What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 11, 2022
5 min read

Toxic masculinity gets thrown around as a buzzword sometimes, but at its root, it’s a multifaceted term to describe harmful masculinity. While toxic masculinity is ingrained in some areas of our culture, identifying it, calling it out, and taking steps to treat it can make for a safer, healthier society.

Toxic masculinity is an attitude or set of social guidelines stereotypically associated with manliness that often have a negative impact on men, women, and society in general. 

The term "toxic masculinity" isn’t meant to imply that the idea of masculinity in itself is inherently bad. Instead, it’s meant to point out that certain behaviors and ways of thinking often associated with masculinity, from mental and physical toughness to sexism and homophobia, have a negative and often dangerous impact on the world.

While you may think of the term “toxic masculinity” as a modern buzzword, it’s been around for several decades. The term originally came about during the late 20th century men’s movements to describe narrow ideas of masculinity that were holding men back instead of empowering them. They considered toxic masculinity a characteristic of immature men who had not yet found their deep, spiritual masculinity. This men’s movement sought:

  • To increase community among men rather than competition
  • Multigenerational bonding, as they felt that the inability to bond with their fathers was a source of emotional damage
  • To be free to express emotion

For all the good things, this movement still contained harmful ideas. Many men felt that their voices had been silenced by the feminist movement, that excessive interaction with women was causing them to lose their internal masculinity, and that accusations of sexism from women were leading to emotional damage.

The phrase “toxic masculinity” was later adopted by the fourth wave of feminism, a wave that started about a decade ago. This wave focused more on intersectionality than the waves before it. Intersectionality is the idea that sexism is just one part of systemic oppression along with ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia, and racism.

Toxic masculinity is nuanced, but there are a few behaviors that are often caused by toxic masculinity. Some toxic masculinity examples include:

  • Homophobia. Toxic masculinity teaches men that homosexuality is a deviation from traditional masculinity and that gay men are less masculine. For example, consider the way terms like “gay” and “faggot” were and still are used as insults.
  • Need for control. Toxic masculinity encourages men to assert their power and dominance. We see this often in domestic relationships. The 2017 report "The Man Box" found that 34% of men in the U.S. believed they should always have the final say in their relationship, and 46% believed that men deserved to know where their girlfriend or wife is at all times.
  • Promiscuity. Toxic masculinity praises men for having multiple sexual partners while expressing disgust at women who do the same. 
  • Refusing to help with household duties. Toxic masculinity rejects roles traditionally considered “women’s work.” Toxically masculine men often refuse to participate in these household duties. "The Man Box" found that 22% of U.S. men believed they shouldn’t have to do household chores, 44% believed they should be the sole income earners, and 28% believed that boys shouldn’t be taught things like cooking, cleaning, and child care.
  • Risk-taking. Taking risks and suppressing fear is another feature of toxic masculinity. As a result, men are more likely to abuse drugs, drive dangerously, gamble, and engage in violence.
  • Sexual aggression toward women. Men who have been influenced by toxic masculinity are more likely to believe they're entitled to women’s bodies, leading to sexual comments and harassment toward women and a higher likelihood of believing rape myths.
  • Stoicism. A cornerstone idea of toxic masculinity is that showing emotion is weak and feminine. Men are expected to be mentally and physically tough without breaking. Statistics and studies show that men are less likely to pursue mental health services like therapy despite being 1.8 times more likely than women to commit suicide.
  • Violence. Toxic masculinity encourages men to use aggression and violence to assert their dominance and masculinity. "The Man Box" report found that 23% of U.S. men believed that, if needed, men should use violence to get respect.

Toxic masculinity and violence. While toxic masculinity is harmful to men as a whole, one of the ways that it affects society is that it encourages and leads to violence. Aggression and violence can happen when a man feels he has failed to live up to society’s expectations of masculinity or when he is trying to assert his dominance and masculinity.

Every October, for Domestic Violence Awareness month, the Violence Policy Center releases its "When Men Murder Women" study, an analysis of that year’s homicide data. When analyzing murders of women committed by men, the 2020 study found that:

  • 1,604 of 1,801 female homicide victims (89%) were killed by a man they knew
  • 2,022 homicides involved a single female victim and a single male perpetrator
  • 60% of victims who knew their murderer were intimate partners or ex-partners
  • 61% of victims were killed with a gun
  • Most often, women were killed during an argument

Almost anyone can access the internet, and as a result, almost anyone can be exposed to toxic masculinity. But not everyone exposed to toxic masculinity will become toxic or violent. There are a few known risk factors that can contribute to male violence and toxic masculinity:

  • Dysfunctional family environment
  • Exposure to social norms that encourage violence and male dominance
  • Exposure to violence at home, in relationships, and in the community
  • Lack of access to mental health services
  • Lack of behavioral control
  • Social rejection by peers

It’s important to be aware that not all toxic behaviors in men are caused by toxic masculinity. It’s also important that we don’t assign blame to toxic masculinity and avoid personal responsibility.

There are a few prevention strategies that can help young men avoid being poisoned by toxic masculinity. These include:

  • Creating marketing campaigns to change social and cultural norms around masculinity
  • Educating parents on the damage that physical punishment and humiliation techniques do to kids
  • Educating parents on the importance of creating safe and nurturing environments
  • Educating parents on the importance of teaching kids to regulate their emotions
  • Identifying and treating psychological distress
  • Offering programs that positively integrate boys and men into society
  • Promoting healthy relationships that are free of abuse and violence