The effects of toxic masculinity

Author, educator and activist Tony Porter made a call to men during a TED Talk (an online motivational speech platform) to not “act like men”.

He backed up his opinion with stories from his life saying that growing up, he often had phrases such as; a man has to be strong, courageous, dominating, with no emotions, except anger and definitely, no fear.


Porter said that with such beliefs, boys grow up with the wrong perception of being a man which leads to toxic masculinity.


He termed this as the ‘man box’ saying that men have this fear that is paralyzing and holding them hostage to the man box.


“I have come to know that the collective socialisation of men, better known as the ‘man box’, has all the ingredients that define being a man. And I want to say that there are absolutely wonderful things about being a man, but at the same time, there is some stuff that is just straight up twisted and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and get in the process of analysing and redefining what we have come to know about manhood,” he said.

Porter, hence, called onto men to understand that they are very much a part of the solution as well as the problem.

“We need to work together on how we raise our sons and teach them that it is okay to not be dominating, that it is okay to have feelings and emotions. That it is okay to promote equality and be whole, for, my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”

Societal pressure

Research from Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre (RWAMREC) shows that a rigid construct of how ‘real’ men are supposed to behave leaves many feeling trapped.

Many young men in Rwanda are positive towards gender equality but they feel pushed by societal norms to live in the ‘man box’. They feel pressure to act tough, hide weakness and look good by being responsible men.

In the organisation’s intervention named ‘Boys for change’, boys in these gender clubs believe that being emotional is a sign of weakness.

Fidele Rutayisire, Chairman of RWAMREC, says Rwandan societal norms put many expectations on men, adding that the pressure to be real men has damaging effects on their wellbeing as well as their relationships with others.

He cites a scenario where last week, a 15-year-old boy was asked by his father to urinate while sitting on the toilet to keep it clean in respect of his sister who uses the same toilet, and the boy replied: “Dad, this can’t happen, I am a man and I have to urinate while standing, that’s what you have taught me and even at school, if they see me urinating while sitting, they will call me a girl.”

The effects of all this involve suppression of emotions for men, Rutayisire says.  It encourages violence against women but also against men, men don’t seek help when they have problems, and these toxic masculinity beliefs also perpetuate domestic violence.

Michael Ian Black’s article The Boys Are Not All Right published in The New York Times writes that ‘America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us.’

He marked that the brokenness of the country’s boys stands in contrast to its girls who still face an abundance of obstacles but go into the world increasingly well equipped to take them on. Girls today are told that they can do anything, they’ve absorbed the message.

Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate towards a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to ‘be a man’ — we no longer even know what that means, Black wrote.

Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine, he went on to write.

Men feel isolated, confused and conflicted about their nature. Many feel that the very qualities that used to define them — their strength, aggression and competitiveness, are no longer wanted or needed; many others never felt strong or aggressive or competitive to begin with. We don’t know how to be, and we are terrified, the article stated.

So how does this affect men in terms of who they grow up to be?

Katie Carlson, an international gender specialist and woman activist, says toxic masculinity has so many harmful effects on how boys grow into adult men.

Gender roles rob boys of the ability to understand their own emotions, to speak about them in a healthy way, to have healthy and respectful relationships with partners and family members, and to learn how to not use violence and dominance as a way of expressing their needs or communicating with others, she says.

Carlson also notes that toxic masculinity holds boys back from being their whole, true selves as human beings and instead, demand that they fit into a role that puts them and others at risk.

Counsellor Kibogora Nsoro says such attitudes that men are raised with mould them into self-centred and egotistical humans, which is detrimental to society.

He, therefore, says that men and women need to understand that for society to flourish, they need to play complementary roles.

It is on this ground that Carlson clarifies that gender is all about the idea of what it means to be a man or a woman. Men have a gender role just like women do, this “role” is an idea of what society thinks they must do, and how they should be, appear, behave, dress and talk in order to be a “real” man or woman. These ideas are created by societies and are not in our true biology as humans.

How this affects society in general

In Rwanda, gender roles dictate that men need to be dominant, that in order to be seen as “real” men they must be tough, be providers, protectors, never show their true feelings and must always see themselves as superior to women.

This is referred to as negative or toxic masculinity, because it creates harm for others, Carlson says, adding that these beliefs have a negative impact on society.

“If boys are not taught that their feelings and emotions are normal, and that experiencing them and speaking about them openly is acceptable and healthy, how can we expect them to grow into adults who can have positive and healthy relationships with their colleagues or spouses?” She wonders.

Male roles in Rwanda are also the fundamental root cause of violence against women and children, both boys and girls. If we raise boys to grow up into men who believe they have the right to be dominant over others, and that women and girls are inferior, we are giving them permission to use violence as a tool to get what they want, Carlson notes.

“It also affects the economic growth of Rwanda — if men feel they must be the ones to make money and be the financial provider then they will be resistant to women and girls becoming financially independent and contributing to the growth of this country. No matter how you look at it, gender roles are bad for men, bad for women and the country,” she says.

Beating the stereotypes

Rutayisire suggests that early preventive interventions to deconstruct the toxic masculinity in boys is the best way to handle this.

Use multiple approaches in addressing the pressure of masculinity, such as the ecological model in addressing the masculinity pressure: work at interpersonal, individual, organisational, policy and community levels, he says.

Nsoro says there is a lot to be done to end this stereotype and that though the country is already on the right path towards gender equality, more needs to be done.

He also recommends having initiatives that demystify these stereotypes right from the grass roots.

Carlson is of the view that there is need for all people to call out and break down the gender roles we have now and simply allow individuals the freedom to be who they are, without forcing boys or girls to fit into a box of ideas about who they should be and what they can and cannot do.

She adds that individuals, families and communities all need to fight against gender stereotypes — for example, parents need to be aware of how they are behaving in front of their children, if they are teaching their boys this idea of toxic masculinity, if they are showing their daughters that boys are more valuable and important.

“Society also needs to step up and challenge these harmful ideas, to encourage boys to be themselves and show their emotions and most importantly, teach all children that they will be loved and accepted just as they are and that they don’t have to fit into any boxes in order to feel that they belong. That would really help to create a truly harmonious and prosperous society,” Carlson says.


What are your views on toxic masculinity?

Boys are taught by society to be that way. These social pressures cause them to lie about their experiences and feelings, or have a lack of self-esteem and eventually, become unhappy. They are also likely to exhibit risky behaviour and feel more frustrated at life’s challenges and embody aggressiveness or show little to no emotion. This can lead to violence and inequality; this is why men need to start by changing as individuals, re-evaluate how they ‘do’ gender, how they support women and how they engage with others. There needs to be engagement and a shift in the media and the influence it has on society.

Grace Ubaruta, Lawyer

It all has to start from our homes; boys need to be raised knowing that they are human, just like women. We need to do this while they are still young such that they grow up with the right mindset.

Tina Uwase, Model

Men should learn to open up; they should be willing to be examples such that others get the courage to overcome this. Society, on the other hand, needs to create safe spaces for men to express themselves and their true qualities regardless of what society’s gender stereotypes and expectations are.

Ronnie Kibagajjo, Student

Communities should be taught how dangerous these stereotypes can be. Men need to be taught that being a man doesn’t mean being aggressive or dominating, and that they can be as gentle and emotional as they want and still be men.

Roger Seam, Stylist


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