3 Ways Toxic Masculinity Hurts Men
Ever since the Weinstein allegations broke, I've been having conversation after conversation about toxic masculinity and the ways it shows up in all our lives. Chances are you've seen a headline or two on the subject. Everyone is talking about it, which is a good thing.
Before we jump into the discussion, however, let's get clear on what the term actually means.
According to psychology professor and researcher Eric Mankowski, who was interviewed for the above piece from the Cut, toxic masculinity is comprised of the following four elements: "suppression of anything stereotypically feminine; suppression of emotions related to vulnerability, like fear, sadness, or helplessness; male domination over women and other men; and aggression."
Basically, toxic masculinity is the socialized performance of masculinity, as defined by dominance, aggression, and rejection of the full range of human emotions, particularly those associated with femininity.
Conversations about toxic masculinity tend to center on how, through men's behavior, the construct hurts women and gender non-conforming people. That should be our focus, given that those groups are disproportionately harmed by it, but it's important that we address another group suffering under the strictures of toxic masculinity: men.
When I talk to the men in my life about sexism and toxic masculinity, they're usually hesitant to bring up the ways in which these systems hurt them, too. As feminists, they know better than to co-opt a conversation about gender-based violence, and I love them for that.
I've found, however, that once we dig deeper into the conversation, men who are comfortable with me will often confess that they feel painfully constrained by performative gender norms.
Men are hurting, too.
While their suffering is not comparable to that illustrated by the staggering statistics on women and LGBTQ people who experience sexual assault, we cannot relegate men to an afterthought at the end of the conversation. If we want them to do the work to eradicate toxic masculinity, they will need to heal.
Today, I want to talk to and about those men.
So, here are a few ways in which men in particular suffer under toxic masculinity.
1. Toxic Masculinity Teaches Men to Suppress Their Emotions
How many times have you heard the phrases "man up" or "don't be such a girl" used when a boy or man expresses vulnerability?
Toxic masculinity teaches boys from a disturbingly young age to suppress any emotions that might be interpreted as signs of weakness and therefore perceived as "feminine," such as hurt, sadness, or fear.
As a result, men have often had years of practice limiting their emotional expression, and are rarely willing or able to demonstrate their full range of feelings to anyone other than those who are very close to them, and sometimes not to anyone at all.
This lack of full emotional expression is painful and damaging; not only does it withhold from men the opportunities to develop strong and intimate bonds, especially with other men, it also means that men are less likely to seek support when they need it.
A study from the Journal of Counseling Psychology shows that men who conform closely to conventional social norms around masculinity are more likely to have poor mental health outcomes and less likely to seek mental health support. They are more likely to be lonely, hostile, and depressed. If that's not a clear indicator of harm, I don't know what is.
2. Toxic Masculinity Robs Men of Their Gender Expression
As we've established, toxic masculinity is all about the performance of manhood as dictated by societal expectations.
Under toxic masculinity, one's manhood is tied to their performance of it; men must engage in specific behaviors (and reject others) in order to be perceived as sufficiently masculine.
In this framework, then, masculinity is something men do rather than something they possess, and that means that their masculinity is conditional.
Identifying as a man is not enough to be considered masculine; men must jump through a series of elaborate, socially constructed hoops every single day in order to meet the standards of toxic masculinity.
One misstep and your "man card" is revoked. Immediately.
Just take the example of Odell Beckham, Jr., a professional athlete in arguably the most conventionally masculine sport in the United States, who was recently ridiculed on Twitter for crying on the sideline and receiving comfort from a teammate. Regardless of how well he typically fits societal expectations of manhood, Beckham Jr.'s masculinity - and, by extension, his sexuality - was called into question as a result of that one moment.
If one's manhood can be destroyed by a single transgression against the tenets of toxic masculinity, then it is inherently fragile. That tenuousness robs men of the opportunity to feel secure in their masculinity, and, as a result, to revel in the full range of gender expression that everyone deserves to access.
3. Toxic Masculinity Doesn't Let Men Heal
The performance of masculinity does not allow any space for men to acknowledge and heal from their own trauma.
Think about it: if a "real" man cannot express hurt, fear, or sadness, how can he possibly come to terms with his own painful experiences?
Though the numbers are lower for men than for other groups, we know that men also suffer from emotional abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
A man who admits a history of trauma, however, risks being seen as weak and therefore effeminate, because toxic masculinity posits that men are dominant, powerful, and therefore inviolate. A man who has experienced trauma, according to this line of thinking, caused his own suffering by failing to be sufficiently masculine.
I can imagine that many men, rather than risk being re-traumatized by the victim-blaming inherent in toxic masculinity, choose to stay silent. And silence does not allow healing to occur.
In order for men who are survivors of trauma to express their pain and seek comfort or support from others to heal from it, they must effectively reject everything society has taught them about what it means to be a man.
That is an incredibly difficult obstacle to surpass.
Men are hurting, and they need to heal. Toxic masculinity simply won't let them do so.
Toxic masculinity is hurting everyone, including - and in some cases, especially - men. Now more than ever, men need spaces in which they can heal, support each other, and develop a healthier masculinity.
The tricky part is that women and gender non-conforming people should not be required to do that work with men. Some of us want to do it, but given our own trauma at the hands of men, many of us do not.
There certainly are not enough resources out there for men to work on dismantling toxic masculinity, but one of the best is the Rethink Masculinity program run by Collective Action for Safe Spaces in Washington, DC. That program gives me hope that all of us, men included, can create a better future.
It may be small, but it's a start.