What We Mean When We Say, “Toxic Masculinity”

As a consumer of news and a classroom teacher, how can I help my students make sense of the current news cycle? The term “toxic masculinity” can be useful vocabulary for these conversations.
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“Toxic masculinity” is tricky. It’s a phrase that—misunderstood—can seem wildly insulting, even bigoted. Recently, after tweeting about toxic masculinity and its relationship to violence, I ended up the topic of discussion on a major nightly news show and the recipient of the online harassment that regularly follows such discussions these days. Because the term requires careful contextualization and provokes such strong reactions, our impulse may be to avoid discussing it with our classes. As educators, however, it is our responsibility not to hide from difficult topics or concepts, but to clarify them. 

This article is the first in a three-part series on toxic masculinity. Find parts two and three here:

Before we can engage students in conversations about “masculinity” or “femininity,” toxic or otherwise, we should begin with a few key ideas about gender. Researchers have shown that there is very little difference between the brains of men and women. While gender identity is a deeply held feeling of being male, female or another gender, people of different genders often act differently, not because of biological characteristics but because of rigid societal norms created around femininity and masculinity. Laying this groundwork requires effort, but in an age when breaking news alerts make us want to look away from our phones, the term “toxic masculinity” provides a useful tool for engaging with students, families and anyone else trying to make sense of the onslaught of news. 

The phrase is derived from studies that focus on violent behavior perpetrated by men, and—this is key—is designed to describe not masculinity itself, but a form of gendered behavior that results when expectations of “what it means to be a man” go wrong. The Good Men Project defines it this way:

Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.

Discussing toxic masculinity is not saying men are bad or evil, and the term is NOT an assertion that men are naturally violent. In fact, this conversation was started by men. (Jackson Katz’s TED Talk on the subject is a useful starting point.) It was also inspired by a feminist movement that had done much to unpack what might be called “toxic femininity” (think eating disorders that seek to control one’s eating and environment). After the good work feminism did to try to find better ways to teach girls about their options, men began to take notice and apply those same gender-construct theories to their own experience. 

I find myself talking more about this dangerous brand of masculinity now because I see all the hand-wringing done in the media and in classrooms after each mass shooting or killing. I saw it happening during the month of October 2017, which was bookended by the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the terror attack in New York. And on November 5, a shooter walked into a church in Texas and massacred people worshipping there. We talked and talked. 

I hear participants on one side of the debate talk about mental illness while the other side talks about gun control. In addition to conversations about mental illness and gun control, though, we need to consider a third angle regarding the mass killings of the past month: Is there a gendered component that we should be talking about? Why it is most often men perpetrating these acts of violence? 

After decades of study, I deeply believe that men are not naturally violent. But in a culture that equates masculinity with physical power, some men and boys will invariably feel like they are failing at “being a man.” For these particular men and boys, toxic masculinity has created a vacuum in their lives that can be filled through violence: through the abuse of women and of children in their care, through affiliation with the so-called “alt-right” or ISIS, through gun violence or any other promise of restored agency that those parties wrongly equate with manhood. 

The stakes of this conversation couldn’t be higher. When we talk about toxic masculinity, we do so not to insult or to injure. If we can talk with students as they are forming their ideas about gender, we can perhaps spare them from thinking that there is only one way to be a man—or any other gendered identity, for that matter—and give them the space to express their gender in ways that feel authentic and safe for themselves. When we talk about toxic masculinity, we are doing so out of love for the boys and men in all of our lives. 

Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

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    I wanted to let you know that I h ave used this page as a reference for some GREAT dialog about "Toxic masculinity" with my students. Thank you for this wonderful information!
    Indeed, the teacher’s job is to clarify difficult concepts. I do so hope a teacher may clarify a few things. Honestly, my aim is to understand, not pick a fight...

    1. “... this is key - [toxic masculinity] is designed not to describe masculinity itself but a form of gendered behavior...”. And yet, the author finds herself talking more about “this dangerous brand of masculinity”. Please clarify. What is “masculinity itself” and how is it different from other masculinity brands (dangerous or otherwise)? How can I best spot “masculinity itself” apart from gendered behavior? Most confusing, how is it helpful to gender violent behavior as masculine? No serious person disputes men overwhelmingly kill, and get killed. But surly, toxic masculinity involved a milieu of violent behaviors. Does it not manifest, for example, in the form of family or domestic violence? And here, where there’s so much clinical evidence supporting the claim that women are just as violent as men -
    Why is the concept of toxic masculinity so important to better understand?

    2. “When we talk about toxic masculinity we do so not to injure or insult.” Please clarify. Is it the intention or the consequence which matters most? If I were smarter I could probably better understand why the term is helpful and I’d see I have no true cause to feel injured or insulted. In other words, we are to accept the problem isn’t the idea but how so many of us misunderstand the idea? Maybe. Seems to be the point of this series, i.e. to help teacher better help the rest of us understand this difficult concept. But it could be the idea needs more time in the oven. It might be delicious and nutritious when fully cooked. But serving it too soon could very much make something, well...toxic.
    “Toxic masculinity" is hate speech. While it is appropriate to discuss issues like that arise in the community, the issue that this term should raise is not one of "meaning", but the use of hate speech in modern media and literature.
    In modern main stream media, social sciences literature and scientific literature generally, groups identified by specific racial, sex, gender, sexual preference or other characteristics, are described using sensitive language that at least does not offend or more commonly is preferentially adopted or approved by many people of that identity. Those people who continue to use offensive labels are often accused of “hate speech” or insensitivity.
    The nebulous label "toxic masculinity" has been imposed on men and boys despite many stating that it is offensive. The literal meaning of the term is offensive, consisting of the extremely negative term “toxic” and a gender wide descriptor “masculinity”. None of the behaviours considered toxic are described, and the literal meaning fails to acknowledge that masculinity includes many more positive behaviours than negative.
    The use of "toxic masculinity" is inconsistent with the more empathetic approach used for all other groups of people. The author of this article, and others who suggest use of the term is a reasonable, fail to acknowledge or justify why this different approach to a dialogue about behaviours exhibited by some men is acceptable or reasonable. Blaming and demeaning men when they challenge this approach, and more importantly, continuing to use a label considered offensive by many men, suggests an entrenched culture of gender bias and a less than benevolent attitude to men and boys generally.
    For any dialogue on masculinity to be constructive rather than abrasive and divisive, it must be conducted using language men accept and consider appropriate. Hate speech, like “toxic masculinity” may be more toxic than the behaviours it pretends to describe.
    Toxic masculinity, is not hate speech. This article's clarification on this this topic was well put and well supported. The American Psychology Association has recently published an article discussing harmful masculinity and its ties to violence. Masculinity is a gender schema. Gender schemas are ideals we as a society have placed upon each gender to act a specific way. Toxic Masculinity is only a part of the masculinity gender schema, therefore toxic masculinity only refers to people who are creating and promoting toxic behaviors because of masculinity. Masculinity as a whole is not being attacked. According to Psychologist Sandra Bem, being androgynous is the healthiest for both sexes. The idea that being too masculine can cause deep issues and great violence makes complete sense, because it isn't healthy to just be one or the other. "For any dialogue on masculinity to be constructive rather than abrasive and divisive, it must be conducted using language men accept and consider appropriate."- This kind of thinking is what sets us on the wrong side of history. If you replace "Masculinity" with "Race", and "men" with "white people", the issue with this statement becomes much clearer. The discussion on Toxic masculinity is a discussion we must have in order to improve life for both men and women. That discussion cannot be solely driven by one group of people, it must be driven by all.
    I found this a valuable account. I've written something complementary, a primer and commentary on 'toxic masculinity', here: And see here for a wealth of materials on men's and boys' roles in building gender equality:
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