Toxic masculinity is a term often used to describe the negative aspects of exaggerated masculine traits. The term has evolved over time and has a place both in academia and everyday speech.

Frequent use of the phrase may result in some people misinterpreting what toxic masculinity is, which could lead to further misunderstanding and irritation. The concepts underlying ‘traditional’ masculinity are complex.

Some people may find it difficult to challenge archaic thinking and to move past these negative aspects of traditional and outdated male values, and it can take time.

To do so, it is essential first to understand what toxic masculinity is and why it exists.

Keep reading to learn more.

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The notion of toxic masculinity centers on the idea that some masculinity traits are archaic, such as aggression, hyper-competitiveness, and entitlement.

The exact definition of toxic masculinity has evolved over time.

A study in the Journal of School of Psychology uses the following definition to explain toxic masculinity: “the constellation of socially regressive [masculine] traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.”

In modern society, people often use the term toxic masculinity to describe exaggerated masculine traits that many cultures have widely accepted or glorified.

This harmful concept of masculinity also places significant importance on ‘manliness’ based on:

  • strength
  • lack of emotion
  • self-sufficiency
  • dominance
  • sexual virility

According to traditional toxic masculine values, a male who does not display enough of these traits may fall short of being a ‘real man.’

Overemphasis of these traits may lead to harmful imbalances in someone trying to live up to these expectations. Some examples include:

  • aggression
  • sexual aggression or control
  • showing no emotion or suppressing emotions
  • hyper-competitiveness
  • needing to dominate or control others
  • a tendency towards or glorification of violence
  • isolation
  • low empathy
  • entitlement
  • chauvinism and sexism

One example of this includes telling another person who is showing emotion to “man up;” in other words, to hide that emotion. This example illustrates how some people view emotion or vulnerability as ‘unmanly.’

Another common example is the saying, “boys will be boys.” This expression advocates for careless, aggressive, or otherwise damaging behavior in young males, rather than teaching them about responsibility and owning up to their mistakes.

Expressions of this type highlight how cultures and societies have traditionally viewed males. However, these views can cause harm and embellish the idea of masculinity, leading to an even more toxic attitude toward these behaviors.

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The term toxic masculinity stems from the mythopoetic men’s movement in the 1980s. This movement, founded by men for men, aimed to provide men with an outlet for their ‘manliness.’

Certain groups of men felt they were no longer able to express these traditionally male or masculine behaviors in a modern society that saw these traits as damaging.

Members of the movement believed that if they were unable to act on these male characteristics, they would ultimately manifest as chauvinism or aggression toward women.

This original concept of toxic masculinity, as defined by the mythopoetic men’s movement, came under challenge soon after. This was primarily because it still suggested that masculinity has one pure form, which is simply not the case.

This explains the origins of the term, but how do people view toxic masculinity today?

Many people now view masculinity and the gender roles it creates as a combination of behaviors shaped by several factors, including:

  • age
  • race
  • class
  • culture
  • sexuality
  • religion

As such, what defines masculinity can take many different forms. What one society or even subculture views as masculine, another may reject.

Masculinity, then, becomes a shifting idea rather than a hard, narrow set of rules.

The roots of what many people view as masculinity developed thousands of years ago, when early homo sapiens used strength, for example, to exert dominance or take charge.

The most successful male homo sapiens were those who could fight and hunt. In those times, the most desirable traits would likely have included aggression, ruthlessness, and physical strength.

These behaviors continued for centuries. Throughout history, dominant male rulers have gained power by conquering others.

This pattern remained unchanged until the 1980s and 1990s when these traditional male behaviors became incompatible with the views of contemporary society.

However, because contemporary society has led to such a shift in attitude toward these male behaviors, and because it no longer celebrates these archaic views of masculinity, certain groups and subcultures still fall victim to these ‘expected norms.’

This is when masculinity can become ‘toxic.’ It is this need for certain men to be a certain way as dictated by an ideology that has long become obsolete.

If a male believes they are not meeting these exaggerated traits or not aligning with these narrow views, they may feel they are falling short. This may result in a need to lash out or exaggerate these traits to re-establish their ‘manhood.’

It is this lashing out that can lead to really dangerous behavior, both to the individual or those around them.

While some people use the term toxic masculinity to encompass all masculine traits, this may simply be a way to put down all males, not just these masculine traits.

From a healthy standpoint, masculinity itself is not toxic.

What people decide is masculine can be healthy traits when they are balanced, and a person can live by them and function well within society.

Health inequities affect all of us differently. Visit our dedicated hub for an in-depth look at social disparities in health and what we can do to correct them.

Some people believe that toxic masculinity is dangerous because it limits a person’s growth and definition of what it means to be a man. This may cause conflict within the man and his environment.

This concept, called gender role conflict, places a strain on the man who does not meet these traits.

When a boy or adult male views the world through the narrow lens provided by these exaggerated masculine traits, they may feel that they will only gain acceptance by living up to these traits.

Unchecked toxic masculinity and the behaviors it can cause may lead to a variety of issues, such as:

  • bullying
  • school discipline
  • academic challenges
  • jail or prison time
  • domestic violence
  • sexual assault
  • risky behaviors
  • substance abuse
  • suicide
  • psychological trauma
  • lack of friendships or genuine connections

Some theories indicate that toxic masculinity plays a role in physical health. Toxic masculinity may prevent some men from seeking out help for possible health issues and other potential problems.

For some males, asking for help may lead to feelings of inadequacy, weakness, and perceptions of being ‘less of a man.’

Toxic masculinity can affect the mental health of a man who does not meet these ‘phantom’ claims but feels pressure to do so.

The American Psychological Association note the dangers of trying to adhere to these exaggerated masculine traits. Men and boys forced to cling to these traits often experience adverse effects and may face problems, such as:

  • depression
  • body image issues
  • poor social function
  • substance abuse
  • stress

Furthermore, as feeling emotional or talking openly about feelings go against these traditional masculine values, there is the added risk that men experiencing mental health issues might not seek out professional care or even talk about their struggles with friends or family.

Learn more about men’s mental health here.

Societal pressures, expectations from family and sexual partners, and even expectations of religious identities can be burdensome to a man seeking out his masculine identity.

While some social, political, or religious groups may provide a set of guidelines for a healthy form of masculinity, it is better for an individual to stick to their own definition, so long as it does not harm themselves or others.

A new definition of what it means to be male might includes overall human experiences, such as:

  • openly experiencing a wide range of emotions
  • interdependence
  • vulnerability
  • cooperation
  • kindness
  • softness

This does not mean abandoning all traditionally masculine traits. Including some traditionally masculine characteristics, such as strength and adventure, may help some people define their own masculinity.

However, these traits should not make up a person’s entire definition of masculinity but form only one small aspect of their identity.

Importantly, masculinity is not something society, or any definition can instill in a person, nor is it something it can take away. It is up to each individual to define their identity.

Expanding and integrating new concepts into an individual’s definition of masculinity may help them better understand and accept themselves and others.

Eliminating or changing toxic masculinity will not happen overnight. However, as more people begin to define their own version of masculinity and include other human experiences within that definition, gender roles will continue to change on a larger scale.

On a personal level, it may be simple enough for an individual to educate themselves about their attitudes towards masculinity and hold space for others to help change their definitions.

Inviting a friend to share their emotions or feelings about the topic, and openly discussing them without judgment or criticism can be a good way to move forward.

Deliberately questioning and working against exaggerated traits can help a person and those around them to redefine masculinity and work past outdated and potentially damaging patterns of thinking, such as those created by toxic masculinity.

The definition of toxic masculinity centers on these exaggerated versions of traditional, now archaic masculine traits.

These ideas around what a man should be forces some people to accept a very narrow view of what it means to be masculine, which can be harmful to those who cannot adhere to these supposed standards.

Some men might ‘act out’ some of these behaviors as they strive to be more ‘masculine.’ This can lead to questionable and dangerous behaviors.

Moving past toxic masculinity begins with redefining what it means to be a man. Each person should aspire to find a healthy definition of their own individuality and work towards achieving it.

Holding space for others to openly discuss their feelings about the issue may help people re-shape their own definitions as well.