The concept of toxic masculinity is used in academic and media discussions of masculinity to refer to certain cultural norms that are associated with harm to society and men themselves. Traditional stereotypes of men as socially dominant, along with related traits such as misogyny and homophobia, can be considered “toxic” due in part to their promotion of violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence. The socialization of boys in patriarchal societies often normalizes violence, such as in the saying “boys will be boys” about bullying and aggression. Self-reliance and emotional repression are correlated with increased psychological problems in men such as depression, increased stress, and substance use disorders. Toxic masculine traits are characteristic of the unspoken code of behavior among men in prisons, where they exist in part as a response to the harsh conditions of prison life.

Other traditionally masculine traits such as devotion to work, pride in excelling at sports, and providing for one’s family, are not considered to be “toxic”. The concept was originally used by authors associated with the mythopoetic men’s movement such as Shepherd Bliss to contrast stereotypical notions of masculinity with a “real” or “deep” masculinity that they say men have lost touch within modern society. Critics of the term argue that its meaning incorrectly implies that gender-related issues are caused by inherent male traits. The concept of toxic masculinity, or certain formulations of it, has been criticized by some conservatives as an undue condemnation of traditional masculinity, and by some feminists as an essentialist concept that ignores the role of choice and context in causing harmful behaviors and attitudes related to masculinity. toxic masculine norms are a feature of life for men in American prisons, where they are reflected in the behavior of both staff and inmates. The qualities of extreme self-reliance, domination of other men through violence, and avoiding the appearance of either femininity or weakness, comprise an unspoken code among prisoners. Suppressing vulnerable emotions is often adopted to successfully cope with the harsh conditions of prison life, defined by punishment, social isolation, and aggression. These factors likely play a role in suicide among male prisoners. Toxic masculinity can also take the form of bullying of boys by their peers and domestic violence directed toward boys at home. The often violent socialization of boys produces psychological trauma through the promotion of aggression and lack of interpersonal connection. Such trauma is often disregarded, such as in the saying “boys will be boys” about bullying. The promotion of idealized masculine roles emphasizing toughness, dominance, self-reliance, and the restriction of emotion can begin as early as infancy. Such norms are transmitted by parents, other male relatives, and members of the community. Media representations of masculinity on websites such as YouTube often promote similar stereotypical gender roles.

The concept of toxic masculinity has also been criticized from a feminist perspective. Andrea Waling and Michael Salter have argued that the concept of “toxic masculinity” in contradistinction to “healthy masculinity” emerged from a misunderstanding of Raewyn Connell’s 1987 work on hegemonic masculinity. To Waling, “toxic masculinity” is problematic because it presents men as victims of an unavoidable pathology, an essentialist approach that ignores the surrounding social and material context and the personal responsibility of men. Instructing men to practice “healthy masculinity” dismisses androgyny and adopting aspects of femininity as valid options for men, thereby perpetuating gender binaries and privileging masculinity over femininity.

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