Toxic Masculinity And What We Can Do To Stop It

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.

When news becomes aflutter with excuses of “boys being boys,” “locker room talk,” and other statements associated with men just being born this way, you have to wonder…are they really? At odds with those narratives, is an overwhelming amount of men that are fundamentally good people, have big hearts, and care deeply about this world and the state it’s in. Where does the dysfunctional narrative and behavior come from? And what’s actually stopping our culture from being all that it can be?

The answer lies in our adolescence according to one Professor of Developmental Psychology at NYU, Niobe Way. Way has been studying adolescent boys for over 30 years, 1000’s of them. What she has found is beyond gender, it’s a fundamentally human need. The problem lies within how our culture interprets and normalizes that need.

Way explains that our culture demeans the stereotypically feminine qualities of caring too much, needing others, feeling a lot of emotions, and showing that to others. We, instead, value stereotypically male qualities like playing it cool, not needing anyone, acting neutral and keeping it to ourselves. She explains that “we have gendered human needs and created a hierarchy for them - cognition over emotion, mind over body, self over relationships.” According to even the boys, this cultural hierarchy is incoherent and needs to be disrupted. One of the boys in her studies explicitly critiques it: “It might be nice to be a girl because then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.” All humans, regardless of gender, are built for emotion and human connection.

Way’s research has taken her into middle school classrooms where she listens to boys speak about what they need and want most. The answer is always the same: deep relationships with other boys. Yet our culture, she says, “gets in the way.” If they show emotion, their peers make fun of them for being “girly” and if they describe wanting to connect with other boys their peers call them “gay.” She explains that “our ability to be sensitive, empathic, emotional, and tuned into other people” is fundamental to our humanity. She explains that the lack of connection causes many young boys to get into trouble together to force a type of intimacy that is socially acceptable. “The way in which we impose culture is why you get rebellion in adolescence. When boys act out the root is loneliness and isolation,” she explains. They become afraid of real intimacy because our culture doesn’t accept it. Another damaging cultural narrative we are playing into is that “boys will be boys” as if most boys want to get into trouble and do things they wouldn’t be proud of. Which is just not true. “Locker room talk is fake. When they laugh at a joke at their expense they are hurt,” she says. They actually just want friendships.

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