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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

The Psychological Treatment of Men and the Toxic Masculinity Movement

Updated: Aug 3, 2023


The Psychological Treatment of Men and the Toxic Masculinity Movement

This article was originally co-authored by Adam O'Neill and Logan MacLean and published in PSPA News (Summer 2019).


Gillette sparked controversy in January of [2019] with their new ad campaign, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”. In it, the video attempts to address the concept of “toxic masculinity” by showing aggressive behavior, bullying, and objectification of women. At the time of this writing, the video has over 1.4 million dislikes, just under double the number of likes. Clearly, the video was not received in the way Gillette had hoped. But why? Are the people who disliked the video proponents of the disrespectful treatment of women and violence? This can’t possibly be true. Did this video generate such negative responses because Gillette suggests that there is an ominous cross-cultural problem facing men? Recent statistics would suggest the company is on to something.


According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics men are more likely to abuse alcohol, more likely to smoke and have a higher overall mortality when compared to women. In terms of health risk behaviors, teenage boys are more likely to be in physical altercations and carry weapons. From a mental health perspective, men are more likely to die from drug overdoses, be involved in mass shootings, and almost four times more likely to complete suicide. Something is clearly wrong.


Given this data, a possible, and logical, conclusion for pushback against the commercial is not disagreement over the perceived consequences of men’s destructive behaviors but rather over the diagnosis, the underlying pathology, that generates the destructive behavior. The American Psychological Association released a document titled “APA Guidelines for Practice with Men and Boys” in August of last year which outlines in detail elements of toxic masculinity. The word is used colloquially, but whether it is an accurate diagnosis of what is happening has not been investigated. In fact, defining masculinity has become a contentious issue in itself. These authors wish to propose a definition that highlights the strengths of masculinity without negating the possibility for a variety of iterations which present in a complex society of human beings. “Masculinity” is not simply male or masculine traits - his physicality or personality - but rather the deeply rooted “spirit” within a man that drives him to live - his “ethos”. The ethos of a good man is his “masculinity” and his “masculinity” is determined by his ability to “provide”, to “protect”, and to possess “purposeful drive”. To elaborate further, this type of man provides for those who rely on him, actively seeks to protect those around him, and lives a purposefully driven life that naturally inspires those who encounter him. True “masculinity” must demonstrate, to a significant extent, all three of these attributes. Like spokes of a wheel each supports the other. If a man provides at the cost of another’s wellbeing, what good is his provision? If one protects but does not provide, what he protects will suffer. If one has purpose without respect for those around him, how quickly will his actions violate his ability to protect or provide?


If this is an acceptable definition, men who demonstrate abusive behavior are not demonstrating toxic masculinity but rather fail to demonstrate any sort of actual masculinity. Furthermore, to label such abusive behavior as toxic masculinity makes as little sense as calling stupidity “toxic wisdom”, illness “toxic health”, or immorality “toxic virtue”. Masculinity is not the problem— it may be the solution. The toxic masculinity movement is rooted in telling men what not to do and gives no direction on what men should do. We should not be surprised that many adolescent men are searching for direction and purpose in a culture which tells them “don’t do that” more than it teaches them what is right and good for them to do. Masculinity, as defined in this article, not only condemns the mistreatment of women and children (and other men), discourages violence, and denies men a “free pass” to objectify women but more importantly gives direction and provides inspiration and purpose that strikes at the heart of the problems we see in men. Masculinity, when embraced, empowers the individual to better himself, not with a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, but with a systematic and fundamental changing of the individual’s perceived value and purpose for himself.


The question becomes how does the healthcare provider or counselor, in practice, address the concerns of men who have these attitudes and behaviors which have been improperly defined as “toxic masculinity”? The principles outlined above must be cultivated and we propose three concrete steps which are in line with the core values of Physician Assistants and focus on giving men a greater sense of identity and purpose. First, find responsibility especially as it relates to supporting the family or community. Within the context of family or close community, a man finds the opportunity to exercise each of the core principles of masculinity. Second, encourage emotional intelligence and free expression. This creates a space for innovation and self betterment. Until men feel comfortable expressing their emotions in rational and logical ways, we will continue to observe maladaptive coping mechanisms. Third, encourage a healthy male community. Creating a “band of brothers” allows for both mental and emotional sparring that allows men to wrestle through thoughts and ideas with other men who they can trust without the fear of judgement. Cultivating these relationships is important for mutual accountability as one encourages another in the pursuit of what is right.


The concept of “Toxic Masculinity” misses the mark in both principle and practice, and labeling men as such is a detriment to their psychological healing. It incorrectly defines masculinity by the simple physical and personality traits generally associated with, but not exclusive to men, rather than the underlying will and ethos that possesses a man. These authors wish to humbly submit our recommendations for the future of both the medical and psychological treatment of men. The protection of our society, the safety of women and children, and the celebration of what makes us truly human is at stake.


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