Harmful Masculinity Norms Can Lead to Violence and Depression, Research Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Traditional or stereotypical masculinity norms have harmful effects on mental health, according to a recent study. 
  • Research that utilized the Man Box Scale revealed a tangible link between toxic masculinity and violent behavior. 
  • These findings should support the eradication of outdated notions surrounding what it means to be a man. 

A new study published in the October 2020 issue of the journal Preventative Medicine showed a direct correlation between the perpetuation of traditional masculinity, poor mental health, and violent behavior.

This study utilized the Man Box Scale, a test designed to measure the connection of harmful masculinity and health issues within young men, to further investigate the connections of different health issues to stereotypes of masculinity. The results revealed a positive increase in disorders such as depression and suicidal ideation alongside the increase of masculinity norms.

What Is the Man Box Scale?

In the Promundo and Unilever study in 2016, researchers collected data based on a scale that dissects the ways in which men and masculine folks respond to societal pressures. According to this research, “The Man Box refers to a set of beliefs... that place pressure on men to be a certain way.

These pressures tell men to be self-sufficient, to act tough, to be physically attractive, to stick to rigid gender roles, to be heterosexual, to have sexual prowess, and to use aggression to resolve conflicts.”

In the recent study, researchers used data from a 2016 full Man Box Scale study with 17 items. This data came from young men (aged 18 to 30) from Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Researchers changed this study to a short form with five items, resulting in a more succinct scale with similar results—the mean scores on the scale were all associated with violence, suicidal ideation, and depression. 

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic or harmful masculinity—also written as traditional masculinity—is defined within this 2007 study as, “...young men who subscribe to inequitable gender norms (e.g., believe women are solely responsible for household chores and child-rearing) and endorse dominant and hostile forms of masculinities (e.g., believe women are sexual conquests).”

Toxic masculinity teaches men and masculine folks that certain qualities are designated for men and others are for women, resulting in a right and wrong way to be a male or masculine. Examples include expectations around strength, sexual prowess, and the idea of logic being a choice over emotion.

In order to collect the data, the shortened version of the Man Box Scale includes different items on a survey based on stereotypes that result in a numbered average, including:

  1. A man shouldn’t have to do household chores.
  2. Men should use violence to get respect if necessary.
  3. A real man should have as many sexual partners as he can.
  4. A man who talks a lot about his worries, fears, and problems shouldn’t really get respect.
  5. A gay guy is not a “real man.”

Within this study, the overall average regardless of ethnicity and age correlated with outcomes of poor mental health and violent behavior.

Who Does Toxic Masculinity Harm?

Expectations and stereotypes around masculinity are known to be harmful not only to those that are in contact with the men that perpetuate the tropes. According to a 2013 report from the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 3 people who identify as a woman are negatively impacted by the effects of toxic masculinity in the form of domestic violence, including sexually transmitted infections and negative mental health implications. 

Not only are survivors or victims of violence affected by harmful masculinity, the male and masculine folks who commit harm are also hurt in the process. Those "within" the Man Box adhere to a "set of beliefs... that place pressure on men to be a certain way."

James Harris, LMHC, Virginia counselor and author of Man, Just Express Yourself says, "Society tells us [men] it's weak or soft if you display feelings of sadness or a need to talk to somebody."

Sabrina Sarro, LMSW

Toxic masculinity is fundamentally predicated upon negating the emotions in the body, enveloping oneself in control, domination, or entitlement, and ultimately obliterates the emotional anchor in the body.

— Sabrina Sarro, LMSW

According to this traditional masculine ideology that is enforced by both the media and much of mainstream society, aggression is the solution to difficult emotions and situations, and society upholds this idea.

According to Sabrina Sarro, LMSW, a psychotherapist and the Curriculum Development Specialist at gray matters in New York City, "We cannot talk about toxic masculinity without talking about how toxic masculinity enforces the depletion of the emotional body, which, ultimately, disintegrates the physical body."

Sarro discusses how toxic masculinity and suicidal ideation oftentimes go hand-in-hand, as refusing to acknowledge your emotional needs can lead to depressive episodes. "Toxic masculinity is fundamentally predicated upon negating the emotions in the body, enveloping oneself in control, domination, or entitlement, and ultimately obliterates the emotional anchor in the body." says Sarro.

How Can This Study Be Helpful?

When it comes to anti-violence work, prevention services are vital in stopping the cycle of violence. Researchers believe that utilizing the Man Box Scale with clients and keeping track of changes in scores over time will aid in the understanding of societal pressures and their influence in harmful and unhealthy behaviors. This could allow for the current gaps in care for men and masculine care to be more visible, in addition to strengthening care-seeking behaviors and decreasing internalization of stigma.

Individual Divestment From Toxic Masculine Norms

Collective divestment from toxic masculinity could have a societal impact, but individual divestment would improve the lives of men and masculine people as well as their friends, families, and colleagues. Research has shown the direct links between adherence to these harmful ideologies, violence, and mental health complications.

Anti-violence organizations or services that identify toxic or traditional masculinity in their programming could serve as preventative measures. Similarly, for individuals, self-assessment, introspection, and talk therapy could aid in discontinuing the perpetuation of harmful traits and practices.   

What This Means For You

While society has a heavy impact on the way we view ourselves, there are options to combat this negative socialization. Consulting with a mental health professional can give you the opportunity to analyze the ways in which the acceptance of harmful masculinity has contributed to your negative health.

Additionally, acknowledging harmful masculinity's role in violence perpetration can be extremely helpful for prevention efforts, and raising awareness in addition to self-introspection can lessen the effects of violence within our communities.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Promundo. Men Scoring Higher On ’Man Box’ Scale Are Prone To Violence, Mental Illness. August 6, 2020.

  5. World Health Organization. Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. 2013.

  6. American Psychological Association. APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Men and Boys. August 2018. 

  7. Seidler ZE, Rice SM, Ogrodniczuk JS, Oliffe JL, Dhillon HM. Engaging Men in Psychological Treatment: A Scoping Review. Am J Mens Health. 2018;12(6):1882-1900. doi:10.1177/1557988318792157