Insight: Man Up? Toxic Masculinities and the Health of Women and Children

This is an insight written by Kathryn Obisesan on the recent Bahá’í Chair for World Peace Lecture, Man Up? Toxic Masculinities and the Health of Men, Women, and Children held at the University of Maryland on November 12th, 2019.

On November 12th, 2019 on the 6th floor of McKeldin Library sat a diverse crowd, all looking to inform their interest in Oxford Journals International Word of the year: Toxic Masculinity. Looking around the room, it was immediately noticeable the variety of people present. Both men and women, students and faculty (of many ethnicities), looked to Professor Roy to expose the meaning of a phrase everyone has heard but might not have fully understood.

Professor Kevin Roy, Associate Professor of Family Science at the University of Maryland College Park opened his talk “Man Up?” with the origins of the term Toxic Masculinity. The term was coined by the mythopoetic movement a body of self-help activities and therapeutic workshops/retreats mainly active in the 80’s and 90’s. They were devoted to helping men foster greater understanding of the forces influencing the roles of men in modern society and how these changes affect behavior, self-awareness, and identity. The word grew to take on a polarized cultural significance with an academic definition. Professor Roy defined Toxic Masculinity to mean traditional and cultural norms around masculinity that can be harmful to men, women, and children. The term emphasizes the harmful health effects to society stemming from conformity to ideals about masculinity.

According to Professor Roy, some of these effects can be explained by Precarious Manhood Theory. When a man’s sense of masculinity is threatened he can  overcompensate and reach into his toolbox of behaviors to try to assert himself, using tools such as violence and aggression. This overcompensation can become a threat to the health of women, children, and other men. Professor Roy also discussed other threats to health caused by toxic masculinity, one of which is referred to as emotional gold digging. In relationships men can rely on women to do the emotional labor of the relationship. They rely on their wives, or female significant others, to help them process their emotions, leading to the exhaustion of their partners. Other specific risks include deaths of despair. Women statistically are treated more often for depression, but men are at exponentially higher risk of substance and alcohol abuse. This study shows that men could be experiencing depression but self-treating it with detrimental activities like abuse of alcohol or drugs. These cases can conclude in deaths of despair. Unprocessed difficult life events can deteriorate social and economic well-being, which in turn can lead to relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms culminating in death.

Professor Roy also introduces another term from the index of Toxic Masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity. Hegemonic Masculinity refers to a practice that legitimizes an idealized form of masculinity, promoting stereotypical heterosexual values and providing justification for men’s dominant position in society and the subordination of other groups. As men move from boyhood into adulthood these ideals turn toxic. Learned emotional suppression turns into lack of expression, loss of relational connection breeds a crisis in connection, leading to men feeling isolated and alone. The cultivation of these unachievable sex roles creates a situation in which men cannot actually achieve these ideals.

“Be a man stop with the tears, stop with the emotions, you need to be a man in this world of circumstances… these words from my father were a source of tremendous shame. I left that… [conversation] with tears in my eyes feeling like I would never be man enough. I thought if I could manifest in hyper masculinity somehow that would validate who and what I was and certainly my father would respect that to see how powerful I was and give me the love and attention I desperately wanted. I would like every man to think of the context of the age they were when someone told them to be a man. That’s one of the most destructive phrases in this culture I believe.” (Quote from video played at Professor Kevin Roy’s lecture)

This quote I think captures the essence of Professor Kevin Roy’s lecture on Toxic Masculinity. Individuals needs certain nurturing and emotional acceptance to allow us to move healthily from childhood to adulthood. Disrupt this nurturing or ingrain unachievable standards aimed at invalidating key aspects of humanity and you create something toxic. Standards that proclaim that to be masculine one must be hardened against the expression of non-violent emotions, condescending to out-groups, or ridged towards deep meaningful relationships are toxic and need to be challenged.

You can watch the video of the lecture on our youtube page here.

You can find out more about the Bahá’í Chair by watching our video here.

About the Author: Kathryn Obisesan is a senior Government and Politics – International Relations and Economics double major. She also has studied International Relations and Multilateral Diplomacy in Geneva, Switzerland. Through bringing awareness and implementing thoughtful global philosophy and theory, she hopes the world can progress towards an order rooted in peace and understanding.

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