New Findings on Toxic Masculinity
The relation between masculine norms, gender roles, and well-being is examined.
Posted March 19, 2019
“I am not saying all men are terrorists. I am saying that the vast majority of those involved in acts of terror are men,” says Sophie Walker, a former leader of UK's Women's Equality Party. “For raising this point in the wake of the Christchurch attack I have received threats of rape and humiliation….But refusing to make the link between violence and toxic masculinity means that we are less equipped to halt it.” So what is toxic masculinity? There is no agreed-upon definition, but toxic masculinity generally refers to harmful and destructive behaviors associated with certain aspects of traditional masculinity.
The recently released American Psychological Association’s first-ever guidelines for working with boys and men (pdf file of the report) also does not directly refer to toxic masculinity but traditional masculinity. The report suggests traditional masculinity is associated with a variety of (mostly negative) outcomes such as anti-femininity, risk, adventure, achievement, violence, and avoidance of appearing weak.
Perhaps it is due to rigid norms of traditional masculinity (e.g., risk-taking, dominance) that the toxic version of masculinity is associated with negative health and social outcomes. Examples of these outcomes include the following: Men have a shorter life expectancy than women, are more likely to die by suicide, and are more likely to commit violent crimes (and be victims of it too).
But does the existence of these negative associations with masculinity mean everything about traditional masculinity is toxic? Or should the label toxic masculinity apply only to certain masculine norms (e.g., ones that encourage excessive drinking or aggressive behavior)?
One answer to this question is provided by an article, published in the January issue of Psychology of Men & Masculinity, which examines the influence of masculine norms on health-related outcomes and well-being in a sample of male college students.
Let us review the study and its findings.
Masculine norms and health outcomes
Data for this investigation came from two waves of a three-wave longitudinal study of alcohol use in college students. Participants were 278 male students (18-20 years of age; 53% White, 30% Asian American, and 13% African American or Hispanic/Latino). Data for Wave 1 and Wave 2 were collected during the spring of the first, and fall of the second year of college (6-months’ time difference).
The study used three measures:
One assessed eudaimonic well-being—autonomy, mastery, personal growth, relationships, sense of purpose, and self-acceptance.
The second measure evaluated masculine norm conformity—emotional control, aversion to homosexuality, desire for multiple sex partners, striving for power and status, risk-taking, self-reliance, aggression, and desire to win.
The third measure examined gender role conflicts: work-family issues, competitiveness, restricted emotional expression, etc.
Masculinity and well-being
Correlational analyses showed a significant negative association at Wave 1 between well-being and masculine norms (mainly risk-taking and power). So risk-taking and striving for power were linked with lower well-being.
At Wave 2, well-being was negatively linked with the following variables: power, desire for multiple sex partners, restricted emotional expression, and family-work conflict.
However, a positive correlation was observed as well; Wave 2 well-being was positively related to a desire to win.
Hierarchical regressions also suggested that Wave 2 well-being was negatively related to power, desire for multiple sexual partners, and restricted emotionality—but positively related to a desire to win.
Overall, masculine norms explained over 30% of well-being at Wave 2.
Positive/negative associations between masculinity and well-being
Why was masculinity linked with the above outcomes? The answer likely depends on the particular aspect of masculinity and masculine norms under examination. Take, for instance, the masculine norms related to winning (which were positively correlated with success and well-being): It may be that through emphasizing accomplishments, these norms have a positive effect on men’s sense of achievement and mastery—and thus men’s eudaimonic well-being.
Now consider potential reasons for negative associations between well-being and masculinity; first, the power/dominance norms: The authors note, “Men who have internalized the power norm may be more likely to take risky and extreme measures (e.g., perpetration of violence) to establish dominance and might seek more risky opportunities to assert their masculinity” (p. 145).1
Similarly, the norm of restricted emotionality can be harmful to the well-being of young men because it hinders identity development and the formation of new social connections and romantic relationships in an important developmental period in their life.
Based on the present investigation of masculine norms, it appears traditional masculinity is often toxic and harmful, and rarely beneficial. The main positive association found was between masculinity’s norm of winning and well-being. To the extent that masculine norms of winning encourage striving toward success and accomplishment, they may enhance one’s sense of mastery and competence.
In contrast, masculine norms overemphasizing power/dominance, restricted emotionality, and having multiple sexual partners may be responsible for the negative associations between masculinity and well-being.
How can health professionals help men who are struggling with adhering to toxic masculine norms? One, they can validate these men and normalize their difficulties in trying to follow such unrealistic norms. Clinicians might, in addition, assist men “cope with the repercussions of challenging toxic masculinity in favor of adopting more positive masculinity” (145-146).1 Of course, challenging norms will not be easy. For instance, political commentator Glenn Beck recently suggested Donald Trump is an example of “men being men,” because he “marrie[d] a supermodel” and because “he fights back, he doesn’t flinch.” Young men need to learn there is more to masculinity than that. A lot more.
1. Kaya, A., Iwamoto, D. K., Brady, J., Clinton, L., & Grivel, M. (2019). The role of masculine norms and gender role conflict on prospective well-being among men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 20, 142-147.