Toxic Masculinity and violence in South Africa

Toxic Masculinity and violence in South Africa – Understand


When attempting to discover the reasons for violence in societies, it has been found that young males are predominantly both the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence,  and this is called the victim-offender overlap (Heber, 2017). This has led to much research being done regarding men, masculinities and violence. This is because notions of masculinity, and what it means to be a man, seem to be the driving factor behind much of the risky behaviour that males engage in. In many studies, young men have identified violence as an important way to display power and to prove their masculinity in their communities. Among youth in South Africa there is also a prevalent need for young men to control women in intimate relationships because this is considered essential in affirming their masculinity. Therefore, it is important to gain a comprehensive understanding of the role that masculinity plays in creating violent societies. 

Background and concepts

Masculinity is not a natural occurrence but is a collective gender identity that has been socially constructed. Connell (2002) argues that there are four categories of masculinity: dominant compared to submissive; complicit compared to oppositional. The idea is that men are supposed to act in a certain way according to certain definitions, and those who diverge from this concept are seen as less masculine than others. Common notions of the ideal man are that he is physically strong, with a large penis; he protects and defends the honour of his family and peers; he defends and sticks to his strong opinions; he takes part in masculine activities such as sports and drinking; that he is sexually virulent; and that he is successful in everything that he attempts. 

Although there are many different kinds of masculinities, there is a form of hegemonic masculinity which is the dominant form of masculinity in a given society. This hegemonic masculinity dominates society and marginalises other definitions. Hegemonic masculinity tends to exclude non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and working class men and creates a divide between the advantages of patriarchy that these non-hegemonic masculinities can access (Morrell, 1998). Hegemonic masculinities also lead to misogyny, homophobia, racism and compulsory heterosexuality.  Despite this, hegemonic masculinity is constantly reinforced by societal institutions such as political power, mass media, and corporate culture (Hong, 2000).

Hyper-masculinity is when men try to overcompensate for their insecure gender identity, by increasing their aggressive and violent behaviour in order to prove their masculinity (Hong, 2000). This form of masculinity embraces notions of manhood that emphasise dominant men who view violence and aggression as legitimate ways of expressing themselves, asserting their power, and resolving conflict. Hyper-masculine men should always be ready for a fight; should never show fear or pain; and should appear in charge of all situations (Ratele, 2008). One other important type of masculinity, which should be noted in the case of South Africa, is a protest-masculinity. Protest-masculinity has characteristically been observed among poor, working class men who display hyper-masculine behaviour as a narcissistic means of combatting the sense of powerlessness and insecurity that comes as a result of their low socioeconomic status in society.

Toxic masculinity is where the notions and ideals of what it means to be a man leads to dire consequences for the man himself, and/ or for the people around him. Most masculinities are bound together by their domination of women (Morrell, 1998), and toxic masculinity is one of the major reasons for gender-based violence and sexual violence. Toxic masculinity is where all of the above norms of masculinity as violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive has a harmful impact on society and the individual.  

Factors influencing toxic masculinity

Many factors contribute to the emergence of toxic masculinity, including the temperament and character of the individual in question. For example, a boy growing up with an abusive father might either repeat the patterns of abuse or decide to break with the abusive pattern so as to be better than his father. Hong (2000) argues that hyper-masculinity occurs in two situations. First, when men are denied full access to the privileges of patriarchy because they do not suit the hegemonic notions of masculinity, they are more likely to try to prove their manhood by adhering to stricter, more extreme exhibitions of traditional masculinity. Second, that men whose primary cohabitation or social affiliation is with other men tend to display exaggerated conformity to traditional male role norms. In other words, those who spend most of their time with men, tend to try and be tougher and manlier more often, in order to compete with their peers. There are numerous possibilities for why toxic masculinity occurs, but the three that will be focused on in the case of South Africa are: family structure, socialisation, and changing gender roles. 

Family structure

Apartheid left South Africa with an unusual pattern of family structure. Nearly half of all households are female-headed. By 2002, the proportion of children with absent (living) fathers had jumped to 46%. This had major implications for both poverty, as the one-parent homes and those headed by women are the poorest families. Relatedly, South Africa has high levels of violence. This is likely due to the sense of powerlessness and aggression that comes with poverty, as well as the hyper-masculinity that emerged as a means to overcompensate for the lack of masculine training that boys are missing from their absent fathers (Morrell, Jewkes, & Lindegger, 2012). As mentioned earlier, this depends on the individual. For some boys, having no fathers or positive male role models can lead to emotional disturbances, aggression, violent behaviour and vulnerability to drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases; but for others, it has helped them to construct positive male identities that do not involve risk-taking, due to the desire to want to become ‘different’ from their biological fathers (Langa, 2010).


Boys are often socialised into believing that they should be the leaders in all spheres of life (income, relationships, workplace relations etc). Even schools are implicitly subscribing to and endorsing hegemonic versions of masculinity, emphasising specific gender roles where boys do not need to be emotionally healthy. In this way, some schools endorse the culture of male entitlement and importance over women. Many schools avoid emotional  responsibility and discourage empathetic, compassionate and nurturing behaviours in favour of heavy-handed discipline and control (Kenway & Fitzclarence, 1997). Society does not encourage boys to talk. In the home, fathers are often emotionally absent, strict, less tolerant and less reasonable than mothers. Fathers also find it difficult to talk about sex, HIV/AIDS, condom-usage and other risk-taking behaviours with their sons (Langa, 2010).  Boys therefore often have closed horizons when it comes to education about risky-behaviour, as well as self-reflection and reflection about society in general. Boys have been socially constructed to believe that they should not be reprimanded for wrongdoing and that they rarely have to take responsibility for their actions. From a young age, children are taught that girls should ‘act like a lady’ if they do something wrong; but if boys do something wrong it is shrugged off with the words ‘boys will be boys’. However, it is not only in schools and at home where boys are socialised to believe in their own superiority: this message is being delivered through peer pressure, media, military influences as well as political influences which all lead to the view that violence is acceptable behaviour in men. 

Changing gender roles

There are, however, many social, economic and political changes that have occurred in the last fifty years, which challenge the notion of leadership that men have inherited. These changes include the empowerment and liberty of women and men who are viewed as exhibiting non-hegemonic masculinities. Young men are now being caught between what their parents, guardians and societal role models have taught them regarding their role as men, and the changes in gender relations prevailing in South Africa today (Kubeka, 2008). This is especially prevalent in terms of income and breadwinner status. Work and providing an income are key traits for manhood, where employment satisfies both material needs and feelings of self-worth. In countries where unemployment is high, salaries are below the poverty line, and there are less opportunities to fulfil the burdens of masculinity, it can lead to feelings of resentment when women and men with non-hegemonic masculinities take on breadwinner status over men with hegemonic masculinities. For many notions of masculinity, salaried employment and wealth may be used to perpetuate the subordination of women to men. Therefore, excessive male violence and toxic masculinity is likely to be more common in countries with high unemployment and high levels of income inequality (Ratele, 2008). 

Toxic effects of masculinity:

According to Connell (2002), contemporary masculinities are implicated in a range of toxic effects in men’s own lives and the lives of others. These include:

For themselves

  • High levels of injury
  • Patterns of ill health and mortality
  • Drug abuse
  • Inadequate use of health services
  • High levels of victimisation and imprisonment

For others

  • Violent conflict-resolution methods
  • Sexual violence
  • Domestic violence against women
  • Homophobic violence
  • Racism

Five major themes of consequence emerge from this analysis of toxic masculinity, and they will be discussed below. 

Overcompensation through risky behaviour

Men who display toxic masculinity often avoid behaving in any manner that can be vaguely perceived as feminine, because they have a fear of femininity. Since being gay is stereotypically equated with being feminine, this fear is often expressed through homophobia. If men are afraid of being perceived as being gay, they may overcompensate to prove that they are in fact straight. They become daring and aggressive. They do not stand down if their dignity or manhood has been disrespected. They do not allow insults to their girlfriends or mothers to go unanswered. They ascribe to compulsory heterosexuality, where the pressure to have sex more often becomes a route to confirming one’s manhood (Hong, 2000). This only increases risky behaviour, including vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. Men who ascribe to more traditional beliefs about masculinity report higher rates of unprotected sexual activity, binge-drinking and motor vehicle accidents than less traditional peers (Hong, 2000).

Poor conflict-resolution mechanisms

Adolescent boys who conform to traditional masculinity are less skilled at resolving conflict and their methods are generally characterised by high levels of aggression, withdrawal, denial-avoidance and low concern for the needs of others. They are also more likely to engage in conflicts related to status and dominance compared to girls. They tend to avoid conflict resolution strategies that are perceived as feminine. Toughness, dominance, and the willingness to resort to violence to resolve interpersonal conflicts, are seen as central characteristics of masculine identity. Masculinity is often internalised during adolescence, which causes boys to engage in more delinquent behaviour than girls (Parsons, 1964). This internalisation often carries over into adulthood where men are expected to be sturdy, independent, controlled, and unemotional, as well as to reveal no vulnerabilities. Seeking help or advice for pain symptoms or mental distress, is regarded as a sign of weakness for ‘real’ men. It is therefore not surprising, that men are extremely reluctant to seek medical attention or visit a counsellor (Hong, 2000). Internalised masculinity ensures that men see themselves as the caretakers of their wives and families, but that no one is supposed to take care of them and they are not supposed to rely on others. This means that boys and men tend to have very poor methods of relieving tension and conflict within themselves as well as handling conflict between themselves and others, without resorting to aggression. 

Competition as a result of limited resources

Male vulnerability is heightened in the context of limited resources (Morrell et al., 2012). White males in South Africa for example, have had their resources extremely limited after Apartheid. White male privilege and power are being challenged by women, black males in white-collar positions, and the presence of other race-groups on sports teams. This is likely why there have been so many outbursts involving older white males where they become unnecessarily upset when anyone takes something that is considered theirs (e.g. parking spots). Many men feel anger towards women for anything they deem emasculating, such as women becoming breadwinners, or being promoted over them at work. These sociocultural changes resulting from the empowerment of women and their steady ‘invasion’ into areas traditionally considered masculine have led to what researchers term “threatened masculinity” (Reardon & Govender, 2011). This is where men became increasingly concerned about their physical appearance because the male body and muscularity became one of the few surviving marks of masculinity. Therefore, support for traditional masculine norms among adolescent males is often associated with the desire for a larger, more muscular body. Males who struggle with body image often  become depressed, develop a low self-esteem, poor weight control measures and steroid use, as well as a number of other negative outcomes (Reardon & Govender, 2011). However, this competition also takes place, and is often encouraged, between men. Men are often urged to strive for dominance, power, wealth and success. This competition most often takes place in order to ‘win’ women and resources. Pressure to compete and to win are normal expectations of manhood, where you have to win your opponent or else come across as a coward (Hong, 2000). This leads to the idealisation of an urban masculinity where dominant masculine ideals are characterised by overt economic power and multiple sexual partners. The concept of ‘the player’ who has wealth and women, is important in the makeup of hegemonic masculinity and helps position men in communities. However, in order to achieve this status and retain and reclaim male superiority, women have to be dehumanised. 

Domestic violence and control

Because of the perceived mantle of leadership that men have been socialised into believing should be theirs alone, women are often seen as too empowered and not to be trusted. The empowerment and liberation of women has made many men feel alienated and that they lack control in sexual relationships. This perceived disempowerment of men along with societal changes, unemployment, poverty and low self-esteem has led to dominant masculinities characterised by large sexual networks, and in extreme cases, the need to gain more power over women (Ragnarsson, Townsend, Ekstrom, Chopra, & Thorson, 2010). Research has shown that it is invariably men who decide when, where and how to have sexual intercourse, as well as whether or not a woman should try to conceive, and whether or not condoms will be used. This need for control by men has resulted in many women being unable to protect themselves against STDs, pregnancy and unwelcome sexual acts (Wood & Jewkes, 1997). The fact that men control condom usage, means that they are the ones who determine safer sexual behaviour and who significantly influence the HIV risk to both partners (Shai, Jewkes, Nduna, & Dunkle, 2012). Men often justify their use of various controlling, coercive and violent acts as a consequence of women’s perceived inability to self-regulate. In this way, policing women’s movements are sometimes seen as protecting the physical safety and reputation of women, lest they become known as ‘Jezebels’ and ‘street women’ (de Shong, 2015). Since infidelity is viewed as emasculating, violence and control are measures to prevent and punish opportunities for infidelity. Femininity is seen as belonging to the private realm, and masculinity to the public realm. When those arrangements are threatened, it justifies restricting the movement/freedom of women and violence used against them. A patriarchal cultural system of indoctrination in South Africa has also created socialised gendered notions of male power and control, where violence is used to affirm masculinity. In this system, women are taught to be submissive to victimisation and men are taught to be dominant and abusive. 

Sexual violence

Assault and rape are regular features of relationships in townships. This is due to the unequal power relations between women and men that have been discussed above. The links between toxic masculinity and rape have been discussed by many as being caused by the male need for power, control, dominance, and misogyny by punishing women for emasculating them, among other reasons.  However, something that is often overlooked and disregarded in society as a consequence of toxic masculinity is male rape. Male rape is severely underreported because vulnerability is constructed within gendered notions of femininity. Many male rape victims are too embarrassed to report their rapes because being victimised is perceived as a sign of femininity, and thus it demolishes their claim to manhood. By negating the victim’s masculinity, the violence affirms the masculinity of the perpetrator. The sense of demolished masculinity and imposed ‘womanhood’ is central to the immense stigma and shame that keeps most victims suffering in silence (Gear, 2007). In prisons the lines are blurred between homosexuality and male rape, and instead it becomes about power and competition. This is why prisons have the greatest concentration of male-on-male sex, but the attitude of most prisoners is still essentially homophobic. Prison ‘manhood’ is linked to the capacity for displaying particular violence together with the ability to withstand it, but also that once manhood is lost it can be regained through violence. Men in prisons who are considered ‘women’, often have to stab another inmate when they seek promotion back to masculinity. As such, male victims have the potential for violent compensatory behaviour both inside and outside of prisons (Gear, 2007). Often they erupt in violence when released, seeking to recover their manhood through the very way it was lost: rape.  

Towards a framework of positive masculinity

Too often the focus on intervention programmes has been focused on women and how they can protect themselves from violence and take control of their sexual lives. However, it has been found that men are usually the ones who dictate the timing of sex and the movements of women. Therefore, interventions to end  gender-based violence need to involve men and boys so as to help them change their attitudes and behaviours, and even renegotiate their social position and identity (Morrell et al., 2012). There is a danger of NGOs neglecting work with men. However, focusing on interventions involving boys could significantly decrease many other forms of violence as well. 

Some campaigns aimed at boys and men have been effective in terms of creating a new discourse regarding masculinities among men, while others have not been intricate enough to make a meaningful contribution towards a positive masculinity. One example of a successful intervention was the Men Against Violence (MAV) study done by Hong (2000), where participants experienced meaningful changes in attitudes, beliefs and behaviours relative to normative gender expectations. This was expressed by rejecting and renouncing dominant norms for male behaviour, creating their own code of manhood or denying that masculinity was important in their lives; reformulation and redefining traditional conceptions of masculinity; reliance, where an individual remains hypersensitive and aware of particular aspects of gender stereotypes. Whereas, an example of an insufficient campaign was the Croatian Family Assistance Association’s ‘hit me, not her’ campaign, which depicted wrestlers, boxers and martial artists facing the camera in a fighting posture and daring the viewer to hit them, using the slogan ‘real men don’t hit women’. The problem is that these campaigns do not seek to challenge aggressive masculinities but rather to legitimise them by endorsing violence as a solution to social problems. In this way, they might be effective in curbing gender-based violence, but not in creating a positive masculinity. Any campaign that contains the words ‘real men’ defeats the purpose. Salter (2016) says that when we introduce claims that men need to be a certain way  it only introduces cultural baggage into prevention campaigns. In South Africa, interventions such as One Man Can, Men as Partners and Stepping Stones have demonstrated positive behaviour change amongst men and boys, but the determination to roll these programmes out at a national level seems to be lacking (Shai et al., 2012). The city of Cape Town has recently launched a Men and Masculinity initiative in Delft to help tackle gender-based violence, but national government in South Africa is still emphasising interventions aimed at women.

The need is to work with pre-adolescent children in terms of developing alternative patterns of interpersonal interaction and reducing levels of violence in the country. Interventions must incorporate approaches that involve men in developing alternative masculinities to promote gender-equitable behaviours. Interventions should be conducted with a framework that includes addressing the vast inequalities and injustices in the lives of females. They must promote a culture of human rights. Multi-sectoral approaches that connect with the reality of rural people, the home, media, school and church is advocated (Sathiparsad, 2008).  Interventions should also be aimed at teaching boys and men different methods of resolving conflict that do not resort to notions of masculinity, violence, and pride.


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