Content Warning: Mentions of Harassment, Violence, and Suicide.
The phrase ‘Toxic Masculinity‘ draws a variety of reactions. For some, it is a fiction – something recently dreamt up by sectors of the transatlantic intelligentsia. For others, it is a blight on society – a roadblock on the route to gender equality, and a pernicious influence on men.
A survey from last year, using data collected by Yougov, suggested that around 12 million British people fit into the former category – 23% of under-35s don’t believe it has ever existed.
But what are we talking about? I have to be frank, before beginning the process of writing this article, I wasn’t clear on what the precise definition was, and I suspect you might not either.
Speaking to a friend on the issue, I got the following response:
‘I’d say the traits of ‘alpha masculinity’ which encourage men to be dominant by any means necessary and reinforce the perception of women as submissive parties. It results in not only violence towards women and men who don’t fit into that category, but a colossally detrimental impact on men’s mental health and wellbeing. See also: feminism benefits us all.’
The New York Times describes it as:
‘a set of behaviours and beliefs that include the following:
- Suppressing emotions and masking distress
- Maintaining an appearance of “hardness”
- Violence as an indicator of power (think: “tough-guy” behaviour).’
These track with my understanding, as a man, of what toxic masculinity is. The need to be seen as strong and in charge creates anxiety about being ‘found out‘ as weak, to which a significant number respond with fury, violence and contempt for those who made them feel that way, these being the ‘acceptable‘ responses to the denigration of their pride. And from there, the individual’s actions and feelings cause pain for the objects of his anger, and also himself, as they invite terrible consequences. Or to put it another way: fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering, as a wise man once said.
If a man were to let this dictate his actions, he might inflict serious harm on someone for a number of reasons. Rejection is one. The expectation and need to be perceived as holding the power conflicts strongly with being refused, particularly in a way that raises doubts about the individual’s sexual attractiveness or even prowess. Toxic masculinity therefore leaves a man feeling emasculated upon being turned down, despite the obvious fact that the object of their desires may have refused them on the grounds that they did not happen to be attracted to them, and the similarly obvious caveat that someone else might be.
Others, aware of how threatening they can appear to women, use it to fulfil their conceptions of their own power. In this way, we may find the twisted reasoning behind public harassment, that of men catcalling women they do not know, following them, or approaching them with unwanted and often discomforting conversation. The impunity with which these men can act, subject to a police force that is often either unresponsive or unhelpful, only confirms the sense of their own power. And, if you don’t believe me, I know women who have experienced everything that I’ve just described. You do too. And if you don’t, maybe consider why you’ve never had to find out.
There are, of course, many other ways this can affect men, including those which harm the man himself. The need to appear made of iron at all times and expectation to ‘just man up’ prevents many from seeking help when they need it, with often devastating consequences for the individual and those around them. Incidentally, three quarters of all suicides in the UK are men.
The need for a personal feeling of power, and the fragility of ego that comes with it, also incites violence between men. Perceived challenges to the male ego are answered with fists and knives, with violence considered the only acceptable solution to reaffirm masculinity. Men account for 74% of prosecutions in the UK, 85% of arrests, and a shocking 95% of the prison population. Crime, at its heart, is a refusal to be bound by the rules of society – a manifestation of a compulsion to be of greater importance than the victim. Desire for feelings of power and individual gratification, and the use of violence to achieve them, sometimes coupled with an affronted pride. Men are mostly the source. See the pattern?
What do we do to fix this? Well, education would be a start. Running workshops for boys in schools, encouraging them to think about and discuss the reasons and feelings behind certain actions and patterns of behaviour. Teaching PSHE lessons on gender-based violence and the carrying of offensive weapons. But more than that, it will take real cultural change. And that involves everyone, particularly men. So, talk to your mates. Talk to your sons, if you have them. Talk to your management, and if you have power to compel behavioural changes where necessary, for heaven’s sake do it. It’s long overdue.