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Origin, Impact, Strategy for Change

Toxic masculinity refers to a type of hyper-masculinity that causes aggression, self-importance, dominance, and lack of consideration for others’ feelings and needs. The term originated in the late 20th century and is now associated with extreme misogyny and anti-feminist rhetoric.

It’s thought that toxic masculinity gets instilled in people assigned male at birth because of how they are raised and by the messages society sends them about what it means to be a successful or powerful male.

The effects of toxic masculinity are far-reaching and can include aggression, emotional dysregulation, violence toward marginalized people, and the upholding of harmful gender norms.

Toxic masculinity emphasizes traits like toughness, power, aggression, and not showing any vulnerability—emotionally or otherwise. In a nutshell, the cultural concepts of “manning up” and “boys will be boys” are inherent in toxic masculinity. These ideas are often drilled into young boys from the time they are little.

Cognitive social theory seeks to understand the reasons behind human behaviors. It asserts that young children learn about gender norms from several sources, including family, peers, culture, and media. The gender norms they are presented with become deeply absorbed during childhood and the teen years, which eventually can shape behavior.

Online interactions can strengthen and perpetuate toxic masculinity. Some people become entrenched in online worlds where they can post anonymously and test the boundaries of what is and isn’t appropriate. It can become easier to be aggressive and intolerant in these environments because you don’t receive face-to-face feedback for negative behaviors.

Toxic masculinity can have profound effects, both on individuals and society as a whole.

Mental Health

Toxic masculinity can negatively affect the mental health of people who become wrapped up in it. When you are taught early on that you should “toughen up” or never show vulnerability, you learn to suppress your feelings. This suppression can affect your mental health and well-being in several significant ways and cause mental health conditions like:

Interpersonal Relationships

Because toxic masculinity ascribes to the idea of dominance and the promotion of hostile behaviors, it can result in poor relationships with others. Toxic masculinity is associated with uneven power dynamics in romantic relationships, with the idea that males should dominate when it comes to decision-making and power in the relationship.

Toxic masculinity is also linked to social aggression and bullying behaviors toward peers, domestic violence, and emotional abuse.

Effects on Society

Toxic masculinity promotes the idea that males should dominate in the world (e.g., via patriarchy) and that it’s acceptable to act in aggressive manners toward others, including women, BIPOC groups, and the LBGTQ+ community, among other marginalized people.

Toxic masculinity upholds negative gender norms and normalizes violent behavior. All of these ideas become perpetuated by those who embrace and promote toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is problematic and widespread. But there’s hope. There are things you can do on an individual basis and as a society to break the cycle of toxic masculinity. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) shared some ideas for how to break the cycle of toxic masculinity:

  • Don’t be afraid to accept help, ask for help, and receive help from others
  • Allow other people to be their authentic selves
  • Avoid judging others or tearing them down simply for who they are
  • Pursue your own self-development
  • Work on reducing and controlling your hostile behavior
  • Keep in mind that if you feel threatened by others, it may be your own insecurity at play
  • Learn to accept the range of emotions that you may be feeling and be willing to express them

If society wants to break the cycle of toxic masculinity, it also needs to destigmatize mental health for men. Everyone, regardless of sex or gender identity, is affected by mental health conditions. However, research has found that men are far less likely to seek care about their emotional well-being—or lack thereof.

One central tenant of toxic masculinity is that experiencing feelings like sadness or pain is equal to being weak as a man, which has repelled some men from seeking the care they may need. Promoting the idea that feelings in men are okay—and that seeking professional help for mental health concerns is positive—could have significant effects on improving men’s mental health and reducing toxic masculinity on a societal level.

One major idea behind toxic masculinity is dominance—both in interpersonal relationships and with the world at large. As such, toxic masculinity intersects with the oppression of vulnerable people and marginalized communities. Toxic masculinity is tied to aggression and violence, often toward women, people with disabilities, BIPOC groups, and the LGBTQ+ community.

In particular, toxic masculinity is characterized by homophobic and misogynistic viewpoints. Gay men are seen as demasculinized and weak under the lens of toxic masculinity, which breeds high levels of homophobia among people who embrace toxic masculinity. Sexism and viewing women as the weaker sex is also a way toxic masculinity harms people assigned female at birth.

Racism is an additional area that often intersects with toxic masculinity. Although people of color can exhibit toxic masculinity themselves, they can also be harmed by it. For instance, toxic masculinity is a major attribute of people who make up white supremacist groups, a movement that is rooted in both racism and misogyny.

Masculinity isn’t inherently a bad thing. People who are assigned male at birth or who identify as male need support to embrace masculinity in a healthy, positive way—one that emphasizes being attuned to your feelings and living in harmony with others.

It can be helpful to redefine what being male and masculine means. For instance, masculinity can be reframed with the notion that expressing your feelings is brave and honorable. The concept of relationships can be reconstructed with an emphasis on treating others with respect, upholding their boundaries, and treating them as worthy and equal.

People assigned male at birth are often born into a culture of patriarchy, which inherently breeds toxic masculine values. Instead, people who identify as male can be empowered to embrace healthier modes of masculinity, such as bravery, integrity, and compassion. This approach can support their health and help them be more valued community members. It can reduce mental health concerns, decrease isolation, and strengthen interpersonal relationships.

Societal Support

One study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health outlines some key recommendations to move toward a society that promotes a healthier version of masculinity:

  • Therapy practices: Mental health professionals could be encouraged to review the APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, which can help them understand the complex issues facing boys and men and apply these findings in therapy settings.
  • Policy and education: Healthcare providers need more education to understand the challenges men and boys face in society. Additional policies could encourage providers to learn more about these issues and practice them in clinical settings.
  • Public health campaigns: Widespread campaigns could promote positive mental health and the importance of vulnerability and expression for men and boys.
  • Societal roles: Society could work on increasing the number of role models who display healthy masculinity and ensure that these role models come from diverse backgrounds.

Toxic masculinity is a significant issue globally. It is linked to increased aggression, elevated mental health problems, poor interpersonal relationships, and the perpetuation of sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Society as a whole and individuals on their own have the power to change this mindset, to raise children to embrace healthier versions of masculinity, and to break the cycle of harm that toxic masculinity perpetuates.

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