What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity encourages men to hide their emotions.

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Toxic masculinity refers to the notion that some people’s idea of “manliness” perpetuates domination, homophobia, and aggression. Toxic masculinity involves cultural pressures for men to behave in a certain way. And it’s likely this affects all boys and men in some fashion.

This idea that men need to act tough and avoid showing all emotions can be harmful to their mental health and can have serious consequences for society, which is how it became known as “toxic masculinity.”

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity isn’t just about behaving like a man. Instead, it involves the extreme pressure some men may feel to act in a way that is actually harmful.

There are many definitions of “toxic masculinity” that appear in research as well as pop culture. Some researchers have come to agree that toxic masculinity has three core components:

  1. Toughness: This is the notion that men should be physically strong, emotionally callous, and behaviorally aggressive.
  2. Antifeminity: This involves the idea that men should reject anything that is considered to be feminine, such as showing emotion or accepting help.
  3. Power: This is the assumption that men must work toward obtaining power and status (social and financial) so they can gain the respect of others.

Glorification of Unhealthy Habits 

Toxic masculinity glorifies unhealthy habits. It’s the notion that “self-care is for women” and men should treat their bodies like machines by skimping on sleep, working out even when they’re injured, and pushing themselves to their physical limits. 

In addition to pushing themselves hard physically, toxic masculinity discourages men from seeing doctors. 

A 2011 study found that men who held the strongest beliefs about masculinity were only half as likely as men with more moderate beliefs about masculinity to get preventative health care. Seeing a physician for an annual physical, for example, runs contrary to some men’s beliefs about toughness.

In addition to avoiding preventative treatment, toxic masculinity also encourages unhealthy behaviors.

A 2007 study found that the more men conformed to masculine norms, the more likely they were to engage in risky behaviors, such as heavy drinking, using tobacco, and avoiding vegetables. In addition, they were more likely to view such risky choices as being “normal.”

Mental Health Stigma

Toxic masculinity also discourages men from getting mental health treatment. Depression, anxiety, substance use issues, and mental health problems may be viewed as weaknesses.

A 2015 study found that men who bought into traditional notions of masculinity held more of a negative attitude about seeking mental health services compared to those with more flexible gender attitudes.

Toxic masculinity may also stress that it’s inappropriate for men to talk about their feelings. Avoiding conversations about problems or emotions may increase feelings of isolation and loneliness

It may also reduce men’s willingness to reach out and get help when they’re experiencing a mental health issue.

Race, Ethnicity, and Gender

A man’s race and ethnicity may play a role in how he views masculinity as well as how others perceive him.                                                

A 2013 study found that among white college students, Asian-American men are viewed as less manly than white or Black American men.

The masculine requirement to remain stoic and be a good provider can lead to “John Henryism” in African-American men. This term is used to describe men who use high effort as a way to cope with problems and they continue to do so in the face of chronic stress and discrimination. A 2016 study linked “John Henryism” to an increased risk of hypertension and depression.

Boys of all races and ethnic backgrounds who don’t act “masculine enough” may be subjected to harassment at school.

The 2015 National School Climate Survey found that 85% of LGBTQ+ students reported being verbally harassed at school over their gender expression or sexual orientation.

Gender non-conforming students reported worse treatment than the kids who conform to traditional gender norms while also identifying as LGBTQ+.

Helping Behavior

Men who view themselves as more masculine are less likely to engage in what researchers call “helping behavior.” That means they are not likely to intervene when they witness bullying or when they see someone being assaulted.

A 2019 study found that toxic masculinity can prevent men from consoling a victim, calling for help, and standing up to the perpetrator. Men who endorsed the belief that men should be strong and aggressive were more likely to perceive negative social consequences associated with intervening as an active bystander.

In instances of sexual assault, for example, men who identified the most with masculine behaviors were less likely to stop the assault. The study found that men wouldn't intervene in any conflict if they thought their reputation as being traditionally masculine might be compromised.

Toxic Masculinity Examples

Unfortunately, there can be toxic masculinity in relationships, schools, and workplaces. Here are some everyday examples:

  • When a boy in school doesn't act in traditionally masculine ways, and he is bullied by the boys in his class for being "too feminine"
  • When a boy cries and his father tells him to "toughen up" or that "men don't cry"
  • When a man calls women "sluts" or "whores" for having sex outside of monogamous relationships
  • When a man tells his partner what they can and cannot wear, and who they are and are not allowed to spend time with
  • The violence against trans women that occurs every year by men who are threatened by a perceived violation of gender norms
  • When men criticize other men for being attracted to, or in relationships with, trans women
  • When a man is afraid to be emotionally vulnerable with his partner for fear of seeming "weak"
  • When a man who is struggling with his mental health doesn't want to see a therapist because he should "man up" or "power through it"

The APA's Guidelines

Over the years, the American Psychological Association (APA) began to recognize that societal pressures placed on men can have drastic consequences for individuals as well as society.

Members of the APA created new guidelines for psychological practices that treat boys and men to help address some of the problems associated with toxic masculinity.

Drawing on more than 40 years of research, they suggest that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful. They also report that socializing boys to suppress their emotions creates damage, both inwardly and outwardly.

Researchers found that when they stripped away stereotypes and cultural expectations, there weren’t many differences in the basic behaviors between men and women. Time diary studies (studies that have participants log diary entries of their activities) showed that men enjoy caring for children just as much as women.

Differences in emotional displays between boys and girls are relatively small and not always in a stereotypical fashion. For example, a 2013 study found that adolescent boys actually display fewer externalizing emotions such as anger, than adolescent girls.

The new APA guidelines were created to help psychologists support men in breaking free of masculinity rules that do more harm than good.                       

Press Play for Advice on Undefining Masculinity

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares the value of undefining what it means to be a man, featuring author and actor Justin Baldoni. Click below to listen now.

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A Word From Verywell

If you feel like you’re experiencing the negative effects of toxic masculinity, reach out to someone. A mental health professional can help you recognize how it’s affecting your life and help you break free from the unhealthy patterns that may be keeping you stuck.

The more people learn about toxic masculinity and the more people get help for it, the more likely we are to see changes on a bigger level as society may put less pressure on men to act a certain way.

14 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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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.