, success, etc, while ignoring the negative side effects such as addiction, loss of control, poverty, etc.
Violence, entitlement, and sexism occur across communities in different ways. People like to feel superior to others, and when every avenue of material superiority is exhausted, men turn to their "manliness" as a way to feel superior which believe it or not, can often manifest in ways that are toxic. Racism and sexism are planted in the same pot, and everyone has plucked a petal or two. Women like to feel superior to others too, we just don't usually go about it in physically violent ways because we're socialized to fight our battles with words.
Dr. Colleen Clemens writes that, "After decades of study, I deeply believe that men are not naturally violent. But in a culture that equates masculinity with physical power, some men and boys will invariably feel like they are failing at “being a man.” For these particular men and boys, toxic masculinity has created a vacuum in their lives that can be filled through violence... or any other promise of restored agency that those parties wrongly equate with manhood."
For the men and boys who don't feel "manly" enough, violence is an easy conduit to feeling powerful and thus, more like a "real" man. And violence is, unfortunately, often an easy route. It's certainly easier to turn to violence to feel like a man than it is to do the difficult work of examining manliness itself, or what factors in may make a man feel like he's not enough. Toxic masculinity is nothing more than adult bullying. In both cases, the perpetrator feels insecure and tries to offset insecurity through violent or demeaning assertiveness. But to say that all childhood trauma is caused by bullying is as short-sighted as claiming that all sexism is caused by toxically masculine men.
So toxic masculinity is a thing, and healthy masculinity is a thing. But what are we supposed to do about the toxic part? That's a tricky question, but a good first step is giving it a name. The term "toxic masculinity" has inspired rage, discomfort, discussion, brevity, and humility. It has helped men and women recognize that masculinity can turn sour, and has *hopefully* enabled some men to embrace their flaws and admit their privileges.
John Leimer from the Mankind Project writes, "Healthy masculinity is the knowledge that I make choices that will have consequences and I must stand in the face of those choices if I harm another or myself whether intended or unintended." To be succinct, Leimer is taking responsibility for his actions and correcting any action that causes harm. Seems simple, right?
The only people who can truly end toxic masculinity are the toxic men but the rest of us can help, by pointing out the wrongness or criminality of their actions, for punishing those actions if need be, by setting examples of healthy masculinity, and by showing boys and men how to get there. None of us live in a vacuum and none of our problems will be solved in one, either.
P.S. Read how men can step outside toxic masculinity HERE. For a weekly dose of feminist comedy, check out the Guilty Feminist, hosted by Deborah Francis-White. And finally, for some feminist apparel, visit My Sister, whose slogan is “Fighting sex trafficking one shirt at a time. ” They use their profits from selling clothing, accessories, candles, bags, and more to educate, prevent, empower, and provide help for those impacted by sex trafficking.