The Dangerous Effects of Toxic Masculinity

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Toxic masculinity is a concept used to define unhealthy and often traditional characteristics or attributes associated with men. From being unemotional and power-hungry to narcissistic and violent, men are oftentimes defined by these outdated and unfounded stereotypes which create an unhealthy and unrealistic understanding of what it means to be a man in today’s society.

Assuming men should be protectors, breadwinners, or leaders, or associating men with anger, selfishness, and aggression can be problematic and damaging.

When those beliefs are based on unproven biases that we, as both individuals and a society, perpetuate, boys and men are taught to falsely believe them or to try to measure up to them, ultimately harming themselves and others in the process. 

Manhood and Womanhood

In many ways, “manhood,” like “womanhood,” comes with many expectations in the United States. As a society, we value kindness, compassion, and care in women more than we do in men. We also positively associate men with being protective and negatively associate men with being emotional, according to the Pew Research Center.

This does not mean that men aren’t caring, compassionate, or emotional, but we, as a society, don’t value these traits in men and that can lead men to believe these traits aren’t valuable.

Ron Blake, Social Justice Activist, Public Speaker

Men tend to keep so much bottled up inside. This includes all the traumas and heart-breaking moments. Eventually there has to be a release. And too often that is in an explosive way.

— Ron Blake, Social Justice Activist, Public Speaker

“Fragile masculinity,” a term referring to the unrealistic cultural standards placed on men, exists because many men feel they have to overcompensate or act in a certain way to meet these traditional standards, but we are all human. As human beings, regardless of gender, we have a combination of masculine and feminine traits. 

While feminism has pushed America to redefine and reconsider the role of girls and women, it has also raised questions about boys and men, and what their role is in society.

Rather than defining boys or men as “good” or “bad,” or “tough” or “weak,” it’s important to recognize that men, like women, have many facets that extend far beyond the traditional roles of their gender.

Traditional societal views of masculinity have a negative impact on every member of society, but studies show they have a greater impact on the self-image, relationships, and overall mental health of gay men. 

What our society needs to remember is that being a man doesn’t mean you have to like sports or women. Being a strong man doesn’t mean you can’t show weakness or cry. Being a successful man doesn’t mean you have to marry or become a c-suite executive. Sexual preferences and gender identities, just like career choices and lifestyle choices, don’t make you any less of a man. 

“The truth is being a man can mean whatever you want it to mean,” says Britt East, author of A Gay Man's Guide to Life. “You get to decide.”

Effects of Toxic Masculinity

When men actively avoid vulnerability, act on homophobic beliefs, ignore personal traumas, or exhibit prejudice behaviors against women, this contributes to many larger societal problems, such as gender-based violence, sexual assault, and gun violence. 

Violence and Aggression

“Masculinity becomes fragile through its rigidity. When it cannot afford to hold the panoply of gender expressions, sexual cultural orientations, or feminine strength intrinsic to any pluralistic society, then it must lash out, or risk crumbling under the weight of its own culturally-constituted expectations,” says East. “Whatever the cause, the response is [almost] always a form of violence…Sometimes this violence is outwardly expressed through physical dominance or aggression. Other times it is inwardly expressed, through depression, addiction, or suicide.”

Men are perceived as more violent than women and as evidenced by the crime rates, they are. Most criminal crimes are committed by men, but also most criminal crimes (with the exception of sexual assault) are committed against men.

Though men are often the perpetrators of sexual assault, we often forget that millions of men in this country have also been victims of sexual assault. Male violence is a problem, but so is male victimization. Statistically, 5-10% of girls are subjected to penetrative sexual abuse, but 5% of boys are also subjected to penetrative sexual abuse and this is rarely discussed. 

When men and women are accused of similar crimes, men are more likely to receive longer sentences than women, with women being twice as likely to avoid incarceration upon conviction.

“Every behavior is connected to a need,” says Mack Exilus, MA, EDM, MHC-LP, a mental health clinician at Citron Hennessey Therapy. “One thing I’ve seen with men with anger issues and violent paths is that these are behaviors that are learned. A lot of times that violence or that anger is a way to protect vulnerability.”

Unfortunately, many men aren’t taught how to be vulnerable, how to overcome trauma, or how to embrace every aspect of themselves. Take Aaron Hernandez, for instance, who battled numerous traumas in his childhood, and ultimately grew up to become a professional football player and larger-than-life man. He ended up in prison, convicted of murder, and ultimately committed suicide. 

“He had been asking for help for so long on so many occasions,” says Blake. “I feel like part of my role in life is to help the world know Aaron was a good guy. We all failed him in life.”

Society often puts pressure on men to “be men” in the traditional sense, rather than simply be human. For men, vulnerability is often neglected, dismissed, or combated. When men push down emotions, ignore feelings, or dismiss their feminine traits, their mental health will suffer.

Mental Health Concerns

As of 2018, significantly more men than women died from an opioid overdose. Men are far more likely to die by suicide than women. 

Men, like women, experience anxiety, depression, and mental illness. However, men are more likely than women to underutilize mental health services, and they are more reluctant to seek help, especially when it comes to mental health.

As a country, we often fail to address the many traumas faced by boys and men and we often punish behaviors without addressing the underlying issues that lead to those behaviors.

We need to eliminate the stigma around mental illness and remind men that asking for help, expressing emotions, and seeking therapy isn’t just beneficial, it’s necessary for the betterment of our society.

“Most men are simply in survival mode,” says Dan Doty, co-founder of EVRYMAN.

Raising Boys in Today’s World

When Michael Kimmel, the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, asked his students what it means to be a “real man,” he received answers like “authoritative,” and “suppressing any kind of weakness.”

BIPOC Boys and Men

Traditionally, boys are taught to “act like men,” and in many cases, treated like men, which can greatly impact their understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

For Black boys, in particular, the expectations and misconceptions can be dangerous. Studies have shown that Black children are seen as less “childlike” than white children and are often perceived as being older than they are.

Exilus points out that minority men, in particular, have to do a lot more work every day. They need space, time to rest, and the opportunity to share and/or express their anger. Whether you join group therapy, or individual therapy, or visit an organization like Black Men Heal, the goal is to better understand yourself and your emotions and prioritize your mental well-being. 

Boys Should Learn That Emotions Are Healthy

When we treat boys as men and teach them to be emotionless, tough, and secure, we strip them of their innocence and we place unrealistic and unhealthy expectations on them. 

“We need to teach young men from an early age that it’s good to express emotions,” says Exilus. In both our education system and at home, we need to help boys and men label their feelings and understand them. By approaching this in a non-judgmental, curious way, we can eliminate the fears surrounding therapy and mental health.

“Boys and young men are, by nature, in great need of guidance,” says Doty.

“We need men to be role models for the new generation. It all starts with teaching boys to not be men, but to be humans,” says Blake. “This should not be a gender issue. Once we make this a human issue, toxic masculinity will fade.”

Boys Must Be Taught How to Deal With Negative Feelings

“Anger is judged upon. Bottling it up doesn’t do anything,” says Exilus. We need to offer men ways to deal with that anger.

Exilus recommends focusing on five sensations and counting down if you’re feeling angry or frustrated. Focus on five things you can hear, four things you can see, three things you can smell, two things you can touch, one thing you can taste. 

“This gets you out of your head, into your body, and tuned into your environment. Sit with the breath and be wherever you are without having to drain yourself of energy,” Exilus says. "You can also take a nap, go for a run, drink some tea, or splash cold water on your face."

A Word From Verywell

Toxic masculinity is something that still needs to be addressed and the only way to help men learn that emotions don't devalue them or make them weak is by instilling that mindset within them from a young age. The dangers of toxic masculinity are clear and, as a society, it's important to remember that everyone is human and finding healthy ways to process emotions is important for all us, especially men.

Also, if you're struggling with the mental health effects of toxic masculinity or you need someone to express your emotions to, there is no shame in reaching out for help from a mental health professional.

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