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Creating a new normal: OISE experts say schools play an important role in challenging toxic notions of masculinity

November 23, 2018

By Marianne Lau and Kaitlyn Balkovec


The recent allegations of physical and sexual assault by students at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto have prompted discussions on the role of  ‘toxic masculinity’ in perpetuating and aggravating acts of violence among young men.  

Toxic masculinity refers to a set of societal expectations of how a traditional male should act, feel, and behave. Aggression, dominance, control, the suppression of emotions and empathy, degradation of women, and homophobia are some of its key characteristics.

Toxic masculinity may express itself in bullying, and can escalate from verbal harassment to extreme cases of physical assault—especially in all-male environments where this behaviour is unchecked, said OISE professor Roy Gillis, whose research focuses bullying, homophobia and hate crime victimization.

The role of schools in combating toxic masculinity  

Professor Charles Pascal, who is also a former deputy minister of education, says that notions of hyper-masculinity have become extremely normalized. “We need to create a new normal and redefine what masculinity means,” he said.

“Educators have an incredibly important responsibility here in terms of how they model what being masculine is, or how they model that any form of violence against another human being is wrong.”

In schools, this begins with a community-wide conversation that deconstructs the idea of masculinity, while expressing new values that centre around inclusivity and diversity, Gillis said.

A whole community approach must be taken, which means everyone – teachers, administration, parents and students – need to express these collective values and work together toward changing peer norms and influences, he added.

“It’s about working cooperatively to ensure all students feel included instead of socially ostracized or left out of groups. It’s about upholding notions of community, as well as respecting the dignity and worth of all people and the recognition of their rights.”

The importance of challenging homophobia

Toxic masculinity often includes very strong elements of homophobic bullying, assault, or degradation, says Gillis. By shaming and condemning same-sex desires, these acts become a way for young men to “prove” their masculinity.

The first step in shifting this attitude is by intervening early on, says Gillis. When teachers or administrators witness homophobic bullying, they must to step in and stop the situation, as well as make sure the student understands why the behaviour is unacceptable.

“It’s especially that important that schools address lower levels of verbal and physical harassment,” says Gillis. “What starts as bullying may escalate to extreme cases of physical or sexual assault.”

Incorporating these lessons into curriculum is another way that teachers can prevent bullying and harassment, and ensure that all students are aware that such behaviour is wrong.

“Having a sexual education curriculum that addresses gender identity and sexual orientation in depth and deals with issues consent, cyberbullying, and harassment is key,” says Gillis. “This has to start at an early age and go on through high school.”

Prioritizing teacher training

Training for teachers on bullying, abuse and violence prevention is also needed – before and after they enter the profession, says Gillis.

“Many teachers don’t have the skills to intervene, or feel comfortable responding to bullying.”

Programs to educate teachers on how to deal with bullying must be prioritized, and need to be seen as being equally as important as the teaching of science, technology or math, Gillis said.

“Students can’t learn in environments where they’re afraid of violence or harassment.”

More on Professor Roy Gillis

Professor Roy Gillis is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at OISE. His research interests include developing models of the psychological impact of identity-based bullying, hate crime victimization and same-sex partner abuse. He has written extensively about the impact of homophobia on society, and conducts research on the teaching of sexual orientation diversity within educational systems. Read his profile here