The concept of toxic masculinity is used in psychology and gender studies to refer to certain norms of masculine behavior in North America and Europe that are associated with harm to society and to men themselves. Traditional stereotypes of men as socially dominant, along with related traits such as misogyny and homophobia, can be considered "toxic" due to their promotion of violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence. Scholars argue that the socialization of boys often normalizes violence, such as in the saying "boys will be boys" with regard to bullying and aggression.
Self-reliance and emotional repression are correlated with increased psychological problems in men such as depression, increased stress, and substance abuse. Toxic masculine traits are characteristic of the unspoken code of behavior among men in American prisons, where they exist in part as a response to the harsh conditions of prison life.
Other traditionally masculine traits such as devotion to work, pride in excelling at sports, and providing for one's family, are not considered to be "toxic". The concept was originally used by authors associated with the mythopoetic men's movement in contrast to a "real" or "deep" masculinity that they say men have lost touch with in modern society.
In psychology, toxic masculinity refers to traditional cultural masculine norms in American and European society that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall; this concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition. Toxic masculinity is thus defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant (the "alpha male") and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger. Some traditionally prescribed masculine behaviors can produce such harmful effects as violence (including sexual assault and domestic violence), "sexual excess" (promiscuity), excessively risky and/or socially irresponsible behaviors including substance abuse, and dysfunction in relationships.
In a gender studies context, Raewyn Connell argues that toxic practices such as physical violence may serve to reinforce men's dominance over women. She argues that such practices are a salient feature of what she terms hegemonic masculinity, although not always the defining features. Terry Kupers of The Wright Institute school of psychology defines toxic masculinity as "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence". According to Kupers, toxic masculinity serves to outline aspects of hegemonic masculinity that are socially destructive, "such as misogyny, homophobia, greed, and violent domination". These traits are contrasted with more positive aspects of hegemonic masculinity such as "pride in [one's] ability to win at sports, to maintain solidarity with a friend, to succeed at work, or to provide for [one's] family".
Toxic masculine norms are a feature of life for men in American prisons, where they are reflected in the behavior of both staff and inmates. The qualities of extreme self-reliance, domination of other men through violence, and avoiding the appearance of either femininity or weakness, comprise an unspoken code among prisoners. Suppressing vulnerable emotions is often adopted in order to successfully cope with the harsh conditions of prison life, defined by punishment, social isolation, and aggression. These factors likely play a role in suicide among male prisoners.
Bullying of boys by their peers and domestic violence experienced by boys at home can also be expressions of toxic masculinity. The often violent socialization of boys produces psychological trauma through the promotion of aggression and lack of interpersonal connection. Such trauma is often disregarded, such as in the saying "boys will be boys" with regard to bullying. The promotion of idealized masculine roles emphasizing toughness, dominance, self-reliance, and the restriction of emotion can begin as early as infancy. Such norms are transmitted by parents, other male relatives, and members of the community. Media representations of masculinity on websites such as YouTube often promote similar stereotypical gender roles.
Men who adhere to traditionally masculine cultural norms, such as risk-taking, violence, dominance, primacy of work, need for emotional control, desire to win, and pursuit of social status, tend to be more likely to experience psychological problems such as depression, stress, body image problems, substance abuse, and poor social functioning. The effect tends to be stronger in men who also emphasize "toxic" masculine norms, such as self-reliance, seeking power over women, and sexual promiscuity or "playboy" behavior.
The social value of self-reliance has diminished over time as modern American society has moved more toward interdependence. Both self-reliance and the stifling of emotional expression can work against mental health, as they make it less likely for men to seek psychological help or to possess the ability to deal with difficult emotions. Preliminary research suggests that cultural pressure for men to be stoic and self-reliant may also shorten men's lifespans by causing them to be less likely to discuss health problems with their physicians.
Toxic masculinity is also implicated in socially-created public health problems, such as elevated rates of skin cancer among men,[verification needed] and the role of “trophy-hunting” sexual behavior in rates of transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.[non-primary source needed]
Some authors associated with the mythopoetic men's movement have referred to the social pressures placed upon men to be violent, competitive, independent, and unfeeling as a "toxic" form of masculinity, in contrast to a "real" or "deep" masculinity that they say men have lost touch with in modern society. The academic Shepherd Bliss proposed a return to agrarianism as an alternative to the "potentially toxic masculinity" of the warrior ethic. Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes that Bliss's notion of toxic masculinity can be seen as part of the mythopoetic movement's response to male feelings of powerlessness at a time when the feminist movement was challenging traditional male authority:
Thus Shepherd Bliss, for example, rails against what he calls 'toxic masculinity'—which he believes is responsible for most of the evil in the world—and proclaims the unheralded goodness of the men who fight the fires and till the soil and nurture their families.
Psychiatrist Frank Pittman wrote about the ways in which men are harmed by traditional masculine norms, suggesting this includes shorter lifespans, greater incidence of violent death, and ailments such as lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. He argued that such toxic masculinity originates in men being raised by women in the absence of male role models. Feminist author John Stoltenberg, on the other hand, approached toxic masculinity from an antimasculinist perspective.
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In some ways, bullying and other forms of coercion and violence are part of what has been termed toxic masculinity, a form of masculinity that creates hierarchies favoring some and victimizing others. Disrupting these forms of toxic masculinity benefits boys and men, rather than attacks and blames men for these behaviors.
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[Pittman] links toxic masculinity to men being raised by women without male role models. In his view, if men raised children they would save their lives, and save the world. On the other hand, John Stoltenberg views toxic masculinity from a strongly antimasculinist, radical feminist perspective, arguing that masculinity can be serious, pervasive, and hateful.
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