What is Toxic Masculinity?
Toxic masculinity has many forms and is learned through social conditioning. It can reveal itself in a person’s behavior and come across as entitlement, the need to exert dominance, a lack of empathy, physical and emotional violence, or hyper-sexuality. Hyper-sexuality is defined as “a person’s inability to control their sexual behavior, impulses, or urges to the point of causing distress in their personal, work, or school life.’
This warped view of masculinity impacts what is deemed as desirable for everyone, not just AMAB people. AMAB people are conditioned to present as hypermasculine, dominant, and conquerors, whereas AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) people are more likely to be conditioned to be subservient, docile, sexually accommodating to their partners, and nurturing. This creates a social environment where AMAB people are given and/or expected to have full control of and autonomy in sexual experiences, and everyone else is there to be a vessel for the AMAB people’s pleasure, or are seen as not being deserving of pleasure at all.
Jack Johnson, who identifies as Black, non-binary and Queer, shares how toxic masculinity affected their experience: “It limits a person’s ability to be fully in tune with the needs/desires of anyone else involved.” They continue, “[The] toxic masculinity [and] homophobia I learned growing up in church taught me that same-sex desires, more specifically being the submissive/receptive partner in sexual encounters, was something to be ashamed of. Softness [and] vulnerability is looked upon as a weakness and ‘emasculating’…”
As a result of the shame and lack of visibility, many AMAB people, including Johnson, see a complete disconnect from the beneficial relationship with pleasure, or find that there can be a significant delay in developing this relationship to pleasure. “Because of this shame I repressed myself until the age of 23 and when I finally did find the courage to explore it was mostly in the shadows.” Johnson explains, “Had I been given the freedom to go through the normal stages of exploration and growth in my teenage/adolescent years I wouldn’t have felt the need to search for it in secrecy.”
Executive Director & Creative Consultant, Keshav Kant elaborates on the lack of sexual reciprocity with those who deem themselves “dominant”. “There are entire swathes of cis heterosexual and cis queer men who fall into the role of top/penetrator who refuse to go down on their partners, prioritize mutual pleasure, or even engage in ethical kink because they cannot allow themselves to embrace the fluidity and vulnerability of sexual pleasure and intimacy.” The myriad of ways toxic masculinity affects each person varies depending on their intersections. However, it can be seen to particularly feed environments where the needs of certain people are not being addressed, thought of, or prioritized.
Toxic Masculinity And Gender Expression
Gender identity and gender expression are also held within toxic masculinity’s nefarious grasp.The expectation of gender performance inside the confines of toxic masculinity erases the experience of many people who exist outside of that narrative. Kant shares how the societal expectations of her expression impact her experience with potential partners. “As a trans femme person who’s currently visibly masculine…there is a degree of shame in expressing my femininity and gender during sex because people tend to not respect identities that don’t match their perceptions of what said identity looks like.”
Similarly, Kalivyn, a Poet and Performance Artist, reveals the effects of many of their sexual experiences that were not affirming and lacked care. “I internalized shame because what I wanted out of sex for my pleasure was not what others thought I should [want]…There’s always a fear that if I truly ask, [and] assert the type of way I expect my body to be held in a sexual space that it would simply be ignored or worse, that no one would want to touch me at all.” When experiences like these are met with decreased levels of empathy, care, and safety from AMAB people who exemplify the negative effects of this socialization it diminishes pleasure and creates potentially catastrophic experiences for those who have more marginalizations.
Toxic Masculinity And Sexual Expectations For Non-CisHet Connections
Toxic masculinity creates a cis-hetro expectation that tops are the “men” and therefore dominant, while bottoms are submissive and therefore “feminine” and therefore docile. Publicist and host of the popular podcast, “Eat, Pray, Thot”, Savoy Jefferson shares his experience as a bottom and how this limited scope haunts his connections with potential sexual partners. “Toxic masculinity has taught some tops that they are supposed to be the aggressor and that I’m supposed to be submissive and passive.” Since Jefferson is open about his desires as a bottom he is deemed to be “aggressive”. Since he operates counter to the expectation of being quiet and demure as a bottom, he often faces pushback, urging him to be more subservient. “Don’t get me wrong I love to be submissive sometimes, but I’m also going to tell you how, when and what to do when I want to be sexually pleasured”. Then he quips, “…as if because I’m a bottom I can only be meek.”
Hyper Sexuality, also known as compulsive sexual behavior or sex addiction, occurs when sexual urges become disruptive and harmful. This could lead to damage to self-esteem, relationships, career, and health. In the book, “The Perils of Masculinity” author Andreas G. Philaretou, Ph.D goes into great detail about the negative impact of hyper sexuality, “Beattie (1992) defines this condition as an emotional, psychological, and behavioral limiting state arising out of an oppressive socializing ethic discouraging the open expression of feelings and the experiencing of full-scale intimacy. Over the years, the individual comes to develop a general inability to initiate or to participate in healthy loving relationships and opts for the temporary illusionary comfort but long-term destructiveness…”
Unpacked toxic masculinity feeds the population of AMAB people who suppress their emotions, only see sexual relationships as an escape and/or a way to boost their ego and cement their power. This leaves the people in their vicinity exposed to a lack of care and increased levels of harm.
Respectability and Slut-Shaming
A tool that is often used by those who perpetuate shame and toxic masculinity is “Respectability”. One way in which a form of “respectability” can be applied to a situation or person when it intersects with sex and pleasure is slut shaming. Although slutshaming is more common with people who are AFAB and present as feminine, AMAB people also face it when expressing their autonomy and prioritizing their pleasure, especially if it is outside of cishet norms. Those who wield this form of shame inhibit AMAB people from fulfilling and expressing their desires by projecting great deals of sexual shame, ostracizing them, oppressing rights, denying services, or spreading fear and miseducation around STIs. Many AMAB people try to avoid this sexual shaming by being discreet in their sexual encounters or completely denying their sexual pleasure altogether.
Kyriacos Onyx, a content creator, entrepreneur, and board member of the Lone Star chapter of Onyx discloses how even his sexual freedom was impacted by “respectability”. “There was always this overarching thought in my head that worried about how my own body image and ideas would be perceived by others… It really impacted me more than I ever thought. The daily struggle for me was that I could not own my desires for fear that I would be shunned for being who I truly am sexually.”
Serophobia, which is the aversion, disdain, or fear of people living with HIV, has been a looming trauma, especially for Black and queer AMAB people. The HIV and AIDS Epidemic, the “Down Low” trope coined by author J. L. King in his book, “On The Down Low”, and the shame hysteria around STIs have been huge contributors. The serophobia Black queer people face also exists within queer communities, especially when people describe themselves as “clean” when discussing STI panel results.
“The shame came from feeling like my status was some kind of punishment for having sex outside the boundaries of heterosexual monogamous intercourse…” Johnson shares, “ I get lectures about personal responsibility and shame and how I should or shouldn’t be conducting myself as an HIV+ person, which registers in my mind that they care less about the well-being of the actual person, and more about [them] behaving in a way that’s acceptable to other people.”
The erroneous belief that HIV is a “gay disease” not only leads to further miseducation and disenfranchisement for queer AMAB people, but leads to harm for everyone. Even though new data shows that people who identify as heterosexual make up the majority of emerging HIV cases, much of the labor and advocacy around the illness come from people who identify as queer and are AMAB.
Johnson continues, “I’ve dealt with invasive questioning, being tasked with becoming a sexual health educator, people being okay with me being a sex partner but not a romantic companion, and people being shocked that even after seroconversion that I still had some semblance of a healthy sex life.” Seroconversion is defined as the period of time from initial infection with HIV to the detectable presence of HIV antibodies in the blood. This period tends to take a few weeks.
3 Ways To Combat The Sexual Shame Tied To Toxic Masculinity
Johnson reveals that they have learned to seize peace of mind and pleasure in spite of their experiences with people projecting their shame and ignorance. “[My diagnoses] forced me to think very hard about where my attitudes about sex came from and put me right in the driver’s seat. I couldn’t just coast by and engage mindlessly anymore. My status made me acutely aware that even though sex is a physical act we bring our own worldview experiences to it whether we’re consciously aware of them or not.”
Even though the effects of shame and toxic masculinity can feel completely debilitating, we all have a responsibility to ourselves, to those we share intimacy with, and to those who look to us for education and guidance to release and unlearn this conditioning. One of the first steps of releasing sexual shame from your body and unlearning the social conditioning that results from toxic masculinity is developing an awareness about how you are personally impacted.
- Combating Sexual Shame: Through Art
“I journal. I art. I cry. I grieve.” Kalivyn discloses, “I try to be cognizant of what narratives I am consuming about sex, and curate what I desire.” In addition to introspection, Kalivyn shares how consuming the work of pleasure scholars and other thought leaders helps tremendously with reconnecting to their relationship with pleasure. “There’s so many artists and scholars who have written/made art about sex, toxic masculinity. Audre Lorde‘s essay, ‘”Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’”, Phillip B Williams’ poem, ‘“Do-Rag’”, other poets, and Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s artwork is so amazing.”
- Combating Sexual Shame: Through Open Communication
Jefferson encourages AMAB people to “Be direct and unapologetic about what you desire when it comes to sex…stand in your sexual truth. Be open sexually but realistic at the same time, meaning you don’t have to try things that you have zero interest in or that look/feel painful and/or degrading to you.” Jefferson then reinforces, “Don’t yuck no one else’s yum, but be clear about your yum!”
“Allow yourself to explore what pleasure means to you because you can’t find it until you know what you’re looking for.” Kant states before continuing, “After you know the what, work on the who, where, when, why, and how. Who do you want it from? Where can you seek it out in a safe and supportive environment? When do you want this pleasure? Why is it this specifically? How do you want to receive it?” Kant then concludes, “Boundaries! Set them, enforce them, and regularly review and update them… It’s all about the unique person and case and what pleasure means to everyone in the moment.”
- Combating Sexual Shame: Through Learning From Each Other
Ultimately, there is so much work to be done to mend the negative effects of this socialization that will start with the self. However, learning from the shared experiences of those who came before us, and who walk with us, is paramount to our survival. Kyriacos Onyx, states, “ People should be a lot less judgmental towards each other when it comes to being sexually fulfilled. People should really have a crash course in understanding that healthy sexual relationships are fluid. Life thrives on change and we cannot grow to understand the different facets of who we are by remaining stagnant.”