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  • PJ Henry, Ph.D.,

What Exactly Is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity may hinge on devaluing femininity.

What Exactly Is Toxic Masculinity?

  • There have been many attempts to define or describe toxic masculinity.

  • Many of these attempts are too complicated or insufficient.

  • One condition common to all definitions of toxic masculinity is the devaluing of femininity.

The concept of toxic masculinity has received considerable attention in the past few years following the #Me-Too movement and various exposés of bro cultures, notably in the tech industry. But what exactly is toxic masculinity? The concept seems challenging to define, but much like the Supreme Court definition of hard-core pornography, you probably know it when you see it. There are many attempts at definitions, but they are typically overcomplicated or fall short of grasping the essence of toxic masculinity.

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When identifying the existence of a concept such as toxic masculinity, there are both necessary and sufficient conditions for its occurrence. A necessary condition, such as the expression of masculinity, must be present in all instances of toxic masculinity. However, masculinity is not sufficient by itself to be considered toxic. Masculinity can be positive when it is expressed by either men or women in the form of strength, ambition, courage, leadership, and self-reliance. There needs to be something more to the mix to make it toxic.

A sufficient condition of toxic masculinity, such as hazing or sexual harassment, is enough to classify masculinity as toxic. However, these conditions are not necessary. A culture can have toxic masculinity without hazing or sexual harassment, such as a workplace that expects you to put your job above everything else in your life. It still leaves open the question of what puts the toxic in toxic masculinity.

Others have offered more complicated definitions that really just enumerate its symptoms. For example, social scientists have characterized toxic masculinity cultures in the workplace – which they call “masculinity contest cultures” – as having four qualities. Employees are expected to (1) show no weakness or vulnerability, (2) display strength and stamina, (3) prioritize work over personal interests and family obligations, and (4) accept a “dog eat dog” competitive environment of winners and losers. Another article in the New York Times identifies toxic masculinity through “suppressing emotions or masking distress,” “maintaining an appearance of hardness,” and “violence as an indicator of power.”

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These descriptions are helpful, but the definition of toxic masculinity can be much simpler. My definition identifies a necessary and sufficient condition for a culture of toxic masculinity, and that is simply any context that devalues the positive aspects of femininity. Toxic masculinity and bro cultures exist where people – mostly men, but not exclusively so – dismiss or punish feminine qualities of care, warmth, empathy, diplomacy, sensitivity, mutual respect, etc. I challenge anyone to find a culture of toxic masculinity that embraces these feminine characteristics. Further, I challenge anyone to find a group of men or women who reject positive aspects of femininity who would not also be considered toxic by most.

Nailing down a clear and simple definition of toxic masculinity is important for making sure we’re all talking about the same thing when addressing the problem, but it also helps identify ways to address toxic masculinity where it occurs. For example, interventions can include injecting reminders of the importance of care, inclusion, and empathy. A workplace can still be competitive and avoid toxicity by cultivating more feminine qualities such as a sense of teamwork and the promotion of mental health.

The great challenge then will be encouraging men who are sources of toxic masculinity to embrace those positive aspects of femininity described above. It’s resistance to this femininity, and not masculinity by itself, that should be the focus of concern in changing cultures of toxic masculinity.

PJ Henry, Ph.D., - Website -


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