The Pernicious Nature of Toxic Masculinity

A hazard sign encompassed by the symbol of masculinity. Toxic masculinity is a set of behaviors and beliefs that directly or indirectly harm society and men themselves. Illustration by Pearl McNames.

Men are taught at a young age by their parents, peers, and messages perpetuated in the media that vulnerability is weakness, and that the absence of emotion is strength. Men are pressured to establish a social hierarchy through physical domination of their peers. Men are trained to purge themselves of femininity. These gender-based expectations are not only perniciously influencing men, but they are directly reinforcing a societal culture of rape and sexual violence. From casual homophobic banter in the locker room to subtle misogynistic remarks at the lunch table, toxic masculinity is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. 

Commands such as “man up” imply that emotional vulnerability is not welcomed and discourage the recipient from seeking support. “Men have been taught that they must do everything on their own, and that cuts a lot of us off from the community that we are in,” says Nick Hurndon, a former member of the U.S. Marine Corp and father of two, “but we are interdependent beings, it is ok to ask for help.” If not verbally processed in a productive manner, emotions can manifest in displays of violence. Dupree Stubblefield, Franklin Campus Security Associate, reflects on the initiation of fights in his youth: “I was trying to stand up for myself and prove something. I was dealing with inner turmoil due to an unstable home life.” Not only do men resort to violence to temporarily escape feelings of weakness, but some employ physical confrontation to deter bullies. Domingo Urrutia, PPS Security Operations Manager, reflects on navigating the violent landscape of his high school through physical confrontation during his adolescence: “[Fighting] wasn’t the right thing to do. I did it because I knew if I didn’t do anything I was going to get picked on.” 

Phrases like “boys will be boys” are frequently used to justify bullying or sexual harassment and protect perpetrators. It starts in elementary school when adults make excuses for bad behavior and blame victims for overreacting. Neglecting to hold boys accountable for their actions during adolescence teaches them that exploiting boundaries is acceptable, laying the groundwork for more serious predatory behavior during adulthood.    

Casual sexist insults such as “you’re acting like a girl” reinforce antiquated gender stereotypes. These insults simultaneously undermine femininity and inhibit masculinity. Many young men don’t feel safe to express themselves fully because social acceptance has become dependent on conforming to mainstream standards of masculinity. Franklin Senior Carter McHargue says, “[Toxic masculinity] has made me feel like less of a man and has prevented me from revealing parts of who I am.” 

Blunt misogynistic questions like “What’s your body count?” pressure men to view sex as a competition and women as objects. An anonymous Franklin student and former football player describes toxic locker room banter: “My teammates would joke about ‘getting girls’ as if it was a game to them, not as if they cared about fostering real relationships. They were always trying to compare how many girls they’d had sex with.” This culture encourages men to become emotionless sexual predators. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 in 6 American women are victims of attempted or completed rape. 

Deconstructing toxic masculinity starts with filtering the language we use in our day-to-day lives. We need to reframe the way we conceptualize masculinity and femininity, because gender expression is a spectrum. When we witness displays of violence, bullying, or sexual assault we must choose to intervene and deescalate the conflict. We must teach young men that emotional vulnerability is an asset and a necessary facet of healthy relationships. Stubblefield asserts, “The next generation of men need the ability to be vulnerable, the ability to be sensitive, the ability to have real conversations about how they feel.” 

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