Artwork by Megan Andrews
TW: This is some seriously heavy shit. Suicide, trauma, sexual harassment, and eating disorders.
Many people have a vague understanding of what “toxic masculinity” means, but to assume it’s just “lads being lads” is inherently wrong. As a male myself, it’s distressing having to rewatch the same experiences that I once faced growing up occur all around me. Aggression, competition, and even narcissism are all common symptoms of male toxicity- but what lies beneath is an embedded trauma and a misguided desire to be accepted. It’s an unhealthy, self-destructive characteristic which perpetuates the outdated stereotype of the “traditional male.” It’s time to face the uncomfortable reality that “lad culture” isn’t an excuse for sexual violence, bullying, or fascilitating eating-disorders, and that telling boys to man-up and carry on with their lives is counterproductive and creating an environment so toxic it continues to breed these issues.
Firstly, we should establish what “toxic” masculinity truly means. To briefly summarize, it’s the idea that men should behave tough, in order to not be seen as weak. You’ve probably heard the saying “man up”, implying that manhood can be equated to a certain set of principles that must be enforced. Toxic masculinity is where this incorrection originates. From a young age we instill the idea that boys shouldn’t show emotional vulnerability, an ideal which has unfortunately led to male suicide rates to rapidly climb in the UK.
Toxic masculinity extends further than the internalized suppression of our emotions. I’ve been raised through the community school system my whole life, and there were huge gaps in my learning, particularly during sex education. It severely lacked in teaching myself and the other boys I spent those many awkward sessions with about consent, boundaries, or even periods in that much depth - all of which I was privileged enough to have learnt through the role-models in my life like my parents and my sister. But for those who didn’t have these same privileges, they’ll enter the world with a fundamental lack of respect and understanding. Worse still, the attitudes towards sexual harassment in the playground was to police the actions of female victims, not male perpetrators. Girls were told to roll their skirts down and wear long sleeve shirts, meanwhile boys got slapped on their wrist and sent back to class for groping them. Rinse and repeat.
So, what does a society look like where these clear gaps and biases are ignored by the curriculum? Increasingly when I walk to catch my bus from work or college, I’ll overhear men as old as their sixties sexually harassing women. This is something I’ve always been aware of, and disgusted by, but felt powerless to stop. More recently though, it’s hit me closer to home. Even when I’m out with my friends, and the people that I love most, they’ve been sexually harassed as well. Even when we’re in large groups, even in broad daylight. There truly is no limit. It is a privilege that I, and many other men, have never experienced this degree of harassment before - and to those men offended when faced with this uncomfortable reality, or those who don’t think it applies to them, that in itself is privilege. What took me a while to understand though, is that sexual harassment isn’t simply about desire - it’s about power and violence. Toxic males want power, they pursue status to “look big” in front of their mates - there’s always a pecking order. And these so-called “pecking-orders” develop, unsurprisingly, within our school gates and are learnt from our role-models.
I talk a lot about how toxic masculinity is developed and normalized during school years, so I suppose it’s finally time to shed some light on my own experiences. Moving from primary school to secondary school was a short, sharp shock. We were all as naïve as each other, so gradually friendship groups formed based on shared interests and passions; of course, we were all eleven and twelve, so these passions were usually simple things like sports or video games. However, I quickly found myself aligning with a group of friends that I had little in common with. Football is something I’ve never cared that much about, but it was the focal point of the majority of our conversations. Initially, I just nodded along with these discussions and pretended I knew what they were talking about, but this grew increasingly harder when my club allegiance came into question, or when I was asked about how certain games went. When I couldn’t answer, I was made into a laughingstock, so frantically during my break times or on the school bus I would google search fixtures and scores on my phone to avoid the same ridicule.
Conformity was something that eventually became the dominant part of my life, quickly taking over who I wanted to be or how I wanted to dress. One time in Year 8, my mum bought me some new shoes for school. I only wore them for a week before I asked her for a new pair - she was shocked when I told her that they weren’t cool, and that people were mocking me for wearing them. As the years went by, the toxicity became more prevalent. I’m unafraid to admit that I was no saint myself, and existing in a toxic environment five days a week normalized bullying, misogyny, and even casual racism as a part of my own vocabulary- and for that, all I can offer is my sincere apologies - that was my normality, and it was wrong- but there was no role-model stepping up at the time to tell me and my mates that it was wrong in the first place - so naturally, it was perpetuated.
By Year 9, I found myself having anxiety attacks in most of my lessons before breaktime, fearing what I’d have to face next. My manufactured personality began to collapse in on itself as I started to realize that I couldn’t sustain it. I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and started pulling more “sickies” to avoid certain school days. We lived by the “man up” attitude we’d had ingrained in us - that’s just how it was. So, my academic performance dropped, and my grades stagnated. The final straw was when the group of friends that I’d spent the last three years with began to exclude me, the one thing that I sacrificed myself in the first place for.
On my final day, in the changing rooms, I was jumped. It started as one person and swelled to roughly 20 of my classmates throwing me to the floor, punching and kicking me, I wish I were exaggerating. And you know what? Bloodied and bruised, I picked myself up off the floor and laughed with them. Poetically, this is one of the greatest metaphors for toxic masculinity that I can offer - that “lad culture” breaks young men down so much that the lines between reality and façade become blurred, that mental health becomes so suppressed that you de-realize from your surroundings and everything begins to feel like theatre.
I could write an entire book about how gym-culture catalyzed my eating troubles, or how my respect for women was eroded and then restored - and maybe one day I will. But I’m running low on page space. Whilst this future seems bleak, there is hope in eradicating this harmful culture from our classrooms, homes, and our streets. Tackling toxic-masculinity can only be achieved by a collective effort; There’s no doubt in my mind that many of my peers during secondary school were also silently struggling with the same internal repression of their emotions, and we must create environments where we can be ourselves, and also educate each other on respect, consent, and maturity. Here’s some good advice for any men reading this:
1) Lower your porn consumption: it manufactures harmful stereotypes about sex, bodies, and blurs your perception of consent.
2) Create safe spaces for your friends: Showing emotions isn’t a weakness. Ask how your friends are doing if they say they’re fine - ask again. But don’t force them to spill their guts. Checking up on somebody could brighten their mood, or even save a life.
3) Call out toxic behavior in your friendship group, otherwise it’s normalized. Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. isn’t funny - even if they say it’s just ‘banter’. There’s a 50/50 chance between them getting pissed off and defensive about it or apologizing and moving on - but however they respond, it’ll spark the self-reflection that they need to eventually lead towards a positive change moving forwards.
4) To the victims of toxic masculinity, you are not alone. It took me two years to realize what the scale of impact it had on me and others around me growing up. Enough is enough - It’s time to break the cycle. Let’s fight back against lad culture before it ruins another generation of men.
Article by Fin Deane