Let’s talk about toxic masculinity. We’ve all experienced it in one form or another.

Previously existing only in the realms of academia, toxic masculinity has become something of a touchy subject. You’ve probably even seen your old man waving his fist in furious uproar as “the crisis in masculinity” flashes across his TV screen.

Not all masculinity is toxic, of course. But certain masculine traits can be damaging, both to individuals and society as a whole.

So what exactly is it, and why is everyone talking about it? We break it down.

man symbolising toxic masculinity headerShare on Pinterest
Alma Haser/Getty Images

It’s pretty complicated, but certain characteristics help define toxic masculinity.

Where does the phrase come from?

Most people assume that academics created the phrase. But it was actually coined during the mythopoetic men’s movement in the 80s and 90s.

They weren’t exactly a political group. Most of their male-only gatherings took the form of therapeutic workshops or wilderness retreats.

These dudes had some pretty wild ideas. They believed that modern society and the feminist movement had dampened their “manliness.”

They believed that men with no outlet to express their masculinity would indulge in chauvinism and sexism, creating a “toxic” form of masculinity.

The thing is, they based this all on the idea of a single, unified form of masculinity. Anyone who’s had their partner stolen by a member of an emo band will tell you otherwise.

With increasing amounts of research into identities beyond the gender binary, we now have a much clearer understanding of the spaces in-between.

Examples of toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity can present itself in a number of harmful ways, such as:

  • concealing feelings and emotions, such as sadness or grief
  • putting up a “hard” exterior
  • using violence to assert power (think of the “tough guy” routine)
  • being sexually aggressive and controlling (just look at the #MeToo movement for examples here)
  • being a super-competitive jerk (yes, Chad from the office, we’re talking about you)
  • glorifying violence
  • isolating from other people

Ever told someone to “man up”? It may seem like a throw-away comment, but it feeds into the idea that showing emotions or being vulnerable is “unmanly.”

You’ve also probably heard the old adage “boys will be boys.” This idea has long been culturally accepted, but do we really want to promote these negative attitudes to our kids? What does “being boys” mean anyway?

These examples show how our societies have traditionally viewed men. But the more we normalize these behaviors, the more fuel we throw on the flames.

What even is masculinity?

It’s a good question, and it largely depends on who you’re asking. Traditional Western ideas of masculinity formed centuries ago, and feature in texts as old as the Bible.

Some people think that these ideas emerged in our cave-dwelling days, where the most successful dudes were supposedly badass hunters with zero f*cks to give who needed to be aggressive to survive.

But contrary to popular belief, there’s good evidence to suggest that these ideas developed as we began farming the land and settling down into villages, towns, and cities. There’s a strong chance that hunter gatherers were pretty peaceful cats.

Eventually, would-be conquerors and kings used their raging machoism to dominate other civilizations. For a few thousand years, it was basically just Mad Max, but with horses.

It was only really during the first wave of feminism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the state of play began to change.

In the past 50 years, some of the more extreme traits of masculinity have become incompatible with the way we live. You think Genghis Khan would be chill taking orders from HR? Or waiting for his burger at Wendy’s?

This is where the “toxic” part of toxic masculinity comes in. When we uphold old-ass notions of what it means to be a man, it creates a toxic environment.

Many men feel they’re falling short of these masculine ideals, despite them no longer being desirable or useful. This can cause them to act out — or straight up behave like an asshole — in an attempt to reassert their manhood.

Masculinity itself is not inherently evil. But to misquote the famous philosopher Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility. Also, don’t be a buttmunch.”

Well, that all depends on which group of men we’re talking about.

A 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that the number of college-educated men working in high-wage, high-skilled jobs has been falling since the 1980s.

Statistics from The National Centre for Education Statistics also show that more females enroll in colleges than males.

And in terms of violent crime, in 2013 males committed 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represented 77 percent of homicide victims.

So what the heck is going on with our guys?

Some people point to a “crisis” in masculinity. Much like during the mythopoetic men’s movement, many men feel as though traditional masculine traits are under attack.

But lumping all men into one category doesn’t make much sense. Middle-aged white dudes most likely have very different problems to Black high schoolers.

Other issues related to race, class and socioeconomic backgrounds are also at play — often more so than gender alone.

Toxic masculinity and transphobia

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 44 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were killed by violent means in 2020.

This follows a documented trend, with more than 130 transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals killed between 2013 and 2018.

That the majority of these are Black and Latinx transgender women is particularly concerning.

The HRC’s “Dismantling a Culture of Violence” report shows how anti-trans stigma can directly lead to violence against trans people.

Much of this stigma comes from outdated views of gender identity and expression. The times, they are a changin’. And many folks don’t really like that.

It’s time to move beyond traditional ideas of “male” and “female” and explore the spaces between. There’s plenty room for everyone. And the needless jostling for space literally hurts people.

Toxic masculinity can leak into every part of our lives.

Toxic masculinity and relationships

It isn’t always super obvious when toxic masculinity is at work. It can sneak in unannounced and make itself at home.

For the partners of males, warning signs that toxic masculinity has crept into your relationships include:

  • controlling decisions around money and finances
  • being forced to do more housework, or traditional “women’s work”
  • your partner’s needs always coming first
  • your partner making decisions about your body, such as hair, makeup, tattoos, or birth control

Your partner might not even be doing these things intentionally. Talk to them if you feel safe to do so. They might be willing to work on it.

If you’re a Dude/Man/Bro, it’s totally understandable to feel a bit defensive when talking about toxic masculinity. But remember, it’s not all about you.

Learning what toxic masculinity is and who it affects will help you understand why we need to talk about it.

We’ve all experienced toxic masculinity, and many of us have joined in with it. Think hard about all those times when you didn’t tell Dave to shut his big, sexist mouth.

We’re talking about big issues here. But you can start small. It can be as simple as starting a conversation with your buddies at work (yes, Dave included).

Real change takes time and effort. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it will improve slowly over time, in small increments. You got this.

In 2018, The American Psychology Association released their first ever guidelines for treating men and boys specifically.

It noted that on the whole, traditional masculine traits were harmful to mental health. Men engaging in these activities were less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.

According to research from 2013, depressed men may experience greater feelings of anger than depressed women. They could also be more likely to engage in substance abuse.

There’s this silly idea that stuffing your feelings into a lockbox and throwing away the key is somehow very manly indeed. Not so.

Stoicism may be all the rage right now, but you’re not Marcus Aurelius and this isn’t ancient Rome. Talking about your feelings is okay, man. Let it out.

Toxic masculinity plays a role in our daily lives. Sometimes, it’s really freakin’ obvious. Other times, it works in more subtle ways.

It’s a big subject, but it doesn’t have to be a scary one. The more we talk about it, the more we can understand how it works. It’s not an attack on you — and if it is, then you have things to work on, not push back on.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all set of guidelines for being masculine or feminine. There are loads of ways to be a righteous dude/dudette without creating a toxic environment.