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Children and Families Forum: Tackling Toxic Masculinity — Relationships Matter
By Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 2 P. 28

How does a boy learn to be a man? They watch other gender-conforming men; they are exposed to a plethora of stereotypical cultural messages from family, peers, and the media. Then they experiment.

The challenge of forging an ideal masculine identity is a rite of passage for every adolescent male. However, the traditional American blueprint of masculinity reads as follows: a winning heterosexual risk taker who is emotionally restrained or stoic but domineering, especially with women. When masculinity is attached to these characteristics of toughness, individualism, and emotional insensitivity there are bound to be personal and social problems.

The image has become so attractive to boys and so ingrained in the culture, that adolescent males have been blindly adopting it as the way to gain status in the process. However, research over the past 30 years is showing that rigid and uncritical adherence to this constrained view of masculinity is extracting a psychological toll on boys’ mental health, resulting in depression, anxiety, and distress.

This is the negative impact of the idealized masculine stereotypes or toxic masculinity. Terry A. Kupers, in a 2005 article from the Journal of Clinical Psychology, defined toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.”

Psychologist Christopher Blazina, author of The Cultural Myth of Masculinity, wrote that men primarily teach and enforce the tenets of masculinity, which he deems the 10 commandments of growing up male. These include rules such as the following: there is only one way to be a man, fear the feminine, men must funnel all their feelings into sex or aggression, affection is always associated with sex, and boy society is based on power, strength, and paranoia. Boys begin to feel more manly as they tick off the boxes on this masculinity checklist, but it is an emotionally damaging process that disconnects them from others and their own an inner life.

It is this very toxic masculinity that has been implicated in our country’s violence problem. Violence by every measure is a young male–driven phenomenon. About nine out of 10 murders are committed by men and almost eight out of every 10 murder victims are men. Additionally, three out of four aggravated assaults (and almost every sexual assault) is committed by young men. According to the FBI, this type of violent criminal activity is committed predominantly by men younger than 25.

The problem of violent young men most often captures the public’s attention when there is a mass shooting, especially a mass school shooting. It’s been 20 years since Columbine entered the lexicon. About every two weeks there is a mass killing and about monthly there is a school shooting. According to the 2014 FBI report on active shooter incidents, the number of mass shootings increased between 2000 and 2013.

According to The Guardian, 2019 had the dubious honor of having the highest number of mass killings, defined as four or more people killed by the same person, even as the overall nation’s homicide rate has declined. There were 41 incidents, 33 of which involved firearms, that claimed 211 lives.

First Step
Resorting to violence is most often a sign of two psychological issues—low resiliency and a lack of coping skills in the face of life stressors. “For these individuals, when bad things happen, whether real or perceived, they internalize them, stew over them, and can’t let it go,” says John Wyman of the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit, who added that violence becomes the method of righting wrongs, correcting perceived injustices, and exerting dominance over the offending party.

With each school shooting, there’s an outpouring of outrage and the divisive debate regarding gun control begins anew. All of us are tired of being upset at all the violence perpetrated by young men and action is long overdue. Although I am not opposed to gun law reform, I think it is an inadequate solution at best. Just like anything else that is illegal, people will find a way to create and access a market for banned guns and accessories. Instead of merely looking at gun control, I’d like to renew the debate to refocus our attention on toxic masculinity. I, too, want to advocate for our right as social workers to bear arms against this scourge. The arms to which we need ready access are mental health resources, because violence isn’t inevitable.

What to Do
Mass shootings are a part of a much broader problem: our failure to guide and support young men. The type of reform that I am talking about involves reforming how we think about and support mental health. Given all of the research on the emotional fragility of boys and the hypermasculine culture in which boys must develop, it should come as no surprise that most perpetrators can be described with the following profile: emotionally disturbed, socially awkward, relationally isolated, and teased or bullied.

This means that teachers, parents, social workers, administrators, and peers must be armed with the desire and skill to be meaningfully involved in the lives of youth. Arm our young men (and women) with an abundant amount of resources to cope with whatever life brings. They must be armed with proper coping skills. Schools and communities must be armed with qualified mental health professionals. Parents must be armed with people and places to go to for help.

The following are additional steps can we take to begin to change a toxic culture into a healthy environment for our young men to mature into adulthood:

• Learn to read the signs. We have to become better at paying attention because violence, especially in the case of mass shootings, is rarely sudden. “Almost all shooters turn to prior attacks for guidance and inspiration,” Wyman says. “They might read books, watch videos, or seek out manifestos left by prior shooters. Other signs include increasing depression, or hopelessness in resolving personal problems, or even talk of suicide. Wyman adds that impulsiveness, aggression, recklessness, and a sudden interest in guns and firearms could all be a clue. In addition, he added that teachers may read of the fantasy of violence or to exact revenge in a boy’s journal.

• Mentor boys. Parents, businesses, community organizations, religious organizations, and institutions of higher education must become more involved in the lives of youth, in particular boys. Study after study demonstrates that relationships matter. Additionally, violence perpetrated by males is often a form of overcompensating for vulnerability. Relationships not only buffer stress, but they also serve as a means of connection to resources. I speak from experience. As an adolescent growing up in North Philadelphia, drug dealing and gun violence had its appeal. However, because of meaningful relationships and exposure to alternatives, I wanted more. Because of meaningful relationships, I was exposed to more, challenged to be more, and supported to meet the challenge. If you want to see the outcomes for boys (and men) change in society, there is a way—expose, challenge, and support.

• Redefine masculinity. Expose boys to healthy representations of masculinity. We must help young men rewrite their masculinity script into something much healthier. The current standards of manliness lead to mental health issues and prevent boys from maximizing their potential. It isn’t always about violence to others; sometimes is about lowered self-esteem. For example, a study published in Psychology of Men & Masculinity found that men who viewed images of other physically fit men tended to perceive themselves as less attractive, in worse shape, and weaker than the men who viewed neutral images of men.

• Teach boys to cope. When responsible adults are in caring relationships with boys, those boys are better able to deal with stress and cope in more acceptable and productive ways. Challenge boys to cope and respond to stress adaptively. Provide the emotional support that they all need to be better. And if need be, connect youth with professional help. Mastering flexible coping skills will increase a boy’s quality of life.

• Turn your anger into activism. The truth is, there is no safe place because no community is immune from the violence of vulnerable young men. This is not a black, Latino, white, Asian, or poor people’s problem. Mental health maintenance is an American (and global) responsibility. Until we move beyond outrage and sorrow into meaningful relationships and supports, boys (and men) will continue to cry out for attention in the most disastrous of ways.

In this instant age of tweets and Facebook friends, call for old-school engagement. Become involved in ways that make sense for you. You have options and control. Many programs provide training and many opportunities require little to no training. It will not solve all of our problems, but it will undoubtedly make a difference in the lives of many—just as it did for me and countless others.

Based on four decades of research, The APA’s 2018 Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men has developed plans to help circumvent the harm of traditional masculinity. It’s the start of a new and improved blueprint for helping boys become men. The United States of America must bear these arms so that we can stop our boys from becoming collateral damage.

— Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, is the executive director Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.


American Psychological Association. (2018). APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf.

Blair, J. P., & Schweit, K. W. (2014). A study of active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Washington, DC: Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/office-of-partner-engagement/active-shooter-incidents/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-2000-2013.

Blazina, C. (2003). The cultural myth of masculinity. New York: Praeger.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2015). Uniform crime reports: Expanded homicide data. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded/expandhomicidemain.

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