Is Toxic Masculinity Killing Us? What Can Teachers Do?

The amount of mass shootings across the U.S. so far in 2019 has outpaced the number of days this year, according to a gun violence research group. This puts 2019 on pace to be the first year since 2016 with an average of more than one mass shooting a day.

We all want to be safe and secure, and to live without fear, and that’s a human right that we all have. But in the U.S., gun violence is an epidemic that directly threatens these rights. 

Other than the use of a gun, the common denominator linking all such attacks is glaringly obvious and yet worryingly absent from much of our discussion about gun violence. This common denominator applies to all but three of the more than 150 mass shootings in which four or more people in the US were killed in public between 1966 and earlier this year. The perpetrators are not all white nationalists, but they are almost all men.

When you look at the pattern among many of the men who have committed some of the most heinous acts of violence in our nation’s recent history, they frequently share a common trait of hating, and perpetrating violence against, women. A 2017 HuffPost investigation found that in 59% of mass shootings between 2015 and early November 2017, the suspected shooter had a history of domestic violence and/or killed an intimate partner or family member in the shooting.  According to a systematic analysis of 22 mass shootings by Mother Jones, there is “a strong overlap between toxic masculinity and public mass shootings.” Virtually all of them also suffer some form of aggrieved entitlement—“an existential state of fear about having my ‘rightful place’ as a male questioned…challenged…deconstructed.” In addition to high-profile mass shootings that make national headlines, many everyday incidents of gun violence in the United Statesinvolve domestic abuse.

So while stricter gun laws seem like a no brainer, we can’t just focus on symptoms. We also need to attack this problem at its source, which is toxic masculinity. As prominent feminist Jessica Valenti puts it: “The longer we ignore the toxic masculinity that underlies so many of these crimes, the more violence we’re enabling.” 

“In an article for Teaching Tolerance entitled, Toxic Masculinity Is Bad for Everyone: Why Teachers Must Disrupt Gender Norms Every Day, Colleen Clemens writes, Toxic masculinity, the idea that there is only one way to ‘be a man’—strong, tough, unfeeling and aggressive—is a double-edged sword. First, it harms the boys and men who fail to live up to gendered expectations of who they should be. Then, sometimes, these men perpetrate violence in response, leaving innocent victims in their wake. Because gender expectations amount to a moving target that no one can hit, no matter how hard they try, toxic masculinity is always a losing game. A vacuum is created when we tell a boy over and over that  he is “not a man,” that he needs to “man up” or “grow a pair.” What if that vacuum is filled by a need to prove his power? What if the proof is violence?
As educators, it is time we decouple sex from gender and talk about how this twisted brand of cultural masculinity—not biological maleness—plays a role in creating violence in our classrooms, hallways, workplaces, and sanctuaries. Once we shift the discussion away from sex and biology and toward gender and culture, then we can begin to work toward solutions.” 

To get started, check out the following resources on how you can promote healthy masculinity early and teach boys and young men to recognize, reject, and challenge toxic masculinity. 

>> LIVERESPECT: Coaching Healthy and Respectful Manhood (Educator Guide) 
>> NYT Lesson: Boys to Men – Teaching and Learning about Masculinity in an Age of Change
>> ADL Lesson: The Trap of Masculinity: How Sexism Impacts Boys and Men
>> Teaching Tolerance Resources on Toxic Masculinity
>> Jackson Katz TED Talk – Violence Against Women – it’s a Men’s Issue
>> Article: Challenging toxic masculinity in schools and society
>> Article: 6 Harmful Effects Of Toxic Masculinity