The term “toxic masculinity” has become increasingly popular in discussions of men, gender and violence on social media in recent years.

Isaac is talking to Franzio, a 30-year-old man, about masculinity in Ghana. They are sitting in a restaurant. A young woman comes to serve them. Franzio looks at the young woman and then is silent for a few minutes. Isaac asks if everything is ok. Franzio says “you are a man just like me but look at how poorly dressed that young woman is. She is dressed in a provocative and openly inviting manner. I do not know whether she comes from a good home or something. We are seriously losing our values. When a woman does not dress properly she is telling you and I that she wants to be raped”. Isaac is shocked. He thinks to himself, this is toxic masculinity.

Rebecca is listening to the radio as she drives home in Cape Town. One of the DJs is talking about how he might be arrested because he has a traffic violation. A male listener calls in. He says to the DJ ‘you must be careful because you know what they do to pretty boys like you in jail’. The two male DJs laugh. This clip is used as a sound bite and played over and over throughout the week. Rebecca is furious. How can men be laughing about rape?  This is how normal toxic masculinity has become.

The term “toxic masculinity” has become increasingly popular in discussions of men, gender and violence on social media in recent years. A google search for the term reveals more than six million hits.

Toxic masculinity is a collection of behaviours, thoughts and feelings associated with being “masculine”.  

Aggression, dominance, physical strength, risk-taking, virility, frequent sexual activity and the suppression of emotions are some of the key characteristics of toxic masculinity. The expression of these behaviours, thoughts and feelings demonstrate to others that one is “a real man”. Toxic masculinity shapes how men behave, think and feel about themselves, as well as how they think and feel about others. These behaviours, thoughts and feelings allow men to have power over women who are often expected to be passive, submissive, nurturing and emotional.  

Toxic masculinity results in male control and dominance not only in relation to physical and sexual violence but also in terms of economic and emotional control. For example, because men are often expected to be the main financial providers in their families, they are in control of financial decisions that affect the whole family.

Toxic masculine behaviours are often rewarded, for example in politics and business, where dominance and aggression often lead to men gaining more and more power and control. The election of Donald Trump, who embodies many of the characteristics of toxic masculinity, is a glaring example of this.

The increased usage of this term suggests growing awareness that social norms and expectations of masculinity result in multiple negative consequences, among them the perpetration of violence against women. The #MeToo campaign which spread on social media after Harvey Weinstein, the American film producer, was accused of sexual violations by a number of actresses, revealed the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. 

The recognition of toxic masculinity as a driving force of violence against women is an important step towards building a more equal and just society.

However, the term tends to be used predominantly in relation to extreme acts of physical violence (for example femicide and sexual violence). While it is important to recognise the role that toxic masculinity plays in the perpetuation of this type of violence, it is also necessary to recognise how toxic masculinity functions in more subtle ways. 

For example, Franzio’s remarks about the young woman’s provocative dressing normalise violent behaviour towards women. Jokes about rape also disguise and dismiss the harm caused by sexual violence. It is not surprising that in South Africa (and other parts of Africa), where many men think and talk like Franzio and the man on the radio, we have some of the highest reported rates of sexual violence against women in the world.

The word “toxic” suggests an extreme or sensational version of masculinity. But toxic masculinity is often very ordinary. It is the way men speak to each other about women, it is the jokes that are made about violence (especially sexual violence), it is the way men behave towards women and other men on a daily basis. For example, men’s refusal to take part in childcare housework places this burden squarely on women. This not only places additional stress on women but also denies children caring, emotionally rich relationships with their fathers.

Toxic masculinity is not just harmful to women and children. It is also harmful to men. 

One young man from Cape Town who we spoke to about masculinity said that it is not easy for a boy to hug another boy because they will be made fun of. This prohibition of intimacy between men was recently demonstrated when the America baseball player Ozzie Albies hugged his teammate Ronald Acuna Jr, after Ronald’s mother passed away. 

The clip of the two men hugging and Ozzie stroking Ronald’s head produced a stream of homophobic posts on social media. It is difficult for young men to grow up emotionally health, caring, empathetic and opposed to violence when they are discouraged from such simple human acts as hugging each other.

Toxic masculinity has many forms. We seem to find it easier to talk about certain versions of toxic masculinity, for example black men who are physically violent, misogynist and exclude women from participating in certain activities.  We find it more difficult to talk about powerful white men who are equally violent, misogynist and exclusionary. We find it even more difficult to talk about the less explicit forms of violence and exclusion, for example men’s patronising and harassment of their female colleagues.  

We need to talk about and challenge all forms of toxic masculinity, not just the most obvious and visible ones. We need to talk to boys and men about the damage that toxic masculinity is wrecking in our society, in our schools, and in our homes. We need to encourage men and boys to challenge toxic masculinity among themselves.

Only when toxic masculinity is no longer rewarded, but rather called out, excluded and punished, we can begin to build healthy relationships between men and women, between men and other men and between men and themselves.

* Rebecca Helman is a PhD candidate at the University of South Africa (UNISA). She is also a Researcher at UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. Rebecca writes in her personal capacity. 

Isaac Dery holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. Isaac writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus