The Story of Sex Part 1: Is Masculinity Toxic?

The Story of Sex will be a series about sex/gender and sexuality in culture and relationships.

By now you’ve probably heard of Gillette’s new commercial that calls men to hold each other accountable for what it means to “be a man.”

Gillette is evolving “The Best a Man Can Get” into “The Best Men Can Be”

The response has been mixed. Many are praising how the company is engaging important topics like sexual assault and harrassment, bullying, and the treatment of women in the workplace.

But there has been a backlash as well. For instance, Piers Morgan on Twitter:

“Absurd virtue-signalling PC [politically correct] guff.”
“Let boys be damn boys.”

Morgan has consistently taken on this mantle of the edgy conservative voice-of-reason in recent years, so his response isn’t particularly surprising. He is in a class with people like Jordan Peterson who have stoked a base of mostly white males, their common grievances centering around perceived threats to the natural order of things. Rather than criticizing Jordan’s faulty intellectual premises, which others have already done better than me, I just want to take notice: people like him and Morgan are saying something that resonates with a large base of men.

The objective reality is that many white, western men are feeling attacked. Rather than judging that right off the bat, maybe we can just acknowledge it. 

The rise of Peterson and far-right cultural watchdog publications online that breed extremism (including literal Men’s Rights Activists) demonstrate it.

I read Morgan’s longer response to the Gillette ad, which I personally found to be a lot of cheap, incendiary bombast. But the idea that he kept coming back to was that movements like Gillette’s commercial are “man-hating,” “feminist assault[s] on men and masculinity” and send a “subliminal message [that] men, ALL men, are bad, shameful people.”

See, Morgan himself reveals a serious dilemma in this kind of attitude. *Not all men* and *Let boys be damn boys* are paradoxical arguments.

Either toxic masculinity is a problem but only for a few men, or we need to let this kind of masculinity be what it is because it’s only natural.

It’s just a few bad men. But also, it’s all men — it’s in our genes.

Uh, what?

No matter which one it is, apparently, feminism is to blame — Morgan and Peterson agree there. Because reasons.

I think reasonable people can agree that we have a problem of male violence in the United States without much controversy:

  • 1 in 3 women have experienced contact sexual violence (source)
  • 1 in 6 women have survived rape or attempted rape (source)
  • 84% of domestic violence cases involve male perpetrators and female victims (source)
  • Between 1982 and 2018, 103 out of 108 mass shooters were solo males (source)

But the extreme violence isn’t what I want to focus on here. There’s another consequence of contemporary masculinity that has reached epidemic levels.

It’s also deadly.

Boys and men lacking a context for meaningful, connective relationships outside of romance has led to unprecedented levels of loneliness and isolation which is more harmful to someone’s health than smoking a pack a day and can exacerbate or even cause serious diseases.

Tragically, more men are dying by suicide, too.

This crippling lack of connection is well documented: NBC // Men’s Health UK // Upworthy // Boston Globe // Psych Central … and that’s the tip of the iceberg. The central theme is that emotional repression and fear of coming across as gay (don’t even get me started on the homophobia yet) are robbing young boys and men of deep friendships.

It is not a cheap shot at men when health experts and social scientists (many of whom are men, incidentally) bring the conversation back to masculinity. The core of these issues lies in the question: what are we teaching our children it means to be a boy or a man?

Discussing masculinity can be a spiraling rabbit hole, because many people will talk about what they think is inherent or “natural” to men when they’re really referring to social constructs and cultural norms. But biology plays a role, too. It’s complex to say the least.

We can make the conversation simpler, though. We can boil it all down to two questions:
1) What story were you told about what it means to be a boy or a man?
2) Does it have to be that way?

There are plenty of men like the ones I linked above who can recount the stories they were told about what it means to be a man — and the effects on their lives — much better than a woman like me. And the questions are rhetorical, anyway.

What I can tell you is that growing up with two brothers, in a tight-knit church environment, with a majority of male friends — I didn’t witness many emotionally vulnerable friendships between guys. As my peers and I are making our way towards our 30’s the non-romantic friendships are even more rare… and exponentially more important.

Defining masculinity in a healthier way is not only about women or violence.

Don’t get me wrong — gendered violence should be enough to make all of us care.

But men are struggling, too.

And if the caricature of feminism in your mind doesn’t account for that, then it’s probably not real feminism.


I follow and read a lot of feminists (both women and men).
Not a single one of them hates men.
Not a single one of them thinks all men are bad and shameful.

All of them — literally all of them — want men to experience more genuine connection, acceptance, and meaningful relationships.

It doesn’t matter if you like sports or trucks or fantasy novels or video games or music or art or gardening or photography.
It doesn’t matter if you are naturally an “alpha” or more reserved or the resident comedian.
It doesn’t matter if you look like an Abercrombie model or if gyms really aren’t your thing.

Masculinity means “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men.”

What if we defined masculinity by character and not personality style or appearance?

Masculinity itself is not toxic.

Gillette’s whole point is that every generation gets to decide what kind of qualities or attributes it wants to be characteristic of its men.

Violence is toxic. Bigotry is toxic. Misogyny is toxic. Emotional repression is toxic. Social isolation is definitely toxic.

Masculinity is not. Not if we define it better.

In upcoming posts: dismantling damaging ideas about gender and sexuality specifically within religious ideas about marriage.

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