The sociological theory of gender socialization suggests that we learn how to act based on our assigned sex through the culture we’re exposed to and the world we live in, and as a result we gain a sense of ourselves somewhere along a spectrum of masculine, feminine, or androgynous. Gender socialization, or the “learning of gender,” begins early. We recieve messages about how our biological sex affects how we should act from different sources, such as family, the media, and peers. A popular example of gender socialization is known as hidden curriculum, which suggests that schools socialize children from pre-school on to perform according to their sex. Girls are frequently taught to settle down, pay attention to their appearance, and be quiet while boys are taught that they have more range to move their bodies and can be much louder than the girls. In feminist and queer theory, gender is considered to be performed instead of immediately determined by the sex you’re assigned at birth. This means that our everyday actions and interpretations of others’ behaviors create and reinforce gender expectations.
Toxic masculinity is a concept that’s considered controversial in today’s gender-based discussions. Since it’s so highly debated and discussed, it’s hard to develop a set definition that is generally agreed upon. For the sake of this article, we’re going to use the Good Men Project’s definition: “a rejection of the perceived opposite, femininity, that is so pervasive as to become unhealthy for both men and those around them.” Though there are many different examples of how toxic masculinity comes into play in everyday life, the majority of them are directly related to men’s needs to avoid being seen as feminine. A major assumption in feminist theory is the societal superiority of men and inferiority of women. Due to this preconceived inferiority, women are expected to assume a submissive role and men a dominant one. This can be seen just by thinking of some of the insults that a man may be subjected to if he doesn’t live up to the desired “toughness” of himself or those around him: words such as “pussy,” “sissy,” or even as straightforward as “girl” imply to men that being perceived as feminine is something to be avoided.
Another impact of toxic masculinity is a male tendency towards violence. Seen through old western movies, video games, WWE, and countless other media venues, violence is and has been consistently portrayed as being “manly.” Social Theorist Jackson Katz also sums up impacts of toxic masculinity from a male perspective well in his documentary Tough Guise 2: “We can’t show any emotion except anger. We can’t think too much or seem too intellectual. We can’t back down when someone disrespects us. We have to show we’re tough enough to inflict physical pain and take it in turn. We’re supposed to be sexually aggressive with women. And then we’re taught that if we step out of this box, we risk being seen as soft, weak, feminine, or gay.”
A rape culture is a culture in which women experience continued threats of sexual violence, ranging from inappropriate comments to rape itself. In a rape culture, physical and emotional threats against women are normalized. In western culture, rape is a normalized form of social violence. From cat-calling to coercing a hesitant significant other to have sex with you, sexual violence is an everyday reality of a woman’s life.
At the time a male reaches adolescence, sexuality quickly takes its role as a significant tool in the enforcement of gender roles. In western society, heterosexuality is central to portrayals of masculinity. The threat of being perceived as LGBTQ+ is used to police adolescent males as they learn how they should behave in order to be socially accepted. For instance, as CJ Pascoe argues in her ethnography Dude, You’re A Fag, most of the time being called slurs that refer to homosexuality has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of a man, but actually shows that a behavior they have performed or a trait they possess is being perceived as unmasculine. Being homosexual becomes synonymous with weakness and submissiveness, and even becomes the target of jokes — for instance, when a straight male imitates a feminine man with stereotypical “gay” traits such as feminine gesturing, a high-pitched lispy voice, and a walk where the hips are swayed back and forth in a way that can be perceived to be sexually suggestive. The easiest way to prove that you’re not gay — and therefore inferior — is to take a sexually dominant role over a woman.
As explained by Fred Pelka in the retelling of his own rape, sexual assault is not a sexually motivated crime, but rather one that “may symbolize…something they want to conquer or defeat. The assault is an act of retaliation, an expression of power, and an assertion of their strength or manhood.” It is a common misconception that people who sexually assault others are doing it out of pure sexual desire, when in fact rape is about dominating an individual — empowering the perpetrator and taking it away from the victim. Additionally, toxic masculinity continues to fuel the stigma that male rape victims face. Since men are supposed to be constantly sexual and desiring sexual activity, often male rape victims who come forward are targeted with comments such as “having sex with a teacher when I was that age was my fantasy,” or “if you were able to get hard you must have wanted it.” Being a male rape victim also implies that you were not strong enough to effectively fight against the perpetrator and puts the victim in the same submissive position they’re taught it’s feminine (and inherently negative) to embody.
I feel that the best explanation of the relationship between toxic masculinity and rape culture I could find was stated by Jeremy Posadas, a professor of religious studies at Austin College: “sexual violence in the west is fundamentally a problem of masculinity — a manifestation of the phenomenon that gender studies conceptualizes as ‘toxic masculinity.’” Individuals are taught by a variety of sources from a young age to view feminine traits as being inferior and submissive, and masculine traits as superior and dominant. Fueled by the fear of being perceived as feminine and therefore inferior, men are pressured to act in the most masculine manner that they can. While being masculine isn’t automatically a negative trait, the expectations and enforcements that lead an individual to acting as “tough” as possible can be linked to many negative phenomena, including body image issues, the suppression of emotions, and violence against women. Toxic masculinity therefore leads to a society where the victimization of women and empowerment of men is normalized and accepted in a widespread manner. Of course, there are exceptions wherein the victims of sexual assault or even mass shootings are men, but these violent incidents can still be traced to individuals using harmful and violent methods to “reclaim” the masculinity that they do not feel they embody.