Modern Masculinity Isn’t “Toxic”. It’s Uninitiated.

by Parker Gibbons on Unsplash

The verdict is in.

Modern masculinity is toxic, can’t you see?

Toxic to men, toxic to women, toxic to children, toxic to a society that is buckling under the weight of such extreme levels of dysfunction.

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

There’s no denying that the current cultural criteria of what it means to be a man leads to downright disastrous outcomes.

But that doesn’t make it toxic.

This is probably the moment that you give me a puzzled look and say, “Adam… what?”

Hear me out.

If you’ve followed me for a while you know that I’m no fan of the word “toxic”.

It’s a buzzword — shorthand for any number of more precise ways of describing a person’s (or in this case, a gender’s) difficult behavior.

It leads to confusion and misunderstanding as everyone inserts the meaning they most closely associate with the term into their impression of what’s being talked about.

In a cultural conversation where tensions already run high — and where the stakes are even higher — we truly cannot afford this type of ambiguity.

More importantly where moving the needle on the state of modern masculinity is concerned, using the word “toxic” is a turn-off for most men to engage in the conversation we most need them to have.

“I’m ‘toxic’, huh? Screw you!”

Even if you’re careful to clarify that the “toxic” in “toxic masculinity” refers to the constricting social norms and not the individual men who are conditioned by them, good luck getting that nuance across. Most men are already out the door, or they’re in such an activated state that a productive conversation is impossible.

Those who’ve used the word “toxic” — and terms like it — to shame men made sure of that.

Even for the aware, discerning man, pausing to consider that his actions are “toxic”, or that they contribute to a culture of “toxicity”, is somewhat of a tall order.

The label itself is radioactive.

We simply need another, better entry point that will bring more men into the conversation. One that’s more accessible to them, and that will lead to real, productive outcomes.

It just so happens that “toxic masculinity” is also an inaccurate diagnosis of the root of the problem at hand.

Because modern masculinity isn’t “toxic”.

It’s uninitiated.

And viewing the modern moment from this new perspective is crucial to our ability to actually do something about it.

Let me explain.

In his seminal book on masculinity, Iron John, Robert Bly talks of the complete lack of robust, meaningful, and effective rites of passage for modern men. The book was written almost 30 years ago, but this basic fact remains true today.

Because of this, men of adult age are frozen in adolescent amber, emotionally and energetically. They can get to a certain point in their maturation as men, but by and large they hit a snag somewhere along the way and that’s where they remain.

It’s important to note that “adolescent” here doesn’t refer to a man’s teenage years. It refers to the middle phase of his masculine initiation, which often lasts well into adulthood.

What are some characteristics of the adolescent masculine?

He’s immature. He’s selfish (and self-involved). He doesn’t know himself very well. He’s all bluster with no true energetic gravitas. He’s still nursing the wounds he sustained earlier on in his life — from parents, or past lovers — without the interest, ability, or awareness he needs to heal them. He’s steeped in shame, and projects his self-hatred onto whatever or whomever is within reach. He thinks he knows what he wants out of life, but because he doesn’t actually know himself well he doesn’t know what he truly desires — let alone how to get it. He secretly feels impotent, like a fraud.

Most importantly, he’s disconnected from sources of true masculine power — especially a felt sense of his own masculinity beyond those ruthlessly conditioned concepts, and an understanding of the actions he could take to embody and express it more fully.

Does this sound familiar where your experience of your own life is concerned? What about your experience of the men you know?

Toxic masculinity is a product of the adolescent masculine.

It’s what you get when most men are ill-equipped to calmly, confidently, and capably handle the difficult demands of an adult life, and then you hand them the keys to the kingdom.

The patriarchy — that oft maligned bastion of male power and identity — is an adolescent masculine construct (at least as it’s currently designed).

Even the dreaded “man box”, that astonishingly narrow set of criteria of what it means to be a man, comes straight from the adolescent masculine. We’ve been so concerned with mitigating its admittedly destructive effects that we never stopped to consider its own root cause. If we had, we’d have realized that the only place it could have come from is the dark imagination of a man who’s never known anything but sadness and madness and despair because he doesn’t know how to carry himself past life’s pain.

All of the behaviors we hold up as proof of a man’s toxicity — the greed, the violence, the alienation, the abandonment, the cruelty — only occur because he hasn’t completed his training as a man.

And all of the cultural forces we think cause and contribute to a man’s toxicity are only a factor because he hasn’t completed his training as a man.

A follower of mine on Twitter recently asked me what I thought some of the possible sources of the modern masculinity crisis are.

They suggested a few good ones: changing gender roles, economic insecurity, fractured families and a lack of father figures in the home, porn use, etc.

Here’s how I responded:

“IMO all of these take a back seat to the fact that we lack any structure whatsoever to initiate masculinity thru adolescence (I’m not talking teen yrs, I’m talking the middle phase of a man’s maturation). None of these would matter (or exist) in face of a truly mature masculine.”

None of these would matter (or exist) in the face of a truly mature masculine.

Think about that for a minute.

We’ve been playing whack-a-mole with the different facets of the problem when we should have been going directly to the source — and the solution — all along: the hearts and minds of the men involved.

Finally gaining traction here depends on our ability to shift our understanding of what’s really going on at the most basic and fundamental level.

It starts with ditching “toxic masculinity”.

We do this not to go easy on men or to let them off the hook for taking responsibility for their actions. We do it to operate from what’s most true. If we’re not willing to do that then we might as well throw in the towel now. We’ve already lost.

Because “toxic” is not what masculinity is.

And we severely limit the solutions that are available to us when we frame it this way.

What can you possibly do with a “toxic” person? Quarantine them? Imprison them? Exile them?

None of these make any real sense.

But what can you do with an uninitiated man?

Plenty of things.

You can help him, question him, invite him, support him, teach him, challenge him — all in productive ways. You can awaken the man in him who’s been searching all his adult life for a way to heal the pervasive worthlessness that eats away inside him, when the way to do so all along was with a better understanding of himself and his true nature.

Because the root of male toxicity has nothing to do with some fatal flaw in who we are, as we’ve been led to believe. It doesn’t even really have anything to do with our socialization. It has to do with the fact that we haven’t undergone the transformation necessary to be able to radiate with a generative masculine essence and wield a just masculine power.

It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that everyone is truly doing the best they can with the interest, ability, and information they have at the time.

It’s for this reason that I know men will want to grow if we can present what’s at stake in terms of what it means for them. Not society. Not women. Not their families. Not other men. Them. Their lived experience. If they can clearly see how it is in their own best interest to engage in this kind of work, they’ll be lined up around the block.

Men want to do what’s best for them. They have a natural inclination to want to operate from what’s most true.

It’s just no one has presented it to them yet.

That’s why I invite you to join me in seeing the modern masculinity crisis from this new perspective, and to speak about it in these terms.

It’s the best chance we’ve got.