Have you ever heard of the phrase “Boys will be boys”or “Boys don’t cry”? I’m sure many of us are no stranger to these quips.
The phrase ‘boys will be boys’ was coined in the English language in 1589. The phrase originated from a Latin proverb, which translates to “children will be children and do childish things”. We use this as a common excuse for a variety of behaviours.
500 years later, this attitude still holds dominance in most societies. Boys are described as rough and in tough times, always “man-up”. They have strong minds, never show vulnerability or share any emotion. If they don’t fit these characteristics, they will sadly be shamed. This is the expectation we have instilled in boys from a very young age.
Toxic masculinity is a modern term used to describe the negative aspects of exaggerated masculine traits. It is a set of behaviours and attitudes that refer to men being dominant, misogynistic and aggressive (enticing or promoting violence). It can lead to harmful acts of domestic violence, assault or rape.
Boys grow up with the idea of “conditional love”; to be loved and accepted, they should follow the traditions. If they dare to be different, they will face rejection by all; including their family and friends.
Some researchers have summed up toxic masculinity with three common traits:
- Toughness: men should be strong, physically and psychologically, feeling no emotions and showing only aggressiveness.
- Antifeminist: anything considered as feminine should be avoided, like emotions and asking for help.
- Power: working towards obtaining power and status, to gain the respect of others.
If this behaviour is chronic, it is toxic masculinity. Men who show consistent traits of this behaviour and believe there is a gender/sexuality hierarchy; are men that aren’t willing to change or take on the challenges of unlearning this behavior.
I’m not talking about men making mistakes, like cheating or sending unsolicited pictures of their genitals (which is considered harassment anyway). If they are confronted by these actions, and they understand their mistake, this alone can’t be defined as toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity should not be used as a blanket term to insult men.
On the other hand, when talking about violence, aggression or criminal behaviours - rape, assault, domestic violence - this does not apply. Even if this act only happens once, it’s still criminal behaviour, not a mistake. If anyone believes otherwise, it’s because they stand by ‘the man is always dominant and it’s the woman’s duty to meet his needs’.
Our patriarchal society perpetuates toxic masculinity. This ideology we have built has detrimental consequences of men being violent, aggressive, sexist and homophobic.
However, toxic masculinity does not affect only women, even though they are the first victims of this behaviour, it can also be seriously harmful to men’s mental health. This rigid way of viewing masculinity can go as far as drug and alcohol abuse and lead to a more explosive release like depression and suicide (the highest cause of death for men between their late 20’s to early 40’s).
These expectations push men to treat their bodies like machines, pushing themselves to their physical limits and discouraging them from seeking medical advice. A 2011 study found that men who held the strongest beliefs about masculinity, were only half as likely as men with more moderate beliefs about masculinity, to get preventive health care.
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Unfortunately toxic masculinity is not going anywhere, any time soon. It’s going to take a lot of work to end the stigma and improve our values. Rather than labelling men as “good” or “bad,” or “tough” or “weak,” it’s important to acknowledge that men, like women, have many facets that go far beyond the traditional gender roles.
Men should start to look at themselves and be willing to change, challenge themselves, start asking for help and get therapy.
As a society, we should keep empowering women to challenge toxic masculinity, not because it’s their responsibility to teach others how to behave but because speaking up is the first step to raise awareness. Sharing blood or genes does not excuse any toxic behaviour. We can always disengage with a toxic family member and speak up. However hard it may be, we must call out bad behaviour and set an example for our household.
As parents, we should teach our children unconditional love and value their feelings. Whoever they are, or choose to become, they feel they are accepted. It takes a lot of courage to go against the rules and be your true self; this should be a quality that we celebrate.
All humans want to feel respected. We all want to know we are valued, recognised, and affirmed. Expanding and integrating new concepts into our definition of masculinity may help them better understand and accept themselves and others. So let’s all remember to challenge toxic masculinity everyday; be mindful of our actions, use sensitive language and help reshape our values!