What Is Toxic Masculinity?

The buzzy social science term has a habit of rearing its ugly head in relationships.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?
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When it comes to understanding how American culture shapes men, who better to turn to than loving husband, doting dad, and former President of the United States Barack Obama? The now podcaster, who hosts Renegades: Born in the USA alongside Bruce Springsteen, recently shared that he talks to his daughters, Sasha and Malia, and their friends about how boys grow up learning that "the only clear, defining thing about being a man" is excelling in sports, sexual conquest, violence, and making money.

That issue is at the heart of toxic masculinity, a concept with wide sweeping consequences — from mass shootings to sexual assault and harassment that's been unearthed by the #MeToo movement. And while "toxic masculinity" has gotten increasingly more air time in recent years, it's also something many of us have experienced in everyday life. For instance, if you've ever been subject to the advances of a guy who won't take no for an answer, you've seen what toxic masculinity looks like up close and personal.

Shannon Chavez, Psy.D., a psychologist and sex therapist in Los Angeles, explains that toxic masculinity can be harmful to people of any gender. "It's the result of teaching men to suppress their emotions, act in an overly macho way, be aggressive, and use violence as a way to prove their power," she notes.

Here, the details on where the concept originated, its harmful effects, and what to do if a date or partner is struggling with the downstream effects of toxic masculinity.

Where the Term 'Toxic Masculinity' Comes From

Though it might feel like a newer hot button topic (that even Meryl Streep has weighed in on recently), the term "toxic masculinity," or what academics would prefer to refer to as "hegemonic masculinity," has been around for some time. The concept originated in the late 1980s as part of the mythopoetic men's movement of the 1980s and '90s, motivated in part as a reaction to second-wave feminism. Sociologist Raewyn Connell then wrote about how gender results from relations and behaviors — versus identities and attributes — and how typically masculine ideals like social respect, physical strength, and sexual potency become toxic when they set standards that are impossible to reach. In turn, boys and men can become insecure, which can cause them to rely on aggressive tactics to feel in control.

"Women, within this frame of mind, are seen as utilitarian — they should give me sex, attention, or respect — rather than as full humans who should have the right to consent to sex, have the right to demand a platform to speak, and fight for equity," notes Danielle Egan, professor of gender, sexuality and intersectionality studies at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.

How Toxic Masculinity Can Manifest

Men might be susceptible to toxic masculinity if, while growing up, they lacked male role models who could help to break down stereotypes of toxic masculinity by modeling healthy traits like providing, loving, and showing respect to women or if they were surrounded by a culture or community that encouraged toxic masculinity.

"For example, many cultures have the machismo belief that encourages men to be prideful in being aggressive, tough, and too strong for emotions," points out Chavez. "These beliefs hurt future generations by creating cultural norms that are unrealistic and harmful."

Either way, being raised with beliefs that are rooted in toxic masculinity can make for long-term mental and emotional challenges that seep into relationships. According to Chavez, toxic masculinity can manifest in the following ways:

  • A higher occurrence of mental health issues like depression, substance abuse, or other deviant behavior.
  • Aggressive behavior such as chauvinism.
  • Physical aggression.
  • Sexual violence.
  • Homophobia.
  • Bullying behavior.
  • Emotional abuse or coercive behavior.
  • They may be degrading towards women and sexually coercive, feeling that it is their right to treat women with disrespect and act superior.

Toxic Masculinity Red Flags

Various warning signs can serve to give you a heads-up that your date or partner could be under the influence of toxic masculinity. A few of the most common, according to experts:

He struggles to express his emotions.

Toxic masculinity can lead to repression of untreated mental health issues, early childhood trauma such as neglect, abuse, and abandonment, or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, says Chavez. Addiction can go hand-in-hand with these issues. "It's a way to cope with suppressed emotions and unprocessed trauma," she says.

He can't tolerate a "no."

The biggest red flag would be a partner who pressures you into sex when you are not interested in sex, says Egan. "This can take the form of subtle pressure that increases to displays of anger or worse," she explains. "If you find a partner who is continuing to try to work a 'yes' out no matter how many times you have expressed yourself, you have a problem."

Egan says this particular toxic masculinity red flag is rooted in narcissism. "At the most extreme levels, narcissists treat others as utilitarian rather than as full individuals," she notes. "I think this is a particularly problematic form of narcissism because it gets justified by dominant culture."

He shows little interest in your thoughts or ideas.

A date or partner who isn't engaging with your interests, desires, or educational or career aspirations could be struggling with toxic masculinity, points out Egan. Narcissists need the people in their lives to reflect back to them what they want to see — which is themselves. So anything other than that (e.g. your hopes and dreams), feels like a loss, says Egan.

He demeans you.

Men affected by toxic masculinity might devalue or denigrate your feelings, says Egan. "If you bring up your feelings of how you are being treated, they tend to belittle or deny your experience," she notes. "I find this happens most when their take or their vision of the world is challenged."

How to Deal With Toxic Masculinity In a Relationship

Whether you've experienced it as a "tough-guy" date looking to pick a fight at a bar or a partner who perpetually makes sexist "jokes", it's hard to deny that the downstream effects of toxic masculinity are everywhere — and often take a toll on our romantic relationships. But it is possible for both men to confront and heal its effects. "It is important to remember that there are many other options for masculine expression that do not involve oppressing one's partner," says stef shuster, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. "We have a lot of examples of other kinds of masculinities that do not involve self-harm and harming others. It isn't a disease or something that one is born with."

If toxic masculinity rears its ugly head in your relationship, shuster recommends seeing a couples therapist who can help you and your partner address problematic beliefs and behaviors. There's just one caveat: "I would carefully consider if my partner is able to change, and if not, it might be time to get out of that relationship," they note.

A few signs a partner is willing to do the work to change, according to Chavez:

  • They take accountability for their behavior.
  • They're patient and understanding of your views and feelings, demonstrating empathy and support.
  • They take the first step in recognizing the problem and committing to a path of healing themselves and their partnership.

Ultimately, men looking to heal from toxic masculinity can find ways to be aligned with masculinity in a healthy way such as working hard, having good values, and taking care of themselves and others, notes Chavez.

Ideally, all people should move past the notion of masculine and feminine stereotypical traits because they are social constructs, she says. "All beings have both masculine and feminine energy and can embody all characteristics of strength, power, nurturing, and emotional intelligence."

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