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Men Will Be Men: The Troubling Origin of Toxic Masculinity

The troubling history behind what we've come to call toxic masculinity.

I write a lot about shame and how crippling it is for people struggling with mental health issues and addictions. And for the past 11 years, my focus has stayed primarily within those two areas, rarely expanding beyond them.

But that wasn’t truly the first area in which I experienced my own shame. No. That honor was bestowed on sex, a topic I developed a complex relationship with before the age of 10 and that continued progressing in its impact on me until well into my late 20s, and maybe even 30s. It all started innocently with self-exploration and such, but moved quickly once I discovered my father’s porn collection, at which point my ideas about sex, and what it meant to be a man, developed unchecked for years.

It wasn’t until my marriage almost disintegrated because of my habits, unhealthy beliefs, and gaps in understanding that I even realized there was something to address. And it is, in some ways, specifically that blind spot that I think is important to recognize. Because, while there is certainly a movement to assess male-female relationships and what we’re calling Toxic Masculinity, I believe that there is a whole lot missing in a conversation that focuses on "sex addiction," “toxicity,” and “predators” and not quite enough on a bigger picture that, like my own experience, we may be unaware of.

Over the next few months, I want to delve deeply into the topic of masculinity and unpack the impact that our current version of it has on society, including an increase in aggression and shame among men when they feel like they don’t measure up to it. In this post, the first in a series, I will define the way I see masculinity, and its relationship to toxic masculinity, with the hopes of giving a reference point to start examining your own relationship with the issue.

What Is Masculinity?

“By far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author

My own experience certainly leads me to agree with Chimamanda’s quote to an extent: Men have traditionally been taught that they have to be "masculine" above all else, and so anything that jeopardizes that is to be considered a threat. But I think we do something else as well: We equip boys with no tools and a complete misunderstanding of romantic relationships and intimacy, leaving them to rely on ancient standards, fantasy-based edutainment, and misinformed perspectives to handle the world.

I know that it was so for me.

Ripped abs and muscle cars, guns, violence, and cage-fighting, boxing, video-games, Viagra, dirty magazines, and endless porn: These are the still the educational standards of boys when it comes to learning about manhood. Research shows that about 80% of teens consume porn, with about 25% doing so habitually.(1)

And then we wonder what went wrong when they become men.

I can say that these were the standards I learned to be measured by. Even though I fit few of them, I was fully aware that there was a standard of “manhood” and that I was supposed to at least strive for it, if not actually reach it.

  • I was not an alpha male, but I knew to look up to them.
  • I didn’t have every girl fawning at my sight, but I knew I was supposed to strive for it.
  • I didn’t have the body of an athlete, but I felt obligated to do what I could to attain it.

I always wanted others to consider me worthy of reaching alpha status, and while the alpha men in my social circle never made the tabloids or news, their actions certainly mirrored and resembled those of the big names. But I’m 43 and the times have supposedly changed, so how do the Harvey Wiensteins, Jeffery Epsteins, and Donald Trumps of the world continue to not only survive but thrive, even as the #metoo movement has taken a firm hold?

Could Toxic Masculinity be to blame? Or is it simply the way we raise men to be?

Early humans, apes, and other primates often exerted control over their communities through brute physical strength and intimidation (with some high levels of impulsivity and aggression thrown in). The ultimate expression of this among humans can be seen through military conflict and war, which have been the dominion of men for centuries. As we've aged and matured as a species, we've tried to leave behind that early reality in which power, violence, and control always won out, at least in the physical sense. This movement gave us the women’s rights movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the peace movements of the 60s and 70s. The messaging that standard roles and gender-based expectations were changing was clear.

Yet today, many men still pursue the primary and ancient stereotypes of masculinity as their ultimate indication of what being a Man means(2). And men in positions of power often feel comfortable, or even obliged towards, displaying their abilities and success by these means.

If you’re a rich, successful, and/or well-known man there is almost an expectation that you will be able to exert your will on other men — and women — as a reward for your success and a byproduct of your wealth.

It might seem ancient, but it’s also true.

Here’s the thing: As a society, we continue to place explicit and implicit expectations on men to behave in these primitive ways – conquering, succeeding, fighting and showing off their strength — while supporting men in avoiding being physically or emotionally vulnerable. Still, we become perplexed when these standards lead to aggressive and controlling behavior.

The evidence is everywhere once you look for it. Movies, television shows, graphic novels, and books primarily send the same message: Men get the women, they take no bulls**t, they control everything, and beat down whatever stands in their way (3). From Maverick in Top Gun to Johnny in Dirty Dancing all the way to Tony Stark in Iron Man, the lesson to young men is clear: Real men are tough and they destroy anything that doesn’t conform to their will. And you want to be a real man.

And so, the reality of the situation is this: What we are calling Toxic Masculinity is simply the apex, or the endpoint, of the continuum of traditionally regarded masculinity. Those who have become very good men have been in essence almost directed toward having what we’ve now come to call a toxic version of masculinity, at least historically.

And the trouble is that it cuts even deeper than that, because I believe that this issue is also at the core of so many of the other societal problems we face including sexual assault (4), drug use, alcohol use (2), LGBTQ issues (5) and much of the partner abuse we see.

We’ll dive into that topic in the next installment of this series.


1 - Pizzol, D., Bertoldo, A., & Foresta, C. (2016). Adolescents and web porn: a new era of sexuality. International journal of adolescent medicine and health, 28(2), 169-173.

2 - Locke, B. D., & Mahalik, J. R. (2005). Examining masculinity norms, problem drinking, and athletic involvement as predictors of sexual aggression in college men. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(3), 279.

3 - Weisbuch, M., Beal, D., & O'Neal, E. C. (1999). How masculine ought I be? Men's masculinity and aggression. Sex Roles, 40(7-8), 583-592.

4 - Truman, D. M., Tokar, D. M., & Fischer, A. R. (1996). Dimensions of masculinity: Relations to date rape supportive attitudes and sexual aggression in dating situations. Journal of Counseling & Development, 74(6), 555-562.

5 - Haider, S. (2016). The Shooting in Orlando, Terrorism or Toxic Masculinity (or Both?). Men and Masculinities, 19(5), 555-565.

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