Skip To Main Content

BARCC Updates

How Toxic Masculinity Hurts Male Survivors—and What Can Help

Group of men sitting together talking.

Late last month, Jumaane Williams offered an emotional addendum to his victory speech after winning a special election to the office of New York City Public Advocate. As reported by the New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman, before leaving the stage, Williams, a 42-year-old black Brooklynite, told the crowd that he has been in therapy for the past three years. He continued:

“I want to say that publicly. I want to say that to black men who are listening . . . I know there’s a young black boy somewhere . . . He is trying to find his space in the world. Nobody knows he cries himself to sleep sometimes. Nobody knows how much he misses his father. Nobody knows what he’s going through. And the world tells you you have to hide it and you can’t talk about it.”

Similarly, speaking on a recent episode of Kara Swisher’s podcast Recode Decode, Social Capital CEO Chamath Palihapitiya discussed the corrosive mental and physical effect on men that comes from being socialized to repress, rather than process, their emotions as women are given societal permission to do:

“Men live somewhere between seven to 10 years less than a woman. Same zip code, same education, same health . . . Now, you’re asking my personal theory? How is that possible? I’ll tell you. Women have a much better path to mental health than men do. Women talk. Women learn that it’s okay to be emotional.

“At a very young age, women learn about emotional intimacy. They’re taught that it’s okay to have relationships where you share intimate details. You may get betrayed. You may not. You’ll get supported. Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you feel really low. Sometimes even depressed. Sometimes you’ll feel amazing. It’s all normal, and you’re normal.”

Recognizing the reluctance of many men to acknowledge and seek help for their mental health, coupled with statistics signaling a critical mass of them are suffering psychologically—evidenced by soaring suicide rates; frequent involvement with violent crime; and the comparatively shorter life span that Palihapitiya referenced—the American Psychological Association (APA) released guidelines to help psychologists more effectively work with men and boys. Though they were 13 years in the making, their publication last August amid the #MeToo movement-inspired discussion about toxic masculinity, or “traditional masculinity ideology” as it’s known in clinical terms, was timely.

Among other considerations and professional practices, the guidelines recommend that psychologists understand that there are varying concepts of masculinity based on culture, geography, ethnicity, and age, though all are socially constructed. Practitioners should be aware of their own biases and stereotypes toward boys and men and identify how masculinity is defined in a patient’s life. They also advise psychologists to understand the role of power, privilege, and sexism in the development of boys and men on their relationships with others. Psychologists should also strive to promote healthy intimate relationships—characterized by respect, emotional intimacy and sharing, and mutuality—in boys and men.

Most importantly, the guidelines draw on four decades of research showing that men reared in traditional masculinity ideology—a constellation of behaviors that includes stoicism, anti-femininity, competitiveness, the avoidance of appearing weak, and attraction to adventure, risk, and violence—is mentally and physically harmful. One study, for example, show that men with strong masculinity beliefs were far less likely than men with more moderate masculinity beliefs to get preventive health care. Another found that “men’s masculinity ideals are a significant barrier to their psychological help-seeking.”

As an organization that has explicitly worked with male survivors since the late 1990s, BARCC knows all too well how toxic masculinity works as a systemic barrier and an internal barrier for male survivors of sexual violence. Men aren’t typically socialized to think they are at risk for sexual assault, so if it is done to them, they may feel weak or less “manly,” experiencing feelings of shame and stigma. This means they’re more likely to wait much longer before disclosing assault or seeking help. BARCC Survivor Speaker Jim Holland, for example, waited 30 years before he sought treatment.

“With male survivors there's definitely an extra set of issues that you have to deal with in terms of not wanting to tell your family and not dealing with your emotions,” Jim has said. “You’re supposed to be strong, so how could you let somebody overpower you like that?”

That’s an all too common refrain in our culture, unfortunately. Even as the #MeToo movement has created a safer climate for women to come forward and receive support, that hasn’t necessarily been true for male survivors. Actor Terry Crews, for example, has been publicly mocked by peers for not more forcefully fighting off the man who assaulted him. One need only look at the backlash to Gillette’s The Best Men Can Be ad campaign, which encourages viewers to abandon the “boys will be boys” approach to the behaviors that characterize toxic masculinity, to see how deeply this mentality is embedded in our culture.

Creating a societal climate in which men feel freer to express their emotions and receive effective, appropriate treatment for their mental health issues makes a safer society for all of us. That’s why BARCC is proud to partner with MenHealing, an organization dedicated to helping male survivors heal from sexual trauma, on two Day of Recovery events—in Waltham June 8 and Boston June 9.

These free one-day healing events aim to help male survivors deal with the difficult emotions, such as shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, and anger, that may linger long after an assault. Registration is open to all male survivors of sexual violence (experienced in childhood and/or adulthood)—including cisgender and transgender men—age 18 and older in Massachusetts.

The goal of the Day of Recovery is for participants to cocreate and experience safety with other male survivors, exploring aspects of their personal healing journey as men.

Through the Day of Recovery event, male survivors will experience the following:

  • A safe environment in which they can discover that they are no longer alone in their recovery
  • Peer support through sharing inner pain, strength, and hope with others who have experienced sexual trauma
  • Building skills to cope with the ongoing healing from sexual trauma
  • A sense of community, brotherhood, and joy

If you’re a male survivor looking for a deeper connection to yourself and other male survivors, this free day of healing is for you. We hope you will join us.

Share this Post:

Posted by Sharon Imperato

Sharon Imperato
A licensed mental health counselor, Sharon Imperato incubates new healing opportunities at BARCC for survivors and their families. Sharon will be forging new partnerships and developing transformative experiences for survivors, with a focus on those who may benefit from intensive and/or nontraditional experiences. Her previous positions at BARCC include clinical intern, medical advocacy coordinator, and manager of clinical services, to name a few. Outside of BARCC, Sharon provides training on working with male survivors to providers, including the military. In the past, she served as adjunct faculty at Lesley and Boston Universities; maintained a private practice; taught special education; and worked at an outpatient clinic. She earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in communicative disorders from the University of Redlands.
Looking for Support? Get Help