By Dr Ben Hine & Ally Fogg, Co-founders of the Men and Boys Coalition
If you begin any conversation about men’s behaviour in the year 2018, it won’t be long before someone throws in the term ‘toxic masculinity’. It seems to be used by some to help understand men and by some to demonise them, by some to pity men and by others to shame them.
Such conversations make it painfully clear that society is pretty confused right now about how we feel about masculinity, and men, and the relationship between the two. And here’s the rub - the term ‘toxic masculinity’, and the way people choose to use it, are part of the problem.
The phrase itself emerged in the 1990s to describe elements of masculinity which are destructive or harmful to the man displaying the behaviour as well as those around them. One of the most influential applications of the term was in Terry Kuper’s 2005 article, arguing that such traits were the principal barriers to men in prison seeking treatment for mental health issues. Put simply, ‘toxic masculinity’ refers to those norms and behaviours, associated with masculinity, which cause harm to men themselves, as well as those around them.
Recognising and identifying such behaviours, and highlighting their damage, remains an incredibly useful exercise. For example, in providing health, social or psychiatric care, it is essential to understand that some men, particularly those marginalised and maligned by society, have grown to believe it is better to engage in damaging and self-destructive coping mechanisms than admit to personal vulnerability or accept that they need help, and so compromise their gender scripts. Moreover, while the jury is still out on the biological versus socially-constructed nature of such behaviours, being able to objectively identify negative elements of masculinity is an important step in understanding the relationship men have with themselves and with others, particularly women.
However, whilst identifying the existence of ‘toxic masculinity’ may be useful, the term itself may not be. Put simply, the concept of TM is valuable, but the label is confusing and unhelpful, for several reasons.
First, not all masculine traits are inherently ‘toxic’. Examine some of the traits typically associated with masculinity – competitiveness, assertiveness, protectiveness, courage, rationality, independence (you get the idea). It can and should be argued that those are, objectively, GREAT qualities for a person to have – I mean, who wouldn’t want to be an independent, assertive, rational thinker? We all want our sons to have those traits, and if we have daughters we want them to have those traits too. However, all too often when people throw around the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ it is taken to mean that all masculine traits are toxic. All too quickly it becomes difficult to tell the baby from the bathwater.
Second, the traits that are labelled as ‘toxic’ aren’t negative or problematic all of the time. Even when you look at some of the more problematic characteristics, like competitiveness and protectiveness, their ‘toxicity’ depends on context and extremity. Wanting to win whilst playing a board game is not the same as throwing the board at your opponent if you lose. The same applies for protectiveness, it is a matter of context. Wanting to protect the people you care about from harm? Healthy, of course. Becoming so protective that you constantly check where your partner is and control their behaviour so that they won’t ever leave or hurt you? Not at all healthy. Crucially, all of these behaviours can be classed as performances of masculinity, but only some should be branded toxic and it is not always obvious where the line lies.
This is partly because masculinity means different things to different people. Individual traits aside, even if society says ‘this is masculine, and this isn’t’, most men (and women) have their own definition of what it means to be masculine, and those descriptions are changing all the time, and vary across generations and cultures. Being competitive may be part of my masculinity, while not being part of yours, but we’re still both masculine by our own definitions. Just ask any undergraduate cohort to name ‘typical’ masculine and feminine characteristics; the usual suspects will inevitably crop up, but the mix of words changes every year. To shake things up even more, some people act in ways that are traditionally labelled as masculine by others, but don’t actually identify themselves as masculine, and some people class typically feminine traits as part of their masculinity (for example being a caregiver). So, when we talk about masculinity as being toxic, without qualification, whose masculinity are we even talking about?
Often, people aren’t talking about masculinity at all, they’re talking about men. But, and we really can’t stress this enough, ‘masculinity’ does NOT mean ‘men’, nor vice versus. Our physical biology (hormones, brain structure etc.) undoubtedly have some part to play in our gender identity and how we behave, but it is also clear that a large part of our gendered behaviour is shaped by environmental and societal influences, as are the traits, attributes and characteristics we believe are appropriate for men and women. What this means is, when a man does something seen as typically ‘male’, even if many other men behave in a similar way, that does not mean all men behave this way. It also means that, in most instances, men aren’t biologically bound to act that way, it is society that has taught them it is appropriate or even desirable to do so.
This is demonstrated by our fifth point - women can and do show ‘masculine’ behaviours, traits and characteristics. Indeed, as mentioned above, one of the principle outcomes of feminism has been the break-down of restrictive female gender role expectations, which have encouraged women to venture, nay charge, into traditionally masculine realms, and excel in doing so. If we depend too heavily upon the concept of toxic masculinity to explain negative and destructive behaviours by men, how do we explain similar or even identical behaviours when they are performed by women?
The sixth and final issue is that toxic masculinity is invariably described as something that men have. It is a noun, a thing, an entity, something which is just there inside us, like a hereditary disease or an internal organ. It is both applied, and understood, to mean that the individual man is held responsible for his own toxic behaviour. But the reality is that gender scripts and gender roles are (at least to a large extent) socially conditioned. They are dynamic, and are not things we have but things we do; roles we perform. Attributing problematic behaviour to toxic masculinity is therefore offering an individualistic diagnosis of a social and political failure.
Based on these observations, wouldn’t it be more accurate to talk about ‘toxic masculinisation’ rather than ‘toxic masculinity’? By that we mean the myriad destructive and poisonous ways in which we raise our boys to be men, including how we brutalise them with actual physical violence, or how we instruct them to toughen up, man-up or punish them with mockery and humiliation for showing emotion or vulnerability. Put simply, imagine if we were instead having the same conversation about men, and the male gender role, that we have been having about women and the female gender role for decades. It is unarguable that this would enable men to show a more diverse, and much healthier range of gendered behaviour, and yet we seem so resistant to evaluating men with the same care and attention. Why?
The two principal answers – that we don’t want to, and that we don’t need to, are equally damaging. Both speak to a key issue that we have with men at the moment - the male empathy gap - as described by Dr John Barry and colleagues at UCL. This work speaks to the belief that men are less in need, and less worthy, of our help and compassion because they either don’t need it or they themselves don’t want it. This stems from the ideas outlined above that men are expected to be strong and stoic and can not only cope on their own, but that it is heroic to do so. Unfortunately, such ideas leave men in a position of immense vulnerability, as no-one, not even they, are interested in their issues or needs.
In this sense, assessing the direct link between a restrictive male gender role and the myriad issues which affect men is long overdue. Indeed, it is becoming ever harder to argue against acknowledging and attempting to tackle issues in which men and boys are disproportionately affected, such as homelessness, suicide, and educational underachievement, as well as those where men suffer gender-specific challenges, for example as victim-survivors of domestic or sexual violence, or as new or separated fathers.
However, it is also important to note that, as we write in the summer of 2018, the world is still coming to terms with the unfolding scale of institutionally-enabled sexual abuse and harassment – for example that relating to the #MeToo movement, and before that the succession of scandals from Savile and Operation Yewtree, to abuse in football clubs, children’s homes, the Catholic Church and beyond. Therefore, we are only too conscious that we are questioning the notion of toxic masculinity against a backdrop of the appalling behaviour of all too many men. We could even broaden that vista to include terrorists, school shooters and other violent criminals in the news, who are disproportionately (if not quite exclusively) men.
However, identifying why men behave so negatively and understanding their issues, as well as understanding what we can do to make such behaviours less likely or frequent, is all part of the same big question; finding the answer to which is arguably a key challenge of our time. And the argument we raise is whether throwing around the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is helping or hindering that process?
Because, whatever the original intentions of those who coined the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, and whatever the motivations of those who throw it around today, it seems clear to us that it is a phrase that a large majority of men and boys find alienating and unhelpful. Correctly or not, the term is understood to be associating men and boys – all men and boys – with the very worst behaviours of anyone who shares our gender. In this sense, the first thing that needs to change is how we speak about men and boys, and how we engage with them.
Crucially, engaging in such debate is not only important in improving the lives and experiences of men, but of women also. So many of the behaviours currently blamed on men as a universal group are negative acts directed towards women. However, many of these, again, are not a result of biologically being a man, or even masculinity, but of a restrictive male gender role that, for example, socialises men to be sexually domineering.
Thus, in writing this we are not asking for the worst of men to be given a free pass. On the contrary, we are calling for outrage. Just as women have been outraged by the oppressive gendered structures that have long shackled them to restrictive gender roles, we call for outrage at the impositions on men and boys. Such restrictions, perpetuated by oppressive patriarchal structures are both real and extremely damaging. But crucially, we need to recognise that such structures are damaging to both women and men, and that men per se aren’t the problem, they are, and must be, part of the solution. We should all be battling against oppressive gender socialisation, in an attempt to improve and enrich all of our lives.
So, let’s ditch #toxicmasculinity, and instead place due value on men and masculinity, and the richness they, and it, brings to our lives. It is only by doing so, alongside engaging in critical, positive debate on what it means to ‘be a man’ in the 21st century, that we will finally find ourselves on the path to true equality.