By Larissa Wright
When an act of violent extremism occurs, we are quick to make attributions. Some blame the person’s religion or ethnic group. If the perpetrator is of our own racial group, the focus may be on their mental health.
In cases of fatal domestic violence, the popular tabloid narrative describes how his family’s behaviour or a lover’s rejection ‘drove him to it’.
Regardless of the circumstances, when extreme violence occurs, there is one attribute that pretty much all perpetrators share. They are men.
What Is Toxic Masculinity?
Toxic masculinity refers to the aspects of traditional masculinity that cause harm to men and society. This includes aggression, violence, misogyny, emotional repression, toughness and domination.
A recent Australian study showed that men who held these attitudes were:
- twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts
- three times as likely to be in a traffic accident
- three times as likely to experience physical bullying
- six times as likely to make sexual comments to women they didn’t know, and
- six times as likely to perpetrate physical bullying.
As a woman, toxic masculinity has entered my life in many ways. I’ve been coerced sexually, had non-consensual acts inflicted on me, and been insulted both because I did have sex and didn’t. I’ve placated while men have raged, walked home clutching weapons and been subject to objectification and inappropriate comments in workplaces. I’ve had my breasts grabbed by strangers multiple times. None are uncommon experiences for women around the world.
Boys Will Be Boys?
It was once believed that men were wired this way – they simply had brains that were optimised for aggression and dominance. Evolutionary psychologists would tell you that due to their hunting past in a hostile world, these were naturally evolved male traits.
But recent neuroscience developments show us that male and female brains aren’t innately different, and our levels of aggression may be more influenced by our upbringing and socialisation than we once thought, most likely a complex interplay of internal and external factors. Whilst the varying biological and environmental influences on aggression and dominant behaviour are hotly debated, it makes sense to focus on what we can change.
Beyond The Binary
In recent times, we’ve seen a rise in rejection of assigned gender identities, with more people coming out as transgender or non-binary. Hegemonic norms are being rejected, gender and sexuality are considered to be on a spectrum, and we’re exploring our freedom to express ourselves in unique and authentic ways.
And thank goodness! If Freud taught us anything, it was that suppressing parts of ourselves to meet the expectations of others only leads to unhealthy expression, usually through anxiety or maladaptive behaviours. It is well and truly time to destroy unhelpful stereotypes and rid ourselves of the aspects of masculinity that are toxic to boys and society.
How To Raise Non-Toxic Boys
Gender neutrality, emotional intelligence and consent are the keys to raising healthy, well-balanced children.
1. Colour-coding is best avoided: Forget blue and pink—babies can be dressed in all the colours of the rainbow! Older kids can choose their own clothes, and it’s important to recognise that your son fearlessly wearing a tutu is a marker of success.
2. There are no ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’:Providing dolls and kitchens alongside trucks and blocks means boys can develop domestic and caring skills as well as creativity and spatial abilities.
3. Emotional expression is encouraged: Tears should never be met with disgust, and maxims like ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘man up’ are best avoided. It’s helpful to encourage children to identify and discuss their feelings and learn adaptive techniques for processing them.
4. Cultivation of empathy: This can be supported by speaking to kids about the feelings of others. “When you hit Roger, it makes him feel hurt and upset.” or “When you shout at mummy, it makes her feel sad.”
5. No means no: As well as disciplining behaviour if they ignore a ‘No’ from you or others, a child’s ‘No’ needs to be honoured when it pertains to bodily autonomy. I recently witnessed a friend blowing raspberries on her son. He lifted his shirt, and she exhaled noisily on his belly, making him laugh raucously. He then lifted his shirt again to indicate he was ready for another one, and she only moved in when he invited it.
Good Role Models
It’s almost impossible to avoid toxic stereotypes when they are perpetuated in popular media. In my opinion, Disney and its rescued princess narrative have a whole lot to answer for. You probably can’t avoid these forms of entertainment altogether, but you can take the opportunity to talk to your son about what he’s seeing, and expose him to better ideas.
There are many children’s stories with strong female leads that avoid gender stereotypes, and a quick search for ‘Books/movies healthy masculinity’ will give you more options than you’ll ever need. If you want to mix it up, try searching for ‘Children’s books about consent’ or ‘Kids’ books exploring feelings’. There’s no such thing as too early to start–children’s brains are incredibly malleable, and what they hear and see as infants will shape their realities. Childhood is the time to set them up for a healthy and adaptive future.
Finally, remember that children will copy what you do rather than obey what you say. To raise non-toxic boys, we need to ensure the adults in their lives are modelling non-toxic behaviour.
If you’re an adult now, you’ve undoubtedly been affected negatively by toxic masculinity whether you realise it or not. We can’t change the past, but we absolutely utilise our experiences to fuel a better future. Raising boys without toxic concepts of gender is the greatest gift you can give them, and the rest of the world.