The different expectations for what being a man entails can often leave someone feeling lost and confused about how they should act. Toxic masculinity is a term that has been gaining traction in the past few years. This term refers to the dominant form of masculinity wherein men use dominance, violence, and control to assert their power and superiority. In this article, we will define and explore toxic masculinity (unhealthy masculinity) versus healthy masculinity.
Toxic masculinity appears in many different forms. A few examples include telling boys to “man up” when they feel upset or justifying abusive and inappropriate behavior with the phrase “boys will be boys.” Toxic masculinity can be defined as “the need to aggressively compete and dominate others and encompasses the most problematic proclivities in men. These same male proclivities foster resistance to psychotherapy.”1
Traits of toxic or unhealthy masculinity can include:
The impacts of toxic masculinity are far-reaching. One example is that it can lead to more violence against women, as men may feel entitled or validated in their abusive behavior. Unhealthy masculinity is also incredibly detrimental to men. Research has shown that men who display traits of toxic masculinity are more likely to experience isolation, poor health, and unhappiness.2
During childhood, youth sometimes use violent and aggressive behaviors to express emotional distress. As males get older, there is a potential for aggression to escalate into unhealthy territory.
For example, teenage boys demonstrating power-seeking behaviors when their masculinity feels threatened. Adolescent boys who cannot healthily express their emotions are more likely to participate in bullying, physical assault, and verbally aggressive behavior.3
Healthy or positive masculinity is not sexist. It does not discriminate against people that identify as a different gender or sexuality than the male, nor does it have an aversion to acknowledging emotions and vulnerability. Toxic masculinity fosters discrimination against anyone who does not fall into the realm of heterosexuality.
Many childhood factors put an individual at greater risk of displaying unhealthy masculine traits, which can include:3
Traits of toxic masculinity can also lead to academic challenges. In schools, male students are often encouraged not to show emotion, and aggression is a sign of power or dominance. These traits may make it difficult for males to communicate with classmates or express themselves without feeling judged.3
Chauvinism, a term derived from a French soldier Nicolas Chauvin, is defined as excessive and unreasonable patriotism. In modern society, this term has shifted to represent ultranationalism or attitudes of superiority. At times, people use the term "male chauvinism" to describe the anti-feminist belief that men are superior to women.4
The social impacts of toxic masculinity are evident when examining rates of violence, drug-related crime, anti-social behaviors, drug overdoses, and suicides. There is also a high correlation between toxic masculinity and the lack of accountability in rehab.
Due to stigma and societal pressures, males are less likely to seek help for mental health issues. Unhealthy or toxic masculinity may not allow males to fully express themselves and their emotional needs because people may view it as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
Data published by the Violence Policy Center in 2017 showed that 93% of murdered female victims were killed by male perpetrators they already knew. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a study about intimate partner violence in 2017. According to the WHO, approximately 38% of all murdered women were killed by an intimate male partner. In the United States, males comprise more than 90% of all violent criminal perpetrators. These statistics speak to the importance of education and prevention surrounding toxic masculinity.5
The majority of incarcerated people in the United States are male. Most people serving time in corrections facilities are people of color raised in low-income households. Shockingly, most men enter the prison system for drug-related crimes.
Many individuals are in dire need of mental health, substance use, anger, domestic violence, or sex offender treatment. Experts believe that in-depth studies of toxic masculinity and associated "man power" will provide insight into incarceration and drug-related crime rates.
In the United States, males are more likely to engage in anti-social behavior than females primarily due to behaviors associated with toxic masculinity and less accountability for actions. For example, unhealthy or harmful masculine attitudes can lead people to physically assault others because of a perceived insult that may not have even been an insult.
Toxic masculinity is also predictive of a higher risk of a drug overdose. Men may be less likely or unwilling to seek treatment for addiction because some people view it as a sign of weakness.
In the United States, males are more likely to commit suicide than females. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, "men died by suicide 3.63x as often as women" in 2019. Additionally, middle-aged white men are the most likely to die by suicide.6
Healthy or positive masculinity is the idea that men can be emotionally expressive, have female friends or mentors, and express their emotions without feeling emasculated.7
The following traits are examples of ways to remove stereotypes and encourage men to be their authentic selves:7
Men need to have a healthy or balanced sense of masculinity. Men who are more connected with their emotions will experience increased life satisfaction and self-esteem and decreased rates of mental health problems such as depression.7
To effectively undo toxic masculinity, accountability needs to be taken by those who perpetrate these negative ideas of “man power.” Open communication, availability of professional help, and therapy are all critical components for facilitating positive masculinity.
If you are struggling with unhealthy or toxic masculinity, contact your primary care physician. If they cannot help, find a mental health professional specializing in male therapy or gender identity concerns.
When seeking therapy, it is essential to feel comfortable with the therapist. If you do not feel like they are a good fit for your needs, consider finding someone who can work with you on healthy masculinity and accountability. It is possible to harness and express "man power" healthily and productively.