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Healthy Masculinity and Toxic Feminism

Rescuing positive manhood from feminist criticism

Three muscular gay men in leather jackets
Add for the film “Daddy and the Muscle Academy” (cropped). Drawing by Tom of Finland. Photo taken by the author at the Kink Out exposition in Los Angeles, CA.

What is toxic masculinity?

It is thought that toxic masculinity originates in traditional gender roles that suppress women and make men dominant over them. This is right. However, the role of religion in creating these traditional gender roles it is usually ignored. Instead, men are blamed, insinuating that they gained a lot of privileges from this situation.

Wikipedia says this about the definition of toxic masculinity:

“Popular and media discussions in the 2010s have used the term to refer to traditional and stereotypical norms of masculinity and manhood. According to the sociologist Michael Flood, these include ‘expectations that boys and men must be active, aggressive, tough, daring, and dominant’.” Toxic masculinity, Wikipedia.

A paper in the journal Men and Masculinities (Harrington, 2020) criticizes the idea of toxic masculinity. Quoting from its abstract:

“Since 2013, feminists began attributing misogyny, homophobia, and men's violence to toxic masculinity. […] While some feminist scholars use the concept, it is often left under-defined. I argue that talk of toxic masculinity provides an intriguing window into gender politics in any given context. However, feminists should not adopt toxic masculinity as an analytical concept. I consider the term's origins, history, and usage, arguing that it appears in individualizing discourses that have historically targeted marginalized men.”

The men’s mythopoetic movement

The idea of toxic masculinity originated in the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, in particular in the writings of Shepherd Bliss.

I fell in love with the mythopoetic movement in the 90s, when I read Iron John, by Robert Bly, one of its founders. That book made me realize for the first time that masculinity was something to be cherished, explored and cultivated. I was intrigued by ideas like the wound from the father and the archetypical struggle between men and women. However, I explored these ideas individually, never assisting to any of the retreats of the movement.

I continue this trend today by practicing the Way of the Warrior, which is not gender specific but endorses many of the positive aspects of masculinity.

Too bad feminism criticized the mythopoetic men’s movement as sexist. Even as women came up with their own version of the mythopoetic movement with books like Women Who Run With the Wolves.

Does masculinity exist?

In biology, sexual dimorphism refers to differences in body shape and behavior between males and females. In some animals, like peacocks and Siamese fighter fish (Betta Splendens), the sexual dimorphism is so strong that males and females look like they belong to different species. In other animals, like the Rasbora Espai fish in my aquarium, it is impossible to tell males from females until they lay eggs. Yet other animals are hermaphrodites or change sex during their lifetimes.

Our closest relatives, the great apes, are highly sexually dimorphic. Males gorillas are much larger than the females and have crests on their heads. Something similar happens to orangutans: male are larger, solitary and have face plates. In chimps, males are larger and more aggressive. Even the bonobos, despite their reputation for being peaceful and matriarchal, have larger males and different behavior between the sexes.

I have to remark this because today it is fashionable to deny that there are differences between men and women. On average, men have larger bodies and larger brains than women. Although there are no differences in intelligence between men and women, there are subtle psychological and cognitive differences, which I explored in this article.

To summarize them (Archer, 2019):

  • Women are better at language, including reading and writing.

  • Women are better at emotional intelligence and face recognition.

  • Men have better spatial abilities, particularly in mental rotations.

  • Men have a better understanding of mechanics and how machines work.

  • Men are slightly better at understanding science.

  • Women are more prone to anxiety, sadness and depression.

  • Women have better emotional memories (Canli et al., 2002).

  • Men are less fearful and more risk-prone.

  • Men have higher pain thresholds and pain tolerance.

  • Men are more prone to physical aggression, especially using weapons.

  • Men are worse at self-control.

  • Men are more prone to revenge, while women are better at forgiveness (Zak et al., 2009; Zheng et al., 2017).

In general, men are more interested in things and women are more interested in people and social activities. These differences show at an early age, for example, in toy preferences (Lauer et al., 2015). The default sex is female and maleness is driven by testosterone, especially before birth (Hines, 2006). Sex is set epigenetically in each cell of the body (McCarthy et al., 2009). However, hormone therapy during adulthood can largely reverse sex differences, making possible sex change in trans people.

This, and more evidence too large to include here, shows that masculinity exists and has a biological basis. It has good aspects, bad aspects and neutral ones.

The importance of a culture of masculinity

Importantly, the tendency of men to be more aggressive, more risk-prone and less social requires that young men are taught how to deal with these things so that they are not a danger to themselves and others.

In most cultures, this takes the form of special social norms for men. This creates a cultural masculinity that is essential for the mental health of men.

Therefore, cultural differences in gender are linked to biological sex differences and cannot be carelessly eliminated without dire consequences.

I think that many of the problems of men in modern society arise from the absence of this culture of masculinity.

If this is true, toxic masculinity should be blamed not only of traditional masculinity, but on the denial of the fact that men need to learn how to deal with their especial way of being.

Is there a healthy masculinity?

Instead of viewing masculinity in the negative, as toxic, it’s be better to focus on how to take advantage of its positive qualities.

When men cultivate healthy masculinity, this helps both men and women, because it makes men less aggressive and more cooperative.

Healthy masculinity should be a way of living that takes advantage of the positive qualities of biological maleness while avoiding the problems of its negative qualities, like excessive aggression, risk-taking and social isolation.

It is not so much that certain virtues are unique to men, but that men need to cultivate these virtues to avoid becoming abusive assholes or whimpering wrecks.

I listed the virtues that characterize healthy masculinity is a previous article:

Here are some:

  1. Integrity: being honest and abiding by an ethical code.

  2. Courage: acting according to our moral code in the face of danger and fear.

  3. Stoicism: the ability to withstand emotional and physical pain.

  4. Resilience: the ability to recover quickly from setbacks and trauma.

  5. Self-sacrifice: being able to set aside our interest and well-being for the benefit of others.

  6. Generosity: sharing resources with others, including emotional, educational and financial assets.

  7. Self-reliance: being able to solve problems without help; not being dependent on others.

  8. Confidence: cultivating inner strength; having clear goals.

  9. Purpose: having goals to improve the world; to be on a mission.

  10. Responsibility: accepting the consequences of our actions without blaming the circumstances or other people.

  11. Self-restraint: being able to control aggression, anger and other negative emotions.

  12. Playfulness: actively engaging with the world with energy, joy, curiosity, humor and self-abandon.

Of course, women have these qualities, too, but they are central to men’s identity. Without them, men lose of control of the dark impulses of maleness. Hence, they need to be consciously cultivated.

Men feel a strong attraction for these ideals whenever they hear about them. This explains the popularity of personalities like Jordan Peterson, who extol the positive qualities of masculinity. Unfortunately, he does so in the frame of traditional gender roles, with their load of sexual repression, homophobia and misogyny.

Progressives need to create a new ideal of healthy masculinity without these burdens. In fact, gay culture has become a reservoir of positive masculine outlooks. Hence the Tom of Finland drawing at the head of this article.

Why the feminist conception of healthy masculinity is wrong

You may have noticed that several of the virtues I list above are considered aspect of toxic masculinity. For example, stoicism, resilience, self-reliance and self-restraint.

This is one of the main problems with the idea of toxic masculinity: it includes things that are intuitively valuable to most men. When we men hear that it is wrong to be brave, or stoic, or self-reliant, something inside us rises in rebellion.

Feminists respond by saying that we have been indoctrinated by the patriarchy, and that we would be much happier if we abandoned these qualities.

For feminism, the definition of healthy masculinity is for men to become more like women: vulnerable, accepting of help, sensitive to pain, uninhibited and nurturing.

Modern feminism promotes the idea that men are victims of the patriarchy. While it is true that some of the ideas of traditional masculinity are wrong, seeing yourself as a victim is not emotionally healthy. And, least of all, for men.

Feminists invoke the image of men that have been hurt by forcing them to fit into a masculine stereotype that does not suit them. They don’t realize that they are hurting many more men by forcing them to adjust to a model of feminized men that clashes against their innermost feelings.

What is worse is that when you don’t teach men how to deal with rage, lust, aggression, risk-taking and imperviousness to punishment, you create a generation of dangerous men. Precisely the men that are more likely to hurt women. Hence, these feminists are working against the goals of feminism.

Only good men can teach other men to be good men because only men know the dark impulses we have to deal with. Conversely, good men can make them discover the beauty and awesomeness of masculinity.

How feminism became toxic for men

Feminism became toxic for men when it wanted to control men by turning them into something that they are not.

This ideological feminism dovetails with the Identity Politics ideology that sees men as oppressors and women as victims. It also sees masculinity and femininity as social constructs that need to be destroyed to create a more equitable society. Therefore, any effort by men to live according to a healthy masculinity should be fought as another trick of the patriarchy.

Feminism has always carried a certain amount of hostility against men. Thus, the anti-porn feminists of the 70s and 80s tried to use sex as a weapon to control men, by limiting their access to sex by outlawing pornography and prostitution. The War on Sex that ensued was won by sex-positive feminism, creating third wave feminism.

However, the #MeToo movement started fourth wave feminism by exposing how powerful men have been sexually abusing and raping women. That was wonderful. However, the previously defeated anti-porn/radical feminists took advantage of that to bring back to life their crusade against men and sex. In their twisted logic, they stated that #YesAllWomen have been sexually abused, and therefore #AllMen are rapists.

The contempt for men that had been lingering in feminism came to the surface in celebrated books like Moi les hommes, je les deteste, Men Explain Things to Me and The Right to Sex.

Today, it has become perfectly okay for feminists to say that they hate men.

One of the favorite misandrist tricks of fourth wave feminists is to tarnish men who dare push back against them by accusing them of male fragility or insecurity. These words are offensive to men because we highly value courage, stoicism and self-reliance, three of the masculine virtues I list above. Being fragile and insecure is their exact opposite.

Besides, dangerous men are not fragile and insecure, but overly tough and self-confident. Believe me, you don’t want to push men to become too much like that.

Internalized misandry

Recently, I became aware of my own internalized misandry.

In a reversal of the feminist stereotype of men disliking the company of women, most of my friends are women, most of the postdocs working in my lab have been women, and most of my scientific collaborators have been women. This has nothing to do with sexual attraction. It’s just that, somehow, I find it easier to communicate with women.

I am not alone in that. It seems that men dislike other men and don’t have many male friends.

The reasons for this are not clear to me. It could be that men see other men primarily as competitors for women and professional success. Excessive competitiveness is one of the characteristics of toxic masculinity and has been exacerbated by our capitalistic culture.

But I suspect that men have internalized the negative stereotypes of feminism, making us suspicious of other men.

This is not normal. Men are naturally cooperative and form strong male friendships.

The presence of internalized misandry should alert us that the contempt of men in toxic feminism can have dire consequences. Perhaps the most important health problem of men today is social isolation and loneliness. This is what drives a lot of men to suicide,

An uneasy future for men and feminism

If modern feminism has become toxic for men, it would be better for us to stay away from it.

Don’t go to feminist demonstrations. Don’t read their books and articles. Don’t listen to their advice.

Most of us love women, embrace equality and want to help. However, contact with feminism is sapping our self-esteem and feeding our internalized misandry. Even worse: experiencing the constant anger of feminists is turning some men into misogynists.

Let’s hope that, eventually, feminism will get rid of the misandry in its ranks. But, looking at the dangerous rise of the extreme Right, we cannot wait. We urgently need a new progressive Men’s Movement to counter the migration of men towards the ideas of traditional masculinity of the Right. Then we will be able to support the worthy goals of feminism.


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