Toxic Masculinity

Published 10/22/2019

Rethinking How We Think about the Relationship Between Toxic Masculinity and Men

You don’t have any reason to be defensive about the gender association of the term “toxic masculinity” if you are not part of the problem; the term is only offensive if you yourself are perpetuating toxic masculinity, right?  While this may not be an entirely unreasonable assertion, this attitude proves less than helpful.  First off, this sentiment will likely be perceived as aggressive.  Verbally attacking someone for being defensive is not a productive way to ameliorate someone’s defensiveness.  I have also seen the responses of women on social media who have serious complaints about the massive abuse they have suffered as a result of toxic masculinity; I genuinely understand the attitude: “Oh, are you offended by the phrasing of this term?  Sorry, not sorry!”  Such a response rightly draws attention to the gross disparity between terminology and the actual physical violence all too often present in situations in which toxic masculinity is implicated.  In the face of the terrible consequences brought about by toxic masculinity, it is hard to justify any complaint generated by frail male insecurities about a term found to be aggressive or abusive.  While I deeply and sincerely sympathize with this rebuttal, it shelves the argument to give the more important moral discussion priority – meaning it never meets, let alone resolves, the complaint – and therefore, is not a convincing motivator for someone who does not take seriously the existence of such a phenomenon in the first place.  More to the point, neither approach mentioned above is entirely fair.  The mere fact that someone rebuts a perceived attack on masculinity itself is an indication of the systemic problem.

But even the attitude that someone truly secure in their masculinity has no need to defend it – born of my own male confidence and self-reliance – is closely related to the source of the problem as it projects an ideal of what a really manly-man would or should be like.  I find myself, like many other men who seek to combat toxic masculinity, bound up in a whole system so ingrained, a society so tightly woven with it.  It would be hubris to pretend I could be divorced from it, to be free of its nefarious influence.  And this leads me to the main point of this essay: we need to rethink how we think about the relationship between toxic masculinity and men.

Part of the difficulty in having a productive conversation about the effects of toxic masculinity – and the very real dangers it poses to both individuals and society as a whole – is the gendered nature of the term.  Why not simply say that compulsions like the need to obtain sexual conquest, to assert power and authority over others (especially women), and to abhor to the point of violence anything remotely non-heteronormative are all just toxic behaviors sans the gender association?  If you are an advocate for human rights and you take these ethical issues seriously enough that you are having these kinds of conversations, you have probably heard similar objections – which can entirely derail the conversation; prevent meaningful discourse about the harms and unfortunate consequences; and certainly fail to provide fertile ground for finding reasonable solutions.

Toxic masculinity is not found in the action of an abusive spouse, or a drunken frat-boy sex offender, or an angry emasculating father-figure.  Nor is toxic masculinity an essential component in the body or mind of these stereotypical tropes.  Toxic masculinity, rather, is the object of one’s intentional arc, in phenomenological terms[1], or the “mover” for Aristotle[2].  Like the perceived good – that to which we are all drawn by our appetites – toxic masculinity is that which drives the incontinent acting agent to act thus.  Or pulls, rather, but not like the allure of fame or fortune.  These things are aspired for, to be sure, but one can also do well without them.  No, the pull of toxic masculinity is a need which has been conditioned and reinforced.  At every turn, when one has failed to properly seek out this need, one is punished by other males and by women in equal measure.  This aspect of systemic social manipulation might be best identified as enforcement[3].  Toxic masculinity itself is a thing apart, existing in our culturally reinforced ideologies about what is and what should be masculine.  An intemperate act directed at attaining some mythical ideal may be considered morally reprehensible, but in this case we should be more concerned about the object of directedness itself and the determining powers which elicit these reprehensible behaviors.  If the thief, for example, has committed theft as the result of some perceived need – like a parent stealing to feed their hungry child – then by punishing the thief, we have done nothing to ameliorate the circumstance.  Most likely, the thief will have been released from punishment into a situation worse-off than before they had chosen to commit the crime; we have failed to address the determining power – the perceived need to feed one’s hungry child.  Similarly, when we flame, troll, cancel, or otherwise punish an individual[4] because they have exhibited some misogynistic tendency, we are not solving the problem; we have only reaffirmed their justification[5] for exhibiting aggressive behaviors.  This is why it is so important that we reevaluate how we think about the relationship between men and toxic masculinity – to separate the toxicity from the masculine.

A thief is not theft, and a misogynist is not toxic masculinity.  Although, perhaps a closer analogy might be to compare toxic masculinity to, say, poverty.  Both are social phenomenon which may be inflicted upon individuals, phenomenon which individuals suffer, and are systems maintained and perpetuated by affective powers[6].  Making Jeff Bezos a martyr to the cause of eradicating poverty will prove no more effective than the persecution of meninists and misogynists, regardless of their influence or status.  Where, then, should we seek clarification?  The analogy to poverty may provide insight.  To better understand poverty, we do not look at the poor to better understand why they have failed to lift themselves up by their bootstraps[7], nor do we ask the rich to explain why they amass wealth and resources while exploiting the working class.  We do not ask this of the rich because we already know that they are so compelled by systemic powers within and throughout society which reward the consolidation of wealth and exploitation.  But what of asking the poor?  It would be absurd to claim that the poor were all poor by choice, but they might offer a valuable perspective.  After all, some of the best accounts of systemic racism and oppression have been offered by those who have experienced first-hand their awful effects.  I propose, then, a shift in our investigatory process when seeking out qualities, characteristics, and essential properties of toxic masculinity.  Let us no longer focus our attention to bad actors who are rewarded for their idolation of a perverted masculinity; they have nothing of substance to tell us. Instead we should be concerned with both the valuable perspectives[8] offered by those disprivileged by the perpetuation of toxic masculinity and to the affective powers which enable its perpetuation.

It is also worth addressing that those aware of the problem are not immune to it.  Toxic masculinity is similar to privilege in that we are naturally blind to it when we enjoy it.  Simply having been made aware of one element of privilege enjoyed does not make available to our attention the totality of our privilege.  Likewise, the systemic institutionalization of toxic masculinity seemingly pervades every facet of our culture.  Furthermore, overcoming a life-time of manipulated habituation is not instantaneous, and it won’t be easy.  I understand that the idea of extending patience and understanding to individuals – who’s actions we find entirely reprehensible – may violate our basic intuitions of justice, but to do otherwise would be counterproductive, to say the least.

So, to restate, toxic masculinity is not in a person or in an action. It is not a thing one does or a part of one’s character, per say. Therefore, the term toxic masculinity is an accurate descriptor. Toxic masculinity happens to the cultural ideal of what masculinity is or should be. It is a force which molds and shapes individuals, moves them to act, to be sure. But it does so through social and cultural influence.  It is a perceived need, like addiction, which cannot be satiated with any amount of sexual conquest or exerted power and control over others. Toxic masculinity is not simply toxic action or toxic behavior; it is a phenomenon so much greater – a power[9] which pervades the social framework which informs our social conceptions of truth and value.  Therefore, to the question of why we must attach a particular discriminatory gender association, we should reply: because masculinity is precisely what is under threat.  Autonomous masculinity is the thing which is at risk of corruption and degradation.

[1] The “object” of Merleau-Ponty’s (1958) intentional arc. This concept is introduced in Phenomenology of Perception, Part I Chapter 2, and then further explained in Chapter 3.
[2] See Aristotle’s Metaphysics, XI.
[3] This enforcement is similar to the system of rewards and punishment as expressed by Foucault (1995) in Discipline & Punish – implying a mixed nature: being both artificial and natural (p. 179). Enforcement, though, entails a binary threshold between oppressor–enforcer and the oppressed–heteronormative deviant (p. 183).
[4] It should be noted that such responses are not without merit. To bear witness to vile acts and do nothing makes us complicit in their perpetuation. Our failure to stand against oppression and abuse translates into cultural reification that such acts are socially acceptable. To issue such punishment is not wrong; what I intend, rather, is that retaliation against any single bad moral actor is sorely insufficient.
[5] An attack on one’s way of life, one’s ideology, or one’s value system commits the one attacked to a designated position in which feel they must dig their heels, otherwise they are faced with the reality that their life, ideology, or values are inconsistent. That which makes them fundamentally who they are is at stake.
[6] Power here is meant as described by Foucault (1980) in Power/Knowledge as “it produces effects at the level of desire – and also at the level of knowledge” (p.59).
[7] This is a deliberate jib at victim blaming and victim shaming of all types, not just those associated with poverty and certainly not without regard to those associated with misogyny and toxic masculinity.
[8] Subjugated knowledges – “present but disguised within the body of functionalist and systematizing theory” (Foucault, 1980, p. 82).
[9] Power here is intended to signify, in addition to the typical Foucauldian sense, the juxtaposition between what Foucault would call local criticism and global totalitarian theories (1980, p. 80).


Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge (C. Gordon, Ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline & Punish. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Random House, Inc.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1958). Phenomenology of Perception (C. Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Routledge. (Original work published 1945)

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