“Secure in my masculinity”

“Secure in my/his/their masculinity” is a common expression, but what does it mean? Some readers may find this obvious, but permit me a bit of exploration, to see what we can learn.

In a basic search, I found several low quality listicles, which I take to represent what the common person thinks (as opposed to more scholarly interpretations). The listicles say that you can tell when a man is insecure in his masculinity if he tries to one-up everyone, is homophobic, or avoids anything girly, and so on. In short, masculine insecurity is evidenced by toxic masculinity.

The underlying theory seems to be that insecurity about masculinity causes toxic masculinity. And, by the way, this theory seems to be correct. Another article I found in a basic search describes psychological studies, where men were given tests of “masculinity” and physical strength. They received randomized scores, and the men who were told they scored poorly reported higher aggression, would exaggerate their height, and be more likely to avoid products perceived as feminine.

Without questioning the research on this subject, I will point out a slight inconsistency between the studies and the pop listicles. The studies demonstrate that calling men’s masculinity into question can lead them to compensate, possibly in toxic ways. But the studies as described don’t really demonstrate that this is the only cause of toxic masculinity, merely that it is one cause. In fact, it is very easy to think of alternate causes, for example poor role models–although I don’t know if research would back that up. Thus, toxic masculinity does not necessarily imply insecurity about masculinity. In any particular case, the toxicity could come from another source.

This has me thinking, why does the listicle frame itself as a list of signs that a man is insecure about his masculinity, instead of the more direct framing, as a list of signs of toxic masculinity? Even if we presume that toxic masculinity is caused by masculine insecurity in 100% of cases, what is the purpose of bringing up that particular connection, I wonder?

My hypothesis is that people find “insecurity about masculinity” rhetorically useful, because adds an extra bit of insult and mockery. Toxic masculinity, by itself, is already clearly pejorative, but a man who wishes to defend his behavior could simply say that it’s not toxic at all. “Insecurity about masculinity”, as an insult, puts a man in more of a double bind. “Insecurity” suggests that someone wants to be or appear masculine, but is keenly aware that they are failing to do so. If a man insists that he is not failing at masculinity, it looks like a “protest too much” situation, yet more evidence of insecurity!

But while bringing up insecurity about masculinity can win arguments, it’s worth asking whether “winning” actually aligns with our goals. Certainly it depends on what our goals are, and the context. If you’re on the national stage, maybe try winning, that’s probably valuable. But in a one-on-one argument, you can “win” an argument by causing your opponent to leave in huff, mind completely unchanged. In fact, by beating a man in an argument, we may very well be promoting further insecurity about masculinity, leading to more toxic masculinity.

If insecurity about masculinity is the problem, what is the solution? The intuitive solution, for many people, is to stop failing at masculinity, and start succeeding. And in attempting to execute this solution, they instead act out toxic masculinity, or so goes the theory. So talking about the problem is not enough; we also need to offer alternative solutions that don’t just perpetuate the problem.

And one alternative solution that comes to mind is promoting acceptance of failure. It’s okay to fail at masculinity, because masculinity is often an impossible goal, and not a worthwhile one, as much as we may have been taught that it is so. It’s okay to be anxious or even insecure about failure as long as we understand that our anxieties may lie to us about what is important. It’s okay to be vulnerable, though others may treat it with derision–

And here’s my issue with rhetoric about masculine insecurity. When insecurity is used as an insult, it doesn’t promote vulnerability, it just promotes more insecurity. Pointing out the problem does not necessarily solve the problem.


  1. JM says

    Bringing up insecurity before jumping to the list of toxic masculinity probably helps to frame the conversation also. For a lot of men they don’t think of many toxic masculinity issues as problems but things to take pride in. Never give up no matter the pain, being in command of every situation, acting aggressive vs any perceived insult these are all things that considered good behavior in some circles. Only by framing it as being insecure and being excessive can you get people to consider this sort of behavior to be a flaw.

  2. says

    Okay, people. I’m not saying that the above is wrong (again, causation of human behavior is very often multifactorial – in the sesquipedalian prose of the discipline of psychology it is “overdetermined”), but let’s not forget that one purpose of falling back on the “insecurity” framing is that this recasts the men acting out toxic masculinity as **victims** rather than as **perpetrators** of the negative behaviors that toxic masculinity describes.

    Over and over we see the victimizing behavior of masculine men described as anything but a reason to hold those men accountable. In particular, feminists have noted a tendency to blame women for the antisocial behavior of men. This goal is accomplished in a number of ways, but among the most frequent is “bad parenting” being laid at the feet of mothers — single mothers generally, incompetent white mothers, slutty working class mothers or mothers of color, etc. Lately a particularly retrograde tactic has been to blame feminists, seemingly as an argument to return society to a form that predates feminism (or predates “bad feminism” as the speaker defines it).

    If these men are “suffering” from “masculinity insecurity”, well then, the poor dears, they need help rather than incarceration. Someone might need to be held accountable, but it’s the evil people who inflicted this insecurity rather than the violent and bullying men themselves. Demonize mothers who failed them while they were children. Demonize feminists who made it impossible to be James Bond (never mind Bond was a fiction to begin with) through those damn sexual harassment laws. Demonize anyone and everyone who asks for masculine accountability, but for heaven’s sake don’t hold bad men accountable for bad behavior!

    I don’t even doubt that men exhibiting toxic masculinity have insecurities, but that’s nothing special. All humans have insecurities. Why, then, make so much of these supposed insecurities over one’s masculinity? Specifically because they are politically useful to the anti-woman and anti-feminist cause.

  3. says

    @Crip Dyke #2,
    Thanks for the alternative perspective.

    One thing I nearly wrote about (but chose not to because I feel I make enough philosophical digressions as is), was the problems with assigning a cause to toxic masculinity (or indeed anything). Even accepting the idea that insecurity about masculinity is a cause of toxic masculinity in all cases, that does not imply that it is the only cause. Usually multiple causes work in conjunction. For example, toxic masculinity is not just caused by insecurity about masculinity, but also caused by the fact that the sun hasn’t yet blown up and killed everyone yet.

    Identifying “a” cause is one thing, but identifying “the” cause is usually a moral judgment of some sort, because you’re implying something about the morally correct response. Blowing up the sun isn’t the morally correct response to toxic masculinity, ergo, it’s not “the” cause. But is insecurity about masculinity the cause? Depends on how much you want to imply that the solution to toxic masculinity is to address insecurity or not.

    However, I feel that the way “insecurity about masculinity” is used, it’s usually in a mocking way–not treating men as sympathetic victims, but as embarrassments. My argument in the OP is that if we take the theory seriously, maybe we shouldn’t mock men for insecurity? On the other hand, another tack would be to just not take the theory seriously.

  4. says

    However, I feel that the way “insecurity about masculinity” is used, it’s usually in a mocking way–not treating men as sympathetic victims, but as embarrassments.

    I agree that’s how it’s used in significant segments of the population, and I bet when it’s used by my friends and your friends it is used more often that way. I’m just considering that my peeps aren’t the majority in the population, so there’s some selection bias there, and the rest of the population has to have a motivation for their uses of the phrase. For me, the various motivations that others have must include creating sympathetic portrayals for toxic men. I can’t truly know which motivations are more/most popular among which populations (or the population as a whole), but I suspect that use of this phrase & concept would be quickly isolated to feminist communities if it didn’t have the potential to serve an anti-feminist purpose outside of feminist communities.

    Then again, maybe I’m just a pessimist.

  5. says

    And one alternative solution that comes to mind is promoting acceptance of failure. It’s okay to fail at masculinity, because masculinity is often an impossible goal

    But what exactly counts as a failure at being masculine? Moreover, is failure even possible?

    To give an analogy, I have never doubted that my dog is, indeed, a dog. Thus it is impossible for her to fail at being doglike. Whatever behaviors she does, all of these behaviors are, by definition, doglike, because she is a dog.

    Of course, bigoted dog owners could try making a list of statistically common dog behavior traits and from this list they could single out traits that are common (aka doglike) versus uncommon (“if your dog does these things, they fail at being a dog”), but that would just be people refusing to be tolerant of minorities.

    Similarly, if a person identifies as a man, then, by definition, he cannot fail at being masculine, because he is a man.

    Unfortunately, of course, our bigoted and sexist societies cannot just let people live freely and express their gender identity as they see fit. Thus cultures have amassed an oversized assortment of outdated stereotypes about what behaviors count as masculine or feminine. But really, all of those are just sexist stereotypes. In addition, said lists of what qualifies as masculine or feminine are arbitrary and differ by culture and time period. Just pick any two cultures that are either geographically or chronologically distant, and you will find some trait/behavior that gets labelled as masculine by one culture and feminine by the other culture.

    So again, what exactly does it even mean to fail at being masculine? Who exactly made the definite/authoritative list of traits that a man must possess in order to succeed at being masculine? Where can I even find such a list? And why should any individual man choose to respect such a list and strive to satisfy the requirements mentioned in this list? After all, those are just arbitrary, culture-specific, sexist, outdated gender stereotypes.

  6. says

    @Andreas Avester,

    I was talking about this earlier too. To me, masculinity is mostly about the typical (or stereotypical) characteristics of men. As for why you would want to conform to this version of masculinity, well people want what they want.

    But there’s also another kind of masculinity that people talk about, especially in relation to the whole insecurity-to-toxicity theory. There’s a certain kind of masculinity which is *not* characteristic of men, but rather an unattainable ideal that men are taught to strive for. Insecurity arises from every man’s failure to attain the unattainable, and toxic masculinity is the result of flailing towards it.

    My stance is that we can hold multiple concepts of masculinity, including the sort that men automatically have, and the sort that they cannot have.

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