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Our culture’s model of masculinity does not always reflect a positive perspective of what it means to be a man. With reflection and intentional steps forward, we can take hold of a right way of manly living.

These days, men are often told that they are chauvinistic, sexually-abusive aggressors. This has been sadly true of many men, who have used their positions of power for sexual or monetary gain throughout history.

The pendulum can also swing the other direction, causing men to constantly question who they are. This is dangerous for young boys to grow up with, but it does beg the question: “What does it mean to be a man?”

[Related: Men and the Power of the Visual]

The Root of the Problem

There are serious contemporary problems that men need to address, like the #metoo movement. This doesn’t mean that all masculinity is bad or that every hashtag movement is doing the right thing, but it does reveal an underlying dark side within male culture.

There are special challenges that come with being a man in our culture. From a very early age, men are taught to suck it up, not to cry, and to stifle their emotions. Men are conditioned to believe that emotions are to be constantly controlled and subdued or replaced with anger or aggression. Along with a low emotional range, men are expected to be hypersexual and to win at all costs.

In the past, life was much more difficult, and surviving, especially taking care of a family, was a daily struggle. Men needed to control their emotions to be able to deal with war, poverty, and hunger. Hyper-masculinity was needed at times, and countries like the US survived through men charging into battle to fight. As society has progressed, men have been left wondering why they were lead so far astray and what it really means to be a man.

The Dark Side

Emotional isolation and the constant pressure of trying to be what one believes is masculine creates a dark side to masculinity. The statistics for male crime paint a brutal picture, with eighty-five percent or more of sexual assaults, domestic violence, and murder crimes being perpetrated by men. Males are chronically lonely due to the perceived need to be tough and independent to the extreme. Loneliness is a serious problem and has been proven to be as dangerous as smoking to one’s health in the long-term.

[Related: Do the Right Thing as a Man]

The culture of this world and society are telling everyone that men are bad. Men are persecutors and sexual predators. Some of this is true and needs to change. As men begin to understand where the darkness within themselves comes from, they will begin to let the light shine on those areas. Anger will become a tool to spur right behavior and rightly condemn wrong behavior, not a reaction to everything that upsets them. Sex can become a joyful expression of love and reverse the course of using women through pornography and conquest. There is a dark side to masculinity, but there is also the light. Men can and have been a powerful force for building others up and creating positive change. The more understanding men have of how the culture has set them up to fail, the more power they will have to create change.

Talk About It
  1. What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
  2. What are some male stereotypes you’ve encountered? How true or false are they?
  3. List a few examples of “toxic masculinity.” Where have you seen this?
  4. What are some examples of positive masculinity? What examples are there of this?
  5. Should a man show righteous anger or even employ violence? What are some situations where this is and is not appropriate?
  6. Why do you think men have been told for a long time not to express their feelings? What do you think about expressing your feelings?
  7. What are some times it’s appropriate to express feelings of sorrow or sadness? What are some times it’s not appropriate?
  8. What do you think is a healthy balance between recognizing some of the real problems with men versus some of the stereotypes that are exaggerated or untrue?
  9. How can you take steps to live out “positive masculinity” in your life?
  10. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.
David Johnson, PhD, practices at the Ogden Center for Change.