Toxic masculinity

The concept of toxic masculinity is used in academic and media discussions of masculinity to refer to certain cultural norms that are associated with harm to society and men themselves. Traditional stereotypes of men as socially dominant, along with related traits such as misogyny and homophobia, can be considered "toxic" due in part to their promotion of violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence. The socialization of boys in patriarchal societies often normalizes violence, such as in the saying "boys will be boys" about bullying and aggression.

Self-reliance and emotional repression are correlated with increased psychological problems in men such as depression, increased stress, and substance use disorders. Toxic masculine traits are characteristic of the unspoken code of behavior among men in prisons, where they exist in part as a response to the harsh conditions of prison life.

Other traditionally masculine traits such as devotion to work, pride in excelling at sports, and providing for one's family, are not considered to be "toxic". The concept was originally used by authors associated with the mythopoetic men's movement such as Shepherd Bliss to contrast stereotypical notions of masculinity with a "real" or "deep" masculinity that they say men have lost touch within modern society. Critics of the term argue that its meaning incorrectly implies that gender-related issues are caused by inherent male traits.[1]

The concept of toxic masculinity, or certain formulations of it, has been criticized by some conservatives as an undue condemnation of traditional masculinity, and by some feminists as an essentialist concept that ignores the role of choice and context in causing harmful behaviors and attitudes related to masculinity.

Etymology and usage

The term toxic masculinity originated in the mythopoetic men's movement of the 1980s and 1990s.[2] It later found wide use in both academic and popular writing.[3] Popular and media discussions in the 2010s have used the term to refer to traditional and stereotypical norms of masculinity and manhood. According to the sociologist Michael Flood, these include "expectations that boys and men must be active, aggressive, tough, daring, and dominant".[4]

Mythopoetic movement

Some authors associated with the mythopoetic men's movement have referred to the social pressures placed upon men to be violent, competitive, independent, and unfeeling as a "toxic" form of masculinity, in contrast to a "real" or "deep" masculinity that they say men have lost touch within modern society.[5][6] The academic Shepherd Bliss proposed a return to agrarianism as an alternative to the "potentially toxic masculinity" of the warrior ethic.[7] Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes that Bliss's notion of toxic masculinity can be seen as part of the mythopoetic movement's response to male feelings of powerlessness at a time when the feminist movement was challenging traditional male authority:

Thus Shepherd Bliss, for example, rails against what he calls 'toxic masculinity'—which he believes is responsible for most of the evil in the world—and proclaims the unheralded goodness of the men who fight the fires and till the soil and nurture their families.[8]

Academic usage

In the social sciences, toxic masculinity refers to traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall; this concept of toxic masculinity does not condemn men or male attributes, but rather emphasizes the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition.[9][10] Toxic masculinity is thus defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that consequently stigmatize and limit the emotions boys and men may comfortably express while elevating other emotions such as anger.[11] It is marked by economic, political, and social expectations that men seek and achieve dominance (the "alpha male").

In a gender studies context, Raewyn Connell refers to toxic practices that may arise out of what she terms hegemonic masculinity, rather than essential traits.[3] Connell argues that such practices, such as physical violence, may serve to reinforce men's dominance over women in Western societies. She stresses that such practices are a salient feature of hegemonic masculinity, although not always the defining features.[3][12]

Terry Kupers describes toxic masculinity as involving "the need to aggressively compete and dominate others"[13] and as "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence".[14][15] According to Kupers, toxic masculinity includes aspects of "hegemonic masculinity" that are socially destructive, "such as misogyny, homophobia, greed, and violent domination". He contrasts these traits with more positive traits such as "pride in [one's] ability to win at sports, to maintain solidarity with a friend, to succeed at work, or to provide for [one's] family".[14] Feminist author John Stoltenberg has argued that all traditional notions of masculinity are toxic and reinforce the oppression of women.[16][17]

Gender norms

According to social learning theory, teaching boys to suppress vulnerable emotions, as in the saying "big boys don't cry", is a significant part of gender socialization in Western society.[18][19]

According to Kupers, toxic masculine norms are a feature of life for men in American prisons, where they are reflected in the behavior of both staff and inmates. The qualities of extreme self-reliance, domination of other men through violence, and avoiding the appearance of either femininity or weakness, comprise an unspoken code among prisoners.[20][21] Suppressing vulnerable emotions is often adopted to successfully cope with the harsh conditions of prison life, defined by punishment, social isolation, and aggression. These factors likely play a role in suicide among male prisoners.[20][22]

Toxic masculinity can also take the form of bullying of boys by their peers and domestic violence directed toward boys at home.[23] The often violent socialization of boys produces psychological trauma through the promotion of aggression and lack of interpersonal connection. Such trauma is often disregarded, such as in the saying "boys will be boys" about bullying.[24] The promotion of idealized masculine roles emphasizing toughness, dominance, self-reliance, and the restriction of emotion can begin as early as infancy. Such norms are transmitted by parents, other male relatives, and members of the community.[18][25] Media representations of masculinity on websites such as YouTube often promote similar stereotypical gender roles.[25]

According to Ronald F. Levant and others, traditionally prescribed masculine behaviors can produce harmful effects including violence (including sexual assault and domestic violence), promiscuity, risky and/or socially irresponsible behaviors including substance use disorders, and dysfunction in relationships.[18][26]

Health effects

The American Psychological Association has warned that "traditional masculinity ideology" is associated with negative effects on mental and physical health.[27][28] Men who adhere to traditionally masculine cultural norms, such as risk-taking, violence, dominance, the primacy of work, need for emotional control, desire to win, and pursuit of social status, tend to be more likely to experience psychological problems such as depression, stress, body image problems, substance use, and poor social functioning.[29] The effect tends to be stronger in men who also emphasize "toxic" masculine norms, such as self-reliance, seeking power over women, and sexual promiscuity or "playboy" behavior.[10][30]

The social value of self-reliance has diminished over time as modern American society has moved more toward interdependence.[25] Both self-reliance and the stifling of emotional expression can work against mental health, as they make it less likely for men to seek psychological help or to possess the ability to deal with difficult emotions.[25] Preliminary research suggests that cultural pressure for men to be stoic and self-reliant may also shorten men's lifespans by causing them to be less likely to discuss health problems with their physicians.[31][32]

Toxic masculinity is also implicated in socially-created public health problems, such as elevated rates of alcoholism and certain types of cancer among men,[33] or the role of "trophy-hunting" sexual behavior in rates of transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.[34]

Psychiatrist Frank Pittman wrote about how men are harmed by traditional masculine norms, suggesting this includes shorter lifespans, greater incidence of violent death, and ailments such as lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.[17]


Toxic masculinity has received criticism as a concept. Some conservatives, as well as many in the alt-right, see toxic masculinity as an incoherent concept or believe that there is no such thing as toxic masculinity.[35]:2[36] In January 2019, conservative political commentators criticized the new American Psychological Association guidelines for warning about harms associated with "traditional masculinity ideology", arguing that it constitutes an attack on masculinity.[37] David French of the National Review criticized the APA guidelines on "traditional masculinity ideology" for including "very common, inherent male characteristics" including "anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence." French argued that these traits are not "inherently wrong or harmful," and that a proper understanding of traditional masculinity "rejects harmful extremes."[38] APA chief of professional practice Jared Skillings responded to conservative criticism, stating that the report's discussion of traditional masculinity is about "negative traits such as violence or over-competitiveness or being unwilling to admit weakness" and noting that the report also discusses positive traits traditionally associated with masculinity such as "courage, leadership, protectiveness".[37]

The concept of toxic masculinity has also been criticized from a feminist perspective. Andrea Waling and Michael Salter have argued that the concept of "toxic masculinity" in contradistinction to "healthy masculinity" emerged from a misunderstanding of Raewyn Connell's 1987 work on hegemonic masculinity.[39]:366[36] To Waling, "toxic masculinity" is problematic because it presents men as victims of an unavoidable pathology,[39]:368 an essentialist approach that ignores the surrounding social and material context and the personal responsibility of men.[39]:369 Waling also argues that instructing men to practice "healthy masculinity" dismisses androgyny and adopting aspects of femininity as valid options for men, thereby perpetuating gender binaries and privileging masculinity over femininity.[39]:369 Waling also argues that "toxic masculinity" dismisses certain traditionally masculine traits that are appropriate in some situations.[39]:368 Salter notes that, properly interpreted, Raewyn Connell's work presents male violence, not as a result of toxicity intruding into masculinity itself but rather as resulting from the surrounding sociopolitical setting, which induces "inner conflicts over social expectations and male entitlement".[36]

See also


  1. Salter, Michael (27 February 2019). "The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity". The Atlantic. Retrieved 3 May 2020.
  2. Salter, Michael (27 February 2019). "The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 11 May 2019. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  3. Ging, Debbie (20 May 2017). "Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere" (PDF). Men and Masculinities. 22 (4): 638–657. doi:10.1177/1097184X17706401. S2CID 149239953. Although the term 'toxic masculinity' has become widely used in both academic and popular discourses, its origins are somewhat unclear.
  4. Flood, Michael. "Toxic masculinity: A primer and commentary". XY. Archived from the original on 12 June 2019. Retrieved 12 June 2019.
  5. Ferber, Abby L. (July 2000). "Racial Warriors and Weekend Warriors: The Construction of Masculinity in Mythopoetic and White Supremacist Discourse". Men and Masculinities. 3 (1): 30–56. doi:10.1177/1097184X00003001002. S2CID 146491795. Reprinted in Murphy, Peter F., ed. (2004). Feminism and Masculinities. Oxford University Press. pp. 228–243. ISBN 978-0-19-926724-8.
  6. Longwood, W. Merle; Schipper, William C.; Culbertson, Philip; Kellom, Gar (2012). Forging the Male Spirit: The Spiritual Lives of American College Men. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers. pp. 65–6. ISBN 978-1-55-635305-5.
  7. Hartman, Rebecca (2003). "Agrarianism". In Carroll, Bret (ed.). American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia. SAGE Publications. pp. 20–22. ISBN 978-1-45-226571-1.
  8. Kimmel, Michael S., ed. (1995). The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement (and the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 366–7. ISBN 1-56-639365-5.
  9. Hess, Peter (21 November 2016). "Sexism may be bad for men's mental health". Popular Science. Archived from the original on 7 July 2017. Retrieved 12 June 2017.
  10. Kaplan, Sarah (22 November 2016). "Sexist men have psychological problems". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 9 March 2017. Retrieved 12 June 2017.
  11. Liu, William Ming (14 April 2016). "How Trump's 'Toxic Masculinity' Is Bad for Other Men". Motto (Time). New York. Archived from the original on 21 January 2018. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  12. Connell, R. W.; Messerschmidt, James W. (December 2005). "Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept". Gender and Society. 19 (6): 829–859. CiteSeerX doi:10.1177/0891243205278639. JSTOR 27640853. S2CID 5804166.
  13. Kupers, quoted in Ging (2017), p. 3
  14. Kupers, Terry A. (June 2005). "Toxic masculinity as a barrier to mental health treatment in prison". Journal of Clinical Psychology. 61 (6): 713–724. CiteSeerX doi:10.1002/jclp.20105. PMID 15732090.
  15. Kupers, Terry A. (2010). "Role of Misogyny and Homophobia in Prison Sexual Abuse" (PDF). UCLA Women's Law Journal. 18 (1): 107–30. doi:10.5070/L3181017818. Archived (PDF) from the original on 16 August 2017. Retrieved 15 May 2017.
  16. Cooper, Wilbert L. (26 July 2018). "All Masculinity Is Toxic". Vice. Archived from the original on 12 April 2019. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  17. Dowd, Nancy E. (2000). Redefining Fatherhood. New York University Press. pp. 185–6. ISBN 0-8147-1925-2. [Pittman] links toxic masculinity to men being raised by women without male role models. In his view, if men raised children they would save their lives, and save the world. On the other hand, John Stoltenberg views toxic masculinity from a strongly antimasculinist, radical feminist perspective, arguing that masculinity can be serious, pervasive, and hateful.
  18. Levant, Ronald F. (1996). "The new psychology of men". Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 27 (3): 259–265. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.27.3.259.
  19. Lindsey, Linda L. (2015). Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective. Routledge. p. 70. ISBN 978-1-31-734808-5.
  20. Kupers, Terry A. (2004). "Prisons". In Kimmel, Michael S.; Aronson, Amy (eds.). Men and Masculinities: A Social, Cultural, and Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO. pp. 630–633. ISBN 978-1-57-607774-0.
  21. Kupers, Terry A. (2007). "Working with men in prison". In Flood, Michael; et al. (eds.). International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities. Routledge. pp. 648–649. ISBN 978-1-13-431707-3.
  22. Mankowski, E.S.; Smith, R.M. (2016). "Men's Mental Health and Masculinities". In Friedman, Howard S. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Mental Health, Volume 3 (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK; Waltham, Massachusetts: Academic Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-12-397753-3.
  23. Keith, Thomas (2017). Masculinities in Contemporary American Culture: An Intersectional Approach to the Complexities and Challenges of Male Identity. Routledge. p. 2. ISBN 978-1-31-759534-2. In some ways, bullying and other forms of coercion and violence are part of what has been termed toxic masculinity, a form of masculinity that creates hierarchies favoring some and victimizing others. Disrupting these forms of toxic masculinity benefits boys and men, rather than attacks and blames men for these behaviors.
  24. Liu, William Ming (2017). "Gender Role Conflict". In Nadal, Kevin L. (ed.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Psychology and Gender. Thousand Oaks, Calif. p. 711. ISBN 978-1-48-338427-6.
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  26. Liu, William Ming; Shepard, Samuel J. (2011). "Masculinity Competency Typology for Men Who Migrate". In Blazina, C.; Shen-Miller, D.S. (eds.). An International Psychology of Men: Theoretical Advances, Case Studies, and Clinical Innovations. Routledge. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-13-528065-9.
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  28. Fortin, Jacey (10 January 2019). "Traditional Masculinity Can Hurt Boys, Say New A.P.A. Guidelines". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 7 June 2019. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
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  33. Kirby, Roger; Kirby, Mike (2019). "The perils of toxic masculinity: four case studies". Trends in Urology & Men's Health. 10 (5): 18–20. doi:10.1002/tre.712.
  34. Muparamoto, Nelson (December 2012). "'Trophy-hunting scripts' among male university students in Zimbabwe". African Journal of AIDS Research. 11 (4): 319–326. doi:10.2989/16085906.2012.754831. ISSN 1608-5906. PMID 25860190. S2CID 25920016.
  35. Sculos, Bryant W. (2017). "Who's Afraid of 'Toxic Masculinity'?". Class, Race and Corporate Power. 5 (3). doi:10.25148/CRCP.5.3.006517. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
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