Toxic masculinity refers to the internalization of hyper-masculine gender norms that are harmful or ‘toxic’ to society.
The term does not refer to ‘positive masculinity’ or even mainstream ideas about masculinity, but tends to over-emphasize anachronistic patriarchal concepts that promote domination, devaluation of women, homophobia, and violence.
Toxic Masculinity Definition
Toxic masculinity refers to a specific set of antisocial and destructive characteristics embraced by a subset of men as gender identity features.
This definition from Sculos (2017) tends to conform to my paraphrased definition above:
“…generally “toxic masculinity” is used to refer to a loosely interrelated collection of norms, beliefs, and behaviors associated with masculinity, which are harmful to women, men, children, and society more broadly.”
Similarly, Kupers (2005) presents a definition that defines toxic masculinity aggression and a desire to be dominant:
“Toxic masculinity involves the need to aggressively compete and dominate others and encompasses the most problematic proclivities in men.” (Kupers 2005, p.713-714).
Interestingly, the concept was once ascribed to low-income, marginalized, and often racialized men by the conservative commentariat who wanted to frame them as outside of the norms of mainstream (white) masculine values which were seen as more civilized (Harrington, 2021).
Later, feminist scholars such as Raewyn Connell concerned themselves with how toxic masculinity was an extreme form of “hegemonic masculinity”, a concept that reflects masculine traits designed to maintain dominance of men over women in a patriarchal hierarchy.
Still further, feminist scholars began to reject the idea that this definition should be ascribed to marginalized men, highlighting that the greatest concern is “the poor behaviour of powerful white elite men” who use toxic masculinity as a way to maintain their place on a power hierarchy. This definition, for example, has been used to explain toxic masculinity that is at the heart of the feminist critique within the #Metoo movement (Harrington, 2021).
Toxic Masculinity Examples
1. Refusing to do Household Chores
Refusing to do household chores can be seen as an example of toxic masculinity if it is predicated on the belief that such tasks are “women’s work” and, therefore, beneath men.
This belief reflects an idea that there is certain work that men should not do based on their ascribed status – gender – rather than based on a negotiated distribution of roles between members of the relationship.
Of course, if the husband and wife have negotiated the distribution of chores and responsibilities in an even and respectful manner, and certain chores are the role of the wife in that particular relationship, it likely wouldn’t reflect toxic masculinity. But if the man is refusing to do the chores specifically on gender grounds, then it would.
2. Belittling Expressions of Emotion
Men who embrace toxic masculinity often belittle others – men and women – who express their emotions.
This is based on an outdated idea that “men don’t show emotions” or “men don’t cry.”
This concept harks back to a time when gender stereotypes held a binary of male/female corresponding to rational/emotional.
Such a belief is harmful, perhaps most of all to the men who internalize it, because it means they cannot sufficiently work through their emotions, be honest about their emotions, or confront psychological traumas they face.
3. Obsession with Body Counts
The term ‘body count’ colloquially refers to the number of people you have slept with.
The obsession with this term among some men reflects their sense that their personal worth as a man hinges on their ability to convince women to sleep with them.
Furthermore, such a mentality objectifies the women they date, turning them into merely people to be conquered and discarded, rather than people to form relationships with or, at the very least, respect and build an intimate relationship with based on mutual respect.
People who have internalized toxic masculinity may have the belief that being gay tarnishes one’s “manliness”. They may even fear that being associated with someone who is gay may make them appear less manly.
And appearing less manly is a huge fear for those who believe in toxic masculine traits.
This fear can result in the use of homophobic slurs, avoiding relationships or friendships with those who identify as LGBTQ+, and even perpetrating violence against this community.
This mentality is based on the unfounded but sadly prevalent idea that “real men” should only be attracted to women. Such a mentality spreads discrimination and stereotyping, where people prejudge someone based on their sexuality rather than their personal character.
5. Treating a Spouse as an Inferior
Toxic masculinity can manifest as a belief that men are superior to women and, therefore, the man should be the ‘boss’ in the household. They believe that an unequal power dynamic in the relationship is justified based on the man’s supposed inherent superiority over women.
For example, the man might make decisions unilaterally without regard for his wife’s views, might fail to think of her or others when making decisions, and might devaluing the spouse’s achievements and contributions.
6. Violence as a Solution to Problems
Violence, among the toxic masculinity crowd, is seen as the ultimate arbitrator. If they’re wrong, it doesn’t matter, because they think ‘might makes right’.
As a result, intellect and logic are devalued.
Furthermore, it creates a world where people have to live in fear of one another causing physical harm to them, violating the basic idea that everyone should have the right to bodily autonomy, and never be physically harmed no matter the reason.
This view often stems from societal norms or media portrayals that equate masculinity with aggression and dominance. However, violence rarely solves problems; instead, it typically escalates them, causing harm to both the perpetrator and the recipient.
7. Gender-Based Bullying
Gender-based bullying is often a manifestation of toxic masculinity. It occurs when boys and men bully other boys and men in order to establish their place on a social hierarchy.
By projecting themselves as the strongest, most aggressive, and most dominant male, these people believe they can become the ‘alpha male’ in a social group.
This is common in the playground. Fortunately, as we get older, most people grow out of this, and realize that traits like kindness and vulnerability are often attractive traits, while aggression is a trait that you don’t want in your friends.
Similarly, boys and men might target women and girls who are perceived to lack desirable feminine traits – submissiveness, fine features, etc. – and belittle them for not fitting into a traditional feminine stereotype.
8. Sexual Aggression
Toxic masculinity can lead to sexual aggression, often taking the form of whistling at women walking down the street, inappropriate touching of people who haven’t given consent, inappropriate internet messages, and so forth.
In such cases, these ‘toxic’ men feel entitled to act on their sexual impulses without explicit consent, failing to exercise respect and empathy toward women around them.
Such behavior is rooted in a patriarchal culture that often objectifies women and views them as a means to fulfill desires, rather than as equals deserving of respect and autonomy.
Generally, such behavior is explicitly harassment and coercion, and in most developed liberal societies, is even illegal.
9. Excessive Risk-Taking
Excessive risk-taking is another behavior often linked to toxic masculinity, whereby it reflects a belief that risk-taking is a way to demonstrate manliness and prowess within the social group.
Generally among teenagers and young men, it would manifest as dangerous driving, refusing to use adequate safety precautions, or taking foolish financial risks.
Underpinning this is a stereotype that men should not have emotions, and therefore, should be fearless. By demonstrating this fearlessness, they can better position themselves as alpha males.
This mentality also undervalues the qualities of caution, prudence, and thoughtful decision-making, which are equally valid and essential aspects of human behavior and should not be seen as “less masculine”.
10. Raising Sons to Conform to Hyper-Masculine Stereotypes
If a man continues to embrace toxic masculinity into adulthood, he may attempt to socialize his son into this sort of behavior as well.
This can include teaching boys that it is unmanly to display emotions (for example, ‘boys don’t cry’), encouraging their sons to be hyper-aggressive on the sports field or in the playground, and discouraging the pursuit of traditionally feminine interests, such as pursuing dance or fashion.
Raising sons in such an environment may stunt their emotional development, limit their ability to express themselves, cause them to have a poor relationship with their own emotions, and pass-on harmful cultural stereotypes about gender roles.
This may also lead them to have poor interpersonal relationships in adulthood.
11. Blaming Victims for their ‘Suggestive’ Clothing
Toxic masculinity can also manifest in the form of blaming female victims of sexual perpetrators, saying that they ‘asked for it’ by wearing ‘suggestive’ clothing.
This viewpoint insinuates that men are unable to control their actions when faced with certain types of clothing, which obviously makes the men look like uncontrollable savages, but they don’t seem to realize that this is in-turn a clear critique of their personal failings!
One would thing that real men can control themselves in all situations.
Nevertheless, the blame-the-victim narrative is an attempt to absolve the perpetrators of responsibility. This viewpoint also works to normalize male misconduct, fostering hostile and unsafe public spaces for women.
12. Telling a Wife to Quit Her Job After Marriage
Telling a wife to quit her job after marriage can be a manifestation of toxic masculinity.
This demand often comes from the antiquated idea that men should be the sole providers, and also from the idea that the domestic sphere is the sphere for women.
This viewpoint may be driven by gender socialization into a patriarchal culture, fundamentalist religious teachings, or even driven by the insecurities of a man whose spouse may have the potential to earn more than him or achieve higher professional success.
This behavior overlooks the aspirations, skills, and independence of women, perpetuates the idea that women do not have a place in the public arena, and denies women the right to full participation in socia life.
13. Superficial Judgment of Women Based on Gender Conformity
Superficial judgment of women based on gender conformity can be a form of toxic masculinity.
This occurs when men judge women not based upon their intelligence or worth as an individual, but rather, on what they wear or how submissive they behave toward men.
For instance, valuing women mainly for their physical attractiveness or criticizing them for not being “feminine” enough both fall under this category. This behavior is harmful because it reduces women to one-dimensional figures. Furthermore, it overlooks each individual’s unique strengths and capabilities.
14. Superficial Judgment of Men Based on Gender Conformity
Just as toxic masculinity can lead to superficial judgment of women, it can also result in a superficial judgment of other men, especially those who may not perfectly conform to a hegemonic masculinity ideal.
Men may be ridiculed or stigmatized for not adhering to traditional masculine norms, such as displaying emotions, engaging in activities perceived as feminine, or not being aggressive or competitive.
This behavior imposes a narrow definition of masculinity, constrains men’s behavior, and discourages them from expressing themselves authentically.
It reinforces the harmful idea that there’s only one “correct” way to be a man, which can limit personal growth and contribute to mental health problems.
15. Embracing Sexualization of Women
Toxic masculinity often involves the embrace of the sexualization of women.
This behavior regards women primarily as objects of sexual desire, rather than as individuals with their own rights, values, and autonomy.
Examples can include objectifying comments, catcalling, unsolicited advances, or consuming media that objectifies women.
Emphasizing respect, equality, and consent is crucial to combating this form of toxic masculinity.
16. Valuing Physical Strength over Character or Intellect
Toxic masculinity can be seen in the overemphasis of physical strength at the expense of character or intellect in the definition of a man.
This might involve prioritizing workouts and bodybuilding while disregarding the development of emotional intelligence, ethical standards, or intellectual pursuits.
It leads to a one-dimensional view of manhood that equates physical prowess with value and worth. Such an approach not only reinforces shallow stereotypes but also devalues other essential qualities, such as kindness, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and moral courage, which contribute to a well-rounded and healthy sense of masculinity.
17. Excessive Competitiveness
Excessive competitiveness is another example of toxic masculinity. It’s the belief that men must always “win” and be the best in every aspect of life, from sports to work, and even in personal relationships.
This obsession with always coming out on top can create a high-pressure environment that discourages cooperation, fosters unnecessary conflict, and potentially leads to mental health issues such as stress and anxiety.
While a healthy level of competitiveness can be motivating, an excessive or compulsive need to compete and dominate can be destructive and alienating.
18. Inability to Admit Weakness
Toxic masculinity often includes an inability or unwillingness to admit weakness, whether it’s emotional, physical, or intellectual.
Many men are socialized to believe that admitting a mistake or asking for help is a sign of weakness. Such behaviors may position them as “unmanly” in a toxic culture.
This mindset can prevent men from seeking help when they need it.
This can be damaging in many situations, whether it’s for a mental health issue, a physical health problem, or working through difficult periods of their lives.
It can also lead to a lack of self-awareness and personal growth, as acknowledging one’s weaknesses is a crucial step in improving and learning.
Valuing vulnerability and encouraging open communication are essential steps to counteract this harmful aspect of toxic masculinity.
See Also: 10 Types of Masculinity
It’s worth reflecting on the fact that masculinity itself is not necessarily bad. Rather, the problem arises when there are extreme interpretations of masculinity that lead to harm to self and others, based on antisocial and unjust belief systems. Generally, the issue arises when a patriarchal hierarchy is created in the mind, and when people are judged based on their gender rather than their individual character.
Bliss, S. (1995). “Mythopoetic Men’s Movements”. In Kimmel, Michael S. (ed.). The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement (And the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bswd0
Connell, R.W. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Daddow, O., & Hertner, I. (2021). Interpreting toxic masculinity in political parties: A framework for analysis. Party Politics, 27(4), 743-754. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068819887591
Kupers, T. A. (2005). Toxic masculinity as a barrier to mental health treatment in prison. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(6), 713–724 doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20105
Sculos, B. W. (2017). Who’s afraid of ‘toxic masculinity’?. Class, Race and Corporate Power, 5(3). doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/48645481
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]