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Is toxic masculinity a mask for anxiety?

What is it that makes so many boys grow up to believe that sex is theirs for the taking?

Credit: Pixabay/Katy_foto. CC0 1.0.

The widespread discussion of sexual harassment and what is being defined as 'toxic masculinity' leads to questions about what it is in the ways in which we are raising young boys that would make so many of them (though definitely not all) grow up to believe that sex is theirs for the taking, and that consent is an undefined state that is theirs to manipulate and interpret as they see fit.

Just like too many women who were once girls who were taught to be compliant and polite and to be afraid of men and their power, so are way too many boys being taught that their pleasure is paramount and coercion is part of what they need to do to in order to get their needs satisfied.

So what are we doing wrong and how can we change our social and cultural expectations of boys so that they grow up to be men who are more inclined to protect and respect their sexual partners instead of exploiting and denigrating them?

What is 'toxic' masculinity?

Perusing many definitions—whether in the hip Urban Dictionary or summarized from various social science articles—‘toxic masculinity’ refers to the social expectations that men, and thus also boys, should be sexually aggressive, physically violent, unemotional and homophobic, and should also devalue women. It is the kind of behavior that is stereotypically referred to as 'locker room' or 'frat-boy behavior.' It is also the type of behavior that emphasizes competition based on physical power, risk-taking and sexual prowess and promiscuity.

The research shows that these expectations of boys are damaging to both men and women, and to society at large. Toxic masculinity has been discussed as a cause of mass shootings and of violence

The impact of toxic masculinity on mental health.

In a meta-study that looked at the findings of more than 70 studies of conformity to masculine norms, researchers found that these norms were "unfavorably, robustly and consistently" related to negative mental health outcomes and reduced the likelihood of men seeking out mental health services. The three most powerful masculine norms that predicted these negative outcomes were self-reliance, power over women and the pursuit of sexual promiscuity.

In an interview, Y. Joel Wong of Indiana University at Bloomington (one of the authors of the study) said that the links to sexism mean that these behaviors are particularly problematic, because society has changed and sexism is no longer acceptable behavior—though the multitude of reports of sexual harassment in the last few months make it quite clear that, even if unacceptable, such attacks are still suffered in silence by too many women.

But women are not the only ones suffering in silence, because the emphasis on self-reliance and the rigidity of the ways in which we perceive masculinity mean that many men feel that they have no other choice but to fulfill these social expectations. Wong argues that men feel trapped by these norms even if they do not align with their personal values; they perpetuate such norms because they fear not being perceived as 'masculine.' So what does this mean for boys?

Toxic masculinity and boys.

There are many efforts to undo this toxicity including courses and initiatives in masculinity on university campuses such as Washington University in St. Louis, the University of WisconsinDuke University and others. These efforts reflect a broader societal effort to change the way we define and express masculinity.

But why wait until boys get to college to change the way they see themselves? Masculinities scholar Ronald Levant, author of The Psychology of Men and Masculinities, shows how the socialization of boys into behaviors such as dominance, emotional restriction, toughness and self-reliance begins as young as infancy, and is transmitted through parents, the media and the world at large.

Therefore, it would seem that these behaviors and beliefs would have the same negative impacts for young people in high school and earlier, yet a search of the PsycInfo database (the leading database of psychology articles) does not find any articles linking 'toxic masculinity' with 'boys' or 'adolescents', though there are lots of studies exploring the impact of gender stereotypes on adolescent males.

As stated by University of Illinois Chicago sociologist Barbara Risman, "boys make fun of other boys if they step just a little outside the rigid masculine stereotype." Families may even become socially ostracized and threatened with violence because their son gravitates towards more feminine toys such as Barbies and Disney princesses.

According to psychologist Tali Shenfield, author of popular anxiety tests for children, negative emotionality is one of the most common triggers for anxiety. Fear of rejection can cause anxiety and anger in boys, with the 'lone wolf' stereotype being implicated in instances of violence that include Columbine and other shootings.

The bullying that many boys experience if they deviate from dominant social norms is a source of anxiety, as shown by recent studies by researchers at Duke University and at University College London. Dealing with this anxiety may help male adolescents find less problematic ways to express their frustration, and help to build emotional resilience.

Having strategies to deal with this anxiety and being able to foster broader definitions of masculinity will help boys to grow up to be less attached to stereotyped ways of being, especially those which are no longer valued in a society where gender equity, cooperation, and emotional expression are more socially acceptable.

Broadening the definition of masculinity.

Many articles are being written about the shifting definitions of masculinity and the difficulties that some men are having in adapting to these new norms. In an article in the Monitor on Psychology published by the American Psychological Association entitled "The Men America Left Behind," Kristin Weir explores the disconnection that many men, particularly white men, now feel because of this shift in social expectations regarding male roles.

Allowing boys the freedom to be who they are without defining such behaviors as masculine or feminine will decrease the cognitive dissonance and emotional stress that so many men feel as they try to navigate changing social norms. Encouraging expressions of emotionality such as tears — whether of joy or sadness — will reduce the stress of stifling emotions that often are expressed in less healthy ways such as violence. Encouraging boys to talk about their feelings will help them build social support networks that go beyond typical ways of 'male bonding.'

Teaching boys healthy ways to express their sexuality through mutual respect and communication will help them to understand how to have sexual relations that produce enjoyment and satisfaction for both parties. Sex as shared instead of sex that is taken is something that too many adult men find difficult to understand in terms of acceptable forms of sexual engagement.

It requires all of us to shift our expectations of men and boys so that these new norms are rewarded. Women will no longer 'protect' men by suffering in silence, and men need to hold each other responsible for being masculine without the toxicity that creates so many problems for us all.

This article was first published by Psychology Today.

About the author

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S.W., is a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work, and author of the forthcoming book, The Stress Management Workbook. Visit her website and follow her on twitter at @ruthcwhite.


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