Have you ever stopped to think about how masculinity is portrayed in South African society? From TV shows to sports, we’re bombarded with images of tough, dominant men who never show any weakness or vulnerability. This can lead to toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity refers to harmful and limiting beliefs and behaviours associated with traditional societal expectations of men and masculinity. These beliefs and behaviours are characterised by aggression, dominance, emotional suppression, and a lack of empathy and consideration for others. Toxic masculinity often leads to harmful actions, including gender-based violence, sexual assault, and harassment, as well as discrimination and oppression towards marginalised communities.

When South African men engage in belittling femininity, stereotyping, objectification, homophobia, and other forms of toxic masculinity, it reinforces harmful gender norms. It contributes to a culture of gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination.

For example, when men make derogatory comments about women’s appearance or capabilities, it reinforces the idea that women are inferior to men and perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Similarly, when men engage in homophobic behaviour, it supports the idea that being gay or transgender is somehow “less than” being heterosexual and can contribute to violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

 A 2009 “One in Nine Campaign” survey found that one in five South African men admits to having committed sexual assault. The survey was based on a representative sample of 511 men from the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces of South Africa. The survey found that 27.6% of men admitted to having perpetrated rape, and 25.3% admitted having perpetrated physical violence against an intimate partner. The survey also found that 11.3% of men reported having perpetrated rape and physical violence against an intimate partner. 

However, toxic masculinity can also manifest in more subtle ways that are not always immediately recognisable, and in ways that are also harmful to men themselves. For example, men may feel pressure to conform to rigid gender roles and expectations, thus limiting their ability to express themselves and pursue their interests freely. They may also feel pressure to prove their masculinity through risk-taking, aggression, or competition, which can lead to harmful or destructive actions. One example of subtle toxic masculinity is when boys are teased or bullied by their peers for showing emotions or vulnerability. For instance, a teenage boy who cries or expresses his feelings openly might be mocked or called names like “weak” or “soft.” This kind of teasing can be harmful because it discourages boys from expressing themselves and can lead to emotional repression or bottling up feelings. It can also perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes that men should be strong and emotionless.

Men, especially black men, may be reluctant to seek help and be emotionally vulnerable for several reasons. One reason is the cultural and historical context of South Africa, where men have been socialised to be tough, strong, and unemotional, and showing vulnerability or asking for help is often viewed as a weakness. Peers, family, and media can reinforce this cultural expectation.

Another reason for the reluctance to seek help may be the stigma around mental health and seeking professional help for emotional issues. Many men in South Africa may view therapy or counselling as something for “crazy” people or a sign of weakness rather than a helpful tool to address emotional and mental health concerns.

Furthermore, there is a perceived cost for black men to be emotionally vulnerable due to systemic racism and discrimination in South Africa. Black men may feel that showing vulnerability or seeking help only reinforces negative stereotypes and perceptions of weakness or inferiority. This can be especially true in the workplace, where black men may feel they need to prove themselves strong and capable of succeeding in a racially charged environment.

The reluctance to seek help and be emotionally vulnerable can have serious consequences, such as contributing to the high rates of gender-based violence in South Africa and exacerbating mental health issues – there is a high rate of suicide amongst young men. 

But by challenging and addressing harmful behaviours and attitudes, South African men can help create a more equal and respectful society. This can involve calling out harmful comments or behaviour when we see it, actively listening to and supporting marginalised voices, and working to educate ourselves and others about the detrimental effects of toxic masculinity.

And a new generation of young South African men is actively challenging outdated and dangerous ideas about masculinity. They are embracing a new way of being a man that prioritises respect, vulnerability, and equality. 

One notable example is the organisation “Brothers for All,” which teaches young men in disadvantaged communities coding and life skills while fostering emotional intelligence, empathy, and communication skills. Through this approach, the organisation challenges traditional ideas of aggressive masculinity and promotes a culture of respect, vulnerability, and equality that empowers young men to become positive agents of change in their communities.

There are several campaigns that actively encourage men to take a stand against harmful gender norms. The Sonke Gender Justice “One Man Can” campaign, for instance, encourages young men to speak out against gender-based violence, challenge harmful gender norms, and promote gender equality in their communities. Additionally, the “Real Men Don’t Rape” campaign uses sports events, music festivals, and other platforms to highlight the message that real men do not need to use violence or coercion to gain respect or power. Lastly, the “MenCare” campaign encourages men to be more involved in caregiving and parenting and to challenge traditional gender roles that limit their roles within the family. 

Engaging in ongoing discussions is essential to refining and improving our understanding of masculinity.  We need to address the cultural and systemic barriers that perpetuate toxic masculinity, and promote a culture of respect, vulnerability, and equality amongst men as well as create safe spaces for men to seek help and be vulnerable without fear of judgment or stigma. 

Tell us: what are ways that can we redefine masculinity to positively impact society? 

If you enjoyed this article, read about how men talk about women here