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Is Toxic Masculinity a Real Thing?

Toxic masculinity affects women and sexual minorities. Is it healthy for men?

Clem Onojeghuo clemono2 [CC0]
Source: Clem Onojeghuo clemono2 [CC0]

The “intense culture war focused around men” was reignited last year when the American Psychological Association (APA) issued its Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. The central thesis was clearly negative: traditional masculinity, characterized by “emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance and competitiveness,” leads men to be disproportionally involved in “aggression and violence as a means to resolve interpersonal conflict.” Toxic masculinity is not good for men because it can result in abusing substances, spending time in jail, and committing suicide. Although the APA report received widespread criticism, it at least refrained from labeling all masculinity as necessarily toxic and from characterizing singular masculinity.

In its conventional form, masculinity is frequently portrayed as essentially anti-feminine and as eschewing any sign of weakness. It creates “boys and men [who] have been socialized to use aggression and violence as a means to resolve interpersonal conflict.” Thus, boys know they are to avoid intimacy and connection with other boys, with the net effect of gaining a greater degree of interpersonal, social, economic, and political power in a patriarchal society that glorifies “hegemonic masculinity” and “heterosexist stereotypes.” The power gained is at the expense of girls/women and sexual minorities.

One objection to the APA Guidelines came, predictably, from the political right. Mark Tapson, writing in the National Review, countered what he perceived to be an all-out assault on men and masculinity by women, feminists, and liberals. Tapson filled his article with stories and photos in the news media that depicted the “true chivalric nature of masculinity.” His references were to super-masculine men fighting fires and hurricanes, saving lives, and “simply doing what good men do.” These men were acting upon "their natural responsibility as protectors, stepping up, at risk to their own lives, to help those unable to help themselves. It is this aspect of manhood for which men are never given credit by those deconstructionists in the culture and in academia who view masculinity as an obstacle to their agenda.” To Tapson, masculinity is not toxic but a gift to women, sexual minorities, and society; women should want and marry masculine men. These men are “behaving as a man, a real man.”

A second objection came from academic scientists. Lamenting in the New York Times the APA’s nearly singular focus on the social and cultural determinants of masculinity and its historical amnesia regarding the evolution of masculinity, psychologist Steven Pinker faulted the Guidelines for presenting men as if they were born as a “blank slate,” without biological and genetic influences that affect sex differences in gender expression. To Pinker, the report failed to acknowledge that since the Middle Ages the evolution of men has “changed from a macho willingness to retaliate violently to an insult to the ability to exert self-control, dignity, reserve, and duty. It’s the culture of the gentleman, the man of dignity and quiet strength, the mensch.” Pinker also pointed out that repressing emotions is not necessarily bad or that expressing them is good:

A large literature showing that people with greater self-control, particularly those who repress anger rather than “venting,” lead healthier lives: they get better grades, have fewer eating disorders, drink less, have fewer psychosomatic aches and pains, are less depressed, anxious, phobic, and paranoid, have higher self-esteem, are more conscientious, have better relationships with their families, have more stable friendships, are less likely to have sex they regretted, are less likely to imagine themselves cheating in a monogamous relationship.

Perhaps all sides would agree that masculinity per se is not necessarily maladaptive or destructive, which raises the obvious point that a singular masculinity does not exist because there are diverse masculinities and the toxic variety is actually overdrawn and constitutes only a small minority of men’s behavior.

From a scientific perspective, one other point strikes me. In nearly every discussion of toxic masculinity, the causal link between gendered behavior and the hypothesized injurious effects on self or others are unspecified, meshed, or ignored. For example, although it is known that women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, men are more likely to commit suicide. But are men who display high levels of toxic masculinity more likely than non-toxic men to kill themselves? Is their higher suicide rate the result of their masculine socialization or their male biology (e.g., testosterone)? Are more masculine men more likely to abuse women and sexual minorities, or to gain political and economic power? We assume so, but are these assumptions true?

According to the APA Guidelines, today’s masculine man needs “more encouragement to enhance one side of the masculine virtues — the dignity, responsibility, self-control, and self-reliance — while inhibiting others, such as machismo, violence, and drive for dominance.”

I agree.

Professor of rhetoric and comparative literature Judith Butler argued that these issues and, especially, feminism have been good for both girls and boys by letting them find their way to:

Activities and passions that more fully express who they are and let them flourish apart from any social judgments about what is appropriate for their gender. Indeed, the only prescription that most feminist positions make is to treat people with dignity, to honor the equality of the sexes, to accept gender diversity, and to oppose all forms of violence against people, whether young or old, on the basis of their gender or sexuality.

I agree.

References

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group (2018). APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Available at: www.apa.org/about/ policy/psychological-practice-boys-men- guidelines.pdf

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/opinion/apa-guidelines-men-boys.html

https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/09/hurricane-harvey-toxic-masculini…

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