The Trauma of Toxic Masculinity

What really lies beneath the anger and aggression of traditional White masculinity.
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“Traditional masculinity, as we know it, is an unnatural state, and, as a consequence, men are constantly at war with themselves and the world around them.”

Photo by Tiffany Bjellmus/EyeEm/Getty Images

During the two years I reported from the 2016 campaign trail, I watched stump speeches in cramped union halls and polished addresses to thousands, survived the major conventions, dodged flash bangs and retreated from burning limos at an inaugural riot, and generally dove headfirst into one of the most bizarre and contentious political contests in American history. The majority of this time, however, was devoted to studying the phenomenon that was the Donald Trump campaign, a rolling disaster equal parts professional wrestling and pure rage. After sneaking into his rallies, speaking with his supporters, and examining that mess from every conceivable angle, what I eventually found, at the dark heart of it all, was White men.

At the rallies they’d crowd into a scrum in front of the stage and stand shoulder to shoulder. On their way in they’d buy buttons calling Hillary Clinton a “bitch,” or else they’d choose between two of the most popular shirts for sale: “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica” or one with Trump riding a motorcycle that Clinton had just been thrown from and wearing a vest that said, “If you can read this the bitch fell off.” In the comfort of the crowd they used disgusting language and trafficked in casual racism, virulent misogyny, and undisguised homophobia. At times, they seemed spurred on by each other, as if in competition to see who could step furthest over the line of common decency. 

I was able to be one of the first journalists to walk among them because these are my people. Growing up in a dirt-poor factory family in southern Indiana, I’d heard all of this before, though usually behind closed doors, and thus could observe without flinching or revealing myself. I also knew how to dress—jeans, T-shirts, scuffed boots, an old, soiled baseball cap—and to carry myself as if I had better things to do and yet was ready to fight at a moment’s notice. I could blend in because I’d been doing so for years, faking it with my own family. The things those men said I’d heard at barbecues and holidays. The same groups they were angry with were the ones they’d railed about for as long as I could remember.

These men raised me. They punished me when I didn’t fit in. They beat me and tortured me, all in an effort to toughen me up and make me just like them. They were my uncles, my cousins, my friends, my neighbors, my stepfathers, and even my own father.

There in the crowd I looked and performed like them, but I still felt as strange and as odd as I did back home. From the time I was very little, I’d always been like a stranger among my family. I watched them and took my cues, but I could never escape the suspicion that in some way, shape, or form, I was unusual.

That fact didn’t go unnoticed by the men in my world. To my relatives I was “different,” a word I’d heard them use in a suspicious voice whenever they thought I was out of earshot. They were uncomfortable around me, thrown off by how I spoke and how often I’d ask questions that required more than a monosyllabic “yes” or “no,” or one of their customary grunts or groans women had learned to translate out of necessity. I talked about feelings, read books, and when I played with my toys, even the action figures and robots that all came with missiles and machine guns, they spent more time communicating than battling each other.

The patriarchal structure my family operated under was described by the women as “the way it’s always been,” a tired nod to a way of life that’d been rooted in place since before they were born. It meant that women tended to the home, even as they worked jobs to make ends meet, and then raised their children. The man was expectantly beleaguered by his backbreaking job, and having given his all to the factory, mine, or body shop, he had no more energy to spare for his partner or his family, no more strength for functioning besides maybe taking out the trash or mowing the yard on the weekend.

Men were effectively the kings of their household, the final word on every matter, above reproach or question. They were to be feared and taken care of. They sat in front of a game on the TV like a royal contemplating stately matters upon a throne. And like many kings, they possessed a great ability to be cruel. When their power or sovereignty was questioned, their response was anger. They yelled, they threw things, they were violent, and these outbursts always coincided with lapses in authority, humiliations at work, and any number of breaches of that sovereignty.

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Like kings, they were also benefactors of privilege they had earned by simply being born. And when those privileges were tested—whether these were my relatives or the men like those at Trump’s rallies—they declared war.

When I think about masculinity, and particularly my struggle to find my place in the masculine world, the man who comes to mind most is my father. Of course, father issues are nothing new—art is littered with books and songs and plays and movies about it—but when I look at my relationship with John Robert Sexton, those difficulties mostly center on what is expected out of a man.

Like the others, Dad knew I was different. Five years after he died, I sat down to talk with my stepmother, Nancy, and the word she used to describe his feelings about me as a child was “soft,” a catchall that meant sensitive, vulnerable, artistic.

Following a traumatic and abusive divorce, my parents were estranged, and I spent the overwhelming majority of my time with my mom. I saw Dad on holidays and the occasional vacation, but I got a sense I made him uneasy and, over time, that he was happier when our time together was sparse.

When I did see him, though, I was terrified of his macho act. He bragged incessantly about his time in the Marines and preferred to be outside drinking beer and working with his hands. In his absence, the family told stories about his legendary days raising hell. He had no time for my bullshit, and when we talked, which wasn’t often, he was dismissive, sexist, racist, and closed off.

Back then, my dad would have been the exact type of man you’d expect to vote for Donald Trump.

When talk with his buddies turned to outsiders, be they immigrants, homosexuals, feminists, or the few African Americans or Mexicans who dared to move into our small Indiana town, things turned ugly. Like the conversations I’d heard in and outside Trump rallies, it was “our” town, “our” country. There was no doubt White men ruled the world and everyone else was looking to steal it away.

The older I got, and the more the distance between my dad and me started to hurt, I tried to play the role he expected. I’d go fishing, camping, bowling; I would stand there as he and the other men talked. Much like Donald Trump’s infamous locker room session where he bragged that he could grab women “by the pussy,” men unencumbered by the presence of women often break their self-imposed vow of silence, and what they say, more often than not, is beyond offensive.

I’ve heard men joke about wanting to rape women.

I’ve heard men describe their sexual encounters in stark, humiliating detail.

I’ve heard men use every slur, racial or otherwise, you could ever imagine.

I’ve heard men express their most fundamentally racist and sexist beliefs, have heard them lust after authoritarian power, say they’d be just fine eliminating all minorities, that they wish every man, woman, and child in the Middle East would be incinerated with nuclear bombs, have heard them discuss the merits of reinstituting slavery, and go several rounds of admiring Adolf Hitler.

For those men, communication is either a utility to get something done or another opportunity to further the illusion that they are unburdened by consciences or weak emotions.

My dad was like that for the majority of the 30 years I knew him. At nearly every occasion he was either stoic or aggressively politically incorrect, and the worldview he presented was as cold and cruel as he would like to have been perceived.

But then something happened.

He changed. Wholesale. When I look back on it I wonder if it was because he knew he was running out of time. Unchecked diabetes—like many men, Dad refused to tell anyone he was sick and then avoided seeing a doctor for fear of appearing weak—took his life at the early age of 59. But before it did, Dad spent the last decade of his life as a different man.

This came after we finally got to know each other and grew into friends. I was older and a few rough years had worn away some of the softness he’d despised in me. We met somewhere in the middle: me turning into a harder, stoic man and my father finally emerging from his shell.

In these years we did the tried-and-true masculine things. We watched ball games on the TV, fished for catfish and bluegill in stripper pits in the Greene-Sullivan State Forest, shot guns, stood out in the garage, as is customary, and generally bullshitted. But what was most amazing, other than my father’s apparent transformation, was that Dad, seemingly exhausted by years of near-silence, began to speak openly about the burden of masculinity.

He told me the expectations he’d carried, as a father, as a son, as a man, had sabotaged his relationships and prevented him from expressing himself, or really enjoying intimacy, emotionally or intellectually, his entire life.

Shocked at the depth of frustration and despair my dad had suffered, I listened and realized, for the first time, that the masculinity I’d sought, the masculinity I’d been denied, had always been an impossibility. Deep down, I realized that masculinity, as I knew it, as it was presented to me, was a lie.

Men like my father, and men like him who attend Trump rallies, join misogynistic subcultures, populate some of the most hateful groups in the world, and are prisoners of toxic masculinity, an artificial construct whose expectancies are unattainable, thus making them exceedingly fragile and injurious to others, not to mention themselves. The illusion convinces them from an early age that men deserve to be privileged and entitled, that women and men who don’t conform to traditional standards are second-class persons, are weak and thus detestable. This creates a tyrannical patriarchal system that tilts the world further in favor of men and, as a side effect, accounts for a great deal of crimes, including harassment, physical and emotional abuse, rape, and even murder.

These men, and the boys following in their footsteps, were socialized in childhood to exhibit the ideal masculine traits, including stoicism, aggressiveness, extreme self-confidence, and an unending competitiveness. Those who do not conform are punished by their fathers in the form of physical and emotional abuse, and then further socialized by the boys in their school and community who have been enduring their own abuse at home. If that isn’t enough, our culture then reflects those expectations in its television shows, movies, music, and especially in advertising, where products like construction-site-quality trucks, power tools, beer, gendered deodorant, and even yogurt promise to bestow masculinity for the right price.

The masculinity that’s being sold, that’s being installed via systematic abuse, is fragile because, again, it is unattainable. Humans are not intended to suppress their emotions indefinitely, to always be confident and unflinching. Traditional masculinity, as we know it, is an unnatural state, and, as a consequence, men are constantly at war with themselves and the world around them.

Excerpt from The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making by Jared Yates Sexton (Counterpoint Press, May 7, 2019) published by permission of the publisher.

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