Towards a harmless masculinity

“Toxic masculinity” refers to harmful forms of masculine expression, such as violence, aggression, aloofness, and the policing of other men’s masculinity.

Here, “toxic” is a restrictive adjective, which is to say that “toxic masculinity” refers to the subset of masculinity that is toxic; it does not mean that all masculinity is toxic.  Nonetheless, this is a common point of confusion, perhaps because there’s little visible discussion of what might constitute non-toxic masculinity.

So I’d like to explain my ideas about what non-toxic masculinity should look like, on an abstract level.  An outline:

  1. Toxic masculinity should be contrasted with “harmless masculinity”, not “virtuous masculinity”.
  2. Harmless masculinity is mostly a matter of aesthetics.
  3. Masculine aesthetics can also be toxic, but I argue that they are not necessarily so.

Virtuous masculinity

If we’re searching for masculinity that isn’t toxic, the first thing we might look for, is masculinity that is the opposite of toxic.  That is to say, we want a virtuous masculinity.  I will explain how we can locate a virtuous masculinity, and then I’ll explain why we don’t want one.

One idea in virtue ethics, dating back to Aristotle, is that each virtue is a golden mean between two extremes.  For example, there is a spectrum from “passive” to “assertive” to “aggressive”.  Aggressiveness is one extreme, and a form of toxic masculinity.  But individual men get taught varying degrees of aggressiveness, and some men might be taught assertiveness, rather than aggressiveness.

I bring up this example, because I was explicitly taught to be assertive.  When I was in elementary school, I was very shy, and periodically visited the school counselor, and she made a huge point about assertive, as opposed to passive or aggressive.  Looking back, perhaps part of the reason I was visiting the counselor in the first place was because I wasn’t conforming to masculinity (I cried too much).  And perhaps the particular degree of assertiveness taught to me was informed by my gender.  Still, I think assertiveness is a virtue and it’s hard to complain about having been taught it.

Other masculine virtues can be constructed by a similar procedure.  We start with an element of toxic masculinity like “violence”, then we construct a spectrum from “pacifism” to “violence”, and note that the golden mean is somewhere between those two extremes.  We might disagree on where exactly the golden mean is (it wasn’t so long ago everyone was arguing over whether it was correct to punch Nazis), but you probably believe at least some men who were taught to follow whatever you think is the golden mean.  And so you would say that those men were taught a form of virtuous masculinity.

Repeat for the other elements of toxic masculinity, and it doesn’t always work, but you can come up with at least a few other masculine virtues.

So I think “virtuous masculinity” definitely exists.  But it should not exist.

I think assertiveness is a virtue, and I’m glad I was taught it.  But girls should be taught assertiveness too, to the same degree.  It shouldn’t be a gender thing.  We don’t need girls to be slightly to one side of the golden mean while boys are slightly to the other side.  We might all have different ideas of where exactly the golden mean is, but can we at least agree that the location of the golden mean doesn’t depend on gender?

In the context of finding positive male role models, yes we want the role models to be virtuous.  But that’s just because role models should be virtuous in general.  Female and feminine role models should virtuous in the same ways.  Virtue shouldn’t be gendered.  Masculine people who are virtuous: good.  Virtuous masculinity: bad.

Harmless masculinity

So we went looking for a masculinity that is the opposite of toxic masculinity, but what we discovered–virtuous masculinity–was just bad in a different way.  I propose that should instead be looking for a harmless masculinity.  This harmless masculinity would have neither a positive nor negative moral value.  Instead, it is merely a matter of personal preference, and an avenue for expression.  Harmless masculinity is, essentially, aesthetics.

There are plenty of low-hanging examples that I could describe.  Clothing.  Voice.  Hair styles.  Facial hair styles.  Cosmetics and jewelry (or lack thereof).  Accessories.  Body language.

More controversially, I might add genre preferences in fiction.  Genre is morally neutral after all, so it would at first appear that genre preference is an option for harmless gender expression.  Let me return to this point.

In an article about toxic masculinity that I wrote several years ago, I said that there are two ways that toxic masculinity can cause harm:

First, men are pressured to conform to male gender roles.

Second, some of those male gender roles are in themselves bad.

When we talk about masculine aesthetics, we’re talking about gender roles that are, in themselves, neither good nor bad.  However, it is still possible for masculine aesthetics to be toxic, if men are pressured to conform to these aesthetics.  In order to construct a truly harmless masculinity, we must be mindful of how men might be pressured to conform to masculine gender roles–or how women might be pushed away.

So when I suggested that genre preferences might be harmlessly gendered, there’s an objection you could raise.  Plenty of people have genre preferences that aren’t determined by their gender!  And we could just say that in an ideal world, men would be permitted to like feminine things, and women would be permitted to like masculine things, but that’s not sufficient.  Maybe some people like sci-fi, and they don’t want it to be an expression of masculinity, they just really like spaceships, you know?  So even though it might initially seem harmless to gender genre, perhaps it’s not so harmless after all.

Can harmless masculinity even exist?

Following my argument that it’s harmful to gender genre, it seems we have a new problem.  Couldn’t we apply the same argument to pretty much anything?  How could I say that it’s harmful to gender genre, while maintaining that it’s harmless to gender clothing or hair styles?

Consider “body language”.  I cross my legs in a position that is commonly considered feminine.  Now, I’m gay and have long stopped worrying about whether my mannerisms are too feminine.  But to be honest, I don’t really consider it to be particularly feminine?  It’s just a comfortable position, maybe because my legs are really long or because I have low blood pressure.  When I was younger, some kids would make fun of it.  Perhaps the gendering of body language isn’t so harmless.

And what if a guy wants to put on nail polish without it being a feminine thing?  Or wear a dress?  Or use a purse?  Or… or…  We could keep going, eliminating every single item from our list of “harmless masculinity”, arguing ourselves into what is basically gender abolitionism.  Maybe there is no harmless masculinity, nor harmless femininity.  And why did we want such a thing in the first place?

As a counterpoint, I observe that the same problem theoretically exists for any aesthetic, and yet we seem to find it acceptable.  For instance, “gothic” is an aesthetic.  What if someone wants to adopt certain elements of gothic fashion, but doesn’t want to be associated with gothic fashion?  This is not a problem we worry about, perhaps because it’s not a common preference, perhaps because it’s just kind of a non-issue.  So at least theoretically, it could be a non-issue for gendered aesthetics.

Regardless of what is theoretically possible, at present there is a strong pressure for men to conform to masculine gender expression, and thus there is no harmless masculinity right now.  And it’s up to us to navigate this in a way that reduces harm.


  1. says

    Maybe there is no harmless masculinity, nor harmless femininity. And why did we want such a thing in the first place?

    Whenever I try to think of some example of harmless masculinity/feminity, I always ended up with examples where it stops being harmless.

    Let’s consider make-up (for women) or lack thereof (for men). Having to always wear make-up can be a burden. Even a woman who, in general, enjoys wearing make-up is likely to experience a situation where she is in a hurry and just wants to quickly run some errand without having to spend 10 minutes in front of a mirror before leaving her home. On the other hand, a man with acne or other skin problems might want to use make-up to hide his skin defects without getting accused of being feminine. For every “men do this while women do that” scenario I can always imagine examples where one or the other alternative might be ill suited for some person for some practical reason. Or consider purses versus pockets. A man might want to carry a purse to store more stuff while a women might want to walk around empty-handed and stuff only a small amount of essentials in roomy pockets.

    What about cases where both men and women do the same thing, but male and female alternatives are only visually different? For example, both men and women can choose to wear rings on their fingers. The only difference is in aesthetics—men’s rings are bulkier while women’s rings are thinner. But what if some guy simply prefers the visual aesthetic of “feminine” rings? And what if some woman likes wider men’s rings? The very fact that men and women are pressured to conform to gender roles can be harmful in itself.

    So yeah, I still haven’t figured out how to reconcile some people’s desire for some masculinity versus femininity to exist in the society and my own desire to reduce harm to all the people whose preferences don’t align with whatever gender they got assigned at birth. By the way, people enforcing femininity upon me harmed me immensely. It took me years until I amassed the courage to crawl out of my closet and decide to openly live as a man.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Among my daughter’s high-school friends, I see more and more breaking down of traditional gender roles. I see guys who wear sparkly makeup, yet still wish to be thought of as cis and het; I see girls greatly into violent video games and horror flicks; I see dressing in all sorts of combinations. I see this as a good thing.

    I doubt that gender markers and expectations do us much good anymore, if they ever did. I look forward to seeing the young folks blow them up, and finding out what replaces them.

  3. Allison says

    This discussion brings to mind Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw, where she compares/contrasts “gender” with BDSM. She points out that in the BDSM community (well, the BDSM people who don’t want to be abusers), the watchword is “safe, sane, consensual,” whereas “gender,” as our society does it, is none of these.

    But, she goes on to say, why can’t we keep “gender” around as something to play with: to do or not do, as the mood strikes us, and in whatever way we feel like?

    We in the transgender population (I’m not sure it’s exactly a “community”) have to deal with the issues surrounding “gender” all the time, because the things we want are often things that society forbids us from, and the things we want nothing to do with are things that society makes compulsory for us. Why should the letter “M” on our birth certificate forbid us from putting on make-up or wearing a dress if we feel like it that day and require us to be “tough” and competitive, or the letter “F” compel us to be submissive and to “put our face on” whenever we leave the house (or maybe even our bathroom), whether we like it or not, and forbid us from playing tackle football? Ultimately, why should performing “masculinity” or “femininity” depend upon what “sex” we were assigned at birth? Or, for that matter, upon what “gender” is on our driver’s license? Why should it be required of anybody at all? Why can’t it just be whatever we feel like that day?

    One of the obvious aspects of toxic masculinity is the way the people who perform it seem to see it as a life-or-death matter. And I don’t believe anyone comes to feel that something that doesn’t actually threaten their life is a life-or-death matter unless they spent a long time being threatened with dire consequences if they don’t perform it. As Kate Bornstein would say, unsafe, insane, and non-consensual.

    If we’re going to brainwash people from birth to exhibit certain “virtues,” if they are really virtues, shouldn’t we be brainwashing all children to have them? And if they’re something that one “sex” or another shouldn’t be exhibiting, are they things anybody should be doing in the first place?

    Ultimately, what’s really going on is that society is using gender (like race, etc.) as a way to divide us into oppressors and oppressees, in a structure that ultimately oppresses us all. The misery of being oppressed is obvious, but having to keep fighting for position and beating people down, hour after hour, day after day, rather like Groundhog Day, is pretty miserable, too.

  4. says

    I dunno, Siggy. I’ve read a lot of your work in this area, and, well, I feel unsatisfied. I feel like you’re dancing around the edges of something important, but missing the core. Of course, I myself have no idea where the core is, so there’s that.

    Since I was young, I’ve always regarded all of these gender/orientation/racial/cultural shibboleths as simply ridiculous. I suppose I “look like” a man, but that’s only because I’m lazy and unimaginative, and it’s easy and cheap for a person with a penis to “look like” a man, not because I think the way I look in any way normatively important. I find it incomprehensible that anyone would even care about any of these arbitrary gender etc. norms, much less become violently angry when someone violates the norms. But of course some people do become violently angry, which is an obvious problem. But why?

    I think that trying to carefully parse out the differences between “toxic masculinity” and “harmless” or “virtuous masculinity” misses something important. First, why does anyone care about masculinity at all? Why is that even a thing? Personally, I never think about masculinity (or femininity) or just any of that stuff at all. I never think, that I should do this or that because it’s “masculine” or “straight” or whatever, and I never think that someone else is doing something that isn’t masculine or straight (or any of the other ridiculous-to-me shibboleths). It just doesn’t make any sense to me about why people even care about these norms, much less try to get any of these norms exactly correct.

    Of course, I’m a highly weird individual; I’m not going to generalize at all from my personal feelings. But if I can’t experience this kind of norm-enforcing mentality, I would like to try to understand it as best I can, and I just don’t. At all.

  5. says

    @Larry Hamelin #4,

    First, why does anyone care about masculinity at all?

    Yes I do think that’s something I dance around. I just take it as a given and don’t even try to explain it, because I’m sure I don’t know. But perhaps the particulars of why people want gender are important.

    For instance, when you describe your own experience, it seems masculinity is not a goal in itself–it’s an aesthetic that one may default to if one isn’t trying to adopt a more deliberate aesthetic. If this is our motivation for gender, then I think a lot of my discussion is still useful since there are plenty of good reasons to alter the content of the default aesthetic. But there’s no particular reason why different genders would need to have different default aesthetics.

    And if masculinity is viewed as a standard to be enforced on other people, what motivates that? I don’t know where to begin. But probably it should be burned with fire.

  6. Allison says

    And if masculinity is viewed as a standard to be enforced on other people, what motivates that?

    1. Patriarchy.

    2. More specifically, a system in which men (and others?) are taught that there are only two possible roles: either eating everybody’s s***, or else forcing others to eat your s***. The latter role is made so awful, by both physical and psychological abuse, that it seems worth it to be a 24/7 thug to avoid it.

    I don’t think that, for the most part, men are consciously brainwashing other men. But most men have learned that failing to attack men who don’t uphold toxic masculine standards gets you threatened with almost the same abuse that the non-masculine men suffer. The only way to avoid being the victim is to not only enforce toxic masculinity, but to enforce the enforcing. Eventually, you internalize and identify with those standards. And so the whole rotten system perpetuates itself.

    The only way I can think of to break the toxic cycle is to establish some sort of sanctuary land where people who want to drop out of the vicious cycle can live their lives protected from the violence and maintain it against the forces of toxic masculinity (who will make it there mission to destroy it) for at least several generations. And there will always be a need for people trained to defend themselves and their society from the predators without and within.

  7. says

    Larry Hamelin @#4

    First, why does anyone care about masculinity at all?

    OK, here’s why I care about being masculine.

    1. Aesthetic preferences—male clothes look cool, female clothes are ugly (that’s just my opinion, I know that others disagree). I actually do enjoy male fashion, and I love wearing cool-looking menswear.
    2. Practical considerations. Shaving my legs is a waste of time. Applying make-up is a waste of time and money. Roomy pockets are much more comfortable than carrying a purse. Male shoes are more comfortable and practical than female shoes.
    3. The visual image. I don’t want to look fragile, and dainty. I prefer to think about myself as a tough, strong-willed, and independent man. I don’t want to look weak. A male suit emphasizes shoulders and makes the wearer look more imposing. A female dress reveals much more skin and makes the wearer look like a pretty piece of meat that’s offered for sale. I don’t want to look and, even more importantly, feel delicate. I don’t want to feel like my body exists as a sex object for other people to stare at.
    4. I want the male role in the society. I don’t want to be the invisible caretaker at home, I want to be in the center of attention in the society. I don’t want to submit to some man; I want to be in charge. I don’t want to be ignored and dismissed. On top of that, I don’t like children, I hate cooking or cleaning. I don’t want to take care of other people, neither children nor a husband. With my body language I want to portray authority, I don’t want to use poses that make me look smaller. I want others to admire my work and respect me as a person instead of seeing me as just a pretty body.
    5. I don’t want other people’s perception of me to be tainted with feminine stereotypes and sexist assumptions. I don’t want to receive romance novels, make-up, and jewelry, and flowers during Christmas. When I go shopping for stuff that’s typically associated with men, I don’t want the shop assistant to automatically assume that I must be clueless. I don’t want people to assume that I must be emotional, in search for a romance, and interested in marriage/babies. I don’t want people to treat me as a woman. Often people refuse to see me for who I am. Instead they only see a caricature of me that’s distorted by common gender stereotypes.
    6. I don’t feel as a woman, I don’t have a female gender identity. I want people to respect that.

    I know that most cis women would agree with at least some of the items in my list. For example, many cis women don’t want to be stay-at-home mothers and want interesting careers instead. The difference is that I don’t feel as a woman. I prefer to live as a guy. Most of the time I don’t bother with pronoun policing—if some stranger refers to me with the wrong pronoun, it doesn’t matter anyway. But if I do tell some person about what’s going on with me and how I feel, I expect to be respected. If I went to a restaurant and ordered pizza, but a waiter delivered a salad with a remark that I should lose weight, I’d be angry because of the blatant disrespect. Similarly, if I say that I prefer being referred to with male pronouns, and the person reacts by telling me that I should live as a woman instead, then what annoys me is the disrespect.

    I know that I’m a person who would thrive in a gender neutral world. I wear men’s jackets, because they look cool, and not because they are meant for men. Same goes also for my “masculine” hobbies. I don’t need women to do different things as a counterpart to my own preferences. Nor am I planning to marry a woman who would cook my food and raise my children. If all the women started mimicking my fashion choices (thus rendering them unisex), I wouldn’t mind. Nor would I mind if men started wearing dresses thus rendering them “acceptable menswear.” I do not need or want a gender divide with certain things being considered “masculine” or “feminine.”

    Allison @#6

    More specifically, a system in which men (and others?) are taught that there are only two possible roles: either eating everybody’s s***, or else forcing others to eat your s***. The latter role is made so awful, by both physical and psychological abuse, that it seems worth it to be a 24/7 thug to avoid it.

    In this thread @# 22 I already wrote about how my experiences growing up as female were pretty much the same—I was taught that there are only two roles, you either abuse others or get abused. Here’s the thing, when a wannabe bully targets you, there are multiple ways how to respond: (1) fight back aggressively with your fists; (2) fight back non-aggressively by talking with the bully or using other nonviolent methods; (3) submit and endure; (4) try to ignore the bully and hope that they will get bored and find another target that’s more fun to abuse, etc. Toxic masculinity can thrive among men, because they are more likely to assume that aggression in the only option. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to seek nonviolent resolution to conflicts. Not that they have much of a choice—when you have less muscle mass than your opponent, initiating a fistfight is a very stupid idea.

    Unfortunately, our society does reward thugs with a higher social status, therefore both men and women can decide that being a bully is beneficial for them. The difference is that female abusers use non-physical abuse methods more often.

  8. says

    @Andreas Avester #7,
    This reminds me of a story told by a friend who is blind. He said bus drivers were always rude to him because he was slow to get on the bus. However, if he brought his cane, which he didn’t really need, the bus drivers would be very polite and accommodating.

    This illustrates a path from mechanical function, to aesthetic function, to social function. The cane serves a mechanical function for some blind people, then serves as a visual aesthetic for blindness, and finally as a social tool. When people want gendered aesthetics, it can serve any of these three functions, or all at once.

  9. says

    Allison @#6

    More specifically, a system in which men (and others?) are taught that there are only two possible roles: either eating everybody’s s***, or else forcing others to eat your s***. The latter role is made so awful, by both physical and psychological abuse, that it seems worth it to be a 24/7 thug to avoid it.

    I think this is the crux of the biscuit, or at least pointing the way.

    But this doesn’t match with my (admittedly idiosyncratic) experience or attitudes:

    But most men have learned that failing to attack men who don’t uphold toxic masculine standards gets you threatened with almost the same abuse that the non-masculine men suffer.

    I just didn’t learn this. But maybe a lot of men do. I dunno. I’m weird. But why? I honestly don’t understand.

    Do we see this in other oppressive dominant/submissive relations like race and religion? (Genuine question: I’m a straight WASPy cis male type, and lazy to boot: I can afford to not pay attention to this sort of thing, so I don’t.) Do we see, for example, white people “appearing” black to be more policed than black people appearing white? Seems the opposite to me, but I could easily be wrong.

    Andreas Avester @#7

    I hear ya, bro! I do love me some pockets. Oh, and the usually not treated like an idiot thing is kind of nice too.

    But the question remains: why does signalling as male do all these things? More importantly, why does a person who is perceived to be a man signalling as a woman drive some men to literally murderous rage?

    It seems like there’s something about masculinity that goes well behind just signalling as a man. I definitely signal as male, but I have no idea whether or not I’m “masculine”, and, to be honest, I honestly don’t care about my own supposed “masculinity” or lack thereof. Male privilege to not care? Certainly to some extent, but a lot of men seem to care immensely about whether or not they’re masculine in a sense that just growing a beard (or adopting other signals) doesn’t work. I just don’t understand this attitude.

  10. bmiller says

    “But the question remains: why does signalling as male do all these things? More importantly, why does a person who is perceived to be a man signalling as a woman drive some men to literally murderous rage?”

    Because it questions their own self-definition in some way? And their self definition is based on rigid gender roles enforced across society. See, for instance, the toxic Christians’ insistence that bullying is a GOOD thing.

    On a much, much more trivial basis, I observe the same thing as an American bicyclist. For some reason, some motorists are ENRAGED by the thought that someone is getting around not wrapped in 3 tons of plastic and steel. People literally damage their truck engines to modify them to produce clouds of choking black smoke. (This is also almost universally related to toxic masculinity, but not 100%!)

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