When I became a father in 2008, I had never encountered the term toxic masculinity. Although Google searches for the term increased after the 2017 social movement of #MeToo when women in Hollywood reported Harvey Weinstein’s crimes, and public exposure to the phrase spiked to peak levels when Gillette released its now infamous commercial in January 2019 criticizing toxic masculinity, I first heard about it in 2011. I had just accepted a part-time editor position with the Good Men Project and was spending countless hours reading essays by feminist authors. I rolled my eyes initially and silently lamented the “pussification of America,” bristling at the thought that my strong, manly son would be feminized to the point of demonization. Which is ironic, since, you know, that reaction was an example of classic toxic masculinity.
But when I stopped and listened to the people in my life, who are far more intelligent and thoughtful than I am, I realized something fairly disconcerting—not only is toxic masculinity real, I was living it out on a daily basis and running the risk of passing that mindset on to my three sons.
That’s why, when my publisher suggested I write a book on raising boys in the age of toxic masculinity, the first thing out of my mouth was, “I think you’ve got the wrong guy.” I guarantee that if you tell anyone who knew me in college that I would be writing this book many years later, they’d laugh. Then they’d get really confused and angry, because I had been representative of the problem for years (and still am, at times).
Back in 2008, I remember getting upset when my wife put pink socks on my infant son because I was worried it might make other people think he was “gay” or “effeminate.” I didn’t want any of my boys to be baptized, at least in part because I didn’t like the idea of them in a christening dress (and also because of the Catholic Church’s rampant child abuse and decades of cover-ups; but that’s a different book). I would only shop in the blue-colored boy toy aisle, I scolded my oldest for throwing a baseball “like a girl,” and I frequently used the phrase “man up” in a way that was unfortunately devoid of irony.
All to say that writing a book about a problem I had clearly contributed to for a long time felt like an instant no-go and massively hypocritical.
But the flip side of that argument is: who better to reach people potentially open to change than a convert? Just like I wouldn’t want to read a book about getting sober from an author who has never had a drink in their lives, maybe all my (many, many, many) past mistakes might be recognized by readers who are in the same boat. The hope is that my experience will resonate and help readers take stock of the situation so we can start to build critical mass and fix this problem.
I wish I could pinpoint a specific moment in time when it all clicked. It was because of my job with the Good Men Project, where I edited essay after essay of thoughts on this topic. It was joining online forums and Facebook groups and getting to know the men I had been thoughtlessly mocking to realize their words had merit. But mostly, it was watching my kids get older and take up interests that didn’t align with traditional masculinity, and feeling that natural parental instinct to protect and defend the people who are most precious to you. If my kids had been star athletes and had fallen into the “normal” pathways for boys, would I be writing this book? I’d like to think so, but I’m just not sure. Unfortunately, it seems people don’t truly get it until it becomes personal when it happens to them or someone they know. That’s why I hope this book will have an impact—reading about a parent’s angst after bullies come for their son over nail polish is something that really can change minds.
That’s why I’m writing to all the parents who still tell their young sons to “rub some dirt on it” and who scold them for crying. Or who excuse clearly problematic behaviors with the response, “boys will be boys.” This book is one small attempt to reach the people still willing to listen to reason. It’s not meant to preach or shame, and it’s certainly not an orchestrated attack on masculinity itself. There’s a mistaken belief that those who criticize toxic masculinity are criticizing everything masculine—this couldn’t be further from the truth. Caring for and protecting one’s family; hard work; strength—these are some positives in men that are worthy of celebration. However, we need to reframe the discussion about what makes a “real man.” Because I guarantee you that real men cry, real men will know to seek help when they need it, and real men do stay home with their kids.
It’s not only possible to raise boys who aren’t emotionally stifled and shoved into boxes; it’s vital if we want a generation of men who can express their emotions in a healthy way, respect women, and help nurse society back to a halfway healthy place. That’s why we need to illustrate the problems and talk about the small ways in which we can work toward solutions.
I guarantee that if a stubborn idiot like me can recognize he was once part of the problem and admit he was wrong, and then took the steps to become better, anyone can. And I also guarantee that if we don’t change the way we treat and raise our boys, things are only going to get worse. Our boys are too important for us to fail, and when boys go bad, we all lose.