Let’s Rethink the Term Toxic Masculinity

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The term toxic masculinity has become part of the national conversation.  From politics to entertainment to sports, high-profile examples of “toxic masculinity” have been in the headlines more than ever before.  I’m encouraged by the conversation.  I’m supportive of those using the term because it is keeping the discussion alive and engaging people in this conversation in new ways, but I want to issue a word of caution. 

If we allow men to separate themselves by saying, “I’m not that bad – look at them – those guys are the ones with that ‘toxic’ behavior,” we are missing the greatest potential for change. 

We men have work to do.  All men are socialized to view women as objects, the property of men, and of less value than men. These ideas are taught to men – sometimes unconsciously – and reinforced by society.  From “you throw like a girl,” to the discrepancy in wages, to media and advertising, our culture reinforces a norm of male dominance all day, every day, and everywhere you look.

That collective socialization lays the foundation for all forms of violence and discrimination against women to persist because ALL men are socialized to share those values – not just the ones we deem to exhibit a toxic form of masculinity.

The vast majority of men are not abusive.  The vast majority of men do not sexually harass.  The vast majority of men do not sexually assault.  But the vast majority of men are silent about the violence, harassment and abuse that women and girls, and other oppressed groups experience.    

That’s why I’m not willing to separate men into those categories.  These men are bad.  These men are just ignorant to the issues.  These men are good.  This creates an environment where men can say – that’s not me – I get a pass.  It reinforces privilege.  It allows men the option to stay quiet, to opt out of the conversation, to distance themselves from the issue. 

Distancing is something men do well.  Boys are taught to distance themselves from the experience of girls starting in their toddler years.  “That doll isn’t for you – here, play with this truck.”  From the aisles of our retail stores to after school activities, society dictates what is “appropriate” for boys, keeping them neatly tucked inside the Man Box. 

In the Man Box, men are supposed to be powerful and dominating, fearless and in control, strong and emotionless, and successful – in the boardroom, the bedroom and on the ball field.  In the Man Box, women are objects, the property of men, and of less value than men.  Women are for men’s consumption, and consuming women has become normalized. 

Toxic masculinity is created in the Man Box.  Let’s not only break out of the Man Box, but reject terms like “toxic masculinity” that allow the majority of men to wash their hands of our culture of violence and discrimination against women.   All men are responsible, and all men are capable of creating a world where men and boys are loving and respectful and women and girls are valued and safe.

Tony Porter, CEO, A CALL TO MEN