“As a linguist, I ask you to please consider the following often overlooked reason why use of the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is and will always remain counter-productive, despite any good intentions – such as the admirable desire to reduce harm to both men AND women (assuming we can still use THOSE terms in a mutually comprehensible manner here) – behind its use. Perhaps the biggest symptom of the term’s weakness is how often those who support its use feel that they are being misunderstood by those who object to it.
If a term is so widely and frequently prone to misinterpretation by the general population, surely at least part of the problem lies in the term itself. From a linguistic perspective, a large part of the problem would seem to be that because the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are, in the minds of most people, simple opposites at the literal, denotational level of meaning, it is considered reasonable to expect a term such as ‘toxic masculinity’ to also have a simple opposite, namely, ‘toxic femininity’.
However, as I have increasingly become aware through conversation and reading, these terms, whilst being syntactically symmetrical (i.e., both composed of an adjective plus a noun) are, in fact, in their usage, semantically asymmetrical. As I understand it, whilst ‘toxic masculinity’ refers to aspects of socialisation which harm men AND, importantly, to harmful male behaviour towards women, the term ‘toxic femininity’ ONLY refers to aspects of socialisation which harm women BUT, crucially, CANNOT be used to refer to any aspects of behaviour by women which harm men.
This is, and will continue to be perceived as, grossly unfair and mean-spirited by many in the general population, despite protestations to the contrary by those who wish to continue using the term ‘toxic masculinity’. The hope that it will be possible to re-educate the general population to accept using language in debates about this extremely emotive subject in such non-intuitive and apparently unfair ways is, in my opinion, completely forlorn.”
So began my dialogue with Julian Gurr, an English teacher from the U.K.
“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” – Franz Fanon
A number of years ago, Charlie Donaldson and I co-authored a book (Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood) in which we hoped to shed light on a problem we’d encountered in our decades-long work with men— the toxic effects of unhealthy male socialization. There was no name for what we witnessed and so we coined the term “mascupathy.” We thought that if we identified the problem in clinical terms, it could be accurately treated clinically when presented in counseling offices and there would be a treatment model to address it.
Although “mascupathy” didn’t find wings as a clinical term, the idea of toxic masculinity did.
Julian was responding to an article I wrote for the Men’s Resource Center website: “Talking About Toxic Masculinity.” It prompted him to “share [his] linguistic perspective on this issue.” His sincerity and perspective interested me.
All along, much of the pushback I’ve received to the idea of toxic masculinity comes from people who take offense to the phrase itself. Many interpret the words to mean something they don’t and immediately disengage from any useful dialogue. Here are some examples:
- I hear you describe masculinity as “bad” and “toxic” and I can only conclude you are anti-male and that you see all men as bad and toxic.
- I hear you say that men need to be more feminine and I think you’re trying to emasculate men.
- I hear you say only toxic masculinity is a problem, and I say “What about toxic femininity?”
- I hear you wanting to eliminate masculinity and I say that will make boys weak, lazy, and fearful.
It occurred to me, after a few months of email back-and-forth, that Julian and I are mostly on the same page regarding the status of 21st-century manhood. We struggle, however, to find common language to describe it or an approach to solve it—especially when speaking to and challenging males who grapple with some form of an unhealthy or narrow version of masculinity that is ultimately injurious to themselves and sometimes to others.
Regardless of our disagreement, I was pleased with the opportunity to engage in civil discourse on a topic we both feel strongly about. I think in this day and age, it’s important to demonstrate how well-meaning and thoughtful people can dialogue civilly and respectfully about competing ideas and allow the tension to reside without trying to silence or discredit the other.
To that end, I invited Julian to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast so that we could involve listeners in the type of conversation I so much appreciate. He offered, instead, to write an article encapsulating his thoughts. I agreed, with the caveat that, just like with our emails, I would respond.
Julian’s article follows, unedited, per his request. My comments are at the end.
Is Time Finally Up for The Phrase “Toxic Masculinity”?
Julian Gurr, a high school English teacher from the UK, argues that it is.
If we accept the definition of one form of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, would it be entirely uncharitable to suggest that the reluctance of even genuinely well-meaning people to completely abandon their use of the phrase “toxic masculinity” now seems to qualify as just such a form of insanity?
Misunderstandings, Misapplications and the Failure of Counter-Narratives
Early on in his April 2019 article, Talking About “Toxic Masculinity” therapist and co-founder of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, Randy Flood, acknowledges that “Many interpret the words (toxic masculinity) to mean something they don’t (basically, anti-maleness) and immediately disengage from any useful dialogue.” He then, perhaps quite reasonably back in 2019, proposes that, “Those of us comfortable using the term ‘toxic masculinity’ – social scientists, for instance – need to address critics’ misinterpretation and provide a helpful, accurate counter-narrative”, namely, that whilst “positive masculine energy – when consciously-calibrated, wisely-timed, and smartly-appropriated – is courageously life-giving, boldly empowering, and fiercely impactful to individual men and everyone else in their lives… toxic masculinity is extreme, injurious, ill-timed, and poorly-appropriated.”
However, now, four years later, with misunderstandings and misapplications of the term “toxic masculinity” – at least in the more balanced, nuanced sense in which Randy would wish us to apply it – as widespread as ever, isn’t it time to finally admit that the genuinely well-meaning attempt to provide “a helpful, accurate counter-narrative” has largely failed, and will almost certainly continue to do so? 
Talking About “Toxic Femininity”
One unhelpful counter-narrative about toxic masculinity that does appear to have gained ground in recent years is the longstanding form of dialogue-blocking “whataboutism” which makes use of the apparently complementary pushback phrase, “toxic femininity”. Surely, it is argued – sometimes by or related to high profile public figures such Meryl Streep (“We hurt our boys by calling something ‘toxic masculinity’”, The Guardian, May 2019), Bill Maher (regarding Jada Pinkett Smith, April 2022) and Johnny Depp/Amber Heard (May 2022), or in connection with the sort of relational aggression exhibited on social media and in Mean Girl-style dating reality shows such as Love Island (ongoing) – if men’s unacceptable behaviour towards women, or others, can be described as “toxic”, we should be able to describe unacceptable female behaviour towards men, or others, in the same way. As Randy Flood acknowledged in an email to me recently, “if the one term (toxic masculinity) exists, then the other (toxic femininity) conceptually and linguistically exists.” Or as the proverb puts it: “If you pick up one end of the stick, you also pick up the other.” 
Which brings me to the main reason why I believe that use of the phrase “toxic masculinity” is so often instinctively rejected by most men – and, increasingly, many women – as being simply unfair.
I began to better understand the vague sense of unfairness which many of us feel each time we hear the phrase “toxic masculinity” when I was very nearly “cancelled” recently by a group of my female high school students (I teach in an all-girls school) for daring to ask if the highly publicised imprisonment of a young woman for making multiple false rape allegations could perhaps be referred to as a form of “toxic femininity”. I should stress here that my aim in posing such a question was pedagogical and in no way intended to endorse the use of either “toxic” term, but rather, as a teacher of English Language, to prompt students to reflect on the negative impact which the use of such emotive binary terms would be likely to have on the civil climate – and thus on the productivity and effectiveness – of any related discourse. However, I was soon to learn, to my surprise, that these terms are not quite as binary as most people’s common understanding of language would lead them to believe.
Once the initial outrage caused by my provocative question had dissipated, one of my female students – who, with her peers, had recently had a legally required RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) lesson entitled “Men and Masculinity” – explained to me that whilst the term “toxic masculinity” refers to aspects of socialisation which harm men (such as the denial of vulnerability and the refusal to seek help) and also to a set of harmful male behaviours which harm women (such as domestic violence and rape), the term “toxic femininity” can only be used to refer to aspects of socialisation which harm women (such as feeling pressure to conform to traditionally men-pleasing standards of behaviour and appearance) but not to any aspects of behaviour by women which harm men (such as relational aggression, paternity fraud or false rape claims). In other words, from a linguistic perspective, although these two highly emotive phrases are syntactically symmetrical – i.e., they both consist of an adjective with negative connotations followed by one of a pair of antonymic (opposite in meaning) nouns – they are currently being used in semantically asymmetrical ways in the ongoing discourse surrounding the issue of masculinity.
Unsurprisingly, a sense of gross unfairness arises in many men – and women – who, quite reasonably, expect the terms “toxic masculinity” and “toxic femininity” to be simple opposites, when it is argued that this is actually not the case at all. Cries of “Foul!” and “Cheat!” inevitably follow in response to such breaking of the normally accepted and apparently common-sense rules of language in what appears to be a duplicitous effort to engineer discourse in favour of the feminine. Whilst some, including Randy Flood, suggest that such defensive pushback may be a form of “male fragility” akin to the widely criticised concept of “white fragility” in the area of race relations, I largely disagree. For me at least, as a teacher of English, what is most objectionable here is not so much the “be less male” message implied by the semantic asymmetry of the terms “toxic masculinity” and “toxic femininity”; it is the apparently cynical attack on the very integrity of language itself – the lifeblood of all civil dialogue – which such “wokeish” discourse engineering represents. 
Turning Potential Allies Away
As a result, potential allies in the attempt to counteract the many undeniably negative effects of dysfunctional male socialisation – namely, the vast majority of males who are already very well aware, via the influence of positive aspects of both feminism and the men’s movement, what acceptable and unacceptable, helpful and harmful aspects of masculinity look and sound like – see only accusatory finger pointing and hear only condemnation, rather than the empathetic compassion which many well-meaning users of the term “toxic masculinity” often claim, quite genuinely, that its use is intended to demonstrate. 
Sadly, such miscommunication is clearly proving to be counter-productive and appears to be at least partly responsible for a backlash which may not only be turning away many males who had begun to move towards embracing change, and closing the ears and minds of those who had begun to listen and reflect, but may also be driving some towards the more extreme and potentially dangerous fringes of the misogynistic ‘manosphere’. 
The Meaning of Your Communication is the Response You Get
This key presupposition of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) implies that whilst your genuinely well-meaning intention may be perfectly clear to you, it is other people’s interpretation and response that really reflects the effectiveness of your communication.
From this perspective, it makes no sense to constantly complain – as those who wish to continue using the term “toxic masculinity” do – that people are still misunderstanding and misapplying the term after all these years. It makes no sense to stubbornly persist with attempts to provide “a helpful, accurate counter-narrative” if people “immediately disengage from any useful dialogue” as soon as they hear the term. It makes no sense to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It is not only counter-productive; it is demonstrably harmful; it is insane.
“So hard is it to show the various meaning and imperfection of words, when we have nothing else, but words to do it by. “- John Locke
Throughout his piece, Julian offers some good arguments but no solution to the problem with no name. It’s more difficult to offer a solution to the inherent problem we know exists, but can’t find a good name for, a good campaign slogan, an effective mantra, or a tagline.
I think the struggle is real because it is so emotionally and culturally loaded. When we say we need to work to eradicate our society of toxic water or toxic air, most people will get on board. They recognize that air and water aren’t inherently bad; it’s the addition of toxic elements that cause harm.
For me, the same argument applies to toxic masculinity. It’s not suggesting the whole of masculinity is toxic. But ideas about masculinity that overemphasize domination, aggression, control, and winning in socially inappropriate contexts can be toxic to the person consuming those ideas and to those who come in contact with them.
For example, when intimate partners experience inevitable relational conflict, a man who aggressively pursues winning the argument by controlling the narrative and dominating his partner by yelling and hitting his fist on the table to make his point is engaged in toxic masculine behaviors.
“Last year ‘s words belong to last year‘s language and next year‘s words await another voice.” – TS Eliot from Little Gidding
Despite the pushback, “toxic masculinity” is moving into the lexicon. More and more thought leaders have taken notice and engaged in various forms of deconstructing the traditional and narrow ideas of masculinity. This has ushered in more attention on revisioning what healthy male socialization might be to cultivate boys into hearty and balanced masculinities.
We often have a way of adulterating initiatives and ideas with our own ideas, labels, and language. At the end of the day, it is how we behave, relate, and engage as humans that matters, rather than the stories we tell ourselves, the labels we try to put on them, or the language that attempts to describe them.
It often takes us time to get it right. I hope we can with this issue as well.
Responding to Julian Gurr
 However, now, four years later, with misunderstandings and misapplications of the term “toxic masculinity” – at least in the more balanced, nuanced sense in which Randy would wish us to apply it – as widespread as ever, isn’t it time to finally admit that the genuinely well-meaning attempt to provide “a helpful, accurate counter-narrative” has largely failed, and will almost certainly continue to do so?
Has it failed due to language, or something bigger, more systemic, more intransigent? When we look at other “failures” in public discourse—Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, Woke, Defund Police, etc.—we can critique the linguistic launch and look for better language, mantras, and slogans. However, when we say Black Lives Matter, and the counter is All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, the counter seems to miss the point.
I contest that naming something to suggest a problem, is the problem for some. When we put Polar Bears on the Endangered Species list, we aren’t saying that white-colored bears matter and black ones don’t. We’re just saying that the quantity and quality of the lives of Polar Bears is problematic while black bears don’t have inhospitable environments and systems insidiously impacting their quantity and quality of life. Accordingly, while I believe we need to always be fine-tuning and exacting our language/linguistics, to think the lack of engagement in naming, examining, and intervening in toxic masculinity is only due to the name is a “yucky” idea. (Yes “yucky” is horrible linguistics, but you get the point).
I think it is possibly male fragility, patriarchy, sexism, male entitlement, etc., that pushes back on the term “toxic masculinity.” It isn’t just about the language, or the name, it challenges core beliefs and values about gender roles and they ain’t having any of it.
I’m certain that finding a good name we all can agree on won’t ultimately address the enormous pushback on “toxic masculinity,” because for many, complaining about the name is an effort to turn the spotlight off on the societal stage of social problems.
 As Randy Flood acknowledged in an email to me recently, ‘if the one term (toxic masculinity) exists, then the other (toxic femininity) conceptually and linguistically exists.’ Or as the proverb puts it: ‘If you pick up one end of the stick, you also pick up the other.’
I actually agree with this proverb and the duality and symmetry of toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. If there is toxic masculinity there is also toxic femininity. In fact, I am in the process of writing an article about this very thing. Positive feminine energy – when consciously calibrated, wisely-timed, and smartly appropriated – is compassionately life-giving, empathically caring, and lovingly impactful to individual women and everyone else in their lives… toxic femininity is extreme, injurious, ill-timed, and poorly appropriated.
 [A]s a teacher of English, what is most objectionable here is not so much the “be less male” message implied by the semantic asymmetry of the terms “toxic masculinity” and “toxic femininity”; it is the apparently cynical attack on the very integrity of language itself – the lifeblood of all civil dialogue – which such “wokeish” discourse engineering represents.
I do think that “feminists” who embrace toxic masculinity—both hurting men and others—but only embrace toxic femininity from the hurting women perspective are unfair, not being judicious, or as Julian says, not engaged in proper linguistic binaries. As with toxic male socialization, toxic female socialization can lead to not only hurting the women who internalize the rigid and injurious social messages, it can also cause harm to others.
Case in point, the current child-centric culture with accompanying helicopter parenting is an example of extreme caring and sensitivity to not cause children harm that can lead to poorly appropriated “advocacy” for children who then lose opportunities for self-agency, natural consequences, and learning resiliency. Children being seen but not heard was harmful to them in a patriarchal society—father knows best cultural ethos—but so is the current ethos of children being seen, heard, coddled, and, sometimes even, in charge.
Additionally, current social problems such as parental alienation in divorce is weaponizing feminine energy to create a loyalty contract with a child to reject a good and loving parent due to extreme and poorly appropriated parent-child attachment patterns. This is done without shouting or physical violence, but with softer feminine energy that is ultimately a form of psychological abuse. And, yes, fathers can exhibit toxic feminine behaviors inasmuch as mothers can engage in what is considered toxic masculinity—the use of physical violence to unduly hurt others.
 [P]otential allies in the attempt to counteract the many undeniably negative effects of dysfunctional male socialization …. see only accusatory finger pointing and hear only condemnation, rather than the empathetic compassion which many well-meaning users of the term “toxic masculinity” often claim, quite genuinely, that its use is intended to demonstrate.
My experience is that potential allies may not always like the language or terminology of toxic masculinity, but they get it conceptually and have buy-in for looking at revisioning masculinity fit for the 21st-century. It is the enemies of the movement for a more healthy and balanced masculinity who are rabidly opposed to any name we may call it. Calling it out goes against their narrow and rigid view of masculinity. A view that is unwittingly rooted in patriarchy, the gender binary, and often evolutionary psychology that ironically refuses to evolve and remains fixed to reductionistic explanations of masculinity vs. femininity. They are gender essentialists and refute any ideas from gender constructionists.
Allies, the likes of Julian and others I’ve met, are open to finding a name that is both descriptive of the problem and perhaps more “sellable” to the masses who need to be reached.
 [S]uch miscommunication is clearly proving to be counter-productive and appears to be at least partly responsible for a backlash which may not only be turning away many males who had begun to move towards embracing change, and closing the ears and minds of those who had begun to listen and reflect, but may also be driving some towards the more extreme and potentially dangerous fringes of the misogynistic ‘manosphere’
Julian makes a good point here in that there is a cyber gender war looking for recruits. And those young impressionable males may get seduced by the misogynistic manosphere zealots because we can’t find an agreeable collective way to reach and engage males on the bubble.
Consequently, I remain open to various names and terminologies that may be more attractive and engaging, but I won’t compromise working on the depth, impact, and complexity of the problem with a name that doesn’t aptly describe or minimizes the problem. Sometimes the truth stings a bit.
Eradicating Toxic Masculinity
I donated to the clean water initiative in the Great Lakes State of Michigan because I don’t want toxic water for myself, my children, or my grandchildren. I co-founded the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan not because I’m anti-male, or against masculinity, but because I want to provide programming, counseling, and coaching to help boys and men revision their masculinity into more balanced and healthy masculinities fit for this century.
I aspire to help males avoid the toxic aspects of male socialization that hurt them, those they love, and those with whom they are in community. Men who do this self-work aren’t emasculated. They don’t lose their masculinity. Instead, they reclaim their humanity and end up with more grounded, robust, healthy, and nimble masculinities.