The paradox of toxic masculinity: Why gender norms are set up to privilege straight white men — who in turn 'are eating themselves alive'
Novelist Jared Yates Sexton catapulted onto the national media radar in 2016 when his dispatches from Donald Trump presidential campaign rallies — prompting me to ask him once, "how does a nice creative writing professor end up covering the presidential election?" — revealed a cultural insider's perspective on the rise of Trump. He avoided the press pen and moved among Trump's rowdiest supporters, where he was able to observe up close the toxic levels of white-male rage directed at Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and their supporters, which Trump exploited all the way to the White House.
In his 2017 book about the campaign and American rage, "The People Will Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore," Sexton wrote about how he could walk among Trump supporters and witness their unguarded responses and conversations because he knew how to blend in; he grew up in a white working-class Christian family in rural Indiana, and as he wrote for the New York Times in October 2016, after the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape leaked, he recognized the power of Trump's messaging immediately:
Donald J. Trump, especially the Donald J. Trump we heard last week on tape, is nothing new to me. His macho-isms, his penchant for dividing the world into losers and winners, his lack of empathy for anyone but himself — it all reminds me of home, and the sense I had, even as a boy, of a system of privilege that has ailed this country since its beginnings, but now seems to be, and sees itself, fading away.
In the book that rose out of that op-ed, "The Man They Wanted Me To Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making" (Counterpoint Press, out now), Sexton (an occasional Salon contributor) dives deep into his personal history with working-class white American patriarchal culture, weaving memoir with historical and sociological research and cultural analysis to explore how the constructs of traditional masculinity harm not only women, children and vulnerable people but also the straight white working-class men these strictures are supposed to privilege.
His honest and heartbreaking account of never quite being able to shed the damaging gender demands he was raised with, along with the cultural and historical context that he provides, provides a blueprint for how men can confront the harm that toxic masculinity has brought them. I don't consider it critical hyperbole to say that a book like this can save lives.
Raised in a working class community in rural Indiana, Sexton absorbed the cultural messages around him that he — sensitive, imaginative, asthmatic — was not the kind of boy who grew up to be a real man who had value in his community. That was reinforced at every turn, beginning with his alcoholic, dangerously unpredictable and emotionally remote father, and continuing through his violently abusive stepfather and the bullying boys acting out at school the oppressive strictures they learned from the men in their own homes. As a result of social anxiety and depression, he first contemplated suicide in first grade.
Once Sexton left home for college and then graduate school, he thought he had left all of that behind. But the lessons of his childhood followed him, as they tend to do, into adulthood. He dealt with the confidence issues so common in graduate school by reverting back to the hyper-masculinity he learned to value in his youth in order to counteract his insecurity, haunting bars and abusing his body through both binge drinking and extreme dieting and exercise. He put up an impenetrable wall between himself and romantic partners, destroying relationships in the process. All of this he did in the pursuit of appearing strong, and the events he writes about as a result of these impulses clearly show that it could have killed him.
"This is one of the dangers of toxic masculinity," he writes in the book. "I had my identity as a man disputed, and so I fell back into the masculine role I'd learned as a child and then performed as an insecure young adult."
When he and his father begin to repair their relationship — as, unbeknownst to him, his father was gravely ill — Sexton also starts the very difficult work of detaching himself from the influences of his youth, which, because toxic masculinity is not just a condition found in white rural working-class communities, proved much more difficult in practice than theory.
"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."
Sexton and I spoke earlier this week by phone about his book, how toxic masculinity hurts the men it ostensibly privileges and what healthy masculinity can look like. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It's been a week for men already. There was the Harper's Bazaar article recently about how men don't have friends, and of course women are paying the price for that, and then Darcy Lockman's piece in the New York Times pegged to her new book "All the Rage" about how men don't pull their weight when it comes to home and kids and don't really seem to care, either. Those are women writing about the side effects of toxic masculinity. And a lot of the discussions around these topics still primarily seem to originate with women. Do you think men talk about these issues already, or is there a real need for you guys to get in there and start figuring this out?
I think the brunt of this problem relies on men taking the lead on it, because one of the things about masculinity is that men who are socialized with traditional patriarchal masculinity are basically taught that they have to project to the world that they are at all times strong and invincible and that weakness is basically a betrayal to their gender and society.
And as a result, men, a lot of times, have these superficial relationships where they don't enjoy intimacy, they're not able to communicate their feelings, they're not able to talk about their problems, and the catch-22 of that is because they don't have that intimacy or that outlet with each other, they don't hold each other accountable for toxic masculinity.
And the more alone you are, and the more that you feel like you have to protect yourself and exert the persona of invincibility and strength, the worse that the behavior becomes. And so men, left and right, unwittingly, are reinforcing these old stereotypes by not being able to communicate with each other.
I think it's really important for men to not just communicate with each other, but to communicate well and thoughtfully. The moment that men start talking to one another, start talking to the people around them, about who they actually are and how they actually feel, their insecurities and their weaknesses and their fears, all of a sudden you feel like you're not alone anymore.
When you feel like you're not the only one that's going though that, I think that's when the antidote to masculinity can come about. That's one of the few ways that men can start to crawl out from behind that façade.
Your book is very rooted in the culture that you grew up in — rural Indiana, patriarchal, working class, still holding onto a lot of those traditional cultural values. I come from a similar area. I also see many of the same issues being reflected in stories about men who maybe do not think of themselves as steeped in the traditional patriarchal culture. They might even call themselves feminists — at least, pretty liberal — and yet still these same issues are . . . they're not even hiding in plain sight, they're just dressed differently. Do you see that as well?
Absolutely. When I was doing research on my book, I came to a conclusion that there are different types of what you would call toxic masculinity. There are men who have no idea what the word patriarchy means, they embody it and live it, and it's just the "natural state of being." There are other men who are in that culture and are suspicious of it. That's what I was when I was younger. I was around all these men who were toxically masculine and part of the patriarchy. I knew that I didn't feel comfortable with it and that something was wrong with it, but I was so surrounded by it that I didn't understand that it wasn't a natural thing. I felt like it was about me and for whatever reason I wasn't living up to some sort of expectation.
Then there are other people who've grown up, whether or not they've had feminist brothers or feminist fathers, people around them. They know what the patriarchy is, they've read literature and all that stuff. When I was an undergrad at Indiana State, I studied a lot that stuff. I was taking a lot of liberal arts classes, I actually joined the feminist group on campus, I talked constantly with feminists, I was very, very active in that community. But one of the mistakes that I made, and I think this is one of those things our culture is reeling from: I thought because I knew about it, that meant that I was cured of it.
It was this idea like, I can name the patriarchy and I can name these sexist things, so as a result there's no way that I'm going to behave in a toxically masculine way. But it turns out that when we're exposed to these things, and a lot of the people I've talked to and a lot of the literature I've read, it's a lot more like a chronic illness, or it's like trying to overcome alcoholism. You'll hear people say, "I'm still an alcoholic even if I'm not drinking." Men who grew up around the patriarchy or even if they're aware of it, they still can lapse into those things.
In a lot of ways, men who are aware of it are only as good as their own mental health and well-being at the moment.
A lot of what's happening in culture right now, especially with changing demographics and the changing economy, we're seeing a lot of people who are reacting to, whether it's economic, or career stress, or social stress, or political stress, they're falling back on these old behaviors that are just automatically generated to make them feel more "powerful."
They just instinctually fall back on them in times of trouble.
If toxic masculinity is, you just said, and as you write in the book, like a chronic illness and once we're infected we always carry it with us, what is the treatment for that?
It's just constant vigilance. Of course we're going back to traditional ideas of gender, but you have a lot of instances where women are taught to be very cognizant of how they're making people feel, how they appear in public, how they interact with people, censoring themselves, changing who they are, how they speak. Men have to be aware of what they're dealing with. They have to be aware that there's an automatic societal privilege toward being a male. Part of that privilege is never having to actually speak about what you're doing and what you're saying because society is yours, so to speak.
I think that men constantly have to be aware of this stuff. This is one of the reasons why mental health is such an important thing, and communication is such an important thing. Men need to be able to talk to one another and tell each other that these behaviors, whether or not they're hurting themselves, or they're hurting others, or they're projecting rape culture, or any number of misogynistic ideas, they have to be able to talk to one another and keep each other in check. Otherwise, you can lapse into these old, bad behaviors.
I think it's about vigilance and I think it's about constantly checking in with other people, communicating with other people, and taking self-inventories about who you are, and where you are, and whether or not you're living up to your priorities and principles.
You were a sensitive kid and your mom honored that, yet as you grew up you ended up mired in those same destructive patterns as the men who modeled them for you. I'm interested in this idea that adult men can't be fixed, but we can focus on the kids, raising them to be more aware.
There's this idea that the youth will save us, that young people have more expansive ideas about gender, that they believe in equality, and everything will be better once they're older and have more power. Yet the patterns show us that can start to collapse when it comes to actually working through adult life.
How do we set up boys, once they grow up and become men, to understand how to take care of this for themselves?
This is one of those things where, when writing the book, I was trying to find the silver bullet, right? The thing that would fix it, the antidote, the solution that would finally set everyone free. The thing that makes all of this so hard is how large and complicated, but also how intertwined it is with the things about society and culture that we never ever question, we just take for granted.
I think the best solution for it, is not just working against it, but defining it. Which is, I think, one of the most dangerous parts about this whole deal. We believe traditional masculinity is somehow ordained by nature or it's a biological function.
I think men know deep down that it's not real. I've firmly come to believe that from conversations with other men that other men are constantly in a state of anxiety or fear because they're not living up to the things that they believe is natural and expected of them.
We as Americans spend so much time thinking we're the "captains of our own destiny" or we're rugged individualists. As a result, we pretend these things don't affect us and that we're not acting in the preordained roles that society has created. I think on all fronts, you can raise children, like you said, to do their fair share, or to respect women, obviously, not to perpetuate rape culture and misogyny, but you also have to continually talk about these larger societal constructs and to define them as such.
They're obviously artificial in nature. But it's the easiest thing in the world to turn your back on them and accept them as part of your reality, as something that is organic. I think the more we move away from accepting that, the better this whole situation will get.
It starts in utero now. The gender reveal party is such a thing: this big documented party in which you fire a cannon or slice into a cake and the theme is something like "Pistols or Pearls?" I noticed they started to uptick around the time we started talking in a broader cultural sense about gender not being a binary and transgender issues were becoming part of the mainstream conversation. It's this backlash that is very coded in harmlessness: we're just having fun, it's just another party. I wanted a whole chapter on this phenomenon. [Laughs.] Then I realized you're a guy — how much of a role do gender reveal parties even have to play in your life?
I'm fascinated by them. A lot of it goes back to the backlash that is Trump-ism and the rise of Donald Trump. As you said there, "this is all in good fun." You'll notice that when Donald Trump says those really insulting things, there are these moments where he's like, "no one can take a joke anymore." Or —
Yeah. He'll say, "oh, I'm kidding, folks, I'm kidding." But then you get a look that says, "I'm really not."
Right. It's these really abusive, damaging behaviors, which is part of the backlash. The criticism of a book like mine is going to be, "why does everything have to be dissected? Why do you have to do all this?" Transgender people and gender-fluid people are being killed and or being bullied to the point of suicide. There are other people who have never felt comfortable within the rigid confines of the patriarchy or traditional masculinity, who spend their lives with unbelievable amounts of trauma and substance abuse.
Now we have this moment that frustrates me to no end. You see it, sadly, almost everyday now. There's some insecure, young, white man who picks up a gun, which we have been taught as a culture is a symbol of power, and because they don't have "power," they go into these public places and kill tons of people because they've been radicalized. This is a major, major crisis that somehow or another has been hidden behind all these niceties and good fun. I don't think people understand the rigidity they're forcing, not just their children into, but their culture into.
It's really an act of cultural self-harm. It's like cultural self-immolation.
I'm glad you said that about self-harm. The story of your father is so apt. He was abusive when you were young, he was steeped in all those patriarchal norms himself and did not process them in any kind of productive way, but then over the years he changed his attitudes toward others. I thought you documented that really well: he stops driving the gas-guzzler and starts driving a Prius, he starts to say, "hey, if someone's gay that doesn't have anything to do with me." He becomes very invested in climate change and radically shifts his politics and his viewpoint. It was all very outward-focused. And yet at the same time that personal stoicism — a man doesn't complain, a man doesn't go to the doctor — was killing him. His attitude toward himself remained really unkind and really punishing.
I think about that, about how self-compassion isn't a trait that we foster as a culture. It ends up manifesting itself differently in how we talk about it, men and women, but overall Americans are suspicious of it. We equate it with selfishness or narcissism. When we talk about the principles of how patriarchy limits, how gender norms harm other people, I feel like we also don't talk enough about how much they harm the people that they're set up, ostensibly, to honor, and to protect.
Especially with men. A large part of the reason we have the gender roles we do are as a result of labor. My family is a working class, factory, mining, hard laboring family. At family gatherings sometimes, my male relatives — and these are the men who pressured me to accept my place in the masculine structure, who would give me such a hard time for being sensitive or pursuing artistic means or intellectual means — you hear them talk about their injuries and their health and they'll say these really tragic things like, "well, when I die just throw me in a hole and move on."
You'll see them say these things as their bodies are starting to decline. I have a lot of miners in my family. This is an occupation that doesn't necessarily have to exist anymore, and is, in a large part, being perpetuated because of the persona that it creates and the political capital that's being used to manipulate them.
Their bodies are being broken down and they're saying, "oh I don't care about me, if I die by the time I'm 50 it's fine." Then you look around the room and you see their children, you see their wives, you see their loved ones. They don't necessarily understand that talking that way about themselves, and degrading who they are as people, and using themselves as an expendable resource, they're creating tons of trauma for everyone outside of themselves. In the meantime, what they're expressing, without maybe even fully understanding it, is a self-loathing that goes beyond almost anything imaginable.
It's not just suicidal ideation, it's the idea that you as an individual have no worth beyond the labor that you can produce. That kind of thought leads to so many terrible things not just personally, but culturally. I think a large reason why we haven't been able to move beyond things like fossil fuel or manufacturing. It's so huge, and dangerous, and awful. I don't think men can necessarily wrap their heads around that.
It's like a paradox. The rigid masculine gender norms, which are set up to privilege straight white men over everyone else, yet at the same time those men are eating themselves alive on the inside with this ambient level of self-criticism and self-loathing happening at all times.
That's difficult to see, I think, and it's probably difficult for those men to see themselves as privileged in any way if what they really think of themselves is, "just throw me in the hole after I die."
How do we break through that culturally? It's a paradox and I think it is difficult to understand. It's difficult for me to understand.
When I started researching this book, this was a thing that I didn't necessarily understand before. I always thought that the perpetual nature of the patriarchy, and men buy into it, was like, here's a one-up for me that is going to give me privilege and economic power.
But I started to realize in my research that men are actually hindering themselves economically. They're doing so by insisting to continue these industries and roles that are going away. Manufacturing is going away. This emphasis on physical labor is going away. The things that men have always been allergic to, so to speak — communication, empathy, all these things that this new economy focuses on — are things that they've been taught not to value.
What I started to notice was, there's this unconscious bargain that's being made. Which is, yes, this is where the economy and the future of society is going and I'm not going to succeed there. I'm not going to succeed here, but out of spite, I'll go ahead and continue doing this even if it takes everyone else down with me. It's almost this idea of, "I may not get mine, but as long as other people don't get theirs maybe I'll maintain a certain amount of privilege or power."
There's been this weird thing that's happened where men are making sure that they're continuing in jobs that, by the way, they hate.
They hate those jobs. They hate them. I wrote this in the book, the men in my family are hobbled. They've lost hands and fingers. They've suffered these major injuries to their backs where they can barely get out of bed in the morning. They've always been miserable in these jobs, but that misery has somehow or another become a societal marker. You can say, "I hate this job and it's killing me, but I still clock in and do it." Which has become the marker for a man's worth.
So in writing this book, you did open yourself up to a lot of criticism. Not only are you critiquing an entire culture of masculinity, but this is also your first memoir. What made you decide to go in a personal route with this book?
I lived a very odd life. My childhood was horrific. I've always spent a good amount of time trying to figure out if I was going to tell this story and if I did, how I was going to do it. My mom and I endured a lot of abuse, I saw a childhood friend of mine murdered, I saw all this stuff happen and I never put it all together until I was watching the Donald Trump campaign.
As I was reporting on that, I started to realize there's this thread at the heart of it that particularly happened with the "Access Hollywood" tape and the fallout from it. I started to realize that what I'd gone through as a kid, in my community and in my family, was playing itself out on a much larger scale socially and politically. I would go to these events to talk about that phenomenon that I grew up with and how it was now ballooning up the Donald Trump campaign.
A lot of people would ask me, after I talked about my family and I talked about my upbringing, they would ask me this one question that I struggled with for a while: "How did you get out? How did you grow up and not be like this?"
The answer to that question, that I wrestled with for a long time, was I'm not exactly sure. And maybe I didn't get completely out. Because again, this is a chronic thing that you constantly have to fight against and be aware of. So I started retracing those steps with a political and social view of what had happened when I was younger and I realized one day — with a lot of horror — if I'm going to be honest, I'm going to have to tell my story.
To do that I started figuring out how to tell my story, plus also talk about the socialization and the psychological and sociological aspects of this stuff.
Memoir writing is still, I think, coded pretty female in our culture as well. There's an additional layer of that.
This sounds almost cliché, but I needed this book when I was little.
I think a lot of writers write and read because they're lonely and they feel isolated in their own experience. It's through books and other writers that you start to realize that you're not alone. I didn't have this as a kid. I never read about masculinity, I never read about feminism until I got into college.
I was thinking about how different I was, and the possibility of killing myself because I didn't live up to masculine expectations, as early as first grade. I was like seven years old. I needed a book that talked about this stuff and that's one of the reasons I decided to go ahead and write it because I don't see a lot of them out there. I know for me, it was a really frightening book to write. I assume for a lot of men, it's a really frightening thing to talk about.
I thought maybe there's one kid in rural Indiana, in a small coal mining town, who right now is growing up very, very afraid, and very insecure, who hates himself, he doesn't know what's going on. And if he can make it to his library, or somebody could give it to him as a birthday gift, or Christmas gift, maybe it might help. That's why I was able to, I guess, swallow down [the fear].
The question of "how did you get out?" is interesting. The idea there, I suppose, is that there's an inand there's an out, right? But is a highly-educated national media personality who turns out to be a sexual harasser or abuser in or out? This idea that the problems caused by toxic masculinity are a problem exclusive to the working class and therefore a problem to be finger-wagged at or bemoaned, not necessarily something that exists and is reinforced from the highest levels of culture on down. It's frustrating.
One of the biggest problems of our culture is this idea that there's us and there's them. Us, the in group, is this group that is infallible, we've got no role in this stuff.
When you look at things like rural America, [the idea is] those people are lost, they're unredeemable, there's nothing they can do and to get out is to escape this orbit and gravity of ignorance and evil. But even the people who are perpetuating these things, they know deep down that it's wrong. When they're alone and when the lights are out they know that this is a persona and they are overcompensating and they're putting a character out in front of the world.
I think when you start to look at these things as behaviors that can be changed, and if we can start to understand it and wrap our heads around it, all of a sudden there's not going to be us and them. Those things that exist to push us apart are only there because of the things that we don't talk about.
If we can start unraveling this knot of misogyny and racism and nationalism and these economic issues that divide everybody, if we could start talking about those things, life can get better. I think it's a fatalistic thing to look at a group of people and say that they are uniquely suffering from this thing and for whatever reason it's like a genetic disease. It's not. It's nurture, it's environment, and these are the things that we can do to start working against it and ultimately start healing in some way shape or form.
I think the idea that we can't — I think that's really, really damaging.
That idea of division is also clear when we think about what is a male problem versus what is a female problem. I was really struck by the part of your book where you write about when your disordered eating starting in college. It made me think about the recent profile of Jack Dorsey where he talks about his very restricted eating regimen. When men do this it's presented like a productivity lifehack. Women recognize a story about disordered eating. As a culture though wee're perpetuating the idea that when men self-harm they are doing it for productivity reasons, which are coded as masculine reasons, and when women do it they're weak and damaged and sick.
It's everything from the personal to the political. It's all inextricably linked. We look at female politicians and we're like, "Is she likable?"
If she's ambitious, she's somehow or another betraying her gender, and as a result you don't want her in power. Men who are aggressive is a positive. All these things work the exact same way and to the point where, and this again goes to what you were talking about, I had severe anorexia and bouts of bulimia and I didn't think that I had an eating disorder because I was a man.
I was restricting myself to under a thousand calories a day and going on these multiple trips to a gym to work out to the point where I was passing out. I did permanent damage to myself. I never, ever even considered for a second that I had disordered eating until years later when I read an article that said men could have eating disorders. It blew my mind, the idea that I could have suffered from that.
Since then, it's a constant struggle with these chronic conditions. It's still a thing where I have to keep track of my eating or else I can fall into these old ideas. Even though I know about it, even though I've studied it, even though I've now written a book about it, I still can forget that a man can have an eating disorder.
[Men] never want to admit that we have body issues. If a man controls his body or he controls his environment or he controls his politics, then he's the master of all these things. If a woman even considers any of this, she's weak because she's a gender traitor. I mean, that does everything from keep women from being able to fulfill their careers and their desires, to determining presidential elections. It's their biggest thing.
I have found that when we're critiquing toxic masculinity, often — whether disingenuously or not — it gets heard as masculinity is toxic. Is there a working definition of healthy masculinity? If so what do you think that looks like?
Absolutely. I am expressly gendered masculine. I'm into boots and jeans. I express myself in a masculine way. That's how I approach the world and that's how I express myself. You can chop wood all day to your heart's content, you can mow the yard, you can do all the expressly gendered things that you think you're supposed to do.
The problem is when the unrealistic expectations set in and you don't question them, and because of your frustration and because of the way you learn how to conduct yourself you become violent, you become dismissive, you become prejudiced, you subjugate women, because of what you've been taught about gender roles and expectations. Those things are all make-believe. They are just as unreal as anything. Men can behave in a masculine manner and can adopt the role of protector if they want. Part of being protective is to accept your own limitations and to look out for other people.
When you look at how toxic masculinity works, all of the behaviors and all of the actions are explicitly in contrast to what masculinity is supposed to be.
If men are supposed to be perfectly masculine, then they're never afraid and they're always in control. Well, we watched Brett Kavanaugh basically cry in and scream [in his confirmation hearings]. All of that is about being afraid and being insecure.
Men can be "men" if they wan to be and they can express themselves in masculine ways, but it's those other things, it's the damaging behaviors where they hurt themselves, they hurt their loved ones, they hurt women, they hurt vulnerable populations, and they do it all because of fear and insecurity, which is not what being a man is supposed to be about. Traditionally, anyway.
Absolutely, we can still have masculinity, but we need to get rid of the insecurity and the [negative] actions that happen because of the insecurity. The sooner we do that, I think, the better for culture in general.