When did masculinity become toxic? That was the first question asked by US Journalist Rekha Basu to my friend and colleague, Dr Jackson Katz at the Midwest Men’s Symposium held this week in Des Moines, Iowa. The event organised by the University of Northern Iowa’s Centre for Violence Prevention brought together a number of speakers, me included, to discuss men’s leadership and accountability around the ‘MeToo’ movement.
Toxic masculinity has become a much debated saying around the world. It’s a saying I don’t like and it’s one I try not to use, unless I’m pressed to discuss it.
When the term gets used, some men and some women very quickly take offence, believing that it assumes that masculinity is broken and toxic in and of itself. This assumption creates argument and disagreement between these men and others, who interpret the saying in a different very way.
For me the assumption that the phrase suggests that men are broken is wrong. That’s not what it means. Surely having the word ‘toxic’ at the start of the phrase suggests that it is a form of masculinity rather than masculinity in itself?
The term masculinity pertains to a set of attributes, behaviours and roles associated with boys and men. The use of the word toxic simply focuses on a particular aspect, an aspect that we as men seem too quick to debunk or ignore.
So, what do we mean when we use the term ‘toxic masculinity’?
Toxic masculinity for me is a pressure, a behaviour that manifests itself in a variety of acts. From acts of bullying and sexual harassment through to sexual assault and suicide it is clear there is an issue. If we have courage to go even deeper, we can include the pressure to conform to a look, an appearance or a behaviour. The need to prove yourself as a man to other men also provides an example of the toxicity of masculinity. Hard drinking, the taking of steroids or a need to prove your virility provide further examples.
Toxic masculinity is what happens when emotions are suppressed, and boys are told that they can’t express openly how they really feel. Toxic masculinity occurs when boys get the message that they have to be tough, all of the time
A few years ago, I came across a video of US wrestler Mark Mero. He’s a guy who delivers motivational inputs to young men and women across the United States. In a well watched clip, he talks about his mother and how his focus on his sport meant that he didn’t spend much time with his mum. When she died Mero was left feeling guilty and responsible. Watch the clip and you will see the young women openly shedding tears. Watch the boys, it’s clear they are desperate to express their feelings but remain unable to do so
In the clip every boy is both policing and being policed by other boys in the room. This is toxic masculinity in all its glory.
So, when did the toxic part of masculinity first appear? I suppose the answer goes right back, way back. It goes back to the first time a man used his power over another man, woman, boy or girl.
Another question I feel needs asked and responded to is, why did the term toxic masculinity become so well used? To answer this one, my response may make some men feel uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable when I started to explore the issue. I felt a shame when I started to realise that the majority of violence is being committed by men. Let me re-phrase that a bit. I felt shame when I realised that a ton of violence was being committed by a minority of men. Yes, women commit violence and that’s wrong, but we can’t ignore the facts. Men commit the majority of violence committed against women, children and other men. Men also kill themselves in way larger numbers than females do. That’s another fact.
So, the term has become part of our vocabulary not to have a go at men but because of these abusive and violent acts and because men still feel uncomfortable in speaking out.
Ok, it’s time to flip this chat. I said at the start that I don’t like the term, nor do I use it unless I’m pressed. I feel like this because it’s not a good starting point for any conversation. I don’t ignore the acts I detail above, I just feel that if I want to engage a group of men, it’s not a good strategy to bad mouth men right at the start of the conversation. I’ve learned that over the years. I’ve made the mistakes and been at the receiving end of men who feel they are being pointed at.
My strategy is to get men to the table. It’s a strategy that ‘invites men into a conversation rather than one that simply indicts them’. It’s there the broccoli can be served. If there is no one at the table there is no conversation. I see many attempts to engage men around violence start with discussions on men’s violence. As I say we have to talk about this, but surely there are better ways to get men involved.
Furthermore, we often miss the impact of early years experiences of boys and men. I’m not excusing behaviour, neither am I giving men a way out, I just feel that any violence prevention focus needs to be aware of the potential for trauma to have been part of a man’s life.
In the 2016 study entitled, ‘The promises and pitfalls of engaging male juvenile offenders in gender violence prevention and bystander education’ the author made it clear that early years trauma was a potential pitfall should it be ignored. Within the study the author describes a biography of masculinity that many men will bring with them to the ‘table’. We ignore this at our peril. Get it wrong you may actually make a situation worse. So, an awareness of early years experiences especially around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) I feel is essential for anyone working to engage boys and men on these issues.
My starting point is always the goodness and positivity I know exists in majority of men. When I work with men, I see many healthy traits of masculinity as opposed to the negative ones.
I see traits of strength, courage, humour, love and compassion with men rejecting the negative aspects. I work with men who are sickened by the allegations made against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and others. I see many men who would respect a man if they challenged abusive acts committed by another man. This is who men are. This is the masculinity I know that many men want and strive to achieve.
Whilst what I describe above appears positive, I also know that we can’t ignore the negative nor can I ignore the potential for men, to be affected by toxic masculinity and conform to an unhealthy behaviour. It’s in the air that as men we breath.
My strategy involves firstly getting men to the table, developing a conversation where men can share their thoughts. Thereafter I serve the distasteful aspects of masculinity (the broccoli). I find this approach allows me to meet men ‘where they are at’. It’s an effective strategy allowing me to create some positive conversations moving men through any defensiveness and shame to a place where they want to and feel able to act.
As men we shouldn’t feel challenged by the term ‘toxic masculinity’. The term doesn’t define us. It’s more of a warning of what can happen. As men we have the capacity and ability to step up when we see toxic masculinity. We need to lean into the term rather than simply critique it.
Our boys are confused. The term ‘be a man’ should not be as scary as many boys still find it.
Links to items discussed above
Mark Mero clip – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EyniGvsVg8
Promises and Pitfalls – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0886260516675466?journalCode=jiva