Toxic Masculinity: The male virus that requires innoculation

Toxic Masculinity: The male virus that requires innoculation

Only a few months ago, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Michael Fallon, Roy Price, Alex Konzinski, Terry Richardson, Brett Ratner, Steven Seagal, Roy Moore, Louis C.K. and Al Franken were just some of the awesomely powerful men sitting, so they imagined, secure and invulnerable at the very top of their mountain. Today, these CEOs, film stars, Hollywood moguls, media executives, politicians, publishers, fashion photographers are all knocked off. Permanently. And the list grows daily. If you are a powerful man reading this then I hope you have not strayed too far from your particular path of righteousness. I hope you don’t have some angry women, or men, in your deep history waiting to declare you a serial sex abuser, a predator. Because if you have then your nights of blameless sleep are over. It is likely only a matter of time before you too, are toast. And you know it.

The world changed in 2017 and that change is only just gathering momentum. And the people who changed it are mostly women; powerful women, rich women, celebrity women, and millions of very ordinary women. Women fed up with having to accept what has now become the mainstream term to describe misbehaving, predatory males: toxic masculinity. 

But let me remind you, at time of writing none of these men has been charged with a crime. And most never will be. Because this is not about due process, this is about revenge.

Anyone who declares surprise at this turn of events has not been paying attention. A powder-keg of women’s anger, dismay, frustration and deep disgust at the behaviour of millions of men has been waiting to explode for years, decades even. And not just in the West. Since its creation by Tarana Burke in October 2017, the #MeToo movement has gone global. By November, #MeToo had been tweeted 2.3 million times from eighty-five countries. That same month, Xu Yalo, 28, posted an article on WeChat detailing how she’d been groped by the same man in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The article went viral in China, being viewed over 1.19 million times, receiving 17,000 likes and 9,000 comments before it was deleted by Chinese censors. But censorship cannot stop this tsunami of female anger. In the last few days one Beijing university professor has been sacked and another is facing investigation over sexual misconduct allegations posted on #MeToo by former students. The Chinese government cannot censor this away, any more than can any government. And nor should they try to.

This process has a long, long way to go, not least because there are probably over a billion females around the world who have suffered violence and sex abuse at the hands of men. According to the World Health Organisation, over one in three women around the world have revealed they’ve experienced physical or sexual violence from men. But it is worse even than that, because the WHO figures only reveal those women who report such abuse. A recent poll by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 54% of American women report receiving “unwanted and inappropriate” sexual advances from men.

This movement has a long way to go and the world will be very different when it is over – if it is ever over. But if this movement is to mean more than the scalps and careers of some prominent abusers, then we now need to take steps to ensure that the momentum for positive change is maintained. And the way to do this is to first understand just what toxic masculinity actually is.

In my co-authored book, ‘Gender & Identity’ (Oxford University Press, 2013), I was one of the first sociologists to identify and describe toxic masculinity;

“toxic masculinity is aggressive male behaviour that is fundamentally corrosive to society and to individuals, including those who perform it; such behaviour continues to be expressed by, indeed attracts to it, males of all ages, cultures, ethnicities and social statuses.” (p. 246)

Toxic masculine behaviour at its most apparent, would include misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual violence, abuse, rape, sexual harassment. It is underpinned by poor emotional intelligence, inability to manage one’s emotions, tendency to violent behavioural responses, consistent anger and aggression, and unrealistic and unrealisable assumptions of male supremacy.

Toxic masculinity is not the expression of anti-feminism. Though many men who are misogynistic do seek to hide that fact behind anti-feminist rhetoric and protestations that ‘political correctness has gone too far’. Truth is, political correctness is only just getting started.

As a gender sociologist, I deliberately exclude male immaturity, male emotional dysfunctionality and male infidelity from being part of the toxic masculinity syndrome. Toxic masculinity is male violence and aggression in all its forms; physical, sexual, emotional. It is not typical male behaviour. Toxic masculinity is actually the mainstream term to describe ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and those readers who would like to learn more about this type of masculinity and how it relates to patriarchy and a masculinist gender order, should read the works of Raewyn Connell, Jeff Hearn, and Michael Kimmel. See also my book, ‘Men and Masculinities’ (Polity, 2006, chapter 3)

Having understood what toxic masculinity is we now need to look at how to erase it from male behaviour.

Toxic masculinity is not biological therefore any male who exhibits this way of being and relating to the world has acquired it during childhood and puberty. It then can get reinforced in adulthood, depending on the environment. Males who are not exposed to this way of being a man during childhood, can still acquire it in adulthood. Most obvious examples are those men who work in total masculinist organisations that are structured around hegemonic masculine principles and culture (e.g. armed forces, police, most uniformed services, banking/financial services, media, criminal gangs).

Consequently, the only way to challenge this form of behaviour is through education, and this needs to be done at school, through higher education, and as professional development in all organisations. Leaders (male and female) need to be trained in how to spot toxic masculinity in their organisation and how to deal with it. This process will, in my view, soon become mainstream work for all progressive Human Resource Departments around the world. All male managers and leaders should now be required to undergo corporate training to ‘raise their awareness on sexual harassment, and learn where the boundaries of their authority are’. No man should be appointed to a position of authority in any organisation or public service until he has gone through this process. The days of unreconstituted men, such as I’ve listed at the start of this article, getting to senior leadership positions in any major or forward thinking organisation, would then rapidly come to an end.

Toxic masculinity is a virus expressed both as language and practice. As such, it is a socially discursive virus. Any male can catch it though if a male is educated properly in respect of gender inclusivity, then this acts as a form of immunity. Like the flu virus, it requires immunisation, and education is the only way.

As a matter of urgency we need to have all schools, from kindergarten onwards, developing positive gender reinforcement and inclusivity messages. This is not to castigate males but to ensure that boys do not grow up believing they are superior to females nor to accept homophobic, racist, misogynistic messages from any quarter. The schools need to develop boy’s emotional intelligence, ability to recognise and deal with their anger and emotions, and to develop empathy and respect for all people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. Parents too, should go through this process and commit to gender inclusivity awareness training as part of their child’s acceptance process to any school, indeed as part of their learning to be 21st century parents.


This form of learning is now an urgent priority, as schools in the future will no longer be educating children to work, but preparing children to live in a diverse, multicultural and hyper-globalised world, a world where toxic males get called out very fast.

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