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Redefining Masculinity

A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Toxic Masculinity for a Healthier Society

Men come in various shapes and forms. One man may look, act, and feel very differently than any other man. However, when it comes to the expectations that are put on men, especially in the West, there are some similarities. Today’s article explores how traditional versions of masculinity, based in power over others, cause problems for everyone involved. This type of manhood is also called “hegemonic masculinity”. Its unhelpful standards of being a man don’t serve anyone well. Whether it is because a man believes he has to “dominate” women, or feels stressed because he doesn’t. So, redefining masculinity may be in order.

When “being a man” isn’t good for you

There is a saying that is so prevalent in society that it has become almost a bad meme. Telling someone to “be a man” comes with so much baggage that it can be difficult to unpack it all. But, since this usually refers to the characteristics of a power-based masculinity, we can make some assumptions. Firstly, when someone says this, they might be referring to being more assertive or confident. They could also be saying that the man in question has to hide his emotions or “be fearless” in the face of danger. Maybe it is more openly toxic and refers to turning people into sexual objects to be ‘won’, or into threats to be beaten down.

The second assumption that we can make is that the man who lives up to these expectations of manhood is going to hurt himself, and possibly others. Men who believe in this type of traditional masculinity are more likely to experience poor health outcomes than women or nonconforming men. This can include alcohol abuse, avoiding mental health treatment, or not getting preventative healthcare. They are also more likely to harm others. This can include through bullying, physical violence or sexual violence.

This isn’t exactly new information. We have talked in the past about how toxic masculinity, rape culture, and rape myths have harmful effects. But, what happens when a man feels pressured to conform to these power based versions of manhood but doesn’t feel like he does?

Redefining Masculinity

The stress of being manly

When a man feels stressed about the expectations put on him to be ‘manly’ in the traditional sense, it can be harmful as well. Academics have studied this through the lens of “gender role strain/stress theory”. Essentially, what they look for are the different ways that men feel expectations to act a certain way but don’t feel they live up to it. There are 3 main terms to keep in mind with this topic: discrepancy, dysfunction, and trauma.

Gender role discrepancy is the actual difference between a man’s perception of what is manly versus their own expression of manhood. In this case, a man might not feel man enough. This leads to problems ranging from ridicule and violence to depression and substance abuse. This is called gender role dysfunction. If this becomes too much, especially in fields like professional sports and the military, then it can lead to long lasting problems in the man himself. These are completely separate from the problems he might cause for other people. This is called trauma strain.

The idea in this theory is that the discrepancy is what causes the subsequent dysfunction and trauma. This can come from a man’s own internal feelings of not being enough or from other people enforcing traditional masculinity on him. While gender expectations are hard on everyone, some research has shown that men have worse behavioural and mental health outcomes from their gender role discrepancy than women. Men who believe they are different than what a man should be, and feel stressed out by that, may try to counteract that feeling by doing things they believe a ‘real’ man would do. This can include riskier sex (and the STIs that can come with that), physical assaults, and sexual violence.

Redefining masculinity

Men are necessary in life, beyond their biological contributions to it. And manhood doesn’t have to be bad.  Some aspects of traditional masculinity are required in some settings. This is much like how trauma can teach us lessons that only work within the setting of that trauma. For example, a soldier might need to be stoic in battle. But, it’s also important for him to show feelings once he’s safe at home.

Importantly, some men don’t face the same harmful effects by not conforming. These men are not stressed out about their nonconformity to traditional masculinity. So, in other words, the gender role dysfunction only comes if someone is worried about the initial discrepancy. And that is an incredibly hopeful point.

When talking to (other) men, being able to accept them for their own expression of manhood can be healing for everyone involved. Since men play such a big role in enforcing the roles of manliness onto other men, we have the ability to change what we enforce. A man being able to express his emotions can challenge the script of a man’s need for rigid emotional control. And men who are comfortable with other men doing the same create spaces for healthy masculinity.

A man going into social work or nursing can help to flip the script on what is expected of a man in society. A man in the military or professional sports who is a role model of healthy masculinity can help others become more comfortable doing redefining masculinity for themselves. Women and other allies have roles in reinforcing the value of these other types of masculinities as well. Just remember that a true man is whoever identifies themselves as such.

Redefining Masculinity

Why does Vesta care?

Our goal at Vesta is to eradicate rape culture. Since men are traditionally left out of interventions to prevent sexual violence, we think that they need to be integrated into the discussion. When a man reads a post like this, we hope that he takes his role to heart. Every action that he makes around his peers and all his internal thoughts about what makes a man can help prevent the type of masculinity discussed here that hurts men and women alike. It may feel like a drop in the ocean, but with enough drops we can drown out the myths and harmful expectations that lead to sexual assault. So, whether you are a man reading this or an ally, remember to do your part in the conversation redefining masculinity. Even if it is just one drop in the bucket.

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