While overused and misapplied, the term toxic masculinity is a real thing with a legitimate biological cause. There is, however, a cure.
Testosterone poisoning. Toxic masculinity. You know the terms. They’re generally spat out to describe any male behavior that’s deemed excessively or inappropriately aggressive.
People who study such topics generally agree that the interchangeable terms have three tell-tale components:
- Toughness: The idea that men should be physically strong, have the emotional depth of toilet seats, and be stubbornly aggressive.
- Antifemininity: The term doesn’t suggest that men “suffering” from these afflictions dislike women (although that certainly might be the case in some instances). Rather, it suggests that “real” men reject anything that’s considered to be feminine. Wearing colorful clothes (really, wearing any color that’s not some shade of masculine, bituminous coal), having empathy, or being a “Bridgerton” fanboy all fall into this realm.
- Power: The idea that men need to achieve financial or social success so they gain the respect of others (and are, ipso facto, “superior” to them).
Yeah, those definitions warrant the “toxic” label. The trouble is, a great many men, toxic and not-so toxic, have begun to sneer at such definitions because the “testosterone poisoning” bar has lately dropped precipitously low. It’s gotten to the point that any aggressive behavior, no matter how nominal, seems to warrant the derogatory label.
It seems the only way a man might nowadays limbo underneath that bar and avoid those labels is to tuck his penis and possibly lactate on demand.
But let’s put aside our male indignation for a moment and consider this derogatory point of view. Can masculinity, in some cases, be considered toxic? Can testosterone be so high or potent that it reaches the level of societal “poisoning”?
I think the answer to both questions is yes. We can coin the reactive phenomenon “Cobra Kai Masculinity” after the Netflix show.
What is Cobra Kai Masculinity?
You don’t really need to have watched the show to understand the concept. The plot is simple: two factions of teenage karate students vie for supremacy in Los Angeles (I never said it was prestige TV). One faction is led by the grown-up Daniel Russo (the original Karate Kid from the 1984 movie) who was the student of Mr. Miyagi, who taught that karate should only be used for defensive purposes.
They’re opposed by Johnny Lawrence (the Karate Kid’s foil from the original movie) and his students who are members of the Cobra Kai karate school. Lawrence was mentored by John Kreese, a Vietnam veteran who used karate for power and aggression. They kick and chop and spin at the slightest provocation. Anger is their default emotion.
Lawrence’s students are warlike while Russo’s are generally more peaceful (although Lawrence, as the series progresses, learns to reign in some of his worst instincts).
Although the show is fictional, it illustrates what science has discovered about testosterone and reactive masculinity, both from a behavioral aspect and a genetic one. First, the behavioral one.
Overcompensating for Being Dissed
There’s a general belief that men who quicken to anger have higher testosterone levels than those that don’t. However, high-T men appear to have a very specific trigger: Whenever their masculinity is threatened, they overcompensate. They act more macho. They express more interest in buying SUVs or trucks or guns; they show stronger support for war. They may even overcompensate to the point of physically attacking the person who disparaged their manliness.
The higher their testosterone levels, the stronger their response: Cobra Kai masculinity.
And science has the receipts to back it up. Back in 2005, Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford, wrote a paper that combined the results of a few studies on the topic of masculinity: “Overdoing Gender: A Test of the Masculine Overcompensation Thesis.”
In the most conclusive of the studies, researchers recruited 54 undergraduate men from the University of Iowa and asked them questions about their assertiveness and other qualities that might be considered masculine or feminine. They were then given feedback, but the feedback was random – it really had nothing to do with their answers. Some men were told their answers revealed feminine traits. Others were told their answers were more masculine in nature.
They were then surveyed again on a mix of political and social issues, all while having their saliva tested at various points in the study to measure their testosterone levels.
The men with higher levels of testosterone tended to go into a tizzy when they were told their answers tilted toward the feminine side. They went gung-ho on war. They went full homophobic. Their thoughts must have ping-ponged between every imaginable iconic masculine trope: Iwo Jima! Two-ton semis! Punch press! Mixed mother-f*ckin’ martial arts!
Meanwhile, the men with lower testosterone levels shrugged off the masculine and feminine labels. They absentmindedly used their thumbs to push back their cuticles on their other fingers and thought about where to grab lunch.
Willer synopsized his findings this way:
“Masculine overcompensation in men appears to be driven by men with moderate to high testosterone levels. Their levels of support for war and homophobia practically doubled on the scale that we measured them on, where lower testosterone men were unaffected by threats.”
The studies described in Willer’s paper show a type of man that is easily manipulated, weak minded, and perhaps deserving of some societal scorn, but it’s ridiculous to assume that all high-T men are “toxic.”
So, is there a biological reason that helps explain some of these tendencies to exhibit “toxic” masculinity? Moreover, is there a “cure” for occasionally acting like an a-hole?
Yeah. Kind of.
High Testosterone and Criminality
I’m sure you’ve heard of studies that suggested violent criminals often have higher testosterone levels. There haven’t been that many studies on the topic, but it appears to be true. One of the first was conducted in 1972. Inmates who had committed violent crimes during adolescence had higher T levels.
In another study, 10 out of 11 inmates with the highest testosterone levels had committed violent crimes, whereas 9 out of 11 inmates who had committed non-violent crimes had the lowest testosterone levels.
Yet another study, perhaps with more credibility because of its size, measured the T levels of 4,179 veterans and found that basal T levels were positively related to antisocial or aggressive behavior.
(Luckily, no studies indicate that testosterone injections, even at supraphysiological doses, had any effect on aggression, hence putting the whole “roid rage” controversy to rest, or at least on hold.)
However, it’s incorrect to assume that anyone with high testosterone is more likely to commit a violent crime than someone with lower or “normal” levels. To figure out why, we have to go down to the chromosomal level. (Trust me, it’s pretty cool and worth reading).
Androgen receptors (AR) are found inside the cells of various types of tissue, including muscles and reproductive tissue. In simple terms, they’re the “lock,” and various hormones are the “key.”
Once a key slips into the AR receptor lock, it binds to DNA, which are long chains made from four different building blocks (nucleotides) that are represented by the letters A, T, C, and G. Cells join these nucleotides together in different combinations that serve as the blueprint to mostly form new proteins.
By turning the genes on or off, the AR receptor helps sculpt sexual characteristics. However, they’re also responsible for the neuromodulation of sexual and aggressive behavior.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. There are sometimes mistakes in the sequencing, some of which are categorized as “trinucleotide repeat disorders.” If a trinucleotide repeats itself too often or not enough, it screws up the blueprint for a particular protein. It’s like starting off wanting to build a Docksta table from IKEA, but some Swedish malcontent at the factory monkeyed with the instructions so instead you end up building a Råskog stool.
An example of a trinucleotide repeat, one that’s pertinent to our discussion, is a CAG (cytosine-adenine-guanine) repeat. If it occurs too many times in the DNA, or too few times, it’s like adding too much or not enough of an ingredient in a recipe. In this case, the ingredient is a protein that may damage the brain.
To be specific, if a person has too many CAG repeats in the AR, a person develops Huntington’s disease (a progressive brain disorder) or Kennedy’s disease (a disorder of specialized nerve cells that control movement).
So, what the hell does CAG have to do with Cobra Kai Syndrome? Okay, if an AR has too few CAG repeats, it plays a role in aggressive behavior. (The neurons of the hypothalamus and amygdala, both of which are associated with aggressive behavior, are chock full of ARs.) As evidence, a large study in India found that 241 men convicted of rape, 107 for murder, and 26 for murder and rape had significantly shorter CAG repeats than 271 male controls.
These short CAG repeats have also been implicated in depression, too. Specifically, depression has been found to be inversely associated with total testosterone levels, but only in men with shorter CAG repeats.
However, these CAG-related effects on personality and aggression don’t happen independently of any other contributing factors. In fact, without higher levels of testosterone, CAG appears to mind its own business.
But short CAG repeats and normal to low testosterone? Calm sailing. Short CAG repeats and high testosterone levels? The possibility of aggressive tendencies. Overcompensating for perceived slights. Cobra Kai Syndrome.
But if you’re one of these men who struggle to keep your worst instincts in check, there’s a treatment for it, and chances are, if you’re reading this website, you’re already doing it.
A "Cure" for "Toxic Masculinity"?
Based on what we know about genetics, testosterone, and overcompensation by high-T men, we would guess that the Cobra Kai characters have too few CAG repeats.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of testosterone and its effects on behavior. I’m quite sure there are plenty of overly aggressive a-holes who have a perfectly acceptable number of CAG repeats. Nature over nurture. That sort of thing.
Even so, I can easily imagine the knowledge of CAG repeats being used as a defense in court someday:
“Your honor, while he might have sodomized the claimant’s cattle, my client was not responsible. He was but a victim of a hypothalamus and amygdala whose androgen receptors had too few CAG repeats. I ask that you find him not guilty.”
Luckily, there are two other things that influence the effect of testosterone. They are the stress hormone cortisol and the “happy” hormone, serotonin. The three hormones form a triad: testosterone activates aggression while cortisol and serotonin act antagonistically to testosterone to reduce the Cobra Kai effect.
So, is there anything that can be done for Cobra Kai syndrome? Is there anything with the requisite charms to soothe the savage breast? Yep. It’s weight training. It stimulates the production of the happy hormone as well as the stress hormone.
Done consistently, weight training might be the cure for toxic masculinity, testosterone poisoning, Cobra Kai syndrome, whatever you choose to call it.
Maybe that’s a good reason for prisons to keep their iconic, outside weight training pits intact rather than dissolving them for financial reasons. It might also be a good strategy for parents with depressed or overly aggressive children to get them involved in weight training.
It might also be a good strategy for those men who are evolved to sense that they might have anger problems and need to nurture their better angels.
- Batrinos ML. Testosterone and Aggressive Behavior in Men. Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Summer;10(3):563-8. PubMed.
- Willer R. Overdoing Gender: A Test of the Masculine Overcompensation Thesis. Am J Sociol. 2013 Jan;118:980-1022.
- van Anders SM et al. Effects of gendered behavior on testosterone in women and men. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Nov 10;112(45):13805-10. PubMed.