When I first heard about the idea of “toxic masculinity,” I nodded my head “yes.” It was useful for describing certain harmful behaviors I’d seen in myself and other men, and in movies and other media since I could remember.
But not all men agree with me. Many react similarly to Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who in recent years has made headlines for challenging ideas like preferred gender pronouns and white privilege.
“I see a backlash against masculinity,” Peterson told the BBC in 2018. “A sense that there is something toxic [about it.]”
I don’t see it that way. Knowing that certain behaviors of mine are harmful — and that I learned them as a boy — has helped me in relationships, with friends, and at work.
It’s also helped me become closer with my dad — knowing that his generation was steeped in messages about what it meant to be a “real man.” And it’s helped me empathize with the women in my life, many of whom have been hurt by men unaware of the toxic aspects of their masculinity.
So, let’s say you’re cringing right now, feeling defensive of your manhood. Or you’re curious about yourself or the men in your life. What you should know is, toxic masculinity doesn’t mean that all men are bad — or that everything that men do is bad.
It’s simply an idea that describes certain behaviors many men have been taught make a “real man.” Things like acting tough, being aggressive, not asking for help, avoiding talking about emotions.
Things I see on the broadcast and in commercials when I watch my favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys. Or when I voyeuristically hate-watch Fox News.
These behaviors aren’t inherent to being male. Men weren’t born with them already downloaded into our chromosomes. (Yes, there are hormonal differences between people born with different genitalia. But how much they impact behavior is up for debate. Either way, socialization has a massive impact on gender identity, because genders are literally made up.)
We learned toxic masculine behaviors as boys. We were socialized to value competition over collaboration. To be logical rather than emotional. To tough it out rather than ask for help. To think that any talk about sex that isn’t about dominating women is “gay.”
Yes, things like leading others through difficulty, being self-sufficient, and not giving up when the going gets tough are good tools to have in our toolbox — regardless of gender. But when we hold on to these behaviors tightly, as if they were requirements for being a “real man” — and as if women couldn’t do them — they become harmful.
For example, my partner lives an hour away in Washington, D.C. I used to live in her city, but she knows her area much more than I do.
Still, I find myself insisting that I know which turns to take when we leave and return to her house. When she tells me which way to go, I get triggered. My mind spirals into anxious thoughts about our relationship.
Sometimes I stew inside for the rest of the drive, angry at her for trying to tell me what’s best. Sometimes I say, “No, this way,” even though I don’t know for sure. A part of me feels emasculated, like I’m less of who I am — less valuable.
And that’s the trick. This subtle toxic masculinity is a part of me. It’s not all of me. It’s not my true self.
Like other boys, I got the message at a young age that people would love me if they saw me as smart, always in control, fully aware of where I’m at. I was praised when I knew how to navigate using a map in Cub Scouts. I was shamed when I got scared because I thought we were lost.
That means my toxic masculinity is trying to help and protect me. It just has extreme ideas about how to do that.
It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s just something to be aware of. When I’m aware of it, I can separate from it — which means I’m freer.
Freer to laugh about my tendency to want control. Freer to name my emotions to my partner, which helps break the tension. Freer to insist on the personal boundaries that really matter to me — things I need to control to feel safe.
Sure, my partner isn’t really hurt when I insist I know where I’m going. But our relationship could get hurt. Over time, if I kept letting this toxic masculine part take the steering wheel — so to speak — my girlfriend would trust me less and less. When the going actually gets tough, she wouldn’t be able to have confidence that what I’m saying is the truth.
Oh, and, duh, women are capable of toxicity too. It’s just that, in general, men have been socialized to identify with dominating, avoiding emotions, etc., more than women have.
And it’s not difficult to see how my subtle form of control over driving connects with more obvious toxic masculinity, like sexual assault and other violence against women.
I’m glad that I have this tool in my toolbox. It allows me to see that I can talk about my emotions and ask for help — and people won’t only appreciate it, they’ll love me even more for it!
Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, therapist-in-training, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here. (If you’re in D.C. or Maryland, reach out for reduced-price online therapy: firstname.lastname@example.org)