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Moving from toxic to positive masculinity


Lauren October is a researcher at the Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI) at the University of Cape Town

Toxic masculinity transcends national borders, age, generations, and ideas of race and ethnicity. It is the root cause of many social ills in South Africa. Indeed, men are overwhelmingly both the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence. This is because notions of masculinity, and what it means to be a man, seem to be the driving factor behind much of the risky behaviour that males engage in.

Many young men identify violence as an important way of displaying power and proving their masculinity in their communities. However, there is still very little understanding about what causes this toxic masculinity, how it impacts society and individual behaviour, and how to get rid of it.

Masculinity is not a natural occurrence but is a socially constructed collective gender identity. The idea is that men are supposed to act in a certain way according to certain definitions of “the ideal man”, and those who diverge from this concept are seen as less masculine than others. Hyper-masculinity is when men are insecure about not adhering to this concept of the ideal man so they overcompensate by increasing their aggressive and violent behaviour to prove their masculinity. However, toxic masculinity occurs when these violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive norms of masculinity start to have a harmful impact on society and the individual.

Many factors contribute to the emergence of toxic masculinity, including the temperament and character of the individual in question. However, the three that are important for the case of South Africa are: family structure, socialisation, and the liberalisation of society. Apartheid left South Africa with an unusual pattern of family structure. Nearly half of all households are female-headed. By 2002, the proportion of children with absent (living) fathers had jumped to 46%. This had major implications for poverty, as the one-parent homes and those headed by women are the poorest families. Relatedly, South Africa has high levels of violence. This is likely due to the sense of powerlessness and aggression that comes with poverty, as well as the hyper-masculinity that emerged to overcompensate for the lack of masculine training that boys are missing from their absent fathers. In addition, boys are often socialised into believing that they should be the leaders in all spheres of life (e.g. income, relationships, workplace relations). This message is being delivered through parents, peer pressure, media, religious institutions, as well as military and political influences among others.

Even schools are implicitly subscribing to and endorsing male entitlement and superiority by discouraging empathetic, compassionate and nurturing behaviours in favour of heavy-handed discipline and control. Boys have been taught to believe that they would not be reprimanded for wrongdoing and that they rarely have to take responsibility for their actions. From a young age, children are taught that girls should “act like a lady” if they do something wrong; but if boys do something wrong it is shrugged off with the words “boys will be boys”.

Society also discourages boys from talking. In the home, fathers are often emotionally absent, strict, less tolerant and less reasonable than mothers. Fathers also find it difficult to talk about sex, HIV/Aids, condom-usage and other risk-taking behaviours with their son. As a result, boys are often uneducated about risky behaviour and struggle to reflect on society and themselves. However, over the last 50 or so years the socialised notions of leadership that men have inherited have been challenged by an increasingly liberated society. Social, economic and political changes have empowered women and non-hegemonic males (gay, black, and working-class men) to thrive in areas previously reserved for specific men alone. This is especially prevalent in terms of income and breadwinner status, which are often key traits for measuring manhood and self-worth. Therefore, societal changes have led to increased feelings of resentment when women and non-hegemonic men take on breadwinner status over men with hegemonic masculinities.

There are far-reaching consequences of toxic masculinity which are not always acknowledged. Domestic and sexual violence are often linked back to toxic masculinity. Yet, male dominance and control within intimate relationships is often overlooked. Research has shown that it is invariably men who make decisions about sexual intercourse, including about timing, place, manner, condom-usage, and conception. Additionally, abusive men tend to control the movements of their partners due to fear of being “emasculated” through infidelity. Male rape is also overlooked and disregarded in society. It is severely under-reported because many male rape victims are embarrassed and perceive victimisation as a sign of femininity. Being raped thus demolishes their claim to manhood.

Often rape victims in prison erupt in violence when released, seeking to recover their manhood through the very way it was lost: rape. However, the effects of toxic masculinity can be even more subtle and complex. For example, the empowerment of women in traditionally masculine spheres has led to men becoming increasingly concerned about their physical appearance and muscularity as one of the few surviving marks of masculinity. Males who struggle with body image often suffer from depression, low self-esteem, poor weight control measures and steroid use, as well as a number of other negative outcomes.

Men who display toxic masculinity also avoid behaving in any manner that can be vaguely perceived as feminine or gay. They then tend to overcompensate to prove that they are in fact manly and straight. They do this through homophobia, misogyny, and risky behaviour leading to binge-drinking, drug abuse, high rates of motor accidents, and hyper-sexuality (which itself creates higher rates of unprotected sexual activity and vulnerability to HIV and other STDs).

Men with toxic masculinity also tend to avoid conflict resolution strategies that are perceived as feminine. Toughness, dominance, and the willingness to resort to violence to resolve interpersonal conflicts are preferred over dialogue. Seeking help or advice for pain symptoms or mental distress is also regarded as a sign of weakness for ‘real’ men. Consequently, men are extremely reluctant to seek medical attention or visit a counsellor. This means that boys and men tend to have very poor methods of relieving tension and intra/inter-personal conflict without resorting to aggression.

Yet, despite these alarming consequences and the seemingly intractable problem of toxic masculinity, this problem should not be dismissed offhand with the idea that “boys will be boys”. We can work towards building positive masculinities within our societies and communities. Too often intervention programmes against gender-based violence have been aimed at women and how they can protect themselves from violence and take control of their sexual lives.

But if we are to succeed in curbing violence in society these interventions need to involve men and boys as well. We need to help boys change their attitudes and behaviours, and discover positive notions of social position and identity. In South Africa, interventions such as One Man Can, Men as Partners and Stepping Stones have demonstrated positive behaviour change among men and boys, but the determination to roll these programmes out at a national level seems to be lacking.

The City of Cape Town has recently launched a Men and Masculinity initiative in Delft to help tackle gender-based violence, but national government in South Africa is still emphasising interventions aimed at women. The need is to work with pre-adolescent children to promote a culture of human rights, to promote gender-equitable behaviours by developing alternative masculinities, and to teach boys and men different methods of resolving conflict that do not resort to notions of masculinity, violence, and pride. We need to start the move from toxic masculinity towards a framework of positive masculinity, and we need to start now. DM

Lauren October is a researcher at the Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI) at the University of Cape Town


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