Social engineers from every corner are declaring traditional masculinity to be a source of harm and violence that needs to be discarded. Are they right?
It’s a confusing time to be a boy. Some tell us that the word “boy” is a nonsense word—just one small dot on a continuous spectrum of “gender” choices. Others tell us that “boy” is a well-defined word, but that it can apply to those of either sex, male or female, depending on how they feel or choose to “identify.”
And then there are those who declare that the collection of tendencies that often characterize boys and men—what many call “masculine traits”—are potential sources of harm, both to themselves and to those around them. Such people would define these personality traits and gender-based predispositions as “toxic” characteristics to be overcome. In fact, some claim that such masculine traits risk causing mental disorders, and that societal intervention is necessary at the earliest stages of life to ensure that boys avoid embracing these traits as ideals, lest they bring permanent harm to their psyches and become violent abusers of those around them.
The confusion caused by all of this extends beyond boys. It is a confusing time for men, in general, and for the girls and women in their lives who love them.
Is masculinity—the collection of traits commonly and traditionally associated with men—a source of mental illness? Is masculinity toxic? How would we know?
There is clarity to be found on this issue, but not among many considered to be “experts.”
Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association (APA) released an attention-getting new publication: Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. In it, the APA vaguely describes “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence. These have been collectively referred to as traditional masculinity ideology” (pp. 2–3).
Their conclusions about this “traditional masculinity ideology” could hardly be more blunt. As stated by Stephanie Pappas in an essay on the APA website, research allegedly shows that “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful” (“APA issues first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys,” APA.org, January 2019). This conclusion is “the main thrust” of the APA’s research on the matter.
Only months earlier, the APA described the “patriarchal ideal masculine construct” as including elements such as “toughness, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity” (“Harmful masculinity and violence,” APA.org, September 2018).
To combat the problem of such masculine ideals, the APA recommends intervening in the lives of boys early on, to “decrease [each] adolescent’s acceptance of traditional gender roles” and creating “marketing campaigns designed to modify social and cultural norms that endorse the unhealthy male code” (ibid.). And in the area of marketing campaigns, famous razor company Gillette was only too happy to oblige.
Gillette has long used the motto “The Best a Man Can Get” to sell its line of shaving products. But, inspired, perhaps, by the popularity of the #MeToo movement and the attention given to the idea of “toxic masculinity”—and surely with a conscious eye toward their history of commercials featuring stereotypically beautiful women stroking the clean-shaven face of stereotypically handsome and athletic men—Gillette decided to wade into the gender wars with its own public declaration of loyalty to the social engineers seeking to rewrite what it means to be male.
The result was a feminist-designed commercial geared more toward chastising men than selling razors. (Of course, the idea that Gillette did not hope to sell more products through the use of such an advertisement would be a naïve one.) Running at a little under two minutes, the video effectively—however mistakenly—paints the history of men as one in which the entire gender has not done enough to curb its own toxicity.
At many points in the video, the preachiness of its message peaks in a particularly soul-grating manner. For example, a little more than 30 seconds in, we see a collection of more than 15 men—each standing stoically behind his own, individual backyard grill—chanting, “Boys will be boys,” in cult-like fashion, as they watch a young child bullying another one on the ground in front of them, no one intervening.
For all the voices defending the commercial and claiming that it was intended only to narrowly target bad behavior and not to indict all men, the careful design of scenes such as that one paint the opposite picture. The image of an army of men stereotypically grilling and allowing one child to abuse another as they watch, until one lone, enlightened fellow repents and stops the bully, communicates a clear sentiment: Men, by and large, are the problem, and traditional masculinity (after all, “boys will be boys”) is a wrong in need of righting. Apparently, misbehaviors such as bullying and the denigration of women are not to be seen as deviations from traditional masculinity. They are to be seen as its natural manifestations.
The idea that a corporation—and one in the news at the time due to concerns about shady business practices—would so blatantly decide it had the moral authority to instruct the men of the world about how they should behave generated a great deal of resentment. But more offensive than the messenger was the message itself. As of this writing, the video has been viewed almost 30 million times on YouTube, garnering 1.4 million dislikes and more than 423,000 comments.
But the culture warriors and social engineers determined to treat traditional masculinity as a defect to be fixed continue their march, undeterred. And the pressure to bow to such ideas is very real—and growing.
In her classic and, regrettably, accurate book The War Against Boys, libertarian feminist Christina Hoff Sommers identifies many of the social forces bearing down on boys and young men, seeking to turn them into something other than what boys and young men naturally are.
Boys today bear the burden of several powerful cultural trends: a therapeutic approach to education that valorizes feelings and denigrates competition and risk, zero-tolerance policies that punish normal antics of young males, and a gender equity movement that views masculinity as predatory. Natural male exuberance is no longer tolerated (pp. 39–40).
As Sommers explains, at some point in the past,
…it became fashionable to pathologize the behavior of millions of healthy male children. We have turned against boys and forgotten a simple truth: the energy, competitiveness, and corporal daring of normal males are responsible for much of what is right in the world. No one denies that boys’ aggressive tendencies must be mitigated and channeled toward constructive ends. Boys need (and crave) discipline, respect, and moral guidance. Boys need love and tolerant understanding. But being a boy is not a social disease (pp. 3–4).
Is Sommers correct, and is natural masculinity a generally positive force, “responsible for much of what is right in the world”? Or are the American Psychological Association, Gillette, and other “enlightened” social engineers on the right track as they zealously seek to press men into a new mold of their own design? Will we only be freed of problems of bullying and misogyny, and will boys only be safe from mental harm and violent futures, if we throw off the shackles of traditionally masculine ideals and embrace the more neutered variety of “man” they are ready to prescribe?
It is true that individuals differ from one another, including within a particular sex. The accumulation and distribution of our individual traits and personality quirks can hardly be specified by only one variable—even one as enormously important as sex.
But it is just as true that there are real and significant differences between those of the male sex and those of the female sex, and this should be no surprise! For the Creator of humanity, the God of the Bible, designed us this way. Jesus Christ declares, “He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’” (Matthew 19:4). No, gender is not fundamentally a socially constructed reality, and, no, there is no “spectrum.” Humanity comes in two varieties by design, according to the will of the Designer.
As unfathomable as it may be to those who prefer to fantasize about creating a mythical genderless utopia, the differences between male and female continue to manifest themselves in society—century after century, and in culture after culture. Yes, there can be remarkable individual differences between eras and cultures, and yes, there are remarkable differences between individuals even within the genders themselves. But the basic tendencies are there for anyone to see.
Once we recognize that the sexes were created to be different, we also see the simple solution to our dilemma: If we desire to understand the sort of masculine ideals to which men should aspire, we should look at the instructions our Creator provided and the men He puts forward in His word as our examples.
When we look to the Scripture as our guide to discovering the characteristics of a healthy masculine identity, we find many of the very traits the APA warns men against.
For instance, consider the typical masculine trait of valuing self-sufficiency or self-reliance. The Apostle Paul says plainly in Ephesians 5:23 that in a family, the husband is to lead—which, speaking biblically, means devoting himself to serving others (Matthew 20:25–28). Paul elsewhere says that a man who does not provide for his own family has “denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Inherent in these ideas is the need for a man to develop an ability to apply his own skills and resources and become one whom others materially depend upon, not one primarily dependent on others.
Of course, difficult times can come, and illness and injury beset us all (Ecclesiastes 9:10–11). But for men who have the capacity to work but refuse to do so, Paul is plain: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)!
Men long to be able to be self-sufficient and to produce, of their own efforts, that which is needed for others to survive. That drive is part of a man’s fundamental nature, and society diminishes that drive at its own peril.
What about a “lack of emotional sensitivity”? Actually, the men of the Bible were a passionate bunch—a characteristic on vibrant display in the psalms of King David of Israel. At the same time, the ability to emotionally detach oneself from the circumstance at hand in order to “get the job done” is a praiseworthy trait, allowing for clarity and achievement at times when emotions would be crippling.
We see this in King David, as well. At one of the lowest points of his life, his own son, Absalom, attempted a coup to take the throne of Israel from him. When David’s soldiers killed Absalom, ending the conflict, David was inconsolable at the loss of his son. Yet, at the advice of his military leader, Joab, the king pulled himself together, suppressed his emotions, and appeared before his men in appreciation for their loyalty, support, and sacrifice. Sometimes, a stoic ability to remove feelings from the equation is a real necessity, and the ability to do so when the moment calls for it is a masculine ideal.
Consider, perhaps, some of the more controversial traits associated with “traditionally masculine ideology”: assertiveness, aggressiveness, and a willing readiness to confront and be combative. Surely such characteristics are always negative. Aren’t they?
No, not according to the Bible. The Apostle Paul boldly confronted the Apostle Peter “to his face” when the latter began behaving hypocritically toward the Gentile believers after Jewish leaders arrived among the congregation (Galatians 2:11–14). Jesus Himself overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple—surely scattering their contents all over the ground—and then made a whip of cords and physically drove the merchants out (Matthew 21:12; John 2:14–16)! He acted in righteous indignation at their defilement of His Father’s house!
But was Paul’s confrontation with Peter—or Jesus’ (dare we say it?) violent reaction to the descecration of the Temple—an example of toxic masculinity? No! There are times and places for confrontation and conflict, and possessing the capacity to stand up and personally confront evil is a worthy ideal of masculinity to which men should aspire!
Do we want to live in a world in which a husband and wife might be awakened in the dead of the night by the sound of breaking glass downstairs, only to have the man turn to his sweet wife and say, “Darling, I checked for burglars last time, and this time it’s your turn to go downstairs while I stay safe up here”? Or can we agree that assertiveness and aggressiveness may have a healthy place within the halls of ideal masculinity?
The Bible paints a picture of manhood that involves many ideals. The men God provides as examples show boldness, strength, toughness, courage, stoic focus, and a willingness to confront without hesitation when confrontation is needed. They also show gentleness, compassion, and concern for others—demonstrating that traditionally masculine traits are not somehow inherently incompatible with other traits.
Of course, every characteristic, masculine or feminine, can be expressed in abusive ways. Just as the assertiveness of men can become bullying, the gentle and nurturing side of women can turn into coddling.
One of the remarkable features of the Bible is the willingness of its Divine Author to record not only the highs of its heroes’ lives, but their lows as well—not merely their successes but their failures, no matter how severe. In many cases, we see the flip side of their natures and the consequences of allowing natural inclinations to go unguided and unregulated by greater ideals.
In addition to David’s manly actions and adventures, the Bible also records his instance of adultery and the murder he committed in a failed attempt to hide it (2 Samuel 11–12). God chronicles not only the valor and boldness of Jephthah the Gileadite, but also the tragic consequences of his rashness in victory (Judges 11).
To label such mistakes—and the many others recorded by the Bible’s inspired writers—as examples of “toxic masculinity” is to misunderstand how that pair of words has become a tool of propaganda, wielded by those seeking to dismantle biblical concepts of family structure and gender roles. Toxic masculinity and toxic femininity are simply manifestations of toxic humanity: expressions of our carnal natures, corrupted by sin, which are not naturally subject to the law of God (Romans 8:7).
But the solution to the problems caused by such corruption is not to throw the baby (boy or girl) out with the bathwater. Masculinity and femininity are not the problem, and the APA’s approach of treating traditional masculinity as a toxic brew of problems waiting to happen is simply wrong and dangerously misguided.
The Bible’s explanation is far more helpful and more in line with reality: Sin is the problem. And if sin is the problem, then addressing sin is the solution. Sin affects us all, and any one of us, regardless of gender, can misapply the inclinations of our design. The solution isn’t to ignore reality, fantasizing that we can reshape the sexes to be whatever we desire them to be. Rather, the answer is to embrace the differences in the sexes while seeking their healthiest expression, seeking the wisdom of the God who designed the sexes in the first place.
In his article “Grown Men Are the Solution, Not the Problem” on NationalReview.org, columnist David French highlights the upside-down nature of the approach pressed on us by our self-appointed minders:
We do our sons no favors when we tell them that they don’t have to answer that voice inside them that tells them to be strong, to be brave, and to lead. We do them no favors when we let them abandon the quest to become a grown man when that quest gets hard…. [T]raditional masculinity isn’t the problem; it can be part of the cure.
Sadly, society seems to be attempting to define men out of existence at the very moment in history when we may need them most. The God of the Bible speaks of terrible times ahead—an overdue rendezvous with the consequences of our rejection of Him, His laws, His design, and His guidance. The period to come in human history will be like no other has ever been, and no period afterward will ever match its ferocity and horrors (Matthew 24:21; Jeremiah 30:7).
Yet the Eternal reveals plainly what He is looking for to forestall such days—and what He fails to find: “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22:30).
Assertively—even aggressively—fighting against the crowd to do what is right, standing up on one’s own two feet when the rest of the world is crawling on its knees, and being strong enough to bear the intense weight of society’s pressure to conform to corrupt standards without deviating from what is true… All of those sound like the sorts of tasks for which men are made. Let us hope there are some left.