Abuse, not gender, creates pathology.
Every day we look at the headlines, only to find bad news. Another mass shooting. Another sexual assault. More abused children.
It’s so bad that men are even sitting improperly on the subway (“manspreading”) and expressing their opinions in condescending ways (“mansplaining”).
Does that seem to trivialize the horrific abuse that too many people experience? Yes, it does. And that’s only one problem with claims about “toxic masculinity.”
There’s no clear definition of what toxic masculinity is. And certainly not one that’s falsifiable. The advantage of a vague definition is that you can weasel your way out of any criticism:
“You don’t understand.”
“So explain it to me.”
“It’s not my job to educate you.”
And vagueness provides immunity to empirical research. If you can’t define it then you can’t refute it.
British psychologists John Barry and Martin Seager (1) point out that, “Masculinity cannot be both toxic to all (including men themselves) and at the same time privileging for men—this is clearly a complete self-contradiction.”
Besides, labels such as “toxic femininity” are seen as sexist. We’re led to believe that gender is a causal factor in men’s but not women’s abusive behavior.
Progressives respond that they’re not saying masculinity is toxic. Masculinity, however, must be redefined because focusing on the positive aspects of traditional masculinity is insufficient to counteract toxic masculinity. In other words, progressives are claiming that toxic masculinity is the norm and healthy masculinity (i.e. redefined masculinity) is the outlier.
Barry and Seager respond that because masculinity, to varying degrees, characterizes most men and some women, toxic masculinity “predicts pathology as the norm.” But generalizing from a minority fringe to most people is illegitimate. And toxic masculinity fails to account for the fact that women primarily socialize boys; or that when there’s a natural disaster, most first responders are men who risk their lives to save others.
Further, Barry and Seager note that the “pervasive levels” of ill health that toxic masculinity predicts,
do not fit with actual observations of human relationships, family life and community life in which men, women and children across many societies are frequently capable of shared health and happiness. Toxic behavior, where it does occur, is the exception rather than the rule.
In reality, male perpetrators typically “have a history of abuse, trauma or neglect in their own early histories and can be clearly distinguished from the general population of males who have no such histories and are not abusive.”
Instead, they suggest that,
It is better science therefore to conclude that it is not masculinity per se that is toxic but that emotional damage, neglect, alienation and abuse of some boys and teenagers in their developmental years will contribute to masculine types of toxic behavior later in life.
Gender doesn’t create pathology. Abuse creates pathology. That’s why counter claims of “toxic femininity” are sexist. So why is the sexism in claims about “toxic masculinity” invisible?
Barry and Seager offer a more nuanced perspective: pathology resulting from abuse can manifest in gendered ways.
Males evolved as providers and protectors. Males in every human society—without exception—are on average more aggressive than females. This is true even of our closest ape cousins. So greater aggression in males likely has a biological basis. For properly nurtured boys, these impulses are channeled toward protectiveness and risk taking that benefit humanity. But abused boys, feeling under constant threat and without a healthy framework to guide them, are far more likely to “burn the village down.”
However, the double standard of toxic masculinity with no feminine counterpart raises questions, which some social justice activists have answered honestly: in their opinion, gender itself is problematic. And because gender is a social construct, it can be deconstructed.
But is it really that simple? And what will gender be reconstructed as? “Gender neutral” ideals bear an uncanny resemblance to femininity. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with femininity. But femininity shouldn’t be the general norm any more than masculinity should be. We can value both femininity and masculinity.
And if we want fewer men abusing women, children, and other men, we should improve our efforts to protect all children and adults from abuse. This means acknowledging female as well as male abusers, and providing boys and men with male friendly mental health services. Examples of male friendly approaches include:
- “By seeking help you are taking action, taking control and fighting your problems.”
- “It takes strength and courage to confront and master your problems.”
- “Looking after yourself means protecting your family.” (2)
1. Barry, J and Seager, M. Positive Masculinity: Including Masculinity as a Valued Aspect of Humanity. Barry, John; Kingerlee, Roger; Seager, Martin; and Sullivan, Luke (editors) (2019). The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. London, UK: Macmillan.
2. Seager, M. From Stereotypes to Archetypes: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Help-Seeking and Suicide. Barry, et al (editors) (2019). The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. London, UK: Macmillan.