Toxic Masculinity: Why Aren’t We Talking About This Epidemic and Its Role in Violent Crimes?

It is everywhere we look, yet it is rarely named or explicitly discussed as cause for our social ills.
Publish date:
June 24, 2016
gun violence, culture, Toxic Masculinity

Toxic masculinity is the socially constructed and widely disseminated perception of men as dominant, violent, and controlling of the feminine. This type of masculinity sets men up to hate women, fear the LGBTQ community, and harbor an especially violent and vehement hatred for trans women and gay men of color.

The prevalence of toxic masculinity does not imply that all men are inherently violent. In fact it suggests the opposite: that men (or anyone of any other gender) are inherently neutral, and social and cultural conditioning creates violent men. This version of masculinity is unemotional, sexually aggressive, and heterosexual by default. As Amanda Marcotte writes, "it is a specific model of manhood geared toward dominance and control." It is everywhere we look, yet it is rarely named or explicitly discussed as cause for our social ills. Toxic masculinity is closely tied to rape culture, homophobia, gun violence, and domestic abuse.

Our national culture pressures men to be dominant and aggressive, indoctrinates them from a young age, and creates dire consequences for those men who appear feminine, sensitive, emotional, or anything other than "manly."

From a young age, men are not only taught to fear girls, women, queer and trans people, but to especially fear any possibility that they themselves might be gay, queer, transgender, or in some way more feminine than is socially acceptable.

We all know that the recent news cycle has been particularly devastating. Two standout stories being the Stanford rape case — in which Brock Turner received bare minimum sentencing for the rape of an unconscious woman — and, more recently, the mass shooting and homophobic hate crime in Orlando carried out by Omar Mateen, leaving 49 lives lost and just as many injured. These crimes and the social identities of their victims have generated a great deal of meaningful discussion around a wide range of topics, including rape culture, homophobia, white privilege, and the accessibility of guns, all of which are valid and crucial discussion points.

The less discussed and equally important factor tied to all the above is toxic masculinity. Most commentary fails to make explicit the role of maleness. Before you or I knew any details of the mass shooting in Orlando, for example, we had already correctly assumed that the shooter was a man. We assumed this because there is, statistically, a more than 98% chance that a person committing mass violence using a gun is male. We have to ask the hard questions. What is it about masculinity that creates perpetrators of these crimes? Why is it men who commit them? Why are men predominantly the shooters, rapists, or perpetrators of hate crimes?

The unevolved and dangerous version of masculinity circulating in our national culture clearly has a heavy price tag. The loss of life and bodily autonomy is too great. Too many people live in fear of violent men. It is dangerous for men as well. Men who do not fulfill this role of the violent masculine live in fear they will be harmed for failing to do so, and clearly those men who commit such heinous acts of violence themselves feel desperate, afraid, and detached from their own humanity and that of others. The pressure to be physically strong and financially successful, to use sex as a form of control rather than a means of connection, to suppress emotion and anything that could be construed as weakness, all combined with the ingrained belief that male privilege trumps the freedoms of other people — all of these factors contribute to the pressure cooker of an existence that ultimately leads to violent crime with toxic masculinity as the cause.

How can we change the dialogue around masculinity? How can we let young boys and men know that they are allowed to take the form of something other than a violent, dominant, stereotypical man? There has been a huge amount of discussion regarding Omar Mateen's ability to buy gun, but comparatively little has been said about his history of domestic violence. Robert Dear, who committed the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado in late 2015, also had a history of domestic abuse. As it turns out, domestic violence is a major predictive factor in these types of shootings.

The crimes of domestic violence and rape are under-prosecuted and the attackers routinely go free or receive light punishment, yet we are collectively stunned when those same violent people manifest their aggression on a larger, bloodier scale. Of course we respond in horror to a mass shooting, or a rape that happens to have eye witnesses, but it is especially essential then that we do not ignore the rapes that occur daily under less public circumstances, or the constant street harassment and threat of violence against women, trans, and queer people, and the toxic masculinity that is the constant hovering threat over all of us. Whether we are talking about the sexual molestation of young girls or the police shootings of young black boys, it's clear that neither boys nor girls are safe in this cultural context. All the while, these same children are being taught to embody the roles and continue the cycle.

There are daily aggressions that create the environment in which crimes like this happen, and those aggressions are carried out under the guise of manhood. And we need to talk about it.