Prevention Corner: Toxic vs. Healthy Masculinity

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Jenna Fisher, Program Coordinator (Trainings and Underserved Populations)

One of the big questions within sexual violence prevention efforts is the question of how to engage men in ending sexual violence. To involve men, however, takes more than just acknowledgment that they are a part of the equation too. Understanding toxic versus healthy masculinity is one of the first steps to take in the effort to end sexual violence.

The advertisements on television and in print media are the best source to start with as we consider what masculinity means. Many advertisements depict men in positions of power (sexual, economic, professional, academic etc.) and women in subordinate positions. Masculine advertisements often have something to do with athletics, cars, beer, sex, and handiwork around the home. In contrast, feminine advertisements tend to involve makeup, cooking, cleaning, babies, and dieting. Our society tends to define masculinity as aggressive, unemotional, obsessed with heterosexual sex, and hard (both physically and emotionally). Society often depicts femininity as passive, emotional, sensual but not explicitly sexual, and generally soft (physically and emotionally).

Many people easily fit into the molds that are created for their gender. The archetypes in themselves are not necessarily toxic. However, some people do not fit all of the qualifications of masculinity or femininity and display traits from the other gender or both. Femininity and masculinity are toxic when they become strict standards for inclusion. Oftentimes, the exclusion of other expressions leads to an exaggerated expression of the “appropriate roles,” which can cause masculinity to turn from unemotional to anti-emotional and violent.

From a young age, boys are socialized to “man up,” often meaning that they need to hide their emotions, pursue power and control, dominate over women and other men, and more—all to show that they fit what it means to be masculine. This socialization pushes men away from being able to express their own emotions and empathize with others. Ultimately, this harms men by highlighting the character traits of the sexual aggressor and shaming any traits of the victim. To be a victim or to be able to empathize with victims is not considered “manly.”

Many organizations and initiatives are working to deconstruct toxic masculinity and narratives that equate masculinity with domination. Many educators seek to provide a redefinition of masculinity, in a way that is more inclusive and less aggressive towards expressions of femininity. These workshops and programs work to interrogate socially constructed definitions of masculinity and push “what it means to be a man” towards a goal that allows men to open up to their emotions and to femininity in a way that does not try to control or diminish it.

You can find many of these initiatives on our Men and Boys page. Below is a list of some additional organizations worth considering in the effort to redefine masculinity and include men in the effort to end sexual violence.

The “Good Lad Workshop” is designed to promote “positive masculinity” through hour-long workshops engaging men in real-life scenarios that address questions of masculinity, power, consent, sexual harassment, and more. The organization states that its goal is not to tell men what to do, but to present them with real issues and help them work through the reaction that is best for them. For more information, visit http://www.goodladworkshop.com/

In 2015, The Representation Project released the award winning film “The Mask You Live In.” The film discusses the experience of American men and boys as they navigate the socially constructed definition of masculinity. You can schedule a showing of the film and the creators developed educational materials to help facilitate conversations about the film and the topics it covers. This film is also available on Netflix and other streaming services. For more information, visit  http://therepresentationproject.org/film/the-mask-you-live-in/

Joe Ehrmann has educated other men for over 25 years. As an All-American athlete who played professional football for over 13 years, his focus tends to be on deconstructing traditionally hyper-masculine spaces such as sports team. His Ted Talk “Be a Man” talks about the importance of engaging men in sexual violence prevention and working to deconstruct the association of masculinity with domination. For more information, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVI1Xutc_Ws  

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