Toxic Masculinity and its Impact on Men, Women and Children
Updated: Jan 23, 2019
Along with the rise of the #MeToo movement and increased public awareness of the utter vastness of sexual assault, the dialogue on "Toxic Masculinity" has come to the forefront. Gilette, the infamous razor company, has recently released a commercial
playing with the idea of Toxic Masculinity and its relationship to their tagline, "The Best A Man Can Get"--which has been trending just about everywhere on the news and on social media.
So What Is Toxic Masculinity?
Toxic Masculinity is a phenomena that describes how culturally, men are socialized to deny and suppress their feelings (especially emotions other than anger), to behave more aggressively and to act with a sense of entitlement and even aggression toward women and sexuality.
These ideas are pervasive, and it's common to hear "boys don't cry", or "boys will be boys". We often segregate boys and girls in terms of interests and abilities, such as boys play with trucks, superheroes, guns, while girls enjoy baby dolls, kitchen sets, arts and crafts, etc. We tell girls how beautiful they are, and are more likely to tell boys how smart or strong they are. We create girls clothing stores ironically called "Justice" and sexualize girls by selling them thongs, bikinis and other sexually revealing clothing. We (as a society) tend to assume that boys are better at math and science, and girls are better at languages. As a group, boys are taught that it's normal because of their gender to feel less, to value relationships less, to be have more aggressive interests, to act more aggressively and that they are most likely to succeed as breadwinners. As a group, girls are taught that it's normal to feel more, to behave more passively, to value relationships, and to excel at caregiving and are often steered toward professions with less opportunity for breadwinning success.
Of course, this doesn't mean that every girl fits into these roles, nor does it mean that every boy does either. What is does mean is that these are kind of implied social standards for gender. And, like anything else, it hurts when we don't live up to them.
The Harm for Men
When men conform to the standards of toxic masculinity, the harm naturally ensues because they grow up unable or uncomfortable with their feelings. They have been expected culturally to deny and/or suppress them. They have, in essence, had to disown a part of their humanity, to abandon the emotional part of themselves. Some men act out their aggression in socially acceptable ways--through work, or through microagressions like sex-based jokes. While others may act out their aggression in unacceptable ways, which can contribute to legal issues related to sexual violence, domestic violence, and/or criminality. When boys and men don't live up to the standards of toxic masculinity, they are often harshly bullied at school, growing up with significant emotional wounds as a result.
The Harm for Women
Women who don't live up to the gender guidelines set by toxic masculinity, can also be bullied in school, and have more difficulties as adults as well. Of course, women are also harmed by toxic masculinity even when they conform, as we internalize and own, whether consciously or not--negative messages about our sexuality. This can contribute to problems with self esteem and relationships. But most obviously, women live with the threat of men's aggression daily, even when we don't experience it first hand. The reality is many, many girls and women have experienced some kind of sexual violence in their lifetime.
The Harm for Children
The danger for our children is that we are repeating this cycle of violence for our kids without even realizing it. As the Gilette commercial illustrates, our kids are exposed to gender-based violence pretty regularly through the news and other media. And as parents, we like to think that we are modeling and teaching "good values" to our kids, but toxic masculinity--these unreasonable standards based on gender--can be internalized without us even realizing it. They are inside of us, part of us. How do they come out with our own children?
Overturning Toxic Masculinity in Our Own Families
The first step to stopping the cycle of Toxic Masculinity is to explore your own beliefs around gender.
Notice what kinds of messages you send your children. Do you tell your girls they are so pretty? Do you have different expectations for your differently gendered kids?
Listen for messages that your kids hear on the media and at school, and when you hear a message rooted in toxic masculinity, offer an alternative perspective.
Are you comfortable with your own spectrum of feelings? Showing your kids that everyone has feelings and that emotions are okay--a major step in dismantling toxic masculinity--is only possible if you believe and can do this as well.
Set limits with aggression. There is a difference between play and aggression, though sometimes undoubtedly they overlap. Kids learn about their aggression by playing with it--both boys and girls. But when it becomes hurtful, or has the potential to become hurtful, step in. It's okay to feel angry, but it's not okay to be aggressive.
Let your extended family and friends know when they push an explicit or implied message of toxic masculinity. Do so with some levity and humor.
Speak openly with your kids about their sexuality. Sex is a beautiful thing, when it's between people who consent.
Maybe it seems strange to see a therapist's blog about Toxic Masculinity. Isn't this a political issue? It is, but the personal is often political.
At Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, I often work with men who express frustration with themselves for their patterns of anger and aggression, or who report an inability to connect with or express their feelings. Cultural messages around gender are, of course, part of this work. I also work with women who have survived sexual violence, and often live with feelings of shame and self-hate. Of course, toxic masculinity is at the core of this experience too. And for children, in some ways, therapy is helping children figure out who they are in the context of our social environment. The messages that they hear on the news and from their families can be part of the work as well.
So the next time you hear the popular dialogue around Toxic Masculinity and gender-related standards, take a moment to reflect: How is this part of my story? Do these messages impact my family? What have I had to deny, suppress, give up, in order to fit in? If I haven't been able to fit in, how has that impacted me and my experience?