The Scars of Masculinity

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Men, as a whole, are not generally considered or portrayed as an “at risk” group in our society. And, with male privilege and patriarchy being what they are, there’s good reason for that. But when we look at the numbers, there is clearly something going on with men that significantly impacts our communities.

Here are the numbers presented by Jackson Katz, in his documentary Tough Guise 2:

  • 86% of armed robberies are committed by men.
  • 77% of aggravated assaults are committed by men.
  • 87% of stalkers are men.
  • 86% of domestic violence incidents resulting in physical injury are perpetrated by men.
  • 99% of rapes are committed by men.
  • Men commit approximately 90% of murders.
  • And over the past 30 years, 61 of the last 62 mass shootings have been committed by men.

Choosing Violence

Of course, not all men choose to use violence. But there is a gendered reality, and a connection between men and violence in our society. The same rings true in substance use and abuse. Men are more likely use substances, at greater quantities, and are two to five times more likely than women to develop a substance use disorder (SAMSHA). Heavy drinking and binge drinking are more prevalent in men (National Institute on Drug Abuse). Men chronically use nonmedical opioids at twice the rate of women (even though women are prescribed them more often), and more men die of prescription drug overdoses than women (CDC).
For people in the treatment community, this may not be news. Initially, most treatment programs and facilities were geared towards men. Now, there are more specialized treatment facilities for women (SAMSHA). Even with a history of treating men, there are still patterns that make it difficult to support men towards recovery.

Even with a history of treating men, there are still patterns that make it difficult to support men towards recovery.-Trish Farley

Even with the realities outlined above, men are less likely to seek help. There is a common attitude, of “I don’t need it,” or “I can take care of myself.” That rigid notion of independence (which is connected to increased psychological distress) and the stigma of “help-seeking behavior” may be a big part of why men are less likely to seek health treatment than women, including seeing their primary care physicians less frequently (SAMSHA).

While male socialization and our current standards of masculinity may not be the only cause of violence or substance use, they are a factor. Around the country, many people are examining the negative impact of gender roles on men, and challenging us to rethink our ideas about what it means to “be a man.”

Many men are at the front of this movement, sharing their stories about the costs of masculinity and patriarchy.

Being a Man in the U.S.

It’s important to note that being a man in the United States is not a monolithic experience. Even being cisgender and socialized throughout childhood as a boy and then a man is not singular experience – although certainly one that comes with more safety and privilege than being transgender. For cisgender men, your position as it relates to privilege will vary greatly depending how it intersects with the other identities you hold. Men of color do not have the same access or safety within patriarchy as white men. For example, men of color are much more likely to be arrested for the same behavior as white men. There are numerous nonprofits and social service organizations addressing drug use and violence in economically poor communities and communities of color, despite similar behavior in wealthy, white communities. So, the culture of masculinity may be a different experience for different folks, but there are strong similarities in many communities.

…the culture of masculinity may be a different experience for different folks, but there are strong similarities in many communities.-Trish Farley

The culture of masculinity includes rites, rituals, expectations and messages around masculinity that are pervasive in our patriarchal culture. It is important to understand how this culture negatively impacts women and girls (which it does, greatly). Similarly, this could be a whole article on how men are taught to marginalize, objectify and exploit women. For the purposes of understanding how masculinity plays into substance use, we’ll be focusing on the ways our dominant socialization around masculinity negatively impacts men.

There are a few characteristics of masculinity that can play a particular role in impacting the behavioral health of men and boys. Limited emotional expression, invulnerability and competition are just three of the trademarks.

The Male Role

As Katz puts it in his documentary, Tough Guise 2, “We can’t show any emotion except anger. We can’t think too much or seem too intellectual. We can’t back down when someone disrespects us. We have to show we’re tough enough to inflict physical pain and take it in turn.” At what age do boys begin to learn that is not okay to feel and express certain emotions? As we know, these feelings don’t disappear. As they are pushed down, ignored, silenced, there is a cost to boys and men. Substance use can be a way of numbing those feelings, and one that has been supported across generations and through mainstream media. For example, major life transitions are frequently when (all of us, but particularly) men come together and drink. For many men, this replaces other forms of expressing feelings about these transitions. Choosing and getting the support to live a life free of substances requires interrupting lifelong patterns and rituals.

If a boy doesn’t show signs of being in pain, caregivers may refer to them as “strong.” This can give the implicit message that if you show your pain, you’re weak.

We also teach men that they are supposed to be invulnerable. This starts in childhood. For many boys, if they cry when they get hurt on the playground, or if someone teases them, they hear something along the lines of “toughen up.” This is where we begin to teach emotional restraint, and the idea that men and boys are not supposed to admit when they are hurt. If a boy doesn’t show signs of being in pain, caregivers may refer to them as “strong.” This can give the implicit message that if you show your pain, you’re weak.

The more these messages are reinforced, the harder it can be for men to recognize and talk about their struggles. Anger, which is considered acceptable, can become the go to emotion. Understanding anger as a secondary emotion illuminates the limited emotional expression afforded to men. If a man loses his job, gets in an altercation, is rejected by a romantic partner – anger is the accepted emotion. Or, for men who work hard to limit their anger because of it’s association with violence and unpredictability, their emotions may be denied or pushed aside. We do not generally teach men how to talk intimately about fear, jealousy, insecurity, or sadness. As a result, many men are carrying around unprocessed pain and resentment.

Support is Key

If men are not supported to talk to people about their innermost pain, it also sends the message that they’re supposed to take care of it themselves. This coupled with expectations our society has for men to be decisive, self-reliant, and in control all make it much more challenging to ask for help. So much of the toxic elements of masculinity are about power and control.

Acknowledging that substance use is out of control can be threatening in a much larger way, because it threatens the very power and control we encourage men to desire and hold on to. Similarly, men also may minimize the impact their behavior (including substance use) and limited emotional expression has on people in their lives. Part of supporting men towards a healthier masculinity may mean pointing out when men minimize the impact their actions and behavior have on other people.

If men are not supported to talk to people about their innermost pain, it also sends the message that they’re supposed to take care of it themselves.-Trish Farley This opportunity to examine the impact of masculinity and make changes is one that men may or may not choose to take. In his article, Bros Before Hos’: The Guy Code, Michael Kimmel writes, “Guys know that they risk everything—their friendships, their sense of self, maybe even their lives—if they fail to conform… young men take huge chances to prove their manhood, exposing themselves to health risks, workplace hazards, and stress-related illnesses.” Substance abuse treatment that does not examine the impact of masculinity will likely be insufficient.

When we imagine the long process it takes to teach boys and men such a narrow, stifling idea of manhood, it is clear there are layers of pain to work through. It also means that there are many points when we can offer an alternative idea about masculinity. To begin, we need to have clarity about unhealthy expectations of masculinity in our dominant culture. This gives us an opportunity to love men and boys in different ways, and support them to a whole, healthier life.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of We do believe in healthy dialogue on all topics and we welcome the opinions of our professional contributors.

What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • AddictionMyth

    Men: Do not get drunk and rape people, and do not commit mass murder.

    Also, avoid ‘treatment’ programs and pharmaceuticals that have a proven high correlation rate with such behaviors.

  • Kenneth Anderson

    Since NESARC and many other studies have established that spontaneous remission is the normal outcome of substance use disorder, it is essential to establish that men who seek treatment for substance use disorder have better outcomes than those who do not. This is not established by this article. For all we know the treatment is iatrogenic and those who choose to quit on their own have a higher success rate than those undergoing treatment.

  • Kris

    Men, especially white men, are under attack from all angles. I am tired of being blamed for all the problems experienced by gays, blacks, and females. I have taken responsibility and ownership for my life. I suggest you do the same for yours.

  • fattyz

    There is a little book called “the myth of male power: why men are the disposable sex” by Warren Farrell. Male privilege and the patriarchy are not what they are cracked up to be. lol