Toxic Masculinity Hurts Us All. Here's How We Can Fix It.

by Annie Reneau
Kathleen Finlay / Getty Images

With sexual assault allegations and admissions dominating our news cycle, I’ve found myself questioning our role as the parents of a son.

No parents believe they’re raising their boys to be gropey, rapey, misogynistic perverts, and yet here we are hearing story after story of the Louis CKs and Harvey Weinsteins of the world. It’s far too easy to assume that our kids will be immune to the forces of our society, and I don’t want to be lulled into a false sense of security thinking that simply loving our son and being a good example is going to be enough.

The truth is that we swim in an ocean of toxic masculinity that we are just beginning to dive deep enough into to understand. While we need to teach all of our children the importance of things like bodily autonomy, consent, respect, and healthy expression, we have a steep hill to climb with our boys when it comes to gender expectations. For far too long, our society has harbored gender ideas that are not only harmful to women, but that hinder boys’ healthy social and psychological development:

Boys and men are naturally violent. Boys and men can’t control themselves. Boys and men who express emotion are weak. Boys and men are competitive and aggressive, and if they aren’t, something’s wrong with them. Girls and women’s bodies are primarily for male entertainment and pleasure. Girls and women aren’t cut out for careers in politics, science, business, etc.

Toxic masculinity hurts both females and males, and it’s time we pour more energy into battling it.

We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge, and we can’t acknowledge what we don’t see. So the first step is making sure we know what toxic masculinity looks like in its many forms. Then once we recognize it, we need to interrupt it and replace inappropriate messages with healthy ones. For example:

1. Boys do cry.

And laugh, and yell, and mope, and sigh. The full range of human emotions and their natural expression apply just as much to boys as to girls. Feelings know no gender, and when we assign them as such, we do everyone a disservice. Boys who are taught to repress their feelings grow into men harboring decades of repressed feelings. How is that possibly healthy?

2. Eliminate gendered insults.

“Don’t be such a sissy.” “You throw like a girl.” “That’s so femme.” These kinds of female-based barbs assume a weakness in girls and women that is unfair, unwarranted, and unkind. Yet these phrases are so ubiquitous and have been around so long, many people don’t even think much of them. Jokes that demean women (and men) as monoliths also fall into this category. If we point out gender-based negativity and discuss it with our sons every time we hear it, they’ll develop an instinctual aversion to anything that demeans women and girls or encourages problematic male stereotypes.

3. Drop the “boys will be boys” idea.

I really wish I knew who first coined this phrase because it’s one of the most ridiculous bits of bullshit humanity has ever perpetuated. What “boys will be boys” says is that we expect certain behaviors from boys and will allow them to continue. It says it’s in the male nature to be violent, promiscuous, sexist, etc., so it’s not worth doing anything about it. I don’t accept that stereotype, and we need to teach our boys to reject it too.

4. Start consent lessons early.

Consent discussions don’t have to be about sex. In fact, we should start teaching kids about consent no later than preschool. We do this both by talking about respect and boundaries and by showing them what consent looks like through our own actions.

We’ve used tickling rules as a way to practice consent and boundaries without even telling our kids that’s what we were doing: 1) Never tickle someone unless you first ask them if they’re okay with it and they say yes, and 2) as soon as the person says “stop” or “no,” or if they push your hands away, stop immediately.

No means no. Stop means stop. Pay attention to body language. All are extremely important lessons to reinforce over and over again at every age and stage.

5. Talk openly and often about how violence and sex are represented in movies, games, and other media.

Many of our most toxic ideas about masculinity are passed down through our entertainment. This is doubly troubling because the effect is that we not only receive these toxic messages, but we also enjoy getting them because of the medium.

While I’m not ready to give up action movies completely, I do want my kids to think critically about what they’re seeing and what subconscious ideas are being planted. By bringing those ideas into the conscious mind, we can keep them from taking root and recognize how prevalent they really are.

What we grow up learning and experiencing affects us our entire life, impacts how we think and behave, and informs our decision-making processes. With each generation, we have the power to create new norms and standards. It’s up to all of us to transform our society, and we as parents probably hold the greatest power in making the most lasting change.

Toxic masculinity hurts everyone, so let’s raise our boys to reject the harmful messages that permeate our society and choose a new definition of what it means to be a man.