How Men Can Confront Toxic Masculinity (+ Why It’s Important for Mental Health)

Hip young man feeling frustrated and alone

With the #MeToo movement dominating the headlines over the past few months, many of us have had to ask tough questions about our own experiences of gender, power, and relationships. While women have taken the forefront of the movement, it’s also been a moment of reckoning for men.

The movement has not only provided an opportunity to confront more obvious acts of violence, but also how gender roles influence the way we treat one another in our own lives and relationships. This means confronting the role of toxic masculinity in our lives and relationships.

What is toxic masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is a term for some of the harmful associations of “maleness” in our culture. It doesn’t mean that masculinity is bad or that it is bad to be a man. It does mean, however, that some traits associated with masculinity in our culture are harmful or toxic for both men and women’s mental, physical, emotional, and relationship health.

We can all think of examples of toxic masculinity: the idea that it’s “unmanly” or “weak” to express one’s feelings or to cry; the idea that men should judge their own value on how many women they have sex with; or the idea that men should get into fights with one another to express their dominance, for example.

Who does toxic masculinity affect?

A term coined by men’s movements aiming to question stereotypical notions of masculinity, “toxic masculinity” has been shown to be detrimental not only for women, but for men’s mental health.

Many traits we associate with toxic masculinity specifically cause harm to women. The belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies or sexuality, for example, often underlies sexual harassment and violence, and research shows that men use these beliefs to justify harassment.

On the other hand, the belief that it’s not “manly” to do domestic labor or care for children maintains the unequal burden of housework on women.

Women’s rights and dignity are enough of a reason for men to be self-critical and pledge to encourage healthier forms of masculinity. But the truth is, while toxic masculinity may provide men some privileges, it is harmful to their mental, emotional, and physical health overall.

A meta-analysis of studies following over 20,000 men found that men who believed in and practiced behaviors associated with toxic masculinity had worse mental health and were less likely to seek help. Meanwhile, research has also found that the stoicism associated with toxic masculinity prevents men from communicating with their doctors, with negative effects on men’s physical health.

Toxic masculinity is also bad for relationships, increasing the likelihood of men’s perpetration of relationship violence. And even without physical violence, toxic masculinity leads to less satisfying romantic relationships overall.

How can men address toxic masculinity?

Confronting toxic masculinity in your own life and behavior may challenge your own sense of identity and social acceptance. But self-criticism and change are full of rewards, bringing with with them the opportunity for deeper, healthier relationships with ourselves, our partners, and our communities. Here’s how to start.

Educate yourself.

Learn about what toxic masculinity is and how our culture reinforces it. Read women’s accounts of how this behavior has harmed them, and take them seriously. Be open to what you’re reading and learning and remember that while it may make you feel bad or defensive, the problem originates in our culture broadly—and you have the power to fix the problem.

Work on yourself.

Being self-critical is hard, but it’s worth it. As you learn about the negative effects of toxic masculinity, reflect on how these may have affected your own life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a qualified therapist. And if you’ve ever committed intimate partner violence or sexual violence, it’s absolutely necessary to work with a therapist to prevent yourself from perpetrating again.

Be accountable.

Mistakes are human. Taking accountability is the true measure of a person’s worth. If any of the women in your life say you have harmed them, take them seriously, listen openly, and apologize earnestly. Don’t give excuses. Don’t blame the person who has been harmed. Being genuinely accountable is not only the right thing to do, it’s the only way we can all move forward.

Create better communities.

Public conversations about the #MeToo movement have often focused on what we imagine men will lose by being held accountable for violent or sexist behavior. But what if we focused instead on what changing toxic masculinity would help us gain?

By giving up harmful notions of masculinity we stand to gain something deeply human and profound, far better than any superficial privilege: Increased intimacy, community, and healthier relationships with our love ones and ourselves.

Published by

Reina Gattuso

Contributor