Men are unable to talk about toxic masculinity. At least, that’s what I gathered when I asked my friend for a second opinion on the topic. Even as close friends, we struggled above little more than a shrug of the shoulders and a closing comment - "there's not much to be said about it anymore" - which came not because he believes, nor do I, that it is a non-problem or because discussing it would be unbeneficial. And nor because he is convinced that we have already mapped the topic entirely. Instead, it was because most debates rotate around the same questions and approaches, focusing on machismo, misogyny, and how they manifest, rather than men’s inability to simply confront the topic at hand. In a dismissive and defensive manner, men shy away from challenging toxic behaviour. As such, it has become so conventional now that it makes up the patriarchal fabric of our contemporary societies.

From catcalling to the objectification of women, psychological manipulation to physical threat, or mansplaining to domestic violence, toxic masculinity underlies the social relations men and women assume. Even for the most humble, we assume courtesy for interest, mistake friendship for sexual attraction, and excuse emotions or behaviour with "man up" and "boys will be boys". Yet to challenge this behaviour is a challenge itself. I admit that in the beginning, what I had in mind was an article about what toxic masculinity is, how it affects people, and how to approach it critically. However, it felt too general. I realised that discussing toxic masculinity from a broad perspective would not have been as interesting and valuable as I had imagined. It would have been yet another redundant argument about stuff you probably already know and agree with. So, why not talk directly to men and confront them directly on our inability to engage in a debate. We men are too toxic to even talk about toxic behaviours. And understanding why is a password to change.

"One cannot say anything, then!"

So, again, why is it so hard to confront people about it and why are men very dismissive or defensive about masculinity and toxic traits? The answer, I point out, is less self-pitying or arrogant than you would believe. It is already a manifestation of how our ideas of masculinity shape our response or silence. To put it bluntly, there is a "toxic masculine" way to address and discuss the topic, self-pitying or arrogant on the surface, way more complex in reality.

This is a significant problem of debates regarding "toxic masculinity" - we seem to be unable to talk about it. Many men feel attacked when confronted with the fact that they are members of a social category that has been and is privileged in most parameters: economically, politically, academically, and the list goes on. Some even cry out they are being targeted simply for being men. They often reply "but not all men!" or downplay ignorantly or maliciously the consequences of toxic behaviours for themselves and others. Discussing issues like "patriarchy", to use an overarching term, is of paramount importance, and turning your head away from social behaviours or structures will not help.

Examples? "But not all men!"; "But women themselves choose psychology instead of engineering, so they can't complain about the gender gap!"; "It's nature!", "Ben Shapiro is my role model" and so on. This is what I mean by turning your head away and ignoring, purposely or not, the question of patriarchy or masculinity. Feel free to add the examples that came up to you. But the question remains: why are we not able or comfortable to talk about toxic masculinity?

The inability to even be confronted with such questions is already symptomatic. The issue here seems to be that those understandings of masculinity – misogyny, aggressiveness etc. – we sketched above concur to create a very crystallised identity. If women assume behaviours and attitudes that traditionally have been male prerogative, it is a form of empowerment. The spectrum of characteristics widely accepted to be "feminine" grows. And hopefully, it grows until we, as societies, will not be able to separate between supposed feminine and masculine attitudes. However, when embracing other "non-traditional" behaviours, masculinity is perceived to be losing something. Whenever men are detached from their traditional identity, they are perceived as "less", less of a man, not manly enough, and so on.

Male identity seems to be viewed as something already "full" and "complete", with the dreadful consequence that every possible modification to the meaning of "being a man" is taking away from masculinity rather than enriching it. For example, being caring is not considered empowering for a man – even if it is – precisely because maleness is already understood as being complete and another feature added into the mix would be detrimental. In psychological terms, having a penis is already a complete identity, manifesting in different attitudes and behaviours, while other characteristics are forms of castration.

This is a crucial problem for male identity, as its characteristics and historical social position make many men believe that they can only descend from a supposed peak form of masculinity. And this is the exact definitory consequence of privilege. Not being able to talk about it is already a symptom of an understanding of "oneself" which cannot sustain redefinition. It is no surprise that many men are unable to discuss it – or even eat a banana – if what is a stake in their mind is their very self. They cannot accept contradiction because their identity has not the elasticity to do so. If they enter a discussion about it, they are already lost because, by simply being open to question, they would be conferring doubt to something that should be supposedly conclusive. They have a crystallised identity; A masculine identity cursed to remain bound within itself due to a "natural" state of things characterised by alleged natural behaviours, social or historical roles, or a combination of those. In this identity, they are unable to embrace multiple and different ways of being a man – or a homo sapiens for that matter – ultimately condemned to indefinite stoicism and prowess. You are a man, or you are not a man. There is no in-between.

You don't have to be alpha

I want to bring a practical example to understand what I mean by crystallised masculinity in a more mundane setting. However, this will also be an example of how and why toxic masculinity is harmful to women or minorities, and to men themselves.

I want to draw from classic toxic masculinity discussions and incel-like debates to illustrate the point. The value of a person, and specifically a man, does not need to rely on the ability to interact with other people. This might be taken as an obvious and redundant discourse. But it is important. There is a strange conception in many men, consciously or not, that validation is directly linked to the ability to successfully interact with other people, both men and women. In other words: many people perceive that esteem, affection and eroticism equate to recognition. If, in the eyes of men, there is just "one way to be a boy", there is also only one way to be "seen" as such. And if you are wondering why some people freak out when ghosted or rejected, it is because their identity is completely constructed around being able to interact with others – mostly with women. When this aspect fails, it is almost like their whole being falls apart. Their identity is denied or dismissed.

As an identity that revolves around "success" and "conquest", toxic masculinity is strictly linked with sexuality such that being accepted as a man means being successful with the opposite sex. And if sexual success and prowess are core to toxic masculinity, it follows that a rejection on an erotic level is a failure on a personal – identity – level. Sexual rejection may resemble a personal rejection precisely because success and prowess are the concepts around which toxic masculinity revolves around and cannot escape from. If being a man means being successful, being unsuccessful is a sabotage of the very pillars on which a toxic masculine identity stands. And for many men, precisely due to a crystallised sense of oneself, being non-men means non-being.

Man up and listen

I have no solution for this problem, it is bigger than me and extremely complex, but its consequences are very real. Honestly, I sometimes have suffered because of it in terms of my mental health, and also, I admit that growing up I might have said things that can be classified as toxic. It is so strongly embedded in our education and identity that even a person fully aware of what toxic masculinity is and fully against it, like myself, might unconsciously or unintentionally make a toxic masculine comment. There are some aspects of masculinity that can be harmful even without being explicit or denigratory. That's why we need to talk about it with more freedom; it is crucial both for ourselves and others. Mental health is what is at stake, and this is what we should be focusing on. We need to rethink our behaviour and be very critical towards ourselves and how we behave and what we say, even if our actions and words seem harmless.

I just wanted to share my thoughts on this topic hoping that it might help someone. It might not, but we need to talk about it. We need to talk about and to toxic men. We need to discuss, debate and confront each other about it. And if you, my dear reader, are thinking about it, this small contribution has already been successful. And, if my fellow XY chromosome owners are confronted with these questions, please just "man up" and face them. It's the least we can do, for god's sake.

Matt Donno
Matt Donno

Anthropologist and translator interested in social issues and human behaviour, what do we think and how do we think, this is what fascinates me most.

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