Men explain toxic masculinity to me, a man writing about toxic masculinity

"You shouldn’t write about toxic masculinity because it doesn’t exist," the ponytailed man in the coffee shop said

Published October 1, 2019 3:59PM (EDT)

Timothy J. Hillegonds (Michael Chalmers)
Timothy J. Hillegonds (Michael Chalmers)

1. At a coffee shop in Chicago not long ago, while quietly reading through printed galleys of the memoir I had spent the previous five years writing, I was interrupted by a man with long grey hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looked to be in his mid-50s and had the sun-weathered face of a man who’d probably spent a good deal of time working outdoors. “Are those galleys?” he asked, leaning over the table to eyeball the pages spread out before me.

I looked up at him, surprised and somewhat taken aback by the intrusion, but I forced a smile and said they were indeed galleys.

He moved in closer and asked what the book was about.

“It’s a reckoning with toxic masculinity,” I answered.

His eyes narrowed. “I hate that term,” he said, using his hands to emphasize his disdain. “You shouldn’t write about toxic masculinity because it doesn’t exist. You should write about nourishing masculinity. You should write about…”

The man’s instructions came emphatically and rapid fire, one after the other, about all the things I should write about instead of toxic masculinity, a thing he seemed to be insisting didn’t exist while simultaneously proving that it did.


According to the American Psychological Association, “masculinity ideology” is a certain set of descriptive, prescriptive, and small-minded perceptions about boys and men. There are, of course, differences in masculinity ideologies—some that are less small-minded, less restrictive than others—but there is also a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population for quite some time. Often, this particular ideology idealizes anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence. Collectively, these are now referred to as “traditional masculinity ideology.”


I didn’t set out to write a book about masculinity.


I certainly didn’t set out to write a book about toxic masculinity.


I set out to write a story that I had been trying to tell for 20 years, a story that felt like it defined me in near-countless ways, a story about losing a father and becoming a father, about violence and rebellion, about work and friendship and loss, about trying to disappear myself—over and over again—with cocaine and vodka and pills.

What I didn’t understand when I began writing my story was that all of it was connected to my understanding of masculinity in ways I’m still trying to unpack. In the early writing process, as I began to rigorously interrogate the boy I was and the rageful, sometimes-violent young man I grew into, whose male role models included an abusive grandfather, an absent construction-worker father, and a loving, gentle, yet faithfully patriarchal stepfather, I began to see that it was all connected, that I had been conditioned—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally—to operate within a gender framework that valued work and power and maleness over everything else.

What I discovered during the writing process is that masculinity is, at its core, a story—a story told to me by my family, my church, and society about who I’m supposed to be. That story—which I’ve come to understand is deeply influenced by race, class, culture, and sexuality—became one that I absorbed and believed, and one that I ultimately began to live out with reckless abandon. The messages I absorbed instructed me to never show fear, to dominate, to reject anything feminine that didn’t directly benefit my position at the top of the gender hierarchy. Be a man, Tim, the instruction said. Be a man, Tim, no matter what the cost.


For a time, I engaged in a debate with the man in the coffee shop, indulging his opinions, listening to him give me all sorts of way to fix the book I had written that he had never read. A few minutes into our conversation, his friend came over, and then it was both of them explaining to me how I should change what I had written, how my book was going to harm men, how men like me are making it harder for men like them. “And there’s toxic femininity too, you know,” the second man said, quoting a line I’d heard before and completely missing the point. “It’s not just men. There’s toxic people everywhere.”

At first the conversation felt like an opportunity to do some impromptu field research, a way for me to hear from men who were in different spots than I was, men who believed that everything was fine and the so-called masculinity crisis was nothing more than “fake news perpetuated by the liberal media.” But as the conversation stretched past five minutes, and then past ten, I began to feel my frustration mounting to a level I know is dangerous for me in certain situations, a point where the rage and anger I’ve spent decades working through and getting a handle on began to make its way back to the surface. I could feel myself wanting to physically shut both of them up, to dominate them, to fire off a quick right hand/left hook combo that would drop each man where he stood.

But the second I recognized what I was feeling, and the second I recognized that my first instinctual response to what I was feeling was violence, I became acutely aware of how deeply problematic my masculine conditioning is, and how in so many ways I wasn’t very different from the mansplaining men I was talking to.


The pushback against the term “toxic masculinity” is often virulent and immediate. Bring it up among certain groups of men and you’ll elicit an eye roll, a lecture, or even a confrontation, because a large portion of the male population believes that by putting the adjective in front of the noun it’s somehow a damnation of all masculinity. (It’s not.) Most people wouldn’t assume that someone who says folding chairs make uncomfortable seats is implying all the world’s chairs are uncomfortable, yet here we are with a whole segment of men who are essentially doing just that.

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that it’s difficult to pin down an exact definition of toxic masculinity. Michael Salter, a board member for the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, writes that the term “distinguishes ‘toxic’ traits such as aggression and self-entitlement from ‘healthy’ masculinity.” New York Times Gender Initiative writer Maya Salam writes that toxic masculinity “is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’; that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak.” In a piece written for The Good Men Project, popular blogger and dating coach Harris O’Malley defines it as a “term from social sciences that describes norms of accepted behaviors among men that are portrayed as good and natural but are, in reality, physically, socially and psychologically damaging.”

While all these definitions are generally touching on some of the same ideas, they’re not doing so as succinctly as this, which I found in an online dictionary of all places: “Toxic masculinity is a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance, and that is socially maladaptive or harmful to mental health.”

Socially maladaptive or harmful to mental health. The phrase sticks out to me as I consider my encounter in the coffee shop in Chicago with those two men. A right hand/left hook combo is a socially maladaptive response to a fairly standard disagreement, and not “an adequate or appropriate adjustment to the environment or situation.”

In short, it’s toxic masculinity.


I can’t pinpoint exactly when I began realizing that the book I was writing had as much to do with masculinity as it did young fatherhood and addiction and adolescent rage, but I know I began to suspect it was all connected at some point during the years-long revision process. My suspicions led me to think more intentionally about my personal experience as a boy and young man, which then prompted me to reflect much more deeply on how I performed masculinity. All of this reflecting sent me on a journey of discovery—one that I’m still very much on—that began with a conversation I had with my younger brother, who’s a progressive pastor, in a coffee shop in Michigan.

“I just think the man has to be the leader,” I said to him as we sipped our coffees and talked about marriage, something we were both fairly new to. “When it comes down to it, as the man, I’m the one who has the make the decisions and figure shit out.”

He looked at me from across the table, one hand gently resting on the handle of his coffee cup, and smiled in a way that meant he lovingly disagreed. His challenge, which would ultimately change everything for me, was one simple word.


Perhaps it seems too easy, or too simplistic, but his question, to which I legitimately had no answer, was the first crack in the foundation I’d unknowingly built my entire worldview on. My brother was the first person who directly challenged my inherited patriarchal ideology, and in the days and weeks and months and years after that, as the question pulsed persistently inside my brain, I found myself on shaky footing, suddenly unsure about nearly everything I thought.

That initial conversation led to other conversations, first with my wife, who had so much to teach and show me about masculinity that I wondered why I’d waited so long to ask her about it. My conversations with her led to other ones—with my feminist mentor; with the women in my writing group; with my 21-year-old daughter, who’s experiences with men (myself included) and masculinity had already, despite how young she is, made me want to weep.

The construct of masculinity was suddenly visible in nearly everything I focused my attention on—relationships, news, church structures, sports, products—and so was the fallout from a country built on that construct. I could no longer simply “respect women” (which I now know is decidedly different than treating women as equals) and “just try to be a good man” (which is so ambiguous it means next to nothing), because I began to see the problems within masculinity as the problems within myself, and I needed to dig in, to do some real work in understanding the part I played in all of it. If I wanted to be a different kind of man, I needed to first understand the man I was.

The conversations I had with my wife and mentor and daughter led me to some reading—books and essays by Lacy M. Johnson, Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit, Leslie Jamison, Melissa Febos, Thomas Page McBee, and Jared Yates Sexton. That reading led to still more conversations, this time with other men who were on similar journeys, men who were feeling some of the same things I was—mainly, that something was inherently flawed about the definitions of masculinity we were assigned and living into, and that we might be able to do something about it. I talked to straight men and gay men and men of color. I talked to men who inhabited masculinities far different than mine. I attended masculinity panels and masculinity groups and masculinity events where we engaged in uncomfortable exercises and felt all the shame and fear and anger we kept inside in front of one another. We talked about patriarchy and equity and consent and what it might look like to change, to transform, to inhabit healthier masculinities.

In the book "The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making," Jared Yates Sexton likens toxic masculinity to a chronic illness: once a man is infected, he will always carry it with him. He also suggests thinking about toxic masculinity in the same way we think about people with substance use disorders. "Like an addict who gets their addiction under control," he writes, "I learned to view masculinity as a chronic problem I could never be totally cured of. Every day was a new struggle, as there was no such thing as conquering it."

As a man who’s 14 years sober, this reframing makes sense to me. Not drinking is no longer the struggle it was in my first year of sobriety, but I still have to be vigilant. There are places I don’t go, and people I don’t hang out with, and at some point every day I think about the fact that I’m an addict and an alcoholic. With addiction, with masculinity, I’ve found freedom in naming the thing that once imprisoned me. I’ve found control in admitting just how out of control I was.


I didn’t set out to write a book about masculinity, but I now think: How could I not?


At about the 15-minute mark in the coffee shop with those two men, as the anger inside me began to warm its way up my calves, through my pelvis, and into my chest, I began packing up my belongings. When I finished, I stood up, now eye level with the man who had first approached me. “Look,” he said, as I pulled my backpack over my shoulders. “For me, it all starts with language. This is all a non-starter for me because I can’t get past the term ‘toxic masculinity’.”

“So because you don’t like the term you’re not willing to look at the issues the term is trying to shed light on?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said. “For me, it’s all about the language.”

I pressed my lips together and shook my head, semi-politely told them to have a good day, walked outside and merged into the stream of people moving down the busy Chicago sidewalk. Taxis honked and train brakes squealed, and as I walked toward the El, it occurred to me that maybe that man was right in at least one way, that rethinking masculinity does indeed start with language, just not in the way he imagined.

Rethinking masculinity is a lot like learning a new language. It’s difficult at first, and words can be hard to pronounce. It takes time and dedication and repetition and practice. It also takes conversations, especially uncomfortable ones, where we say the words we're learning to say, even if we don’t quite know how to say them.

By Timothy J. Hillegonds

Timothy J. Hillegonds is the author of "The Distance Between: A Memoir" (October 1, 2019; University of Nebraska Press). His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and other publications. He serves as a contributing editor for Slag Glass City, a digital journal of the urban essay arts. In 2019, he was recognized as one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex.

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