The Paradox of Toxic Masculinity
Men with toxic beliefs report being more satisfied with their lives — but what’s the real truth?
Toxic masculinity, at its core, is a set of beliefs and values that define manhood in a constricted, unwavering way. Men with these views define themselves as “real men.” The views provide structure. But are there negative effects as well?
Promundo-US sought to learn more about men and their conformity to toxic masculinity (defined as harmful masculine beliefs) across the US, UK, and Mexico. Nicknamed “The Man Box,” the researchers identified seven facets of harmful masculine beliefs:
- Self-sufficiency — men should not rely on others for help. Men who ask for help for their problems or discuss them do not deserve respect.
- Acting tough — men should fight against those who push them around and should always act strong.
- Physical attractiveness — your looks play a major role in success, however spending effort on your appearance is unattractive to women and not masculine.
- Gender roles — men should be the financial provider and should not be cooking, cleaning, or taking care of children.
- Homophobia — gay men are not real men, but it is okay to befriend them to show that they are not a threat to your masculinity
- Hypersexuality — men should have as many sexual partners as possible and never turn down sex.
- Aggression and control — men should use violence to get respect if necessary. Men should have the final say in their marriage and always should know where their wife/girlfriend is located.
The study found that overwhelmingly, many men felt intense societal pressure to conform to these harmful beliefs.
Men who scored high in “The Man Box” tended to say that they felt very satisfied with their lives. The rigidity of the beliefs inspired comfort and confidence for these men.
Should that claim be taken at face value? After all, the facet of self-sufficiency states that men should never talk about their problems or ask for help. Can we trust men deep in the Man Box to properly report their life satisfaction?
The study found that men in the Man Box reported symptoms of feeling depressed more than two times as much as those outside the Man Box. Men in the Man Box were unlikely to open up to a male friend about their problems. If the man did open up about his vulnerabilities, he was likely to do so with his (female) romantic partner or mother. This conflicts with self-reported happiness and satisfaction.
Men within the Man Box also were more likely to participate in risky health behaviors, namely excessive drinking and drunk driving. And although the majority of men felt generally satisfied with their appearance, most were not satisfied with their muscle size and would even prefer to change it. Body confidence came from the size of muscles over inner self-love.
Perpetrators and victims
To look even further into the phenomenon, researchers at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh used the data from Promundo-US to discover the effects of toxic masculinity on behavior and mood.
The findings painted an unfortunate picture of how toxic masculinity influences behavior. Men in the Man Box were dramatically more likely to be bullies (physical, verbal, or online). In the US and UK, men in the Man Box reported perpetuating all three of these forms of bullying within the last month. However, men in the Man Box also reported statistically higher rates of being victims of bullying as well. It is unclear if the bullying leads to toxic masculine beliefs or if the toxic masculine beliefs open up someone to more bullying. Not surprisingly, men in the Man Box also were far more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment.
But others are not the only targets of the Man Box; men in the Man Box were more likely to think about harming themselves as well. Young men believed they should put on a mask to show that they are fine, but in reality held suicidal thoughts. This coincides with data that men are 3.7 times more likely to die by suicide than women (although in confliction, women do attempt suicide more frequently but are more likely to survive).
Breaking the box
While men in the Man Box may broadly report that they are satisfied with life, the data and research show that there are many negative effects of holding toxic masculine beliefs. Men in the Man Box are more likely to participate in risky behaviors, bully others, be victims of bullying, and have suicidal thoughts. They are also less likely to have close friendships and relationships.
This is a problem we can’t ignore. With around 33% agreement or higher to masculine beliefs, an overwhelmingly large amount of young men may be suffering. It is easy to blame men for subscribing to these beliefs. However, cultural norms that re-enforce these beliefs are difficult to change. It will take a collaborative effort from society as a whole — including the media — to break down the Man Box. Breaking the box and opening up men to healthy masculine beliefs will benefit all of society — men, women, and children.