Photo by Sarahmirk, Wikimedia CC

We hear a lot about “toxic masculinity” in popular culture these days and sometimes it seems like toxic masculinity — as opposed to healthy masculinity — is to blame for all of the world’s problems. In a recent article in The Atlantic, sociologist Raewyn Connell disagrees with this common conception, arguing that toxic masculinity itself is not a singular cause of problems like violence and entitlement. Instead, Connell points out that masculinity itself is complex.

For example, standards of masculinity vary across time and place. Connell’s work demonstrates that there is not one masculinity, but multiple masculinities — shaped by race, class, culture, social position, and other factors. Thus, the causes of violence and other social problems often blamed on a culture of toxic masculinity are not the same in all places. Connell says,

“The popular discussion of masculinity has often presumed there are fixed character types among men…I’m skeptical of the idea of character types. I think it’s more important to understand the situations in which groups of men act, the patterns in their actions, and the consequences of what they do.”

According to Michael Salter, social scientist and author of the article,

“The problem with a crusade against toxic masculinity is that in targeting culture as the enemy, it risks overlooking the real-life conditions and forces that sustain culture.”

Salter argues thatif we want to stop violence perpetrated by men, we must take a broad approach, understanding men’s material realities — their social positions, the standards set for them, the broader political context and other factors — and institutions that may help perpetuate violence. To explain, Salter uses the example of liquor stores:

“By focusing on culture, people who oppose toxic masculinity can inadvertently collude with institutions that perpetuate it. For example, the alcohol industry has funded research to deny the relationship between alcohol and violence, instead blaming “masculinity” and “cultures of drinking.” In this regard, the industry is repeating liberal feminist arguments about toxic masculinity. However, there is strong evidence that the density of liquor shops in a given geographic area increases the local rate of domestic violence. Any serious framework for preventing violence against women will address alcohol availability as well as masculine norms and sexism.”

In other words, by only focusing on a culture of toxic masculinity, we miss the social contexts and real-life conditions that help to sustain this culture. Instead, we must pay attention to the particularities in men and boys’ lives if we ever hope to end gender violence and inequality.