E. J. R. David Ph.D.

Unseen and Unheard

Dear Fathers: Let's Talk to Our Sons About Toxic Masculinity

For Father’s Day and beyond, explore the dangers of toxic masculinity.

Posted Jun 15, 2016

Father's Day is coming.

In the next few days, there will be plenty of well-intentioned "Happy Father's Day" greetings all over Facebook and many stories will be shared to honor fathers. I, as a father of three children, will most likely receive social media shoutouts, text messages, and phone calls.

However, given the continued high rates of domestic violence, violence against women, and sexual assaults in our country, the highly publicized Stanford rape case, and most recently the tragedy in Orlando wherein hundreds of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQ) individuals were specifically targeted and murdered, I am not sure that many fathers who will be celebrated, honored, and given presents on Father's Day deserve such accolades.

And I am including myself in that list; at this point, I'm not sure I deserve any congratulations for the job I am doing as a father.

This is because, as fathers, I think many of us have been doing a terrible job in terms of what we teach our children – especially our sons – about masculinity.

Let me be more explicit: I think many of us fathers have largely contributed to the propagation of a toxic and dangerous understanding of masculinity that not only is unhealthy for our sons – as research suggests that toxic masculinity may lead to substance abuse, depression, untreated depression, suicide, and other health problems among boys and men – but is also seriously destructive to our society.

And because of the distorted – and therefore harmful – understanding of masculinity that we follow, pass on to our children, and allow to proliferate in our society and seep deeply into our institutions, systems, minds, and hearts, we have played a big role in harnessing, reinforcing, and harboring the hate which led to the carnage in Orlando.

Yes, my fellow fathers – through our endorsement of toxic masculinity – we are largely responsible for the troublingly high rates of violence against women, as well as the epidemic of sexual assaults against children, women, and men. And yes, my fellow fathers, we are also largely to blame for the massacre in Orlando.

No, we are not the shooter’s father. No, we didn’t know him. And no, we didn’t shoot people.

E.J.R. David
Source: E.J.R. David

But many of us fathers have taught our sons to be grossed out when they see two men kissing. We have taught our sons to be offended and disgusted by the sight of two men holding hands or showing affection in public. We have taught our sons that it’s morally wrong and sinful and abnormal for two men or two women to love and marry each other. We have taught our sons to be afraid of LGBTQ people, to see them as mentally and morally ill, as threats, as pedophiles, as sexual predators. We have taught our sons that it’s acceptable – perhaps even funny and appropriate or true or just “keeping it real" because we're tired of being “politically correct” – to use derogatory and inferiorizing terms against LGBTQ people. We have taught our sons that gay men aren’t “real men.” We have taught our sons that being called “gay” is the most powerful, insulting, and devastating attack on their masculinity – an attack that will necessarily call for a “manly” response, which most likely means violence because that’s how we “handle things like a man.”

We have taught our sons to be violent. We have taught our sons that they are entitled to have power and control over people. We have taught our sons that it is their destiny to be the dominant figure in the family, in the classroom, in the workplace, in society. We have taught our sons to glorify violence, and that the best way to earn respect is to display violence – or at least demonstrate a potential to inflict violence. We have taught our sons that the best and most effective way – the most “manly” way – to handle conflicts and disagreements is through violence. We have taught our sons that they can and should overpower people.

We have taught our sons that effeminate people are weaker, inferior, or deserving of destruction and exploitation. We have taught our sons that possessing and displaying what this society considers to be “feminine” characteristics is a bad thing for a man, and that they need to fight, resist, hide, ignore, and get rid of those feelings, tendencies, and behaviors. And if they can’t, we inflict “tough love”  on them, to make them less “soft,” to make them “hard,” and we try to beat the gay, the feminine, the “sh!t” out of them.

Through all of these, we teach them to be violent toward themselves. We teach them to be violent toward others. We teach them to be violent toward human beings who we have convinced them to see as inferior. We teach them to be violent toward others who might remind them of their alleged inferiority. We teach them to be ashamed of and hate parts of themselves that make them who they are, parts of themselves that make them complete human beings. We teach them to hate other people. We teach them to hate.

And because we have been a big part of the problem, we can now also choose to be a big part of the solution.

My fellow fathers – we need to step up and do better.

Let’s teach our sons that they are not entitled to have power or control over women, over LGBTQ folks, or over any human being for that matter. Let’s teach our sons that it is not their right to exert force and control over a woman’s body, an LGBTQ body, or a child’s body. Let’s teach our sons that it is not their destiny to be the dominant force in this society. Let’s teach our sons that crying and being sad, soft, tender, affectionate, caring, kind, and loving do not make them less masculine or less of a man; instead, let’s teach them that such traits and emotions make them a more complete human. Let’s teach our sons that it’s okay to show affection, to care for, to love, to hug, and to kiss – even other men.

Let’s teach our sons that women and LGBTQ people can be powerful and strong too. Even further, let’s teach our sons that they should not be threatened by strong and powerful women and LGBTQ people. Let’s no longer teach our sons to fear, to feel insecure, and to hate. Instead, let’s teach our sons to love.

My fellow fathers, for this Father’s Day and beyond, let’s talk to our sons about masculinity and toxic masculinity. Let’s no longer talk to our sons about being “manly” and about being a “real man.” Instead, let’s talk to our sons about being a more complete human. 


P.S. - I would like to acknowledge that racism, Islamophobia, and even immigrant xenophobia are definitely parts of the complex reality of the tragedy in Orlando. So dads, in addition to toxic masculinity, we also need to talk to our children about these other issues as well.

For further readings, and for scholarly and empirical evidence supporting the statements in this piece, please see:

Chemali, S. (2013). The real boy crisis: 5 ways America tells boys not to be "girly." Salon. Retrieved (June 15, 2016) at: http://www.salon.com/2013/09/25/5_ways_america_tells_boys_not_to_be_girly/

Meyer, E.J. (2009). Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Nadal, K. L. (2013). That's So Gay!: Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Marcotte, A. (2016). Overcompensation Nation. Salon. Retrieved (June 14, 2016) at: http://www.salon.com/2016/06/13/overcompensation_nation_its_time_to_admit_that_toxic_masculinity_drives_gun_violence/


E.J.R. David, Ph.D. has two books, "Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino American Postcolonial Psychology" and "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups." 

Follow the author on Twitter.

More information about the author here.

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