Why We Miss The Point When We Call Masculinity ‘Toxic’

Nearly every woman I know has had a #MeToo experience of some sort. That tells me that nearly every man has likely misstepped somewhere along the way. I know I've misstepped along the way.
About 12 years ago, I remember telling my son as I was leaving to go on a business trip, “Son, you are the man of the house now.” I stopped in my tracks, the words hitting me differently than when I’d said them in past. I realised that I had just unconsciously and unintentionally undermined his mother’s leadership and authority. What was I thinking?!? I wasn’t. I was just passing down to my son what so many well-intentioned fathers have said before me.
That’s just one example of how we are collectively socialised, how we take for granted the subtle messages that inform our behaviour. At A Call To Men, we talk to men about the collective socialisation of manhood. We show them how all men have been taught — sometimes unintentionally — that women are objects and property, and have less value than men. That collective socialisation explains why everyone can finish the sentence: “Come on son, you have to throw harder than that — you throw like a ______.” It explains why, far too often, men are silent when a friend or co-worker makes a demeaning joke or harasses a woman in the street. If we question another man’s behaviour toward a woman, we know our Man Card will be challenged. “Bros before _____, right?”

If we allow men to separate themselves by saying, 'I’m not that bad — look at him — that guy is the one who’s toxic,' we are missing the greatest potential for change.

This ideology is reinforced and glorified in pop culture, further entrenching a very narrow version of manhood for our boys to fit into. We expect boys to “take it like a man” and “have the balls” to get whatever it is they want. Some people use the term “toxic masculinity” to describe this mindset and behaviour, which has become a ubiquitous part of the national #MeToo conversation. From politics to entertainment to sports, we live in a culture of widespread violence and discrimination against women and girls. But, while the term “toxic masculinity” has given a name to what was previously just a feeling, and engaged more people than ever in the conversation, we believe its widespread use is doing more harm than good.
That’s why we use the term the Man Box. When we label this kind of behaviour “toxic masculinity,” that gives the majority of men an out. Nobody thinks of their mindset as “toxic” — that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow, even for the most self-reflective person. If we allow men to separate themselves by saying, “I’m not that bad — look at him — that guy is the one who’s toxic,” we are missing the greatest potential for change.
The other problem is that toxicity implies that this type of masculinity is innate to men, and that’s just not true. The fact is, all men are socialised to view women as objects, the property of men, and less valuable than men. From “you throw like a girl,” to the wage gap, to oversexualised ads, our culture reinforces a norm of male dominance all day, every day, and everywhere you look.
Combine all of this with the fact that our boys are discouraged from showing emotion by the time they reach kindergarten, and it’s easy to see how people can think that fitting into the Man Box is the only way to be a man. We tell our toddlers that “big boys don’t cry,” our elementary school boys to “toughen up,” and our junior high boys to “get mad and do something about it.” We push our boys beyond their feelings and tell them to tap into their aggression instead, and they see this reflected back to them in video games, music, movies, and pornography.
The outcomes of that collective socialisation don’t just manifest in men who behave badly, men who we can easily label “toxic.” It impacts all of us. And the idea of toxicity leaves too much room between us and them. That’s why I’m not willing to separate men into those categories: Those men are bad. These men are just ignorant to the issues. These men are good. This creates an environment where men can say, ”That’s not me — I get a pass.” It reinforces privilege. It allows men the option to stay quiet, to opt out of the conversation, to distance themselves from the issue. And doing that would mean those men would lose out on an opportunity to learn and grow — and to see who they are when they’re not confined by the Man Box.
This is not an indictment on manhood. It’s an invitation to men. The more we increase and promote a healthy, respectful manhood that values women and girls, the more we decrease and prevent domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying, homophobia, even gun violence and male suicide.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Wellness