Is “toxic femininity” a major cause of social justice warriorism?

February 2, 2021 • 11:15 am

That’s a provocative headline, but it’s not my view, since social justice warriors don’t seem to me especially slanted towards women. But it seems to be the view, published in Areo magazine (click on screenshot below) of one Freya India Ager, described as “recently graduated from King’s College London with a degree in Political Science. She is now an independent writer interested in politics, psychology and culture.”

The “toxic femininity” term stems, of course, from its opposite: “toxic masculinity”, often been held responsible for many of the world’s ills. I don’t particularly like the term since it implies that all male traits are “toxic,” and as a male I naturally bridle at this accusation.  Yet I can’t deny that there are evolved biological differences between the sexes, and that some evolved traits in males may be detrimental to society. Aggression and male-male competition may be two of them.  Those traits leads to fights, wars, and, in my own university classroom, a tendency of men to dominate discussions, often talking over women. Every woman has experienced that.

Another is a desire for promiscuous sexuality, which leads to higher rates of adultery in males as well as mistreatment of women.  And, in fact, as I write this, I can’t think of any obvious “masculine” traits that are good ones, save, perhaps, a prescriptivity when it comes to solving problems.

On the other hand, male prescriptivity can be detrimental. Every man knows that when a woman comes to you with a problem, often they want you to listen and sympathize rather than solve that problem. That I see as part of the feminine trait of having greater empathy. And I find that salubrious, which is why a large proportion of my best friends are women. Sometimes you just want to talk and experience human connection, for if the answer to a problem were obvious, you would have thought of it already.

In the end, our shared “human” traits, which are present in both sexes to some degree (but not necessarily to the same degree), can be good ones: altruism, kindness, sociality, and so on. Maybe humor—if you believe Hitchens that men are funnier than women. But, truth be told, are there any typically “male” traits that you’d would want to see more of in women?

Ager, however, sees “feminine” traits—including empathy—as sometimes deleterious, especially when, as she sees it, they help ground “social justice culture”. And those traits she sees as the malign influence of “toxic femininity”.

Here’s Ager’s thesis:

But if we are going to describe toxic masculinity as the negative manifestation of male traits, some of our societal problems must be the negative expression of female traits.

Characteristics more common to one sex than the other certainly exist. Individuals vary, but men are predominately more aggressive, for example, and women are generally more empathetic. If a man or woman suffers from a psychopathology, these differences can manifest in distinct forms of antisocial behaviour.

We don’t speak of toxic femininity—and I don’t believe we should—but if we were to imagine the worst manifestation of typically female attributes, I think it would look a lot like today’s social justice culture.

. . .History bears testimony to the danger of demonising groups of people based on their immutable characteristics. Not only did this way of thinking lead to historical sexism against women (and continues to do so across the world), it also motivates anti-male attitudes today, giving rise to venomous trends like kill all men and men are trash.

I do not wish to argue that society is infected with toxic femininity, nor that all purveyors of social justice culture are female. Instead, I hope to add nuance to the discussion of toxic masculinity by showing that the line of reasoning many modern social justice leftists adopt and the methods they favour to bring about social progress correlate with typically female psychopathologies.

Looking at three key elements of social justice culture, I argue that our current zeitgeist—which normalises cancelling others, praises emotional reasoning and overvalues safety—aligns strongly with traits that are, in the aggregate, more predominant among women than among men.

And here are the aspects of SJW culture that she sees as more predominant in women than in men. That, of course, doesn’t mean that SJW culture itself comes from women; only that the aspects of SJW culture are, says Ager, found more often in the female than in male “nature”.  I’ve indented her own quotes; my comments are flush left.

Cancel Culture. I’ve heard from women many times that if I think men dissing other men is bad, well, I should hear how women talk about each other! I can’t speak to the truth of that, but this is what Ager says:

This is generally a female approach to antisocial behaviour. Rather than violent confrontation, women tend to engage in reputation destruction and social exclusion, seeking to destroy the status of their rivals rather than physically defeat them.

Several studies have suggested an evolutionary basis for this. In Stockley and Campbell’s interdisciplinary study of female competition and aggression, they suggest that females are wired to survive, compete for preferred mates and reproduce. They therefore target rivals through lower risk, indirect competitive strategies, such as:

refusal to cooperate with them, destruction of their reputation (so that others will also refuse cooperation) and, ultimately, exclusion from the group. Indirect aggression (the use of pejorative gossip and social exclusion) is women’s preferred aggressive tactic. Because harm is delivered circuitously and because it is executed simultaneously by several members of the community, it is a low-risk strategy.

Ager says that this happens in chimpanzees as well, with females “ousting newcomers or low-ranking community females.”

Lived experience. This refers to the SJW tendency to dwell on personal experience rather than data, leading to the denigration of objective truth. And this, says Ager, is an outgrowth of greater female empathy, which she sees as an evolved trait. She also argues that “women are more open to negative experiences,” which itself leads to higher degrees of neuroticism.  But I think she’s on shaky ground when she connects this with social justice culture:

Sex differences in neuroticism are actually larger in cultures with greater socio-political gender equity, not smaller as would be expected if sex differences were purely the result of socialisation into traditional gender roles.

A range of evolutionary theories could explain this, including the hypothesis that “Women may be more sensitive to all the emotions of others because of their need (more than men) to attach with their children, or women may be especially responsive to negative emotions only because of the need to react to fitness threats more than men do.”

This isn’t to say that all women are more emotional or neurotic than men, or that stability and rationality are distinctively male traits. But, as a whole, women tilt more toward negative emotional reasoning, a cognitive distortion endemic to the modern social justice movement.

Finally:

Safetyism, the increasing desire to protect yourself and others of your tribe from emotional damage. We’ve encountered this before:

In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff sound the alarm about the rise of safetyism in the US, particularly on university campuses. Safetyism, as they describe it, is “the cult of safety—an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

Safetyism lies at the heart of social justice culture, giving rise to concepts like safe spaces, trigger warnings, hate speech and microaggressions. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that this ethos is leaving younger generations more fragile than ever, dramatically increasing their levels of anxiety, depression and suicide by positioning them as helpless victims.

Now Ager doesn’t want to demonize either sex, for that’s not productive—no more productive than talking about “toxic whiteness” or “toxic blackness.” As she says,

Healthy discourse should not pit the genders against each other or present women as morally superior, but recognise that we’re all fallible, and need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from sexual assault to safetyism.

Toxicity resides in individuals, not in groups. Certain traits may be more likely to exist in one sex than the other due to the average psychological differences between them, but what matters, ultimately, is how each individual behaves. In the end, all human virtues can become vices and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can all progress.

And I agree: it’s much more useful—and less divisive—to work on problems as “social issues,” without worrying whether they’re “male” or “female” problems. So why did Ager write this piece? The only reason I can guess is because she’s fed up with men being tarred with the trait of “toxic masculinity”, and wrote this article as if to say, “See, we can also play this game with femininity.”

67 thoughts on “Is “toxic femininity” a major cause of social justice warriorism?

  1. “Lived experience. This refers to the SJW tendency to dwell on personal experience rather than data”

    This is a central tenet of Pharyngula, and increasingly, various humanist/atheist organisations, these days.

    Odd, when you remember their “anecdote doesn’t equal data” days of mocking fundamental Christians and their “lived experience”… Now they want us to believe there “are other ways of knowing”.

    1. I may not be the best representative of the female sex, but I found the author’s thoughts interesting. I also read this blog regularly, and came to this realizing his take would be thought-provoking and measured. No triggers here. Barring, perhaps, your innuendo.

        1. Italian is my first language and I have never heard or read that word. I just looked in three different Italian dictionaries and I do not find it in any of them.
          It may be Latin? I have no knowledge of Latin.

    2. I find it an interesting line of thought. Unfortunately, I don’t really know what we’re supposed to do with it. Just as ‘toxic masculinity’ might have some self-awareness value but is mostly used as an ad hom or insult, I’m not sure how we bring this idea out of the ‘insult’ phase and into the ‘useful for improvement’ phase.

      But there I go, trying to use ideas instead of just nodding along…I blame my toxic scientificacy.

      1. Thanks for that. I was struggling to put into words what my response is. If we put together toxic masculinity and now toxic femininity side by side they make a certain amount of sense on an psychological/emotional insight level -and make a neat symmetry – but so what. It just seems to provide another very poorly understood meme for folks to confuse themselves with. I think it was put into the original article simply in passing and is equivalent to GBJames’ emoticon. ( which I can’t find) so here is a cat.🐈‍⬛

  2. Good read. I can only imagine she titled her piece because it would generate a reaction. Our time (and attention) is actual currency on the internet, in publishing, and all media. But I question her assertion that neuroses in females is less prominent in “traditional” cultures. If anything, the presence of perceived ideals for either sex causes more “toxic” behavior regardless of sexual identity. Just think of the flags of Rambo with Trump’s head replacing Sly’s. Of course, the character of Rambo depicts a psychologically wounded veteran, who seeks to avoid other men because the only way he knows to defend himself from harm is what his military training gave him. And he’s played by a beefy, handsome man. A wonderful contrast to this can be found in Bob Ross, who taught himself to paint to deal with his war experiences, and then sought to share “the joy of painting” with others. Obviously there is an argument to be made for evolutionary biology. But this argument only further shoves the sexes into psychological pigeon holes. Men get angry. Women are catty. The issue of binary gender aside, I should think the goal of understanding these roles and behaviors would be to avoid the “toxic” behaviors, and allow each human being to find their own path to their own true humanity. As for “canceling,” when an individual becomes “toxic” to their culture, perhaps the old Roman practice of ostracizing for a certain period isn’t such a bad idea. This can be destructive, as all things, in extremes. But it’s a fad that will pass. We all can agree on common values that should be upheld, and devise appropriate “punishment” for those who trade in truly ” toxic” behaviors. But we also can all agree to “endure freedom of speech.” We often think of this right in personal terms, but the ability to tolerate criticisms or uncomfortable ideas is the true intent of that right. (I can find the writings of William Penn on this subject that describes his ideas on the purposes of toleration, as well as the necessity of limitations and appropriate “penitence.”) Some times we all need to go sit in corner and think about what we’ve done.

    1. People used to refer to (overindulgence in) the “toxic” part of personality a vice, and to the “nontoxic” parts as virtues. There used to be an individual-based theory of avoiding vice and promoting virtue that didn’t fall into generalizations.

      1. That’s a far better approach to the idea of “toxic” behavior. But moderation and toleration don’t make click baity articles, or throw folks into frenzies on Twitter.

  3. “Yet I can’t deny that there are evolved biological differences between the sexes, and that some evolved traits in males may be detrimental to society. Aggression and male-male competition may be two of them. Those traits leads to fights, wars, and, in my own university classroom, a tendency of men to dominate discussions, often talking over women. Every woman has experienced that.”

    Only want to comment on this. While I agree there are downsides to the male experience, aggression and competition are not always vices (the later rarely so). They are part of the human condition, without which we could not have built our society. Nor can we maintain it without those traits. These can be human virtues not vices, though to be sure they can go horribly wrong. To me, they are things which we need to channel in ways that we find beneficial or at least not harmful. The channels and what we find beneficial will change over time, but these traits are key parts of being a male human and we should not feel like we ought to be ashamed for being aggressive or competitive. It’s what we do with those traits that matters. That’s all i wanted to say.

    1. That’s exactly right. Everything becomes “toxic” if you crank it up to 11. Competition is a large part of what drives people to get off their butts, improve themselves and create great things. A healthy potential for aggression is needed to keep psychopaths from exploiting everyone around them, and to shake up dysfunctional systems and improve them.
      As for Dr. Coyne’s question, “are there any typically “male” traits that you’d would want to see more of in women?” – speaking in broad generalizations, yes, I would like to see a bit more ambition and assertiveness in women. Not to a toxic degree, but to a degree that enables women to make full use of their potential and to avoid getting trampled on by male psychopaths.
      Freya Ager’s article is very much along the lines of Jordan Peterson’s comments on the negative aspects of feminine psychology, and makes a lot of sense to me. “Just hand power over to women, and everything will be alright” seems like too easy a solution to problems that are profoundly difficult, and it’s worth exploring how and why.

  4. Interesting thesis indeed — and worthy of debate since, unlike PCC’s observation, I think it’s clear that the majority of SJWs are women (I would guess as high as 70% – 80%)…

    1. Well, you might be right; I haven’t kept track. One way to do that is to look at the signatures on the various “woke” petitions that have circulated in colleges (controlling, of course, for the composition of the faculty or student body).

    2. Are there SJW organizations, kind of like atheist organizations? With meetings and stuff? I honestly don’t know. Of course in atheist organizations it is often said that there are too many white males. I expect this to be true, and I don’t know why other than the easy answer that its because of differences in interest.

  5. I think Ager surely has a point in regard to safetyism. I did not fully appreciate this, until I listened recently to a departmental meeting about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—and was struck by how discussion of the holy trinity was intertwined with safetyism. Lukianoff and Haidt nailed it in “Coddling”. The relationship of safetyism to the way animal mothers safeguard their cubs is obvious, as is the evolutionary basis for this behavior.

  6. I think Agar has some good points. Females have (on average) greater social/emotional intelligence than males. And their tactics are much more gossipy, trying to ostracize and the like, than brute force. That is not surprising, because males (again on average) have more physical force than females.
    Females being more, let us say, socially cunning (I know I’m going to lose a fight with a female 9 out of 10 times), does not preclude them from occasionally being naive in their exchanges with males.

    1. The claim that women have great empathy is somewhat tempered by the sjw tenet that women should refuse to have empathy for men because doing results in “himpathy” and costs emotional labor.

      1. Don’t forget that SJWs represent only a small fraction of people. In my experience, the vast majority of women (at least those I come in contact with) never give a thought to the idea that they should withdraw their empathy from somebody just because they are a man.

        Having said that: has anybody ever done any scientific studies into whether women have more “emotional intelligence” than men?

  7. An intriguing angle of approach to the familiar tropes of SJWs that hadn’t occurred to me before. To me it seems she makes a convincing case.

  8. One of my favorite feminist complaints is that men talk over women. Apparently they’ve never seen even 5 minutes of The View or one of its clones where you can’t make out what any one is saying because they’re all trying to talk over each other. That’s toxic femininity.

  9. Ooooohhh I sense a label of transphobia coming for her and I definitely don’t think it would be deserved btw

  10. “Toxic masculinity” and “toxic femininity” are both toxic concepts, but it’s not surprising that the latter has arisen in response to the former. When woke folk applaud themselves for saying things like “all men are trash” there is bound to be pushback. After all, the point of real justice between the sexes is for there to be no double-standards of any kind. Otherwise how will they live together in the modern world?

  11. I also think she makes a convincing case, particularly with respect to safetyism. Something to bear in mind as well is that as Murphy Brown once pointed out men are good for at least one thing and that is to open pickle jars.

  12. Perhaps there is a fundamental “flaw” by nature. If humans are mainly a visual species, and if females have evolved to improve their appearances for better reproductive success, then maybe now that things are changing, the backlash is perhaps against the idea of judging and treating females based on appearance.

  13. I’m no biologist, so I must ask about this: “Another is a desire for promiscuous sexuality, which leads to higher rates of adultery in males…”

    I assume that this means that more males are adulterous, per capita, than are women. (And I suspect that this is a true statement.)

    But if so, then it is mathematically tautological that women who are not completely monogamous have *more* partners than men who are not completely monogamous. (Tempered, perhaps, by the calculation of those men interacting with each other in “bi” activities, but, I suspect, not enough to skew the numbers much.)

    Am I missing something here?

    1. No, you’re not missing anything; your analysis is correct.

      A woman who wants to be promiscuous can be as promiscuous as she likes, without it even costing anything. She can even make money at it. Both are much more difficult for men.

        1. What those attitudes are depend on what society you are talking about. However, if men on average (which, especially here, is not the same as the average man) are more likely to have sex with more than one woman, symmetry demands that the average number of such encounters among women must be the same, though, as noted, probably due to fewer but really promiscuous women.

          Also, women can be promiscuous without telling everyone about it, whether out of fear of being talked about or for other reasons.

          The above holds true even if the male average is brought up, so to speak, but a few highly promiscuous men. (Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain estimated that he had had sex with 20,000 women, none of whom were married. Yes, he knew how to put the round thing through the hoop.)

    2. > I assume that this means that more males are adulterous, per capita, than are women. (And I suspect that this is a true statement.) […] But if so, then it is mathematically tautological that women who are not completely monogamous have *more* partners than men who are not completely monogamous. […] Am I missing something here?

      Yes. The number of promiscuous men can be very small. While not as extreme as among elephant seals, sex is (according to Robin Hanson) more unevenly distributed than income in the most unequal countries.

  14. I think this article has it right. Sociology has shown that reputation destruction is how women attack each other when they compete (canceling). Men’s extreme manifestation of aggression and violence is balanced by womens’ obsession with safety and risk aversion (safe spaces, conflating words with violence, helicopter parenting to produce an emotionally fragile generation ala Lukianoff). I think it’s much more debatable whether women tend to make decisions less rationally and more emotionally (e.g. valuing 1st person identity and subjectivity over 3rd person objectivity). These are charged and sexist-sounding points but I think there is truth in some of these generalizations, particularly a few standard deviations from mean behavior.

    To PCC’s question “I can’t think of any obvious “masculine” traits that are good ones, save, perhaps, a prescriptivity when it comes to solving problems.”

    I can but they’re genetalky a double-edged sword depending on context. The testosterone-driven tendency of males to compete with one another (many downsides here as well such as physical violence, war, etc.) is a basis for personal excellence, being better than a competitor, and manifesting as excellence in the world. Naturally, women can be competitve but I would say that some men obsess more over it to produce great things (might inventing calculus be an example)? And of course women can and have produced great things.

    Men appear to take more personal risks than women which might sound idiotic (it often can be) but is the basis for self-sacrifice for completely noble causes such as protecting the innocent and is the basis for the heroic ethic. Men, by a huge margin, do the vast majority of the most hazardous jobs in the world. I’m not just talking about being soldiers (presumably born of higher average aggression) but firefighters and working on oil rigs and logging and construction and deep sea fishing. It’s not that women can’t do such jobs, it’s that they simply don’t when given free choice.

    So isn’t being selfless to the point of death, like a firefighter and perhaps perishing while saving the helpless to become a posthumous hero, a noble masculine trait? If men didn’t do it then who would?

    1. I guess that your avatar is illustrating , nay, is notorious for, some behaviour one could call real toxic femininity .

  15. I’ve probably griped about this before, but when did “woman” become an adjective? You never hear “man” doctor or “man” whatever. What’s wrong with “female”?

  16. While on the topic, I wish to put “toxic” in the “Words I Hate” category. The word itself is fine, but I have come to hate it because of media overuse. Journalists have beaten the word to death, using it as an adjective for anything unpleasant. If this keeps up people will find a new word to describe things that are genuinely toxic (poisonous).
    It strikes me that a lot of language change occurs because of lazy writers and speakers overusing and misusing a word until it loses force and meaning. And since careful users of language are always outnumbered by insensitive and witless clods, this type language change is hard to combat.

  17. Jessica: I really liked your advice–last sentence in your longer response. Words to live by. Thanks both for that and for your comments generally.
    Cheers.

  18. What is toxic femininity ? Our loss of $jobs$ during pandemic.
    FOUR times more loss than men’s jobs lost.* Highest loss
    for women in over … … three decades’ time. That is the toxin
    upon which I want to focus. And get changed / stopped.

    Flip / Reverse: How friggin’ s w i f t would men, if they were
    down FOUR times $jobs’ wise$ THAN women’s loss,
    get this inequity noted ? And rise up and
    get it changed ? childcare theirs ? home care theirs ? I ‘ve never
    known, within FOUR long – term relationships with men, any
    O N E of them to scour the toilet bowls in to which each routinely shitted. Not even O N E bowl not even O N E time. Ya’ know, .that. home care – non$job$.

    Blue
    *CBS Evening News, tonight

    1. Well, unless someone can show that individual employers are laying off their female workers while keeping their male workers in the same positions, I’m going to assume the disparity is due to women working different jobs than men — jobs in businesses that are more likely to be shut down due to the COVID lockdown policies. (And at least in my little bubble, women are much more gung-ho about these lockdowns and keeping businesses closed. If it was up to most of the men I know, the economy and schools would already be open again.)

  19. You can talk about toxic masculinity if by that you mean a once good masculinity that has now been corrupted and has become toxic. Fyodor Karamazov is a good example of toxic masculinity, but Jean Valjean is a good example of healthy masculinity.

  20. Hi Jerry,

    I said, more or less, this exact thing on the website of a certain professor from U of MN Morris, about 10-12 years ago:

    Every man knows that when a woman comes to you with a problem, often they want you to listen and sympathize rather than solve that problem.

    That earned me a (really) vicious wire-brushing from the proprietor and a public shaming. (I really am a sexist pig barbarian — ask my wife! Or any of the female colleagues.).

    Then one good thing: It prompted me to turn my back on the website forever.

  21. One more small comment. I don’t know if others have noticed this; but it’s perfectly acceptable for women to behave in sexist ways towards men in social media.

    I see it nearly daily. Bad jokes, blatant stereotypes. (Can you hear yourselves? Have you no self-awareness?)

    I’m always tempted to point it out (reverse the gender in the nouns and pronouns and just post that as a reply). But I don’t. It’s religion at this point. As GBJames notes at 2: Best not to bring this up in mixed company.

  22. What’s concerning to me is the trend that “oppressed groups” now seem to take their history of oppression as a license to then reverse oppress/attack others they see as the domineering class. As a person with many friends of all genders (including Trans persons) I will say that often times, female exclusion/badmouthing tactics are some of the most vicious of all attacks. And it is no longer acceptable to try to point out that the plight of “oppressed” groups is partly due to their own personal choices for career paths, etc. I miss the old days when at least you could speak your mind without flash mobs waiting to attack you when you leave your home. Remember the story of Pandora’s Box: All the bad/uncomfortable things came out (akin to the discomfort you feel when you hear an opinion you disagree with) but without those bad things coming out, Hope and Wisdom would not have been released either.

  23. Flipped / reversed and in re the data* of, literally,
    every single mama whom I have known
    over seven decades’ time ? Not one is threatened
    by all of the men in her life .never acknowledging at all.
    … … all of her UNpaid home care which she routinely does.
    Over and over. Hourly, weekly, whenever. Pissed she may be
    but certainly not threatened in re not being the slightest
    acknowledged in re it all … … is she. Usually ? Usually
    in re her résumé, she is shut up. Just quiet. About ALL of it. ALL.

    She should be. She should be threatened. By its
    NONacknowledgement. Within family law court – judges’
    deciding not just childcare custody but also .ALL. parental rights ?

    Actual data of y1988, through y1994: 23 out of 24 judges who
    are men decide against the mother, true story, giving over
    to the kiddos’ EXALTED sperm source literally .ALL. control of
    the children and, also, whether she can or cannot have any visitation or telephone calls or any other contact. Just .THE SAME. as nearly all of the centuries and millennia before. HER home care’s and childcare’s $worth$, although actually UNpaid, o’course, matters to these
    judges … … NOT at all.

    * http://www.thelizlibrary.org/liz/primary.htm

    ” I still have tremendous difficulty
    picturing a World in which
    girls and women can r e l i a b l y lay claim
    to what they are e n t i t l e d to,
    let alone one in which they get it. ”
    * … … Dr Kate Manne, ENTITLED: How Male Privilege
    Hurts Women, y2020, p 192. https://tinyurl.com/y48m95m2

    * https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0112/how-much-is-a-homemaker-worth.aspx

    Blue

Leave a Reply