Yes, men and boys are in crisis — but traditional masculinity won't help them

We can't cure "toxic" masculinity until we demonstrate what healthy masculinity looks like

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 6, 2024 1:30PM (EST)

Son caring for his father, putting hand on his shoulder, comforting and consoling him. (Getty Images/AsiaVision)
Son caring for his father, putting hand on his shoulder, comforting and consoling him. (Getty Images/AsiaVision)

I'm tired of toxic masculinity. I mean, I'm tired of its existence in general, particularly in the corrosive radicalization of our boys and young men. But I'm also tired of how the phrase has become synonymous with masculinity in general. I'm tired of the ways in which the suffering of males — especially the ones who aren't white or straight or from a privileged socioeconomic background — is dismissed, marginalized and misunderstood.

And while I agree with my colleague Amanda Marcotte that "Healthy men draw their self-esteem from inside, by cultivating their own talents and good qualities," I also think that our culture is doing a terrible job of defining and encouraging that healthy masculinity.

"We have so much work to be done," says Jennifer L.W. Fink, author of "Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World that Misunderstands Males" and a mother of four sons. "Gender affects boys lives, too, how they're treated and how they're limited. And they need and deserve our help and support."

"Gender affects boys lives, too, how they're treated and how they're limited."

The statistics are dismaying. Boys are 7% more likely to drop out of high school than girls, a gender gap that Fortune last year noted "has gone largely unaddressed by schools." They have higher rates of unemployment, have shorter life expectancies, and are four times more likely than females to die by suicide. They are significantly less likely than females to seek mental health treatment or assistance for intimate partner violence. 

Just as it doesn't help any of us, anywhere on the gender spectrum, to take the advancements of girls and women as a threat to boys and men, it's likewise lazy and simplistic to use the damage wrought by the patriarchy to let ourselves off the hook for what's going on with our guys. So, how do we reframe the conversation from a zero sum game to one in which we all can thrive?

"Men feel judged, blamed, and devalued merely because of their biological status."

We have to start with nonjudgmental curiosity and attention. "In my office in private practice and on college campuses, I've seen a sort of reverse 'anatomy is destiny' where men feel judged, blamed and devalued merely because of their biological status," says Michael Alcee, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Tarrytown, N.Y. "Worse yet, they feel unwelcome to talk about these issues because of their historic privilege in society. Some of them have even sheepishly said to me, 'Are we really allowed to talk about our own challenges? Shouldn't we be focusing on those who have really been marginalized?'"

And those feelings of shame and stigma can be deeply isolating — and dangerous. Jennifer Fink observes that often, "Boys feel alienated in a lot of spaces. Boys feel accused before they've done anything. They feel like they don't really have safe places to talk about what they're feeling, what they're seeing, what they need. In the internet connected age, when it's very easy to go on your phone, in privacy, it becomes very easy to go down that rabbit hole."

Fink says that we can remedy some of this through an intersection of culture, parenting and educating that listens to our boys.

"We have to let them know, through both our actions and our words, that we're interested in what you think," she says. "We need to give them room to talk through some of what they're experiencing, and what they're seeing, so that they can make sense of it. If we just shut down conversations, essentially, we're sending them to the dark corners of the internet."

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We also need to encourage them emotionally. "Boys are socialized, in school if not also in the home, to disconnect from their ability to be connected with themselves or others," says Dr. Daniel Boscaljon, director of research and co-founder of the Institute for Trauma Informed Relationships. "This often results in a form of emotional illiteracy that recognizes only one emotion — anger. Our civic and religious institutions spread false information about what it means to be a man, and each generation of boys has grown up with fewer examples of men who embody a character forged through becoming responsible for their own emotional regulation."

But, Boscaljon says, there's an alternative. "Positive masculinity is achieved with a sense of gentleness and grace. There’s a sense of invitation, rather than imposition. These are social skills that accomplish a robust sense of interdependence and connection, skills that acknowledge that we are all in it together and that nobody can succeed unless everyone does."

He adds, "The best way to encourage a better, healthier masculinity is through education. The more institutions invest in demonstrating the advantages of a balanced and wise masculinity, the more culture will be able to begin to change."

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Andres Portela, board chair of Boys to Men Tucson, concurs. "It is imperative for society to champion healthy masculinity," he says, noting that his organization "takes a proactive approach, focusing on the specific needs of masculine-identified youth in Pima County, collaborating with local experts in domestic violence, job placement and second chance programming." He says, "Our collective responsibility lies in creating environments where men and masculine individuals feel safe discussing their emotions, embracing aspects perceived as feminine and actively disrupting toxic patterns. Honestly, that’s how we support it."

And Claire Law, a teacher,  relational psychotherapist and  senior contributor at Holly Dog Blog offers a similar — and similarly hopeful — perspective as an educator. "Some approaches I've found promising through my research and counseling work include promoting positive role models who integrate traditionally masculine and feminine qualities, such as courage, strength and vulnerability. Mentorship programs pairing boys with male mentors can provide guidance." And, she adds, "Reframing help-seeking as a sign of character, not weakness, is important." 

"There has to be a space between a man ruling with an iron fist and having all of his agency stripped from him."

It's not just young boys who need help and encouragement. "While much of the discourse on toxic masculinity is timely and needed, it can be weaponized in unhealthy ways to silence men's opinions and viewpoints," notes Ashera DeRosa, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Buffalo. "I see some emotionally healthy men who are nervous to take leadership within their families for fear of being toxically masculine. There has to be a space between a man ruling with an iron fist and having all of his agency stripped from him."

DeRosa observes, "While within leftist circles, there is an understanding that we cannot talk about groups as a monolith, men are frequently not offered this same grace. Interpersonally, approaching people with genuine curiosity and compassion helps create far more safety than a quick clapback."

Masculinity isn't going to detox itself. It takes thoughtful work, work that is as integral to dismantling the patriarchy as anything else we've got going on. We can get there. "Finally, boys' and mens' issues are a topic of national discussion, and some action is happening," notes Jennifer Fink, "like, the recent founding of the American Institute for Boys & Men. In Washington state, a bipartisan group of lawmakers (of diverse genders and races) is close to establishing a Commission on Boys & Men, to complement the state's Women's Commission."

And though it sounds simple, Fink reminds us, "I really think that we need to look at boys as human first, as humans who deserve care, and nurturing and protection. And because we've all been socialized in this environment, that takes some deliberate action." 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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