The concept of toxic masculinity has been in the news lately, and the only thing that’s clear about it is that it’s wildly misunderstood. It’s not political and it’s not a culture war. It’s a concept born of science, important to men’s health, and key to successful anti-violence therapy.
Nationally, anti-violence therapies average a 30 percent re-arrest rate, but at Family Service Madison the rate is 1 percent. The success of our astoundingly effective therapeutic program depends on helping men understand how toxic masculinity diminishes their lives. A man who recently completed our program wrote on his exit survey, “Thank you for saving my life,” and he’s not alone in his gratitude. Many of the men who complete the FSM program observe that they are much more at peace once they are rid of the toxicity.
Toxic masculinity is not about traits that males are born with; it is about a version of manhood that is learned — the adjective “toxic” implies there are forms of masculinity that are not toxic. This particular model reduces masculinity to a rigidly imposed set of ideals that, when adhered to, is unhealthy for men and the people around them.
Toxic masculinity is characterized by the value it places on dominance, control, aggression and violence. It teaches that men are superior to both women and men who do not live up to its ideals; anything associated with women is demeaning for men; men should not feel or express vulnerability or sensitive emotions — the manly emotions are lust and anger; toughness and domination are essential to man’s identity; sex is less about affection or pleasure and more about proving manhood and asserting power; and gay men are failed men.
Oddly, this model of masculinity seems rooted in anxiety and most toxic when it has men living in fear of not living up to the stereotype. Guys who are stressed because they think they might seem soft, tender, weak or otherwise “less than manly” often try to “prove” themselves — informally called the small-man syndrome — and too often it’s through violence.
In the U.S., males commit 90.5 percent of murders, 98 percent of forcible rapes, 89 percent of robberies, are 80 percent of those arrested for offenses against family and children, and are 78 percent of those arrested for aggravated assault. At least a third of all female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by male intimate partners — husbands and ex-husbands, boyfriends and estranged lovers.
Research has also shown "threatened" men are more supportive of war, show more prejudice toward gay men and lesbians, and are more likely to say they believe in the natural superiority of males.
Researchers at Indiana University recently synthesized the results of 78 studies that spanned nearly 20,000 participants and found that conforming to toxic masculinity is detrimental to men’s health, confirming research done over the past 60 years. The historical roots of the concept reach back at least as far as Freud and benefited from the empirical research in both social psychology and sociology.
The concept of toxic masculinity first gained popular notice in a men’s movement, during the 1970s, that sought to help men and boys overcome influences that harmed them. The data linking toxic masculinity to the diminishment of men’s lives — including mental and physical health, emotional and social well-being and family life — are overwhelming. Violence, suicide, rape, rage disorders, drug use, alcohol-related injury and death, criminal behavior, “workaholism,” poor relationship skills, and other personal and social ills are associated with toxic masculinity.
Addressing toxic masculinity is not political; it’s therapy grounded in science. Talking about the problems of toxic masculinity helps us all, but especially men, live more healthfully. Talking about concepts, attitudes, and behaviors that hurt us is not the same thing as criticizing people. And this particular discussion is one we should all be having and encouraging, because lives too often depend on it.
Russell King is president and CEO of Family Service Madison, a nonprofit certified batterers treatment provider. www.fsmad.org
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