What Toxic Masculinity Actually Means & Its Subtle But Damaging Effects On Society

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bearded man struggling with toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity is a word that you've probably heard that describes male violence and sexism. However, despite the prevalence of the term, many people don't understand what it actually means and exactly how it affects society.

What is toxic masculinity?

Toxic masculinity ideology stems from a culture that men have grown up with, which pressures them to behave in a certain way.

The idea of toxic masculinity is related to the notion of "manliness" associated with domination, homophobia, and aggression. Toxic masculinity refers to men needing to act tough and avoid showing emotions.

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The dictionary defines the term toxic masculinity as "a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance, and that is socially maladaptive or harmful to mental health."

Some examples of toxic masculinity include physical aggression, fear of emotions, discrimination against people that aren't heterosexual, hyper-independence, sexual aggression or violence, and anti-feminist behavior.

There are three components associated with toxic masculinity: toughness, anti-femininity, and power between men and women.

Toughness surrounds the idea that men need to be physically strong, emotionally tough (or closed off), and aggressive.

Anti-femininity is all about rejecting anything considered feminine like being vulnerable, expressing your emotions, or accepting help.

Lastly, power is about how men need power, and need to work towards gaining more power and control to get the respect of others.

It's important to note that toxic masculinity doesn't happen overnight; it is developed by a combination of male behaviors and factors. It can be developed by how someone was brought up, and the environment they were raised in.

Where did toxic masculinity originate?

The first origin of the word dates back to the late 1980s to the early 90s, as part of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement.

The Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, which was a response to feminism, sought to contrast the toxic ideals of what we called masculinity, such as social pressures to be dominant, aggressive, and independent, with deep masculinity, natural in-touch-with-oneself maleness, and mature male-male relationships.

It's often cited as "ruining” a group activity or a social experience. Toxic masculinity supports being exclusionary toward women and hostile to everyone, with the behavior cast aside with sayings such as "boys will be boys."

What is healthy masculinity?

Healthy masculinity, also known as positive masculinity, is the opposite of toxic masculinity. The concept is that men can express their emotions without being or feeling emasculated; men can also have connections with women as friends.

Some examples of healthy masculinity include being in touch with your emotions, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with and around others, and asking for help when it's needed.

Our society expects men to be strong, aggressive, and non-emotional at all times, which are considered traditionally masculine traits. But it's unrealistic to expect men to not cry, be emotional, or struggle while excelling.

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How Toxic Masculinity Affects Men

Toxic masculinity affects men by glorifying certain things for boys and men, such as pushing themselves to the physical limit, being tough enough to not go to the doctor, and engaging in risky behaviors like heavy drinking and using tobacco.

This concept of toxic masculinity also influences men not to believe in things like therapy and getting treatment for mental health problems and illnesses such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and more.

It discourages men to talk about their feelings and influences them to avoid conversations about emotions, which could further isolate them, making them feel lonely.

A 2015 study found that men who bought into traditionally masculine norms held a more negative attitude about seeking mental health services than those with a flexible gender attitude.

The American Psychological Association also determined that there's a connection between negative male socialization and violence.

Studies have also shown that race and ethnicity play a role in masculinity because of how others perceive them, as multiple masculinities are in competition with one another, fighting against which masculinity is more authentic. A "real man" standards and definition can vary dramatically across time and place.

Toxic masculinity can also teach a man that "helping behavior" is wrong, and therefore men are more likely to not help a victim, call for help, or stand up against the perpetrator. In more serious cases, they are essentially taught to not intervene or stop sexual assault.

How Toxic Masculinity Affects Women

According to clinical hypnotherapist and relationship coach Keya Murthy, toxic masculinity affects everyone in relationships — especially women.

"Toxic masculinity affects the partner, children, and others who live in the household, and is closely related to the partner — e.g., her parents, sisters, girlfriends, and so on," says Murthy.

"Toxic masculinity is when a man emphasizes his power, strength, energy, and sex drive without any regard for consequences and responsibilities. When a man wants what he wants, he demands it without regarding the needs of those around, usually his partner and family members," Murthy explains. "In a relationship, when a man demands to be waited upon and always comes first because he is a 'man', that is toxic masculinity."

This could also mean women are more vulnerable to violence, as a man who adheres toxic masculinity is more likely to engage in physical and emotional abuse.

Problems that women face — like different levels of gender inequality in employment, wages, education, and healthcare, as well as the high rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse — all stem from toxic masculinity, resulting in harmful decisions or actions made by men.

In order for women to thrive and be equal partners and decision-makers in the world, we need to address toxic masculinity and smash it to the ground.

To combat the inequality and injustice that women face daily, toxic masculine traits, masculine norms, and toxic expectations must be crushed and not perpetuated in future generations. Current generations also need to unlearn their unhealthy ways of thinking.

How to Address Toxic Masculinity

According to relationship and communication coach Marilyn Sutherland, toxic masculinity is based on fear.

"When a man has to be seen as strong and the one in charge, it's not authentic strength. He sees himself as always 'right' and never 'wrong.' It's a hard life to always have to prove himself against some unrealistic standard of masculinity," explains Sutherland.

Therefore, in order for a man to change and address the effects of toxic masculinity, he has to recognize how it affects his daily life and relationships.

"Unless he recognizes that this behavior is destroying his relationship with his partner and the rest of his family, and wants to shift from fear to love, nothing will change," Sutherland adds.

However, that's easier said than done.

"It takes great courage for a toxic man to make this shift and shows true masculinity — such as self-awareness, protecting others rather than dominating, and emotional maturity," says Sutherland.

The most important step is the hardest for men because seeking help is their weakness, but speaking to a mental health professional is one of the greatest ways to learn and realize how toxic masculinity affects their lives, and it can help them recognize any unhealthy patterns in their life.

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Megan Hatch is a former contributor to YourTango who has had bylines on Medium, Buzzfeed, MSN Canada, Patch, Voice of America, Canyon News, and others. Follow her on Instagram and on Twitter for more.