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Welcome to the April newsletter. This month, we are breaking down common societal perceptions and histories of HEALTHY MASCULINITY. What you’re reading today is a comprehensive review of the conversation that has already been started on our Instagram

Why Healthy Masculinity?

At My Sex Bio, we believe sex education and empowerment are vehicles for peace, this motto is at the core of all our work. The world is currently in need of sex education that embraces and accepts the realities of humanity and frees us of stigmatization, invisibilization and injustice. That includes conversations on gender identity and expression.

We’ve heard a lot about toxic masculinity, and we were eager to twist this narrative by asking ourselves what healthy masculinity is and could look like. Oftentimes, when we see the term toxic masculinity on social media or being used by feminist groups, we tend to interpret it as if there was something inherently wrong with being masculine. This cannot be further from reality.

Let’s find out why.

What exactly is “masculinity”?

What is masculinity to you? What does it look like? Who are masculine people?

According to a 2014 report by MenEngage (PDF download), “masculinity is the particular pattern of social behaviors or practices that is associated with ideals about how men should behave and their position within gender relations. Masculinity is a relational concept, defined in opposition to femininity and expectations about how women should behave (White). One of the more common features of masculinity is the equation of manhood with dominance, toughness, and risk-taking.”

The Victorian Health Promotion Foundation defines (PDF download) masculinity similarly, saying it “refers to a set of practices, attitudes and behaviors that instruct what men and boys should be and how they should act. It also includes social norms, the unwritten rules about how to behave in society.”
This definition suggests that masculinity is:
Contextual: belonging to a specific time and place.
Prescriptive: as opposed to describing what naturally happens, it puts expectations on the table.
Gendered: influencing perception of boys’ behavior vs. girls’.
There isn’t just one type of masculinity in the world but many “masculinities,” your own definition of it included. Some of these expressions of masculinity have had negative consequences but are still very common in the Western world because they are rooted in oppressive systems, hundreds of years old.

Masculinities Throughout History

Throughout the history of other cultures, masculinity did not look like what we are used to in today’s Western World. In most ancient cultures, gender, even when it was seen as binary, did not prescribe how people should behave or what they should look like. In fact, it considered third genders (understood as a combination of female and male traits presenting themselves in the same person) normal, socially accepted and even revered. 
R. W. Connell presents to us some of the pre-colonial constructions of masculinity in his article The Big Picture: Masculinities in Recent World History, as following:
In Neo-Confucian China, expectations of men were defined in terms of the obligations they had towards others (emperor, parents, brothers). For them, becoming a soldier was “not what any responsible man would do,” and male-to-male love was celebrated.
In pre-colonial cultures of New Guinea, masculinity was defined in a ritual separation from “the world of women,” not with the intent of domination. These cultures also exhibited ritualized homosexuality as a way to build their masculinities. 
In many American Indigenous cultures, we find examples of third-gendered peoples who were regarded as shamans, mediators and medicine givers. According to Harlan Pruden (PDF download), Co-founder and Council Member for the Northeast Two-Spirit Society, for Hawaiians, they were the mahu, also called the two-spirit people by Native American tribes. John Gamber from Columbia University mentions that another key difference between Western and Indigenous traditions is/are the highly matriarchal communities they used to have, present in their creation stories, with characters like Mother Earth. This principle “establishes that masculinity is always understood as complementary to the whole.”
The spread of Euro/American culture erased these masculinities and gender perceptions from most of the world, replacing them with traditional hegemonic masculinity. This masculinity was born out of the spread of Catholicism and capitalism, the growing importance of technical expertise and the Europeans’ gendered division of labor.
As R.W. Conell puts it, “imperialism was a massively important event in gender history. Some cultures' gender regimes have been virtually obliterated by imperialism.”

Masculinity and Gender Today

According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, sex refers to “a set of biological attributes in humans and animals. It is primarily associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy.” Gender, however, refers to “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact, and the distribution of power and resources in society.” 

According to Colleen Clemens, of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, “researchers have shown that there is very little difference between the brains of men and women. While gender identity is a deeply held feeling of being male, female or another gender, people of different genders often act differently, not because of biological characteristics but because of rigid societal norms created around femininity and masculinity.”

It might be that, for us to start deconstructing and challenging our perceptions of masculinity, we need to also challenge our understanding of gender. Too often, we see the world in black and white. But we now know that, as summarized in Teen Talk, “there are many different gender identities, including male, female, transgender, gender-neutral, non-binary, agender,” and so on.
As developmental psychologist Niobe Way explains: ”we’ve taken basic human capacities which is to think and to feel, and we’ve given them a gender, and we’ve made thinking into a masculine thing and feeling into a feminine thing which doesn't make any sense because all humans think and feel.” 

“Toxic” Masculinity

As Colleen Clemens mentions in their article “What We Mean When We Say, ‘Toxic Masculinity,’” “the phrase [toxic masculinity] is derived from studies that focus on violent behavior perpetrated by men, and—this is key—is designed to describe not masculinity itself, but a form of gendered behavior that results when expectations of ‘what it means to be a man’ go wrong.
“These [expectations] are enforced through shaming and bullying, as well as promises of rewards, the purpose of which is to force conformity to our dominant culture of masculinity and to perpetuate the exploitation, domination, and marginalization of women and people who are queer, genderqueer and transgender” – Mark Greene, author
Perhaps, instead of saying “toxic masculinity,” it’s more accurate to use the term “traditional hegemonic definition of masculinity” (THDM). This references the masculinity developed in the Western world over centuries. It is called “hegemonic” because it intersects with classism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression, by placing some groups of males above others. 

“The Man Box”

Short for the “Act Like a Man Box,” developed by Paul Kivel, the Man Box is a concept that helps us understand better what we call “toxic” masculinity.

This is the box society has forced upon males; the box they should fit into to be thought of and seen as “real” men. According to VicHealth (PDF download), “some of these beliefs, such as condoning the use of violence, are always wrong. Others, such as the belief that men must act strong, can sometimes be useful but at other times lead to problems.”

In the Man Box, men are expected to be:

📦 Self-sufficient and unemotional.

📦 Tough.

📦 Effortlessly attractive.

📦 Providing for their family, but free from household chores. 

📦 Heterosexual.

📦 Hypersexual. A real man never says no to sex.

📦 Aggressive.

The pressure to be “masculine”

Studies have found (PDF download) that most males “feel the pressure to conform to these expectations [listed above]” even though not all males actually do or want these things for themselves.

According to White Ribbon, “in a recent study, half of boys said they’d heard men in their family make sexual jokes or comments about women; those boys were more likely to feel pressure to be tough and play along with sexism. An even bigger share, 82 per cent, said they had heard someone criticize a boy for ‘acting like a girl.’  At the same time, new research has pointed to girls feeling more empowered than in the past and facing less gender rigidity than boys.”

Healthy Masculinity

“When I grew up, it was about trying to sleep with as many women as you could, but true manhood is about loving and caring for as many people as you can.” — Terry Crews

Healthy masculinity can be understood as the freedom from unhealthy masculine stereotypes, or a walking away from the “man box,” if you will.

Healthy masculinity is expressed when males:
☀ Are celebrated for being vulnerable and encouraged to look for help when needed.

☀ Believe they should be free to dance, paint, sing and engage in all activities once considered “girly.” 

☀ Don't consider alcohol a key element when “going out with the boys.” and do not engage often in what’s known as “risk behavior.” 

☀ “Feel comfortable in emotionally-nurturing roles,” even with other males. 

☀ “Hold other males accountable who engage in behaviors that are disrespectful or aggressive.” 

☀ “Listen to and value women and girls” beyond them being possible sexual partners.

Raising Boys to Embrace a Healthy Masculinity

Understanding masculinity as the man-made concept it is can be an encouraging thought. It means whatever harmful constructs we’ve created as society, we have the power to undo.

White Ribbon’s (PDF download) tips for promoting healthier masculinities among boys and young men are:

✨ Express and identify our own feelings as models for young males.
✨ Discuss gender stereotypes and their impacts.
✨ Differentiate between physical strength and strength of character.
✨ Encourage and celebrate self-expression.
✨ Celebrate healthy masculinities.
✨ Consider restorative discipline over punitive discipline.
✨ Model and teach boys about consent.
✨ Help boys understand gender and sexual diversity.
✨ Educate young people on gender equality. 

We thank you for joining us in the investigation of Healthy Masculinity, and we extend to you The Advocate’s invitation to “define your own masculinity. You get to decide what masculinity means to you. It doesn’t have to be in opposition to femininity, it can be in cooperation with it. Masculinity does not have to come at the expense of your own emotions, and it does not need to be defended with violence.” 

Carnal Theory:

“Masculinity should be defined by the individual instead of in the context of women and/or cultural stereotypes, and it starts with the relationship to self.”

King Noire & Jet Setting Jasmine
Listen Now


If you enjoyed what we explored in this newsletter, you are going to L O V E our conversation with King Noire and Jet Setting Jasmine. Stream wherever you listen to your podcasts and tune into the wisdom of this amazing couple who are educators, advocates, and adult film creators.

Writing Prompts:

Take what you’ve learned through our social media, Carnal Theory interviews, this newsletter, our recent blogs and other resources to inform your inner reflection and self-exploration:

📝 What does it mean to be a “boy” in my community? What do I think makes a man a man?

📝 Who in my life is a role model of what I think a man should be like?

📝 How was I told a “real man” should be like?

📝 If I identify as a man, am I like the men in my life/family/past? Why or why not?
📝 Am I or do I know any male who is “trapped” in the man box?
📝 Do I have conversations about sex and sexuality with other males? If so, how are they?
📝 How can I more positively and genuinely interact with other males? (e.g. talking about emotions, doubts, goals, worries, insecurities)

This voluntary monthly prompt invites you to explore your sexual biography.
Tips on exploring this: Set aside 20 minutes with your phone on silent and relax in a comfortable space with a pen and paper. Go slow. Start with what comes to mind from your first read of the prompt. Continue writing your stream of consciousness. 

Mantra of the month

I am imperfect and wired for struggle, but I am worthy of love and belonging.
Inspired by Brené Brown

Researching our sexual biographies:

Have society’s expectations of masculinity affected your sexuality?
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