Having previously existed only in the realms of academia, toxic masculinity has become something of a touchy subject. You’ve probably even seen your dad 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 to society as a whole.

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

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The actual definition: “The constellation of socially regressive [masculine] traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.”

While that sounds pretty straightforward, the concept itself can be a little complicated. But certain characteristics help it come into greater focus.

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.

This men’s movement wasn’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” and 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 — and anyone whose partner has dumped them for 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 like 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)
  • being a super-competitive jerk (yes, Dave 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 throwaway 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 society has traditionally viewed men. But the more we normalize these behaviors, the more fuel we throw on the fire.

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

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

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

And in terms of violent crime, in 2010, 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. Similarly to the members of the mythopoetic men’s movement, many men now feel like traditionally 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 than 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), at least 44 transgender or gender nonconforming people were killed by violent means in 2020.

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

Notably, most of those people were Black and Latinx transgender women.

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 in between. There’s plenty of 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 relationship include:

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

Your partner might not even be doing these things intentionally. Talk with 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 Psychological Association released its first-ever guidelines for treating men and boys specifically.

The guidelines note that, on the whole, traditional masculine traits are harmful to mental health. Men who engage in these activities are 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 misuse substances.

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 OK, 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 feels like one, 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/human without creating a toxic environment.