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No, men don't learn toxic masculinity from their fathers

Men don't learn toxic masculinity from their fathers. Here, a father walking his young son to school.
(Image credit: Frank Herholdt via Getty Images)

For toxic masculinity, "like father, like son," is only part of the story.

New research suggests a different story: A man's lack of friends may predict whether he will embrace toxic masculinity, while the presence or absence of a male role model early in life doesn't play a role.

So-called toxic — or hegemonic — masculinity refers to a set of beliefs and negative social behaviors that are aligned with "idealized" masculine norms. Sociologists first coined the term as a way to describe a form of masculinity that directly opposes other forms of masculinity — suggesting these other forms are inferior. In this conception, "real men" are often described in macho terms such as "assertive," "courageous" and "competitive," but they are often also misogynistic and sexually aggressive. They see themselves as dominant in society, while they relegate subordinate roles to others, like women, gay men and those identifying as nonbinary. 

Sociologists George Van Doorn, Jacob Dye and Ma Regina de Gracia — all of Federation University in Australia — set out to explore the origins of hegemonic masculinity in a study published in the March issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences. They wanted to understand whether a man's relationship with his father early in life influenced his adherence to hegemonic masculinity later in life. 

Related: 25 scientific tips for raising happy (and healthy) kids

"There's literature about men, and fathers in particular, being essential in their boys' lives and in their development," said Van Doorn, the study's lead author. Often, these studies don't follow those boys to adulthood, so the long-term effects of fatherly influences haven't really been explored scientifically. "We just tested it, and it didn't really come out the way I expected," Van Doorn told Live Science. 

The researchers surveyed 188 men ages 18 to 62, primarily from Australia. The three-part survey measured different aspects of the participants' life experiences and beliefs. One part asked about the quality of social relationships, particularly those with family and friends. Another measured adverse childhood experiences and focused particularly on things such as household dysfunction and abuse. The remaining section of the survey, which included 29 statements, was an attempt to measure the participants' adherence to hegemonic masculine norms. Participants had to rank their level of agreement or disagreement with statements that focused on: "playboy" ideology, self-reliance, emotional control, winning, violence, heterosexual self-presentation, risk-taking and power over women

When analyzing the results, they found no connection between a man's relationship with his father and his adherence to masculine norms. Further, the mother-son relationship and adverse childhood experiences also failed to predict a man's belief in hegemonic masculinity. 

However, one relationship did seem to predict hegemonic masculinity: the quality of a man's relationships with his friends. As hegemonic masculinity went up, the number and quality of friendships plummeted. However, the study was correlational, meaning it couldn't say whether lacking close friendships caused these beliefs or whether these beliefs prevented the formation or maintenance of close friendships. It was a strong correlation, and in this study, nothing else measured came close when predicting hegemonic tendencies. 

Cliff Leek, a sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado who was not involved in the study, said belief in hegemonic masculinity is most likely to come from our social circles while we're growing up, especially gender-segregated ones, such as sports teams or fraternities, that unquestioningly reinforce stereotypes of what a "real man" is. 

But why men who hold these beliefs tend to have fewer friends than others likely has to do with the beliefs themselves. "Those traits, like competitiveness or a lack of willingness to show emotion, are the types of traits that will prevent you from forming strong relationships in the first place," Leek told Live Science. In this way, hegemonic masculinity can become a form of self-harm, as men who hold these ideals may alienate themselves, according to a study published in 2020 in the journal Sex Roles

Whatever the cause, family makeup doesn't seem to matter, Van Doorn said. 

"If you were raised by your grandma, your aunt, two men, two women, it doesn't matter in this case," Van Doorn said. While a father-son relationship is undeniably important to the development of a child, having a bad relationship with him, or no relationship at all, doesn't set him on a particular path. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Cameron Duke

Cameron is a contributing writer covering life sciences for Live Science. He also writes for New Scientist as well as MinuteEarth and Discovery's Curiosity Daily Podcast. He holds a master's degree in animal behavior from Western Carolina University and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.