What Does Psychology Research Have to Say about Toxic Masculinity?
In January 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) released guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. The guidelines themselves are written for an academic audience, but the APA also wrote an accessible summary of the guidelines that summarizes their contents for a broader audience. The guidelines also describe the nature of masculinity in a way that is useful for everyone - especially men - to think more critically about how gender norms influence our everyday actions. Importantly, they shed light on the psychological mechanisms and social factors that influence what is commonly referred to as “toxic masculinity”.
Much of the psychology research on masculinity has been nicely summarized in the APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. It is interesting to note, however, that the APA guidelines never use the phrase “toxic masculinity” to describe the negative behaviors and attitudes that stem from adhering to traditional masculine gender norms. This is done purposely to avoid triggering associations that readers may have when they see the phrase, as it has become highly politicized in recent years.
The term “toxic masculinity” was born out of the mythopoetic men’s self-improvement movement in the 1980s and 90s. This movement approached masculinity from a psychoanalytic perspective and described toxic masculinity as the behavior of “immature” males (Longwood, et. al., 2012). While the mythopoetic movement was relatively short-lived and based on theory rather than scientific studies, it made an important contribution by noting that masculinity itself is not toxic, but masculine norms can end up promoting toxic behavior. Over time, the common understanding of “toxic masculinity” has evolved over the years to its current definition: harmful social norms about how men should behave that lead to misogyny, homophobia, violence, and mental health issues.
Social norms are invisible social standards or expectations that we follow to fit in and feel like we belong in a given setting. One example is facing the same direction as everyone else when you get on an elevator. No one tells you to do that, you just know that it is expected and it feels uncomfortable to go against the norm. Gender norms are the same, but specifically related to behaviors that indicate you are associated with a certain gender. For example, “boys don’t cry” is a longstanding male gender norm that can lead to boys and men repressing emotions instead of processing them in healthy ways.
What are these harmful male gender norms and how do they lead to toxic masculinity?
Let’s take a look at one of the APA guidelines that describes how masculine gender norms can lead to harmful behavior. Guideline 3 states:
“Psychologists understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men and on their relationships with others.”
This guideline shows the importance of understanding the invisible social forces that can shape men’s behavior: power, privilege, and sexism. But how exactly do these intertwined forces contribute to toxic masculinity? Power, and the need to feel powerful, can be an important drive for men. Historically, men have had more social and economic power than women and have been the dominant group in society. Men make more money than women at every career stage and make up the majority of leadership positions in both the public and private sectors (Flood, 2015). Boys who grow up in a society that grants them power and dominance learn to take certain things for granted, even though it may in fact be due to their male identity. One example of this is how men tend to downplay the effects of sexual harassment and bias against women. This is because many men do not experience sexual harassment or gender bias themselves due to being male. This ignorance is a result of what psychologists call privilege, which in this case refers to the experience of assuming that one’s lived experience applies to people in other demographic groups, such as women, even when it actually does not. Privilege can cause men to be unaware of how being a man and following masculine norms grants them power and advantages that are not granted to women, which in turn prevents men from seeing bias and discrimination.
Masculine power is granted through conforming to traditional gender norms that reinforce male dominance. One such restrictive norm involves shaming men who engage in any behavior deemed “not manly”. Examples of these “not manly” behaviors include admitting a weakness or mistake, being vulnerable with one’s feelings, and not using force to solve problems - anything that may call into question one’s status as a man. Thus, men are faced with the dilemma of either going against the norm to seek help when dealing with things like mental health issues - and risking criticism from other men - or going along with the norm and staying silent about their struggles. This conundrum leads to what psychologists call “gender role conflict” - experiencing negative consequences as a result of adhering to restrictive gender roles (O’Neill, 1990). As a result of this conflict, men can experience a negative cycle where they are not able to engage in a behavior they want or need to (such as reaching out to other men to talk about their feelings) and feel forced to engage in “manly” yet harmful coping strategies such as abusing substances or lashing out with violence. The desire to maintain one’s masculine power can also take shape in different domains, such as refusing to buy environmentally friendly or organic products because they are more closely associated with femininity than masculinity (Brough et. al., 2016).
Masculine power can also manifest in the form of sexism as men seek to reinforce their dominant status by asserting their superiority over women. Many men do this without even knowing they are reinforcing sexist ideas. Sexism can manifest in subtle ways, such as seemingly harmless “locker room conversations”. Some masculine norms encourage men to boast about how many women they’ve slept with, which they sometimes refer to as “body counts”. When men talk about women in this way, this dehumanizes them and reinforces the idea that women are objects to be conquered. While this may seem harmless, studies have shown that men who more strongly identify with traditional masculine norms are more likely to commit sexual violence against women (McDermott, et. al., 2015).
This is closely related to guideline 7, which states:
“Psychologists strive to reduce the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives such as aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide.”
Note how this guideline emphasizes that boys and men both act out and face these behaviors, showing how traditional masculine norms cause men to feel like dealing with issues through violence may be their only option. This in no way excuses violent behavior, but it does add some important context - men may be acting in a violent or aggressive manner because they have been socialized to follow traditional masculine norms that prevent them from dealing with issues in ways that don’t involve violence. Studies have shown that boys are socialized to resolve conflicts through violence (Moore & Stuart, 2005) and this is reinforced by the fact that displaying aggression is seen as publicly proving one’s masculinity (Franklin, 2004). Men are often congratulated for such violent displays by other men, making violence and physical intimidation prominent signs of male status. Male violence and aggression is one of the defining features of “toxic masculinity”, and is a major reason that men are more likely to commit violent crimes and be victims of violent crime (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015). Norms glamorizing violence combined with norms that promote male dominance over women contribute to sexual and intimate partner violence, such that men who endorse these norms tend to commit sexual and intimate partner violence at high levels (Kilmartin & McDermott, 2015).
The traditional masculine norms that promote violence hurt both men and women. Since these norms are a fundamental contributor to so much of the violence happening in our society, why has it taken psychologists until this year to release guidelines for treating boys and men?
The APA released guidelines for psychological practice with girls and women back in 2007. The APA has also previously released guidelines for other demographic groups such as transgender and gender-nonfconforming individuals (2015) as well as lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals (2000). The fact that the guidelines for boys and men were released so recently compared to other groups reflects the growing understanding in psychology that men have historically been treated as the reference group or “standard” to which other demographic groups are compared. The authors of the APA guidelines for boys and men mention how psychologists are starting to treat men as “uniquely gendered human beings” subject to specific social pressures that may not be relevant to other groups. What does this mean? Basically, it means that psychologists are starting to understand that men are facing unique pressures and stressors (such as being stoic and never showing emotion) simply because they identify as male. This is an important, and long overdue, step towards better understanding how to help men live healthy, successful lives.
The Path Forward
This article describes just a few ways that psychologists have shown traditional masculine norms can lead to harmful behavior. While these norms can lead to negative outcomes, men have many reasons to be proud of their masculinity. It is important to remember that there are multiple ways to express masculine values such as strength, courage, and resilience. The same aspects of masculinity that can lead to violence or mental health issues can also be potential sources of strength and pride. Being resilient can mean bottling up one’s emotions or it can mean knowing when to reach out to others for help. Asserting one’s strength can take the form of starting a fight or it can take the form of standing up for someone who is being bullied. It often takes more courage and perseverance to push back against harmful norms than it does to follow them. The difficulty in helping men is that there are norms that prevent men themselves from seeking help or admitting vulnerability. It is the responsibility of psychologists and practitioners to find ways to encourage men to reflect on their behavior and attitudes and decide how they wish to represent their masculinity.
The APA guidelines note that psychologists should help men think critically about the unspoken rules they follow and have the courage to break from the rules that harm them and follow the ones that help them. Psychologists are investigating interventions that change the invisible, restrictive norms that lead to toxic masculinity. Some promising research has shown that changing the culture of masculinity can lead to reduced sexist attitudes and improved social wellbeing for men. This research shows that men who understand the impacts of masculine power and privilege are less violent and controlling in their relationships (McDermott, et al., 2012). Preliminary results from my own research suggest that showing men how prominent male figures in the media serve to reinforce traditional masculine gender norms can make men more open to expanding the definition of masculinity for our society. The science says that men can learn about how masculinity impacts others and are willing to change. Changing the norms of male behavior ultimately lies with men challenging outdated, restrictive norms and encouraging other men to reflect on what it really means to be a good man in our modern world.
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