When people talk about “toxic masculinity” they generally don’t mean it in a literal sense. Generally, what they mean is that some men are “toxic” insofar as they conform to traditional ideals of masculinity in a way that’s harmful to society, rather than a way that's detrimental to the physical environment.
But for some men, both definitions apply. That’s according to a new study out of America’s Penn State University—titled Gender Bending and Gender Conformity: The Social Consequences of Engaging in Feminine and Masculine Pro-Environmental Behaviours—which found that men can be unwilling to perform environmentally friendly tasks such as recycling, using reusable bags, or turning off the air conditioner, if they perceive these behaviours to be “gendered”. The fear seemed to be that if men were to engage in these allegedly gender nonconforming tasks, other people might think they're gay.
As Penn State professor of psychology and lead researcher Janet K. Swim puts it: “there may be subtle, gender-related consequences when we engage in various pro-environmental behaviours. People may avoid certain behaviours because they are managing the gendered impression they anticipate others will have of them. Or they may be avoided if the behaviours they choose do not match their gender.”
The study asked a total of 960 participants—male and female—to evaluate whether fictional characters felt “feminine” or “masculine” based on a series of environmentally friendly activities. Participants then gave their impression of the characters based on a 10-point scale ranging from heterosexual to homosexual, according to Out magazine.
"Reflecting the tendency to see environmentalism as feminine, all the people were rated as more feminine than masculine regardless of the behaviours they did," said Swim—noting that those whose behaviours conformed to their gender were generally seen as more heterosexual than those whose behaviours did not. The study further indicated that if people think it’s important to be viewed as heterosexual, they’ll opt out of gender nonconforming behaviours in order to avoid any associated stigma. It was found that “men were most likely to socially distance themselves” from gender nonconforming behaviour.
“If being seen as heterosexual is important to a person, that person may prioritise gender-conforming over gender-nonconforming pro-environmental behaviours in anticipation of how others might see them,” said Swim.
“Behaviours don’t just help us accomplish something concrete, they also signal something about who we are. Line drying clothes or keeping tires at proper pressures may signal that we care about the environment, but if those behaviours are seen as gendered, they may signal other things, as well.”
So there you have it: toxic masculinity, coupled with an archaic brand of small-minded homophobia, might actually be contributing to the destruction of the planet. That's just bad news all round.