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In January, the American Psychological Association (APA) published landmark guidelines affirming that restrictive ideas about manhood can cause real harm to men in terms of depressive symptoms, suicide, substance use, and more. Then came Gillette with the launch a major ad campaign asking men, “Is this the best we can be?”. The ad highlighted the ways harmful ideas about what it means to be man play out and hurt the people around us — through bullying, harassment, and the like.

In the month after that campaign was launched, the video has received 1.4 million+ dislikes, compared to 760,000+ likes, showing exactly how polarizing this message is. This comment is typical: “So sick of the man bashing. You’re bashing me, my dad, my son, my brothers. So buh bye Gillette.”

Many men feel that their manhood is actively under attack. This is in part because the phrase “toxic masculinity” has become so common that many men hear it as one word: toxicmasculinity. “Toxic” was even chosen as Oxford’s word of the year in 2018. Men are being called out on the most public stages, to re-examine their behavior, and many aren’t happy about it.

Women have always known that men “being men” or living out a version of “toxic masculinity” can have direct, harmful impacts on their health and well-being. Women have seen this first hand, in the form of harassment in the workplace. Violence from male partners in the home. Mansplaining. Lack of career advancement. Sexual assault. The greater burden they face in doing the lion’s share of care work at home and trying to advance their careers. And they have seen it in the faces of men who roll their eyes and look away when women raise complaints or take action around overt and subtle discrimination.

It’s not “male-bashing” to affirm the harm that lots of men have caused too many women, and the silence that often comes from other men around it. That’s reality. But it doesn’t have to be.

There is a growing body of research confirming that, like it or not, manhood is mainly about what we make it up to be and how we teach it to younger generations, and toxicmasculinity isn’t a foregone conclusion. Dominance, violence, harassment: these are not in our genes, as convenient and simple as it might be to think that. It is about how we raise our sons. And what we make of “boys will be boys.”

If masculinity in America — and lots of places — is problematic, it’s because we make it so. Boys aren’t born violent. We raise them — and too often give them social permission — to bully and to harass. Or to stay silent when they see other boys or men harass.

The deluge of dislikes, diatribes, and anger in response to the APA report and Gillette’s new ad is troubling, but it turns out, it doesn’t tell the whole story: one market research firm found that actually, 84% of women and 77% of men responded positively or neutral to the campaign, and another found that only 8% of viewers were turned off. This tells us that perhaps the loudest voices don’t represent the majority of voices.

Many men feel that their manhood is actively under attack. This is in part because the phrase “toxic masculinity” has become so common that many men hear it as one word: toxicmasculinity.

Research also tells us that there is hope for the future. From a study we carried out with Unilever’s Axe brand, we know that most young men in the U.S. don’t think harassment against women is acceptable. A study we carried out with Unilever, Dove Men+Care affirms just how much men in the U.S. want to be involved fathers and to take on more when it comes to raising their children. We have also found that a majority of young men in the U.S. have deep empathy, want to speak out when they see others harassed or bullied, and want to contribute toward positive change. But not all of them are taking action.

Seeing this conversation play out on a major stage through the #MeToo movement has left many women and men wondering what’s next, and if anything will truly change. While in some cases men have become introspective, defensiveness and fear have followed for others, and many men who have been called out have not been held accountable for their actions.

We are still far off from full equality in the U.S. and globally — about 200 years away, with the current rate of change.

If we want to make progress, we not only need to hold those accountable who have caused harm, we also need to proactively talk to our sons about rejecting harmful ideas of manhood, openly and honestly. We need to talk to them about how they can do better, when it comes to understanding consent and building healthy, respectful relationships. We need to shift the narrative in media, in international policies, visible campaigns, and workplace training to ensure that women and girls get nothing less than a full and equal place at the table; and we need to change a world in which boys still feel like they need to act tough and “be manly” at all costs.

We know that while women have a lot to gain if we were to see this full transformation, men do too. In a comparative study of men’s attitudes across nearly 40 countries involving nearly 70,000 interviews, we consistently find that men who believe in gender equality, and in nonviolent, supportive versions of masculinity are healthier and happier, and their partners are happier with them. We have a long way to go, but to get there, we need to spend less time clicking ‘dislike’ and more time focusing offline, on becoming the best men we can be. We’ll be better, happier men for it. And the world will be better too.

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