Toxic Masculinity: It's Complicated

A word that is coming up lately, a word that I feel is worthy of some deeper discussion : toxic masculinity. 

We are seeing men who feel so powerless and disconnected they act out, committing shockingly brutal acts of violence. 

We are seeing powerful men abuse their power. 

And we are seeing women who are standing up and saying, “Enough!” because understandably, they’re at their wits end. 

I’ve seen many posts singling men out; attacking them; ridiculing them. 

It’s true that this may be an important stage for women to pass through: an opportunity to voice grievances, demand accountability, and yes, feel all that anger and rage. 

But one thing I want to stand up and scream from the rooftops: 

Men are not the enemy. Please, let us not go there. 

What a sad, empty shame it will be if that is where the road ends. 

I say this as someone who has dealt with the long-term trauma of childhood sexual abuse, who works with women with various kind of trauma in relation to men and who helps women to repair their relationship with men. I know in my bones how important it is to repair our bonds with men. 

Yes, toxic masculinity is rampant. And so is toxic femininity. 

Toxic femininity looks like manipulation (sexual or otherwise) and emasculation (stripping a man of his dignity and power), among other things. I know about toxic femininity firsthand because for a long time, I thought this was my only ‘defense’ against men; my only way to protect myself. Eventually I looked around and realized that I was bringing out the worst in all of the males in my life. 

To single out men in our current state of ‘toxic masculinity’ seems too simplistic to me; too one dimensional and absent of interpersonal/ inter-gender/cultural accountability. 

I know a lot of women are moving through feelings of powerlessness and anger right now. It’s important for women to honor that. I know that I had to remain in that place for a long while and I also how important it is not to get stuck there and create an identity out of it. 

What can be extremely helpful is for women to re-orient to the ways in which they are powerful and very naturally influential. It’s much more than I think women realize. 

A girlfriend who is a percussionist told me that it’s a well-known fact that when an attractive woman walks into the room, a male percussionist can’t hold a steady beat. Their heart beat speeds up and they loose the rhythm.

There was a time when I would’ve judged that pretty harshly. ‘Ewwww. That’s because men are pigs’ kind of thing. There was a time when that would’ve triggered and scared me: it would have reinforced that men only wanted one thing from me. It can be frightening and extremely unnerving to provoke that kind of attention from men. It can feel unsafe, unwanted, unprovoked. 

Today, I actually find this a really sweet example of how men adore women. What it also reveals  is how important it is for women to know their power and hold clear, embodied boundaries to create a sense of safety within their power. 

Feminine influence isn’t limited to sex-appeal in relation to a man. It’s a woman’s ability to give recognition, to pay attention, to nurture, to trust, and to love. Toxic femininity is when these things are withheld as punishment or manipulation. 

Withhold recognition, give the cold shoulder or make a man feel like he’s not good enough and watch his toxicity spew. 

Women often fail to understand their power in relationship to men because our society recognizes only masculine expressions of power. Some women may even be offended by the suggestion that men and women have different power modalities precisely because we value normative masculine power so much. 

Of course women can wield masculine power too. They have the capacity to be aggressive, loud, and controlling. I happen to think women can get the job done just as well as any man and a woman has a right to and is capable of many, many expressions. 

But where is a woman’s natural power in relation to a man? The idea that nothing separates men and women save our genitalia is absurd to me. There are real biological and evolutionary differences that equip men and women with different abilities, nuances and needs.  

Women may still have a long way to go in the fight for equality, but the kind of power that is natural to them doesn't require a fight.

We don't need more competition between woman and men. We need a re-orientation to what power is and can be. 

A woman’s power in relationship is knowing how nourish, to praise; how to soothe. It’s knowing how to avoid collapse, to do away with manipulation and to inspire service. 

It’s knowing how and when and what to communicate to a gender that has different motivations, perceptions, and needs. It’s coming to terms with a bio-chemical, bio-mechanical, psychological reality that we are different and that can be a very good thing. 

It’s knowing how to listen, how to hold boundaries, how to hold a space of acceptance and, when it’s warranted. how to forgive. 

It’s recognizing that men have different needs than a woman: needs that may seem foreign and strange but will ultimately awaken the highest qualities in him.

It’s knowing how to fight, how to be upset and angry in a way that creates greater clarity, trust and intimacy.

Instead of ignoring or punishing men for their differences, what if women were to extend an olive branch? What if women chose to nourish men in these difficult times, not out of force or subjugation or because they are somehow less powerful but precisely because of their power. 

In relationship, a woman has a unique and beautiful ability to love and inspire a man. This is perhaps the greatest power there is.