How do we know a toxic masculinity when we see it?

By CJ Pascoe

It seems that toxic masculinity – men’s problematic gender practices entailing violence, sexual aggression, emotional repression and dominance – is everywhere. I recently keynoted a conference at Oregon State University entitled “Moving Upstream: Examining the Sources of Toxic Masculinity to Create Healthier Communities.” Thanks to the internet we know that Wolverine is an example of it. The GOP is full of it. Both (former) Bernie and (current) Trump supporters embody it in their contempt for women. People are debating examples of it on the internet. Books are being written about it.

Men are blogging about freeing themselves from toxic masculinity and its deadly effects. They are simultaneously drowning in it and deeply invested in distancing themselves from it. Even men who arguably exemplify toxic masculinity seek to avoid the label.  Take for example Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman. Even though two eyewitnesses watched him sexually assault the woman, he insists “in no way was I trying to rape anyone.

This is “good guy” syndrome. Good guys aren’t sexist, they aren’t racist, and they think gays are okay and they definitely do not condone sexual assault. Brock Turner’s “good guy” syndrome is not unique. An article I wrote with Jocelyn Hollander, “Good Guys Don’t Rape,” documents how young men distance themselves from identities as rapists even as they describe behaviors that look an awful lot like sexual assault—and, indeed, certainly meets the legal definition. Take Chad, a popular high school football player:

When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the 8th grade…The majority of the girls in 8th and 9th grade were just stupid. We already knew what we were doing. They didn’t know what they were doing you know?… Like say, comin’ over to our house like past 12. What else do you do past 12? Say we had a bottle of alcohol or something. I’m not saying we forced it upon them.  I’m sayin’…

While the incident Chad describes – plying underage women with alcohol in order to have sex with them – is one that many would agree would constitute rape, he self-consciously distances himself from rape (“I’m not saying we forced it upon them”). He later told me that his friends, “Kevin Goldsmith and Calvin Johnson, they got charged with rape,” while claiming, “I’ll never (be in) that predicament, you know. I’ve never had hard time, or had to you know, alter their thinking.” The sort of sexual assault Kevin Goldsmith and Calvin Johnson participated in is something that other, bad guys do. By distancing himself from this practice, even as he describes his own sexual assault, Chad does what Brock did, “Who me? A rapist?”

As Mike Messner puts it in his article “Bad Men, Good Men, Bystanders: Who is the rapist?” this understanding of oneself as a “good guy” follows the emergence of a “good man/bystander” approach to rape prevention. This approach positions the rapist as a uniquely bad man, “as someone who is poorly socialized about healthy relationships founded on respectful communication about consent.” In both anti-violence activism and in popular culture, men are divided into two groups: good men/real men/non-rapists and bad men/toxic masculinity/rapists.

This framing positions gender dominance as inhering in one TYPE of man – a “good guy.”  It’s a discourse that positions men able to successfully frame themselves as “good guys” as incapable of harm, and – implicitly – positions “bad guys” as incapable of doing something good. For this reason, some men go through all sort of intellectual, linguistic and social acrobatics to distance themselves from “toxic masculinity.” As a label, it’s pretty unforgiving.  And to be clear, it should be. But, this discourse obscures a scarier reality about toxic masculinity, that it’s not just a quality of an individual man. It’s a system in which we all participate, Additionally, as Tristan Bridges and I point out, when some men symbolically purify themselves of labels like “toxic masculinity,” we need to attend to who gets framed as a bearer of this sort of violent, dominant, sexist gender enactment (working class, less educated men of color), and which groups are able to avoid such a label.  Conversations about toxic masculinity too often end up reproducing intersectional forms of inequality related to race, class, education, and more.

While there was justifiable outrage when Brock Turner received a more lenient sentence from a judge who felt that a longer sentence “would have a severe impact on him,” we also understood the system of privilege Brock’s case made so visible.  The judge wanted to position Brock as a “good guy.”  So did Brock’s father when he appealed to the court to not ruin his son’s life over what he referred to as “20 minutes of action.”  They both wanted to acknowledge some wrong-doing, but to make sure that people understood that Brock was still one of the “good guys.”  The real problem is that good guys rape, too.  And until we can confront that reality, we’re not actually having a conversation that can create the kind of change we want to see.

CJ Pascoe is an associate professor of sociology and the David M. and Nancy L. Petrone Faculty Scholar at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School and (with Tristan Bridges) the editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change. CJ is also on the editorial board for Gender & Society. 


5 thoughts on “How do we know a toxic masculinity when we see it?

  1. You have really hit this one on the head for me. I’ve felt so frustrated reading the almost ubiquitous “real men don’t rape” response and couldn’t figure out why. It sounds right in some sense, let’s re-brand masculinity with some moral guidelines. Why not? But just tacking on a moral imperative without any analysis, or deconstruction as Martha puts it, just doesn’t feel like progress. I was just reading an article in WaPo about men with fragile egos running from competent, strong women. Almost all of the responses could be distilled into “real men don’t have fragile egos” and I got so wound up that I searched out your blog. A couple days ago I read about your work with boys and the social enforcement of masculinity. It hit me that that the fragility of masculinity is that it’s constantly under assault. We live in fear that something banal can crush our manhood at any moment: confusion, pain or weakness of any kind, injury, impotence, incompetence, even a single tear. We’re grateful to our friends for reminding us to man-up in the face of this onslaught and avoid any taboo emotions, even though they’re just patching up the holes in our cage. I have a number of close male friends and I can’t think of one who hasn’t spent way too much time thinking about various strategies to guard against the assault on his manhood. But if you asked any of these smart, loving, introspective men about it in those terms I doubt he would have any idea what you’re talking about. We just don’t have the language for it. I’m really excited to read more of your work.

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