Toxic Masculinity—A Public Health Crisis

Essay, Culture Wars, Anil Anand

Students at Western University walked out of class on September 17 to protest a “culture of misogyny”.  This following a series of sexual assault allegations made on social media of mass drugging and sexual assaults at the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence on campus during orientation week. 

Western University recognizes that there is a problem and has announced that it will require students in residence to take training sessions on sexual violence and consent in response to a problematic campus culture. Western University executives and the London police have also supported the protest and are committed to investigating formal complaints about recent sexual assaults on campus. 

Students’ experiences of unwanted sexualized behaviours and sexual assault is not unique to Western University. A 2020 Juristat article provides insight into the cultural underpinnings of unwanted sexualized behaviours on campus across Canada.1 The article provides disturbing findings on the prevalence, characteristics and impacts of unwanted sexual behaviours, sexual assault and feelings of safety among students aged 17 to 24 at postsecondary institutions. Here are the highlights from that report:

  • A majority (71 percent) of students at Canadian postsecondary schools witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in a postsecondary setting in 2019—either on campus, or in an off-campus situation that involved students or other people associated with the school. 
  • Among students, 45 percent of those who identify as women and 32 percent of those who identify as men personally experienced at least one such behaviour in the context of their postsecondary studies.
  • One in ten (11 percent) women experienced a sexual assault in a postsecondary setting during the previous year.
  • About one in five (19 percent) women who were sexually assaulted said that the assault took the form of a sexual activity to which they did not consent after they had agreed to another form of sexual activity—for example, agreeing to have protected sex and then learning it had been unprotected sex.
  • The majority of women (77 percent) and men (70 percent) who had experienced a sexual assault in a postsecondary setting stated that at least one incident had happened off campus. For women, off-campus restaurants or bars were the sites of half (51 percent) of sexual assaults in a postsecondary setting.
  • Most women (80 percent) and men (86 percent) who had experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours stated that the perpetrators of the behaviours were fellow students. Relatively few students said that the perpetrators were professors and others in positions of authority.
  • For female students, there was no significant difference in the prevalence of sexual assault among those in programs where most students were men (15 percent) and those in programs where most students were women (13 percent). For men, sexual assault was more common for those in programs with a majority of women students (7 percent) than those in programs with mostly men (4 percent).
  • Less than one in ten women (8 percent) and men (6 percent) who experienced sexual assault, and less than one in ten women (9 percent) and men (4 percent) who had experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours spoke about what happened with someone associated with the school (such as a teacher, peer support group, or someone else associated with either the school administration or a student-led service). While many saw what happened as not serious enough to report, others cited a lack of knowledge about what to do or mistrust in how the school would handle the situation.
  • Most students chose not to intervene, seek help, or take other action in at least one instance when they witnessed unwanted sexualized behaviours, including 91 percent of women and 92 percent of men who witnessed such behaviours. Many women did not act because they felt uncomfortable (48 percent of those who did not act), because they feared negative consequences (28 percent), or because they feared for their safety (18 percent).

Universities have an important role to play in ensuring that every student feels safe and empowered with the tools and confidence of holding perpetrators accountable. The fact that less than one in ten women who experiences sexual assault will speak about what happened with someone associated with the school (such as a teacher, peer support group, or someone else associated with either the school administration or a student-led service) requires urgent remedy; especially when lack of knowledge about what to do, or mistrust in the school’s response are cited as prevailing reasons. Remedy at this level is also a first step towards addressing the lack of reporting amongst the general population. 

According to the General Social Survey, upwards of 83 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. In fact, only five percent of sexual assaults are reported.2 Sexual assault is about power and control, not sexual desire. One of every 17 Canadian women is raped at some point in her life.3 

Norms and expectations about masculinity have been brought into the spotlight in the wake of the #MeToo movement. There is a deep and prevalent presence of toxic masculinity that prevails in our society, a toxicity that continues to extract a steep toll on society; a reality that is abhorrent. MeToo has uncovered a veil concealing the toxic masculinity that has existed in the shadows of corporate and mainstream society, in many instances promoted by an advertising industry that has promoted the sexist and misogynistic image of the “alpha male”. The prevalence and impact of this culture is seen as early as high schools—high-school-aged boys sexually assaulting and/or physically assaulting high-school-aged girls is not an uncommon occurrence.4

It is unbelievable that this “culture of misogyny” has permeated even the most regulated and disciplined institutions in Canada; even those entrusted with our safety and security. As former Supreme Court Justice Michel ​Bastarache in his report “Broken Dreams Broken Lives“ noted the RCMP ignored, willfully denied, or tolerated misogynistic, racist, and homophobic attitudes.5 Justice ​Bastarache note: “One of the key findings of this report is that the culture of the RCMP is toxic and tolerates misogynistic and homophobic attitudes amongst its leaders and members.” 6

The justice also, sadly, notes: “I am of the view that cultural change is highly unlikely to come from within the RCMP.7 It has had many years, and many reports and recommendations, and yet the unacceptable behaviour continues to occur.”8 

We are also witness to the 581 sexual assault and 221 incidents of sexual harassment reported in the Canadian military over the last five years.9 

There is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry which highlights the relegation of women and girls as less important, and victims of less urgent inquiry.

Even the Boy Scouts of America, entrusted with teaching boys good manners and a sense of right and wrong, saw hundreds of sex abuse cases brought against its leaders. In 2010 the organization was ordered to make public an internal list, known within its headquarters as the “P Files” or “Perversion Files”, of men accused of preying on boys.10 In 2019, child abuse experts testified that that 12,254 boys had reported experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of at least 7,800 suspected assailants between 1944 and 2016.11

There is now a #NunsToo movement that has broken the silence on the sexual abuse of nuns by priests. The point is that toxic masculinity is pervasive and not limited to drunken university fraternities—it permeates the most disciplined, the most sacred places in society.

Such instances are, of course, more than misbehavior, they are much more than toxic; they are perverse and criminal. The propensity of sexual violence, aggression, and concealment evidenced in the misconduct of members of male dominated institutions has added to the urgency of outing and confronting this sickness; to revealing, understanding, and treating this sickness.

While institutionalized misogyny has its dysfunctional roots in pre-existing cultural attributions, the extent of misogyny amongst younger Canadians is alarming. One in ten (11 percent) of female students experience a sexual assault in post secondary settings.12 This is a shameful indictment of one of our cultural failures.

The reckoning of toxic masculinity highlights the power of the enabler—those who have been willfully blind, or passively complicit. It is incumbent on all of us, men and women, to take on this social ailment in all its toxic forms. Those of us who have been silent but aware have in fact contributed to this malady. It is telling that most students chose not to intervene, seek help or take other action in at least one instance when they witnessed unwanted sexualized behaviours, including 91 percent of women and 92 percent of men who witnessed such behaviours.13 Forty-eight percent of those who did not act, did not intervene simply because they felt uncomfortable.14 The first step is to create a culture of intolerance for misogyny and more importantly to create a culture of intervention.

Everyone has different ideas of masculinity—it depends on culture, ethnicity, society, age, education, and personality. The expectations, norms, and stereotypes contribute in ways that can aggravate toxic masculinity. A stereotypical image of the “alpha male” is one where you “man up”, “suck it up”, show no pain or fear, “kick ass” and don’t ever cry. Such stereotyping reinforces the ideal that “real men” don’t show emotions and deal with their problems on their own—a concept of masculinity that has contributed to a groupthink wherein much damage has been consequential. Men are expected to cope with negative emotions, pain, and injury. 

Some expressions of toxic masculinity are manifestations of socio-psychological dynamics. Such expectations heighten substance abuse, violence, anger, and frustration, prevent seeking help, discourage dependent social networks, expectations as a provider and protector, and to remain silent through depression and anxiety.

To be clear—this is not to provide or make excuses for any form of misogyny—that is simply unacceptable. But it is valid to identify, and mitigate controllable precursors to some forms of toxic masculinity. Like substance abuse, some forms of toxic masculinity may be suited for consideration as expressions of a disease—be they based on flawed stereotyping, societal acculturation, expectations, and implied and forced conformity. Persistent repression of emotions of anxiety, anger, unrealistic expectations, stress, depression, and competition can lead to uncontrolled and unhealthy release of dysfunctional behaviour.  

It is only recently, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, that brand advertisers have recognized their contributions to norms that convey inappropriate and even toxic messages and symbols of masculinity. Gillette’s 2019 commercial, for instance, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” points to a much-needed correction.

It is also only recently that the American Psychological Association (APA) published new guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men, guidelines that address what types of “masculine” language are appropriate and inappropriate.15 This is the first step in a road to the classification of toxic masculinity as a disease, a public health crisis.

The statistics supporting the classification of toxic masculinity as a public health crisis are abundant and undeniable. Ninety percent of the homicides in the United States are perpetuated by male offenders, seventy percent of homicide victims are men, men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide, and men live 4.9 years shorter lives.16  

The effects of this sickness are compounded in minority groups, which even within the brotherhood of maleness can be a class of victims of toxicity themselves. Studies of college students have shown, for instance, that Asian American men are viewed as less manly than white or black American men. Further, boys and men of colour deal with their hurt in ways that are consistent with masculinity—be self-sufficient, be tough, and don’t show hurt or weakness. And they are forced to do so within systems (prisons, street-culture, and gangs) where divergence from extreme masculinity is looked upon more negatively than boys and men from other groups.

Everyone has different ideas of masculinity—it depends on culture, ethnicity, society, age, education and personality. What is clear is that the expectations, norms, and stereotypes have contributed in ways that have aggravated toxic masculinity. Men are expected to cope with negative emotions, pain, and injury. Expectations that heighten substance abuse, violence, anger, and frustration, prevent seeking help, discouraged dependent social networks, expectations as a provider and protector, and to remain silent through depression and anxiety. The result is evident—men are less likely to seek help, have higher rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and mental illness, consume more alcohol and drugs, and are less likely to report symptoms. 

These facts only go so far as to explain some of the dysfunctional expressions of masculinity. They may provide a point of intervention for toxic behaviour; those dysfunctions and toxicity that have their genesis in flawed stereotyping and cultural norms.

It would, however, be counterproductive to lump all masculinity as toxic because masculinity can and does exist along a spectrum—there can be multiple masculinities, and just as feminism is not monolithic, masculinity is not monolithic static. As much as toxic masculinity needs to be labeled and called, there needs to be a reimagining of what positive masculinity should look like. 

Toxic masculinity exhibits a range of expressions from healthy and productive ways to criminal depravity. How society, academics, medical experts, the APA, and public health experts develop effective strategies to respond to this sickness will have a transformative impact. Most of all, it is critical that all of us, men and women, agree that toxic masculinity is a disease, a public health challenge like substance abuse and firearms, and that it requires all of our attention.

”SeeEndnotes”

  1. Burczycka, Marta. “Students’ experiences of unwanted sexualized behaviours and sexual assault at postsecondary schools in the Canadian provinces, 2019”, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, September 14, 2020.  See: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2020001/article/00005-eng.htm
  2. “Sexual Assault Just the Facts”, Department of Justice, April 2019.  See: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/jf-pf/2019/apr01.html
  3. Rape Victims Support Network, https://assaultcare.c
  4. Fox, Chris. “Police investigating at least a dozen allegations of sexual assault at Toronto-area high schools”, CP24, March 19, 2021.  See: https://www.cp24.com/mobile/news/police-investigating-at-least-a-dozen-allegations-of-sexual-assault-at-toronto-area-high-schools-1.5354623?cache=
  5. The Honourable Michel Bastarache, C.C. Q.C. “Broken Dreams Broken Lives” The Devastating Effects of Sexual Harassment On Women in the RCMP
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Government of Canada. “2019 Sexual Misconduct Incident Tracking Report”,  August 2019. See: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/reports-publications/sexual-misconduct-tracking-report.html
  10. “Inside the ‘perversion files’ Tracking decades of allegations in the Boy Scouts”
  11. Dockterman, Eliana. “These Men Say the Boy Scouts’ Sex Abuse Problem Is Worse Than Anyone Knew”, Time, June 1, 2019.  See: https://time.com/longform/boy-scouts-sex-abuse/
  12. Burczycka, Marta. “Students’ experiences of unwanted sexualized behaviours and sexual assault at postsecondary schools in the Canadian provinces, 2019”, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, September 14, 2020.  See: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2020001/article/00005-eng.htm
  13. Burczycka, Marta. “Students’ experiences of unwanted sexualized behaviours and sexual assault at postsecondary schools in the Canadian provinces, 2019”, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, September 14, 2020.  See: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2020001/article/00005-eng.htm
  14. Ibid.
  15. Pappas, Stephanie. ‘APA issues first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys”,
  16. Ibid. 

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Anil Anand is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Anil served as a police officer for 29 years; during his career some of his assignments included divisional officer, undercover narcotics officer, and intelligence officer. He has worked in Professional Standards, Business Intelligence, Corporate Communications, the Ipperwash Inquiry (judicial public inquiry), and Interpol.

Photo by Cesar Galeão from Pexels.