Disrupting Toxic Masculinity

| Present

Stephanie Ruhle of MSNBC recently interviewed a number of young men about the connection between mass shootings in the US in recent years and the pressures on teenage males. In the introduction to the segment, MSNBC senior national correspondent Chris Jansing noted the sobering statistics: 94% of all mass shootings in the US are committed by men. The San Bernardino shooting included a woman perpetrator, who committed the crime with her husband, and the April 3rd incident appears to have been undertaken by a woman who may have had a grudge against YouTube.

While this may be an under-covered story, it is not entirely new. Research has been conducted for years on men/boys and violence and other anti-social behavior, and several related articles have appeared lately in the media. Many points have been made by professionals who investigate gender, violence, male psychology, masculinity and similar issues.

  • An old theory that testosterone, the so-called “male hormone,” explains men’s aggression has lately been debunked. This “biological essentialism” theory does not hold water. Instead, “men’s impulses towards violence are often fueled by a complicated patchwork of social expectations and pressures regarding what it means to be a man. Cultural standards often tell young men that violence is the only way to get respect or power, or to prove one’s own masculinity, period.”
  • It has long been known that men and boys are more violent and commit more violent crimes than women.
  • Childhood trauma probably plays some role in male violence. Groups and group pressure also play a role.
  • The patriarchal nature of most of our modern cultures contributes to violent behavior in society, especially among men and boys. “By age five, most boys and girls will have internalised the gender roles and expectations taught them by their families, schools, religions and societies. And in many instances, boys will have been socialised for violence by being taught that being a man means being tough, powerful, intimidating, and a stud.” (In contrast, archaeological evidence strongly suggests that prehistoric cultures that held women in high regard and revered a powerful female deity were overwhelmingly peaceful. See Abrahamsen, Gimbutas and others.)

According to a 2016 article by Harris O’Malley, “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.”

The article goes on, “Sex, in particular, is an important part of ‘being a man’. Sexual conquests (and believe me, that word is chosen deliberately) are part of how men establish and reaffirm their manhood. The need to ‘get’ sex is all-encompassing because the more of it you have, the higher ‘status’ you have as a man.” Therefore, all men and boys do not exhibit “toxic masculinity;” however, when the culture is promoting this extreme, often violent and almost certainly misogynist, behavior, it is bound to negatively influence boys and young men – and this can and often does lead to unethical if not also illegal behavior. Even if boys and men do not become outright violent, they often exhibit other types of anti-social behavior – bullying, insults, hurtful comments, sabotage, harassment – that have very damaging consequences for individuals and society because men still generally hold more power than women.

Unfortunately for all of us, the leader of our country, Donald Trump, exhibits very troubling characteristics of someone operating under the “disease” of toxic masculinity.

  • It is general knowledge that Trump is a misogynist and routinely maligns women who stand up to or challenge him, especially women of color.
  • He has long had extra-marital affairs and is now being sued by a woman who is demonstrating considerable evidence of such an affair in 2006 and a probable cover-up shortly before the 2016 election.
  • Trump has encouraged violence against people who disagree with him and frequently brags shamelessly about himself, betraying his self-description as “tough, powerful, intimidating, and a stud.”
  • He was taught long ago, by notorious attorney Roy Cohn, to never apologize and to always fight back when attacked.
  • Trump shows disturbing deference and respect toward ruthless strong-men such as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Dutarte of the Philippines, Xi Jinping of China, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan while snubbing or insulting, at one time or another, our allies and, of course, his predecessor Barack Obama and his female rival, Hillary Clinton.

As far as we know, Trump has never been overtly violent (although startling revelations about him seem to emerge nearly every day…), but the toxic masculinity that he exhibits in these other myriad ways is, at the very least, conduct completely unbecoming the leader of our nation. Furthermore, as many commentators have pointed out since Trump came on the scene as a presidential candidate, he sets one of the worst examples imaginable for young men, especially young white men. Toxic masculinity in the person of the President of the United States gives more than tacit permission for men and boys to follow his lead – and we have already seen that in spades.

Experts offer a number of good suggestions for combating this scourge:

  • Delete “boys will be boys” from our conversations.
  • Show boys that it is not normal to show that they like someone by hurting them.
  • Protest the idea that the phrase “locker room talk” can be used to excuse aggressive sexual acts that do not involve consent.
  • Stop telling the boys and the men in our lives to “man up” when they dare to show emotion or pain.
  • Encourage men and boys to drop the “tough guise” and let them grow up with space for tenderness.
  • Disrupt teasing when we hear someone call a boy “pussy,” “girl,” “wuss” or “wimp” and explain to boys that having a heart or a fear or an emotion is a human need, not a liability.

The problem is, even if we take all of these measures, will any of them stick, perhaps among those who need it most, when our President exhibits such despicable personal traits? Some of us can only hope that Trump will not only eventually be impeached and removed from the most powerful position in the world, but perhaps also end up in jail and thus permanently silenced, for transgressions like conspiracy, money laundering, perjury, corruption, and obstruction of justice. Time will tell. In the meantime, we must combat toxic masculinity in every way possible.

Resources for Prehistoric Cultures

Abrahamsen, Valerie A. Goddess and God: A Holy Tension in the First Christian Centuries. Marco Polo Monographs 10. Warren Center, PA: Shangri-La Publications, 2006.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess, ed. Joan Marler. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1989.