Ditching toxic masculinity in favour of positive masculinity

By Oupa Makhalemele

Women constitute the majority of the population, yet they continue to be treated as second-class citizens.  At the heart of the problem is patriarchy characterized by toxic masculinity. It is time for boys and men to develop positive aspects of masculinity that produce positive consequences for themselves and others.

The scourge of femicide and women and child abuse are endemic in South Africa. Violence against women include emotional, psychological and financial abuse, according to the Domestic Violence Act No. 16 of 1998; highlighting a side of abuse often hidden from the public gaze on rapes and murders of women.  The promulgation of this act happened at the time where the murder rate in South Africa was more than five times the global average, as reported by the World Health Organisation in 2000. Many gender justice and women’s rights activists have correctly declared that the problem can be solved through drastic action by government in partnership with actors in the civil society and business sectors.

How women are let down by society

The abuse of women in South Africa happens in the safety of the home, in places of work, at schools and more recently all over the internet – pretty much anywhere. In addition to living with the fear of death, often from an intimate partner, women in South Africa endure cat-calling and sexual harassment in the streets and at work. They must stomach patronizing attitudes from colleagues in the boardroom and being treated as second-class citizens in a country where women constitute the majority. As if to add insult to injury, on average, women are paid less for the same work compared to men.

Reasons for this vary and statistics about this scourge are often unreliable at best. This is largely because women are reluctant to report these cases, fearing reprisals from the men on whom they depend at times, or due to secondary victimization and negative experiences when reporting these cases. These cases are also dismissed by law enforcement officials. What is without doubt, however, is that most deaths, injuries, physical and emotional scars result from men’s actions.

The evolution of patriarchy

Observers place patriarchy, the system that cements social arrangements that places men in power over women, at the heart of the problem. Research shows that this dominance of men over women, emerged some 12 centuries ago, as daily life shifted from the hunter-gatherer mode to the agricultural mode. Anthropologist Sarah Hardy, of the University of California, points out that the organisation of society in the hunter-gatherer era was egalitarian, where woman could retain the option of staying within the locale of her birth, and by extension retaining the support of her kin. This meant she could opt out of an oppressive relationship.

Homemaking, role-separation and the creation of gender roles

The emergence of agriculture engendered a more sedentary life, encouraged the accumulation of property and thanks to biology, power shifted to the physically stronger males, who were relied upon to defend said property. Anthropologists Patricia Draper and Henry Harpending point out that this “sociobiological social organisation” led to women occupying the less valued role of homemaking.

This ‘inferior’ status for women would over the years be cemented through socialization. “Social constructionist theories” point to the active role of individuals and groups in imbuing certain qualities to manufacture and perpetuate gender roles. Males and females are cast in different roles that normalise the playing of different and separate roles for men and women: women are natural caregivers; men are providers and defenders of the homestead; women are the weaker sex and men the opposite. On and on the roles are assigned to men and women and society is conditioned to accept these as given.

 But is patriarchy good for men?

Superficially, it might seem as though men are at an advantage when it comes to gender roles, expectations and all the perks that come with it. In reality patriarchy is coded with toxic behaviour that ultimately work against men and society in general. Seeking to reach the apex of the ‘Ideal Male’, men find themselves boxed into self-harming patterns of behaviour. The ideal male is broadly strong, does not show weakness by crying or seeking help. He is heterosexual by essence as he cannot show effeminate (read weak) traits. Added to this cauldron of toxic masculinity, these traits yield a slew of negative outcomes for men. The results include disproportionately high educational attrition (dropout) rates, mental health challenges (resulting in suicides in some extreme cases), health problems such as cardiovascular diseases and public health concerns such as susceptibility to substance abuse, imprisonment and earlier mortality.

This point is demonstrated aptly by the statistics on homicide in South Africa as aggregated by gender. Consider death statistics in South Africa by sex. According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) for example, of the 21, 325 murders that took place in 2019/20, which averages 58 murders a day, women victims numbered 2, 695 (13%), translating to one femicide case every three hours. This means that for every woman homicide victim, there are some nine of their male counterparts. And by all accounts, most murders happen between ‘intimates’, or people well acquainted with each other.

As demonstrated by the ISS survey, many women are killed by men, however many more men are killed by men. Whilst one murder is just far too many, the statistics do show that men are the most vulnerable demographic to violence. Society, it would seem, is reaping the bitter fruit of a patriarchal system it has actively brought to life.

Time to ditch toxic masculinity in favour of positive masculinity

Clearly toxic masculinity is yielding bad outcomes for men and society at large. As we look for alternative ways for men to be, those positive masculine traits can be preserved and incorporated with other less harmful traits. The growing field in psychology that looks at masculinities is proposing an interesting paradigm, known as the “positive psychology positive masculinity paradigm (PPPM)”. In this paradigm, boys and men use positive aspects of masculinity that produce positive consequences for themselves and others. These include traits such as self-reliance, respect for women, heroism, courage and a sense of service.

Parents and family are the primary conveyors of this message for growing boys. There are many indicators that society is ready to do this. The traditional forms of fending for self and family, tied historically to physical strength, have made way for knowledge-based forms as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) evolves and impacts on how we work and play. Governments are steadily moving towards women empowerment, overturning the hold of patriarchal forms of social organisation. It’s high time parents teach their boys better ways of being men and redefining masculinity in the process. After all our young men are millennials and effectively growing up in a society relatively less entangled in the stranglehold of patriarchy.

Without a critical mass of men growing up with attitudes and beliefs that acknowledge women as equals,  and places less pressure on them to be all mighty, never vulnerable, never expressing fear and anxiety – the tide of toxic masculinity will not ebb. It will gather steam and continue on its path of destruction.

More stories in Issue 123

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Ditching toxic masculinity in favour of positive masculinity

The abuse of women in South Africa happens in the safety of the home, in places of work, at schools and more recently all over the internet - pretty much anywhere. In addition to living with the fear of death, often from an intimate partner, women in South Africa endure cat-calling and sexual harassment in the streets and at work.

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