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7 Ways “Toxic Masculinity” Traumatizes Men and Boys

the mask men wear photoToxic masculinity is a worldview that, in varying degrees, cajoles men and boys to reject what is human inside them and others, and to war against certain human traits, such as empathy and caring, throughout their lives to prove their “masculinity” and claim “entitlements” to violate and exploit others rights.

Men are human beings however. Forming compassion-based collaborative connections, which are founded upon mutual sense of trust and understanding, is the most critical and complex of all human endeavors.

It is at minimum an emotional cruelty to force human beings, to hide behind a false-self mask — to feel they must rage against key universal emotion-drives, critical to the formation of empathy-based connections with self, others and life — to avoid being rejected as “not real” men.

In The Knight in Rusty Armor, author and psychologist Robert Fisher uses myths and legends to address the plight of men, the difficulties they’re forced to hide from in their personal and relational issues, with a heart moving story of a knight who, facing a crisis in his marriage, discovers himself in a life-changing dilemma when he tries to remove his once shiny, now rusted armor, to emotionally connect with his wife and children.

Conceivably, to dehumanize a human being, that is, to turn them against themselves in order to be rewarded with entitlements to turn against others — is the worst form of trauma on the neurochemistry of the brain and body, and due to lifelong impacts on men’s relationships with themselves and others, and in particular the special woman in their life — also on society at large itself.

It is the thrive and find meaning — and not survival of the fittest — that is the best guarantee of surviving as a species.

This false-self mask is traumatizing in at least 4 ways.

1. It socializes men to fear critical human emotions, such as empathy and compassion, as dangerous, emasculating or weakening influences. 

The norms of toxic masculinity socialize men to adopt a worldview that, in varying degrees, blocks their emotional and relational development. (In cases, where girls and women adopt this worldview, similar processes occur.) To the extent this conditioning succeeds in its goals to get boys and men to detach from, disdain and suppress emotions of empathy inside as dangerous, weak traits associated with women and sissies, it is has a dehumanizing effect on men’s ability to relate to themselves and others.

The subconscious mind relies on an individual’s beliefs and thoughts to know whether they feel overall safe or threatened. It listens 24/7 to what a person tells themselves, and regards this as reality, period.

There is nothing biologically natural about learning to hate and disdain core human aspects of yourself inside, in order to fulfill universal drives of belonging. It’s inhumane for males (some females) to be forced to prove, throughout their life, that they reject “weak” traits such as empathy and caring about others’ feelings, to prove they’re “real” men. It’s how hate propaganda works to cripple the human brain by the release of high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol in the body. In effect, toxic masculinity conditions men to treat relational contexts, such as a interaction with the woman in their life, like a “war zone.” emotional, mental and physical health.

The unnecessary activation of the body’s survival system is also harmful to physical as well as emotional and mental health. As a function of the mirror-neurons in the brain, in distinct yet similar ways, these fear-activating fears are traumatizing to abusers and abused alike.

2. It defines masculinity on the basis of proving a negative (not-female!), forcing men to have to make a false choice, or “false dilemma” throughout their lives.

In effect, men learn to treat certain relational contexts, such as interactions with the woman in their life, as they would a “war zone.”

For many boys and men, it’s not enough to know their gender was announced at birth. Early on, they discover they’re expected to prove they are “real” boys and men, by never displaying the traits that are (arbitrarily) associated with women and girls. Since proving a negative is not possible, they must do so nonstop, in many cases, throughout their lives. In qualitative studies, men and boys describe feeling pressured to continually perform “masculinity” and that both genders are watching and expecting them to reject female traits.

This is problematic in at least two ways. First, it is emotionally taxing, to say the least, on the neurochemistry of the brain and body to be continually on guard, that is, in survival mode, and to sound the alarm in certain contexts where they are expected to exhibit a rejection of female traits to avoid being thrown out of their gender group. In order to meet core human drives for belonging, boys are literally conditioned to fear, reject and suppress certain impulses and parts of themselves, such as emotion-drives for caring or empathy.

Secondly, this false choice is a false dilemma, a claim based on a logical fallacy or false reasoning — a lie — that only two choices exist, either you’re a “real” man meant to rule and “entitled” to exploit the weak OR you’re an object serving at the pleasure and mercy of the self-proclaimed superior males.

In itself, this fear-activating supremacist belief system is based on lies, however. It is a form of thought control, and emotional abuse that attacks the healthy emotional functioning of human boys. It does so by forcing them to believe the lie or illusion that a “false dilemma” exists. There is nothing natural about arbitrarily labeling certain human traits “male” and other human traits “female” when, in fact, they are merely all human traits.  It can be crazy making for boys, in that on the one hand they feel anxious to prove they are “real” men by exhibiting “power over” values — yet the reality is that there is evidence everywhere that all human beings, women and girls, as well as nonwhites and other target groups, have endless capabilities and intelligence, courage and strength, and so on. At best, this expectation keeps the ego of males fragile, in varying degrees, making them feel powerless inside, anxious to prove they are the “real” deal to avoid being labeled or targeted as sissies or gay, and abused by other males.

3. It normalizes violence, as tool of dominance, as key to “real” man’s identity.

Recent advances in methodology in neuroscience studies indisputably show that humans are wired biologically for moral behaviors, and that the brain circuits responsible for empathy are the same ones which regulate aggression. In other words, cultivating aggression in men and boys has an inhibiting effect on the cultivation of traits of empathy, and vice versa.

This is no surprise; it’s common sense. Human beings thrive in environments where they experience overall sense of safety and security, and a healthy relationships, whereas high conflict is emotionally traumatizing, releasing high levels of cortisol, and negative impact on health and overall functioning.

Yet our mainstream school textbooks continue to promote the idea of male aggression and dominance as normal, regardless of solid evidence to the contrary. Aggressive, egocentric and risky behaviors are not biologically determined “male” behaviors, however, rather modulated by beliefs that inflame fear, hatred and objectification of other groups. In my dissertation work, decades of studies show that experiencing and, or witnessing violence in childhood has a detrimental and longterm effect on adult couple relationships, with boys more likely to enact violence in adult relations, and girls more likely to be victimized.

The only segments of society that benefit from dehumanizing our men from boyhood are those industries that profit from the promotion of violence and cruelty as norms. Mass media, entertainment, politicians and porn industries, among others, work together to profit from notions of male dominance and female submission, eroticizing dominance and rights to violate, exploit and prove superiority for men (narcissism), while romanticizing these concepts for women (codependency).

4. It conditions men to objectify women (and other target groups) and to refuse to see women as fully human or real persons. 

This is traumatizing not only to men and boys, their relationships, ad women and girls, but also to society at large. It is this belief that separates psychopaths from all other persons with mental health or character disorders. It is this hatred, scorn and total disregard for certain others that allows all psychopaths to commit crimes on those they view as objects of pleasure, and not human. When actor and former NFL star, Terry Crews spoke at the Women in the World Summit, he emphasized the fact that men do not see women as fully human as the core problem with “masculinity as a cult,” which needs to be identified and understood by all men and women passionately working to stop violence against women and children, and other groups.

Speaking out on the “Cult of Masculinity,” Terry Crews describes his indoctrination into the cult:

“Growing up…asking friends how to talk to a girl … I was told to lie to her, to keep her off-balance. Having “game” was all about manipulating girls, getting them to give you sex, then tossing them aside. As a man, you’re also taught to keep your girl in check, to maintain control. But you cannot control someone and love them at the same time. You only control things that are beneath you.”

Using a metaphor about slavery, Crews explained that men’s overall view of women can be compared to how slaveowners in Antebellum Period of U.S. history. For example:

“As a woman, they talk, but a guy is not looking at you as even all the way human. This is what you have to understand—there is a humanity issue here.

[Women are] like, ‘Why don’t you hear me? Why don’t you see my feelings?’ And [men are] like, ‘But you’re not all the way human. You’re here for me, you’re here for my deal.’ It’s real.”

“I am guilty,” Crews added. “I believed, simply because I was a man, that I was more valuable than my wife and the other women in my life.”

Violence is so intricately connected to a man’s identity that, without violence against women as an identity, many men may feel the very idea threatens their masculinity, or causes them to feel emasculated, as if they are not “real” men, and that they are thus by default, weak, “inferior and non-entitled” women, feeble men or gays. It’s critical that men (and some women) understand that this fragility is an outcome of the manipulation of their minds with thought control, false dilemmas, illusions of supremacist ideals, and the like.

5. It puts boys and men at high risk of being assaulted by other (bigger or older, etc.) males lusting to prove dominance.

It happens to men in greater numbers than imagined or currently reported. In the military. In athletics. In fraternities. In film. In corporate America. Every year, states a report in Harvard Kennedy School’s Journalistic Research, men and boys face dangers in university settings and athletic sports teams, for example, are injured, humiliated, sexually assaulted or killed during events of hazing.

In one study of Australian universities, new male students were subjected to such violent hazing and sexual assault rituals that the authors called for the practice to be criminalized. Though legislation in the U.S. was introduced in 2012 U.S. by Congresswoman F. Wilson, seeking to make this a federal offense, the effort was unsuccessful.

According to the rules of toxic masculinity, there is a code of silence that is enforced, again by activating fears, shaming men into thinking they have to prove they’re not women, because “the strong” do not squeal and whine and complain when they are abused, humiliated, tormented by other men. That breaks the rules of the “cult of masculinity.”

Based on an eighteen month study in a racially diverse working-class high school, Dude, You’re a Fag sheds new light on masculinity both as a field of meaning and as a set of social practices. C. J. Pascoe’s analyzes masculinity as not only a gendered process but also a sexual one, demonstrating how boys shame and abuse one another with the “fag discourse” as a disciplinary mechanism for regulating and enforcing “masculine” behaviors.

Speaking out on the “Cult of Masculinity,” Terry Crews describes his own experience of being sexual abused by a film agent, and how “the cult” reacted his breaking the “code of silence.” Crews states:

“I was a card-carrying member of the cult of masculinity. I was addicted to pornography for years, and that impulse was fueled by the thought that I was more valuable than my wife. I and other young men in my community watched our mothers and sisters be abused, which taught us that we were worth more than the women in our lives.”

“Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” states Derrick Jensen, in an article titled, The Man Box and the Cult of Masculinity, “to address and to end violence we [women and men, working together] must consider the factors and circumstances that contribute to violence.”  In his words, Jensen states:

The problem is that within this patriarchy, identity itself is based on violation. Violation becomes not merely an action but an identity: who you are, and how you and society define who you are. Within this patriarchy men’s masculinity defines itself by identifying others—any and all others—as inferior (which is why those stupid fucking scientists can ask “Are we all alone?” as they destroy the extraordinary life on this planet), and as being therefore violable, and then violating them. For men under this patriarchy, these acts of violating others are how we become who we are. They validate who we are. They then reaffirm who we are, as through these repeated acts of violation we come to perceive each new violation as reinforcement not only of our superiority over this other we violated but as simply the way things are. 

So without this identification of others as inferior, without this violation, we are not. We are a void. And so we must fill this void, fill it with validations of our superiority, fill it with violations. Thus the rapes. Thus the violation of every boundary set up by every indigenous culture. Thus the extinctions. Thus the insane belief in an economic system based on infinite growth despite the fact that we live on a finite planet.

The values of “the cult of masculinity” has a ripple effect on all family members, and society at large. The systematic practice of the cycle of violence against women not only continues to have legitimacy in many circles, domestic violence was a legal practice in the United States up until the latter part of the 20th century.

Wherever there is institutionalized violence against women, there is also institutionalized violence against children, girls and boys, men who are regarded weak, non whites, and endless targeting of “diverse” groups. Decades of research show the damaging longterm effects of violence against children (spanking) on society at large, and adult couple relationships in particular. It’s perhaps time to expose the ways narcissistic-psychopaths, with financial means, find ways to hide how they operate like self-appointed architects of society, to normalize and profit from all forms of dominance and violence as widespread, mainstream practices.

6. It forms the basis for all cults, both religious and secular.

Researchers agree: Cults are on the rise in the U.S. as well as around the world. While defining who is and isn’t a cult can be a distraction, there are several key identifying traits. Cult leaders:

  • Meet the criteria for narcissist-psychopaths or APD (see #7 below).
  • Are experts in illusions, lies, deception, using thought control and brainwashing tactics, some with previous military training.
  • Demand to be idolized like gods, treated as infallible, entitled treat and mistreat, exploit, enslave and sexually abuse for pleasure, and do so with impunity.
  • Are trained in the use of science-based thought control methods to identify vulnerable populations as targets, and exploit them for sexual, monetary gains, or their labor.

It is vital to note that cult leaders achieve the above with expert use of language to elevate fears, hopes, using linguistic contradictions, to instill a topsy-turvy world in the minds of their victims. One infamous cult leader, Adolph Hitler, put it this way in the following quote from his manifesto Mein Kampf:

“By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.”

Yes, there are the 10 most dangerous and infamous cults in recent U.S. history, but cult type behaviors and norms, and evidence of dangerous brainwashing is increasingly apparent in fundamentalist sects of all major religions.

All cults are formed on the worship of maleness, that is, the “cult of masculinity,” and the disparaging of femaleness. In the Cult of Masculinity and the British Union of Fascism, Dr. Tony Collins notes:

“The centrality of the cult of masculinity as necessarily violent and milatirsitic expressions is rarely noted [in fascism].
“Both Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists were consciously and aggressively masculine (as were others across the world as this volume makes clear), and the British Fascists were no different.”

When Crews spoke at the on the topic of masculinity as a cult, he emphasized that the core of the problem is that men are conditioned to violate the weak, women and other target groups, as an entitlement and proof of their belonging to group. In his words:

“Masculinity can be a cult. And when I say ‘cult,’ it’s no different than David Koresh. It’s no different than Jim Jones.”

Women in cults actively participate as accomplices who gain favor by serving in positions fully support the goal and need, interests and comforts of narcissistic-psychopaths.

Arguably, the use and spread of scientific thought control methods, once exclusively used by military, have spilled into the civilian sectors, and responsible for the exponential rise of cult groups, religious and secular.

In this century, the most insidious form of slavery is the use of lies and deception to con human beings to participate “willingly” in their own enslavement or demise by crippling the otherwise amazing ability of the human brains to think.

7. It forms the basis for both narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders, NPD and APD respectively.

Last but not least, in the same way that cults are formed by persons with criminal minds, a person with a criminal mind is someone that meets the criteria of antisocial personality disorder, or APD. Narcissistic personality disorder, and its more extreme disturbance, APD, are arguably an outcome of experiencing and witnessing abusive and fear-activating, faulty and highly-disordered patterns of thinking at work from childhood. High levels of fear cripple the thinking capacity of the brain by releasing high levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.

The key identifying traits of an APD is a total disregard and willful violation of another’s rights. APDs, and to a lesser degree NPDs, look down on certain others with scorn, and feel entitled to disregard and violate their rights. The differences between NPDs and APDs is mostly in degree to which they violate and cross the line.

The “cult of masculinity” values predispose men to varying degrees of narcissism, and the resulting chaos in couple and family relations, traumatizing to children in particular. It’s not normal to regard remorse for causing others pain as a sign of inferiority, or to deny and ridicule human attributes of kindness and compassion as weaknesses.

In a might-makes-right view of the world, men (and some women) learn to overall regard life and relationships as continual battles or competitions over who is in charge of whom.

And that is what creates problems and dysfunctional behaviors in family dynamics. Problems of neglect, abuse, emotional, physical and sexual of children. Problems of traumatized children growing up to play roles of either predator or prey, or alternate between the two. Problems of emotion taboos along gender lines, i.e., taboos for men to feel hurt or afraid; and taboos for women to feel anger. Problems of failing to learn from caregivers in childhood how to regulate painful emotions of fear and anger. Problems of addiction to numbing the painful emotions with external, and temporary, quick-fix sources of feeling good about self and life. Problems of raising men (some women) to feel entitled to mistreat, abuse, rape, sexually assault those deemed weak. Problems related to arrested emotional development in men (disconnect from empathy), and problems of over-active responsibility in women for the wellbeing and happiness of others (codependency is a disconnect from one’s sense of self and agency).

There’s nothing natural about a set of fear-activating beliefs that unnecessarily activate the body’s survival response in relational contexts. It is in fact how hate propaganda works to divide and conquer groups of unsuspecting persons, in this case, setting up men and women as adversaries. The ideals of “toxic masculinity” in certain contexts, cause the brain to switch on the body’s survival reactivity (the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system), and as a result, the thinking part of the brain, or frontal cortex, goes offline. In contexts that elevate core-survival fears, the brain is limited to “either-or” (black-and-white) type thinking instead.

It’s time to shift the focus when it comes to violence and assaults on women and children to: (1) individuals that meet the criteria for criminal mind, or  APD; (2) the “cult of masculinity” that traumatizes men from boyhood and impairs the development of empathy and emotional development in general; and (3) the make the practices of thought control and institutionalized bullying, such as hazing, federal crimes.

It’s time for women and men who support them, to work together to curtail the detrimental effects the “cult of masculinity” has had on the healthy development of both genders and their relationships.

It’s time for men — and straight men in particular — to tell their own stories, and speak out against the detrimental effects the code of silence, the “boys will be boys” tactics, hazing and other practices, have had on them, their marriages, their families, communities and society at large.

Photo by Following Hadrian

7 Ways “Toxic Masculinity” Traumatizes Men and Boys

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2019). 7 Ways “Toxic Masculinity” Traumatizes Men and Boys. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Feb 2019
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