Toxic Masculinity

AP Photo/Herald Star, Mark Law

Judge Thomas Lipps listens to arguments in Jefferson County Juvenile Court in a case involving two Ohio high school football players charged with raping a 16-year-old girl.

Last summer, two young football players in the Ohio town of Steubenville carried the unconscious body of a local girl from party to party, violating her in ways you’d probably prefer not to think about. (I’m not pretending this incident is merely “alleged,” because there’s video and this column isn’t a court of law.) Today, she’ll face her attackers in court for the first time. It’s a brave act, as she surely knows she’ll not only be facing down the boys who did this to her, but also the adults whose jobs it is to blame her and call her a liar. Only she can know what will make this sacrifice worthwhile: Is it enough for her to be heard in court? Will it only be healing if the boys are convicted? Whatever it is she needs, I hope she gets it. 

But rape prosecutions are argued on behalf of the state, not just the victim, and there’s a good reason: Rape doesn’t just harm one person. It tears at the fabric of our communities. And if we treat this trial as simply the story of what a couple of kids did to another, we’re missing the point. This isn’t an isolated incident, and the incident itself didn’t happen in isolation. 

This rape is like most in that it was enabled by a deeply entrenched, toxic masculinity. It’s a masculinity that defines itself not only in opposition to female-ness, but as inherently superior, drawing its strength from dominance over women’s “weakness,” and creating men who are happy to deliberately undermine women’s power; it is only in opposition to female vulnerability that it can be strong. Or, as former NFL quarterback and newly-minted feminist Don McPherson recently put it, "We don't raise boys to be men. We raise them not to be women, or gay men." This starts in childhood for many boys, who are taught young that they’ll be punished for doing anything “girly,” from playing with dolls to crying, or even preferring to read over “rough housing” outside.

Toxic masculinity has its fingerprints all over the Steubenville case. The violence done to the victim was born out of the boys’ belief that a) sexually dominating a helpless girl’s body made them powerful and cool, and b) there would be no consequences for them because of their status as star athletes (If you want to see stomach-churning first-hand evidence of this, check out this video of one of their friends gleefully talking about how “raped” and “dead” the victim was). The defense is basing their entire case on it, arguing that this near- (and sometimes totally) unconscious girl’s body was the boys’ to use because “she didn't affirmatively say no." The football community’s response—by which I mean not just the coaches, school, and players, but the entire community of fans—is steeped in the assumptions of toxic masculinity, treating the athletes and the game as more important than some silly girl’s right to both bodily autonomy and justice. Steubenville residents have been quick to rally around the team, suggesting that the victim “put herself in a position to be violated” and refusing to talk to police investigating the assault. The two players who cooperated with police were suspended from the football team, while the players accused of the rape have been allowed to play. The coach even went so far as to threaten a New York Times reporter asking questions about the case. (No surprise there: When it comes to male-dominated sports, toxic masculinity is the rule, not the exception.)

But sports is hardly the only breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Witness the recent, vicious bullying of Zerlina Maxwell by fans of Fox News. Last week, Maxwell was on Hannity and dared to opine that the best rape prevention isn’t about what women can do to protect themselves, but instead focuses on raising men who don’t rape. She also personally identified herself as a survivor of rape. What followed was a nearly inconceivable onslaught of misogynist and racist attacks, including repeated threats of rape and death. All because a black woman insisted that the work of stopping rape—“women’s work” if there ever was such a thing—requires men’s labor. Under the influence of toxic masculinity, the logical response to a man being forced or even encouraged to do something coded “female” is always violence.

The U.N. is in the midst of its 57th Commission on the Status of Women, this year focusing on gendered violence, a global pandemic made all the more urgent by growing evidence that social change leads to increased violence against women. Why? Because destabilizing established social order—even in the interest of what we might agree is progress—can leave people feeling vulnerable. And when men feel vulnerable, toxic masculinity teaches them the way to reassert their power is by dominating women. There’s a pall hanging over the proceedings, a real risk that this year’s commission may wind up like last year’s, failing to come to any policy agreements thanks to the obstructionism of a handful of patriarchal countries who claim that their traditional and religious customs would be infringed upon if they had to take action to end gendered violence in their countries. You can bet that any customs that require impunity for violence against women are built on toxic masculinity.

It’s time for a serious intervention in masculinity. It’s not enough to not be a rapist. You don’t get a cookie or a Nobel Peace Prize for that. If we want to end the pandemic of rape, it’s going to require an entire global movement of men who are willing to do the hard work required to unpack and interrogate the ideas of masculinity they were raised with, and to create and model new masculinities that don’t enable misogyny. Masculinities built not on power over women, but on power with women. 

This is going to take real work, which is why so many men resist it. It requires destabilizing your own identity, and giving up attitudes and behaviors from which you’re used to deriving power, likely before you learn how to derive power from other, more just and productive places. There are real risks for men who challenge toxic masculinity, from social shaming to actual “don’t be a fag” violence—punishments that won’t ease until many, many men take the plunge. But there are great rewards to be had, too, beyond stopping rape. Toxic masculinity is damaging to men, too, positing them as stoic sex-and-violence machines with allergies to tenderness, playfulness, and vulnerability. A reinvented masculinity will surely give men more room to express and explore themselves without shame or fear. (It will also, not incidentally, reduce rape against men as well, because many rapes of men are committed by other men with the intention of “feminizing”—that is, humiliating through dominance—their victim.)

These interventions start with a “feminine” activity: introspection. What did you learn about “being a man,” from whom? How are those lessons working out for you, and for the people you love and your communities? Taking action can be as simple as men publicly owning their preference for “female” coded things, whether that’s child-rearing, nonviolence, feminism, or anything else—and being willing to suffer the social consequences. It can be more formal, working with established organizations like Men Stopping Violence. As more men take responsibility for the work, it will surely also take on forms no one has yet envisioned. 

Obviously, the mouth-breathing troglodytes who hailed hate down on Maxwell aren’t going to be interested in this project. And there’s strong evidence that most rapes are committed by repeat offenders who may not call what they’re doing by the r-word, but know full-well they don’t have their partner’s consent. Remaking masculinity isn’t about sweetly beseeching those guys until they don “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts. It’s about two much more practical things: 1) raising new generations of boys much less likely to grow into rapists and/or Fox trolls, and, meanwhile, 2) undermining the social license to operate which allows the current generation of assholes to keep trolling and raping with impunity. 

In other words: What if misogynist trolling got you shunned by their friends and family? What if raping someone was actually likely to result in your expulsion from your team, and your conviction in court? If the rest of us shift our relationship to masculinity, ideas like “she was asking for it” or “don’t be a pussy” won’t make sense anymore, and the guys who try to cling to them will find themselves isolated, facing serious social and legal consequences.

There’s already some sign that this can work, and that the work is underway. Vancouver’s new initiative placing the focus on preventing offenders, not victims, is showing early promise. The Feminist Wire just launched a “Masculinities Forum” to create a more explicit dialogue on just these issues. And the organization Breakthrough has launched a global "Ring The Bell" campaign that is poised to take the lead on this very issue, calling for one million men to take concrete action to end violence against women.

It’s not a moment too soon. Just as putting the onus on women to prevent their own rapes on an individual basis is both wrong and ineffective, so to is putting the onus on women to stop rape as a social phenomenon. It’s time to “sack up” and step up, men. I promise it will hurt you a lot less than it’s hurting me.

Editor's Note: On May 17, the two young football players were adjudicated delinquent of rape, comparable to a guilty verdict in adult criminal court.


Yes, THANK YOU. For years I've been calling attention to the problem with how males are raised. Rape is among the worst of many symptoms of this problem, but the prison system shows how bad things are: nine out of ten people in prison are male. Unlike the problem of minority over-representation in the prison industry this isn't due to prejudice or unaddressed poverty or the so-called war on drugs - men and women exist in each of those demographics in similar proportions. It's because they're men, raised as men, trained and expected to be aggressive and violent as if that's okay.

If a manufacturer built two kinds of cars, and one car was ten times more likely to go out of control and crash than the other, everybody would want the manufacturing process of that car improved. But we see men behave badly at ten times the rate of women and we seem to shrug and accept that "boys will be boys"?

It is urgently important that our cultural assumptions about the ways in which men are raised are challenged.

You're so right. Thanks for a great article!

As the mother of a 7 year old son, I find myself wondering how to counteract all of these "toxic masculinity" messages. Suggestions? Resources?

I would just steer clear of articles employing this kind of inflammatory language.

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As a 27 year old feminist-self-identifying straight male, I feel like my upbringing was not so unusual, but I still largely dodged the toxic masculinity bullet. I think my parents just did little things: comforting me instead of telling me not to cry, treating my mom being a lawyer (and my dad being an artist) like they were just completely normal roles for both of them to play, encouraging and supporting me when I wanted to do theatre just as much as when I wanted to do sports. When misogynistic crap did occasionally filter into my head from the outside, they calmly discussed why it was wrong. And they always encouraged me to think for myself -- think about what others were doing and saying and whether those things felt right or wrong to me. Small things like that can add up dramatically, both for better and for worse.

While reading this, I forced myself to ignore the topic of rape. The article is intrinsically about changing the perceptions of what masculinity is. So to best agree the approach, I needed to understand what my self-actualization as a man meant, and the consequences of being who I am. The proposal was to consider why and who.

My father was a great man, a provider, supportive, stoic, & of course hairy. But I've noticed in my adult life, it isn't him who's had the greatest effect on desired & acquired appearance. It was sex. My partners, from my early youth to this very day, obsess endlessly about the appearance of physical masculinity: power, and wealth. Being left heartbroken by dozens of partners who felt I was capable of contributing to the adult components of a relationship (of course, they meant "earning enough money") in my youth, I began my studies, graduting with honours and two majors. What I believe was a beautiful mind, was now trapped in a weak body. My devotion to academic success grew into a need for proponents of age. Genetics had let me down, I was scrawny, and the partners I loved agreed.

Now having earned all that society tells me I need, having fought tooth and nail with my will power for a decade, I'm left to look over society and see how much self-loathing there is. How we're bullied out of our wants until we're certain the destiny we've found was what we wanted in the first place. It makes life easier to cope with.

TLDR, men aren't slaves to an inherent aggression, but nor is it as simple as parents and teachers fostering their boys to find sensitivity and tenderness. It's an incredible web of influence, one that relies on every thread. The success of multi-billion dollar sport empires truthfully relies on the blind aggressive dedication the athletes train into, oil would not shoot from the ground without the muscle to maintain the machines that drill, our aspirations of beauty would be lost if it didn't take incredible work and luck to become the next Adonis.

I agree with you Jaclyn, perceptions of manhood have to change, but it isn't masculinity that's to blame--it's the association that rapists aren't sick, they're victims of masculinity. Rapists are just mentally ill.

Some of what you say is valuable, but blowing off the topic by saying that all rapists are mentally ill is counter-productive. "Oh, they're mentally ill" is a very convenient statement to dismiss complicated issues -- people don't catch mental illness like the cold or spring from the womb mentally ill. Some people are genetically predisposed to mental illness, but the environment in which they're raised has a massive impact. And defining mental illness is very complex as well: some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, can largely be treated by altering brain chemistry, but others can not. And what one society defines as mental illness another sees as normal, or even beneficial (what we would call schizophrenia has in some places and times been seen more as religious inspiration).

Saying that all rapists are mentally ill is letting society off the hook far too easily. Certainly, some are, but many are sexually frustrated, angry and/or misogynistic "normal" people. The teenagers in Steubenville show no signs of having been mentally ill -- in their case, they wanted sex, thought they could get it for free, and took it. And even if we could lump all rapists together as "mentally ill," that still loops around to society and how it deals with masculinity. How, if all rapists are mentally ill, has our society produced so many broken men that a quarter of women are sexually assaulted at some point in their life? What have we been telling our boys that has twisted them so badly? Could it be, as the author suggests, "you must be tough, violent and better than women if you are to succeed"?

in the stuebenville case there are plenty of people - onlookers and after the fact who truly had no idea that was rape. and when you get right down to it - that IS the result of a negative opinion/aspect of masculinity. the idea that - men can't help themselves; women are supposed to police their actions because after all they are unthinking brutes that would rutt a hole in a tree in the absence of other options. when a boy is raped by his teacher we congratulate him.

and yes, women carry these views of men and masculinity too and therefore often look at men for their physical prowess and/or earning potential. it only makes sense - in a world based on dominance which is held by men and won in those two arenas .. .

and that's why dropping the toxic masculinity - note, not all the expressions of masculinity are toxic - is a benefit to men and women.

You probably don't want to even respond to this after the angry backlash about your last comment, but I am curious what it is you mean when you say that rapists are mentally ill. Are you saying that because men are constantly bracing themselves against the crushing expectations and stereotypes of society, that it doesn't take much to cause a mental break? I wasn't sure if you were defining your own experience as part of the spectrum of mental illness. (I mean no insult by that, I'm asking an honest question.)

I also ask because, as an example outside of the US, in a recent study in India 1 in 4 men admitted to having raped a woman. 1 in 25 admitted to having participated in gang rape. ( That seems like an awfully high percentage to be explained by mental illness, but not too high to be explained by cultural mores and conditioning. I think it would be naive of us to think that our statistics in the west would be so much better than these that we can completely discount them. It seems that, in most cases, rape is far more about power than it is about a lack of self control, desire, or mental instability. It's about reasserting that male=strong and female=weak, and it depends on the deeply entrenched belief that male strength and male entitlement are one in the same.

Your point about the female influence in this, though, is really important. We like to talk about masculinity being defined solely in childhood or in the family, but a person's ideas about sex and relationships are clearly molded in large part by their personal experiences. While I think it's fair to say that men must bear responsibility for stopping rape, it is equally important to remind ourselves that women must do their part to change the culture. It's ludicrous to assert that women in general are looking for sensitive, vulnerable men. We females can't expect radical social change if our choices in partners continue to reflect the societal standards of yesterday. And a quick glance at the most popular books and movies will reveal that we are doing that.

How we think of manhood and masculinity and a man's role in society/relationships/housework/whatever obviously needs to change, and I am sorry to hear that you have experienced first-hand the weight of societal pressures to fit the imaginary "ideal man" mold. As a woman I have experienced pressures, myself, but they are obviously different than yours. When you say "we are all bullied out of our wants," I think that applies to men AND women. Our fates in this are inextricably linked. We seem to have our whole understanding of people completely backwards. Until we all realize (and act on) the fact that human beings are all basically the same in essence, but wildly different in personality, preferences and abilities, we're just going to be spinning our wheels. Whenever we talk about men and women (or blacks and whites, or any other stereotypical opposition) being fundamentally different, we are necessarily talking about the aggregate, and not actual people. We have to stop thinking of each other, and ourselves, in terms of demographics.

Ugh, it's just a euphemism. 'Mentally-ill' was not meant to inspire droves of advocates to discard my poetic license. It was quite clear that I was implying that the decision making abilities of rapists are clearly not healthy. Rapists aren't biologically tuned to rape. I get it. I'm not going to apologize that "mentally-ill" infers something different to everyone. An illness is just something unhealthy that can be cured.

I avoided the topic of rape. I made it clear I wasn't interested in speaking about something I knew nothing about.

I am a hypocrite to tell others their is vision of beauty, power, or wealth is unhealthy, when I too, choose to abide those same delusions.

"Eek! A Male"
by Lenore Skenazy
'Nuff said.

having worked in the daycare field i can tell you that most centers hire any male applying and kiss his butt.

but to your overarching point - did you read this article or do you just assume that she said "be afraid of all men"?


There are plenty of female athletes who work just as hard, as agressively, and push themselves to their limits just like you describe. The sports empire relies on that kind of dedication, but why is that dedication "male?" Why is it tied up with all kinds of other dominating and domineering behavior?

That's kind of the point.

@ actnb2

6% of men will admit in an anonymous survey to having raped someone. People who are actually mentally ill are far more likely to be victims than victimizers. Several American judges have let rapists off because they felt that women who were unconscious could still give consent. One major political party doesn't think that domestic violence protections should apply to non-heterosexual, non-gender-normative, non-white women.

The problem is not a few mentally ill people. The problem is a society that is doesn't see a problem with the fact that 1 in 20 men are rapists.

As a man who has always been outright disgusted at overt displays of masculinity, I've always chalked it off as overcompensation for one's insecurities. It's always struck me as primitive impulse, chest beating, that we should be able to rise above. We can do better than to let our instincts rule us. The chest beating is so pervasive in society I have sometimes wondered if "I" am the odd one. But I never really let being "odd" bother me, I study bugs for a living after all!

Everyone feels insecure at some point in their lives, but you have to let go of it eventually or it eats you up inside. Unfortunately some men just can't let go of the insecurity over their own manhood, and I believe much of that stems from something in their upbringing. How do you undo that or keep that from being perpetuated to their children? Because it does get passed down through generations, not genetically but behaviorally.

As a father of 2 boys I go to great lengths to keep their lives drama free since even the most minor blowup in an adult's life can have major impact on a child's outlook. I remember a conversation I had with my parents where I thought we were pretty well off when I was a kid and my parents both looked at me like I was crazy and told me we were dirt broke most of the time and it if wasn't for the grandparents sending money from time to time we might have been on the street. They must have kept the stress under control pretty well...

Generation after generation this goes on with parents struggling day to day with little thought to how their children view and react to their coping with life. From this we have many of the ills of society. It's not just rape, but also substance abuse, lack of education, crime. Rape might be just the place to begin with the litany of troubles.

This articles contention that it is the patriarchy and the anxiety over its collapse being responsible for rape is just fundamentally wrong.

Increasing penalties for rapists is a good idea (both criminal and social) but there is little statistical evidence for the contention that it is the patarchy that bares responsibility for rape is weak but strong for biology, poverty and impulse control.

I'm confused -- where is the evidence that rape is about biology and impulse control? That doesn't explain prison rape *at all,* which is an important part of the discussion.

Rape is about power and entitlement, almost always. As an example: .

Character and Rape in Ohio

As far as I know the two football players from Steubenville haven't been convicted of anything. Feminists seem oblivious to the presumption of innocence when a woman accuses a man of a crime. Women studies majors should be required to take a course in constitutional rights as a core requirement.

By the way, a legitimate example of a pandemic is the Black Death that killed 60% of the European population during the 14th century. Rape is a horrible crime but the prevalence in this country is not at pandemic levels. Blatantly misusing such a word is nothing more than an attempt to demonize men.

while it is misuse of the word pandemic - it is hardly a misuse that by just those discussing rape. there is a pandemic of addiction, a pandemic of crime etc.

as to the presumption of innocence - usually i'd be with you on that but, really? did you watch the videos? the boy says he raped her; he says those words.

The definition of pandemic does not include a percentage requirement. It just means something is widespread (for example, across many continents) and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population, which is relative to what you are talking about. The proportion of a population that are murdered, for example, wouldn't have to be over 50% for it to be considered exceptionally high.

However, on the subject of posting a person accused of rape all over the internet and turning them into household names, I certainly agree with you. It should be completely illegal for the media to broadcast the faces and names of people accused of ANY crime until they are found guilty...or even, IMHO, until they begin their sentence and have gone through any appeals. Turning the entire nation into a grand jury through the selective evidence provided by the media is completely absurd. That decision belongs to the judge, not to us.

(So please don't lump all of us feminists into the same bucket.)

@KMFDM72 The two football players have been found guilty. And as Jacyln said in this article, she felt no need to use the term "alleged" because there's video of the night in question.

At any rate, a dictionary will tell you that pandemic simply means "occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population." I personally believe the statistic (1 in 5 women in the US will be raped in her lifetime) is "exceptionally high." Maybe you need 60% of women to be raped before you believe this is an issue worth addressing.

The article says that, "We don't raise boys to be men. We raise them not to be women, or gay men." This is because masculinity is unlocateable--it doesn't exist, we only have markers--masculinity can never actually be bestowed--it can only ever be taken away--this is why men are always in a constant state of what I refer to as male hysteria--check out this article I wrote that deals with Matthew Barney and markers of an uncertain Masculinity here-

This is the most important conversation we can be having today. Young men have no role models for healthy masculinity and are celebrated for acts of violence, aggression and sexual misconduct (Chris Brown). When men can tune into their more introspective, intimate, vulnerable places without fear of retribution from their peers, they will emerge more whole and in a place to give and receive healthy love. As we evolve, these acts of barbarianism will have to evolve with it.
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Excellent article that addresses important issues for society. Toxic is an accurate description of the environment in the school, community and larger society that condones the violent power play, even rewards it. Historically, when change occurs, there is often reactionary backlash, in attempt to keep conditions in the comfort zone of those who have not evolved. Let's hope the judge in this case is honorable and strong enough to see that appropriate consequences for this destructive behaviour are carried out.

It seems like the author is saying any man who doesn't adhere to feminism is contributing to a culture of 'toxic masculinity'. Apparently its not enough to be a good and law abiding man. This reeks of communal blame.

Aside from the faulty causative attribution, there are some good observations, assuming you can put aside the problems in it. For example, men and boys still get pressured to conform to limiting stereotypes that when mixed with other factors can cause some to behave sociopathologically. For example, raise a boy to conform to a rigid stereotypically masculine image and then supplement it with violent sports (e.g.: football) training and in essence teach him to ignore his own pain/boundaries and those of others. Now add the high hormone level that comes of adolescence, immaturity, and alcohol, and you get: a far-greater chance he'll do something he shouldn't do, like start fights, commit rape, damage property, carry on in other disruptive ways, etc. But no guarantee. For every such boy that gets created under those conditions, those same ones produce a whole lot more who don't behave that way. (But in any case, nothing can excuse criminal behavior such as rape, robbery, etc. Some factors can help explain why certain ppl become criminals or behave criminally at some point in their lives, but these don't *excuse* the behavior.) But nonetheless should not this pattern be questioned for everyone's benefit?

The problem isn't so much "toxic masculinity" as it is "toxic child-rearing", particularly as it pertains to boys. Boys are people, too. Raise them a certain way, you get certain results. For example, in "less modern" place or venues, crimes of person or property tend to be a lot less frequent than in modern ones. This is moreso where use of inhibition-reducing substances (alcohol, for example) is either prohibited or restricted to more controlled venues. Parents in "less-modern" societies tend to pay a lot more attention to what their kids are taught and to their emotional needs. Consequently, they produce much-less criminally-inclined children. Now really, how much time are we devoting to raising the next generation? Very little. They 're practically being left to raise themselves, and given things like social media and video games (desensitizing violent ones, too) to take the place of actual attention and affection from their parents.

All the on-line discussions abt "toxic masculinity" or anything else will have zero effect until or unless the fundamentals of child-rearing are restored. Bets on just when that'll happen?

Finally, I want to remind/inform the author and readers that forcible sexual assault is in no way limited to male-on-female and male-on-male crimes. And contrary to claims by feminists, women assaulting others sexually are not minimal or exceptional cases. Google "She Stole My Voice" and watch the documentary on-line. Also see the CDC's report on sexual assault at:

If there needs to be a discussion abt "toxic masculinities", maybe we also need a discussion abt other toxic things, too.

Couldn't you pick someone better suited to discuss this topic? Friedman is the author of "My Sluthood, Myself" (

A quote, "I’m telling you this because sluthood requires support….A slut needs a posse who finds her exploits almost as delicious as she finds them herself, who cares about her safety and her stories and her happiness but not one whit about her virtue…even if you don’t ever want sluthood for yourself, you’re going to be called upon to support a slut. I’m telling you this because when that happens, I want you to say yes."

Journalism is dead in America, and the American Prospect is proof of that.

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