7- Getting to the root of toxic masculinity

By Tia Mo

When my son was born, he was just a human. He was helpless and warm and adorable, and immediately the world began treating him like a boy. Masculinity in western cultures centers on stoicism; it is essentially a libertarian reality. Domination is possible; exchange is possible; but vulnerability is dangerous and punished from a very early age. Even the sweetest men I know, from the kindest families, got less care and emotional training than the woman-socialized folks I’ve talked with.

There is a wonderful discussion of this in “Raising Cain” by Michael Thompson on the ways our culture isolates and armors boys. Getting through the gauntlet of adolescence requires callus that few men ever shed completely, or ever.

None of this detracts from the fact that people who are masculine socialized cause harm due to their callous conditioning, or that their intentions have nothing to do with the pain caused from social domination and violence. What I’m focusing on here is not culpability, but origin. Where does this all come from?

Men I love have been taking years in their 20s, 30s and 40s to identity and undo the harmful stories that are tangled up in masculinity. They want to keep the playfulness, persistence, and power but leave aside the manipulation, coercion, and entitlement that were served up together in their gendered training.

So if, as Thompson suggests, boys are generally emotionally abandoned around kindergarten age, and they start living in their minds instead of their hearts, is it so surprising that by the time they are men they are so full of pain that they cannot handle anyone else’s? Other cultural factors that add to that pain include the conditioning to be strong, stoic, dominant, and virile. The fragility of (white, but all) masculinity, might not stem from power, but from loneliness and abandonment. Men don’t know how to socialize in the complex way that women and queer folks learn, and they need care that they  likely cannot articulate. Empathy, being vulnerable, is forbidden.

None of this can be addressed until a man decides he wants out of his cage. Even then, he is likely to find a toxic men’s rights advocate who convinces him that what he needs is more entitlement. If he can, however, see that the only way out is to unlatch it from the inside, can we, in community and private spaces, safely incorporate those who are learning 30 years of social skills? People of color and poor people make this call all the time with wyte folks and rich people, and I honestly believe that the answer is, sometimes for some people. We get to communicate our boundaries and consequences with the expectation of respect, and to require that men observe and practice with each other before trying to participate where women and queer folks have established safety.

If you are a man reading this, I’m sorry for your exhaustion at always being on guard. I hope there are places where you can take off your emotional armor and feel relief. Doing the work to learn about emotional regulation (sensing and defusing the physical sensations that accompany feelings) will open the world to you. You might find this through somatic coaching, studying compassionate communication, meditation, or simply listening and reflecting silently when other people speak. Men have often been taught to physically care for others and this skill is wonderful, but not as a replacement for self-care. Emotional regulation is a crucial tool for both autonomy and for mutual aid.

It is culturally more acceptable in masculinity for men to feel anger than sadness, and so while men need to explore the origins of rage/anger/frustration, they also need to deeply explore the buried sadness/disappointment/loneliness that is often ignored or shamed.

We all share the human capacity to do this work, from wherever we are beginning. I invite you to expect it of your sons, brothers, and lovers, and to seek it for yourself, however you were trained in the world. It has been my great pleasure, to have a son and not believe the stories about his self-reliance or dominance. We work hard together to filter the stories about gender and power so that he gets to choose the aspects that reflect him and let go of the pieces that don’t. I can’t protect him from the whole world, nor would that be helpful, but I can make community with men who are doing their work to invite him into a different vision of masculinity. This is a call for men to care for each other, and for themselves.