Police have a toxic masculinity problem

by Kyoko Thompson

My partner says I make everything about gender. If I’m honest, he’s probably right. As a women’s health and rights specialist, I tend to interpret the world around me through a gender lens. And, as the past year has elicited a painful amount of footage of police brutality, I’ve been applying it to the nature of American law enforcement more than I ever have before. It’s how I came to wonder if sexism gives police brutality its teeth.

Police in the United States have a toxic masculinity problem. I’m not saying that police don’t also have an institutional racism problem — that would be tone deaf, malicious and straight up factually wrong — just that toxic, masculine conduct contributes to the problematic decisions and behaviors behind disproportionate arrests of people of color, racial profiling, excessive use of force and the reluctance to reform.

When I say toxic masculinity, I’m referring to traditional interpretations of what it means to be manly. The sociocultural expectations of and among men that both help them and harm them throughout their lives — expectations that they be physically strong, sexually promiscuous and avoid expressing their emotions. Expectations that they seek out wealth, provide for their families and protect what’s theirs; that they be competitive, aggressive and tough. Everything that women have historically been told they cannot be forces men to be the inverse; and it’s those assumed gender roles that lead to false conclusions, such as men aren’t inherently sensitive, men are bad caretakers and men make better leaders. It’s also, I think, why many men become cops.

Ask any police officer why they do what they do, and you’d be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t respond with some version of “to serve and protect.” But studies show that male police officers are more likely to abuse family members and engage in intimate partner violence than civilian men. In fact, after excessive force, sexual misconduct is the second-most reported form of police misconduct. And while there is certainly an argument to be made that the risks and stress inherent to the job can cause officers to act out in unfortunate, sometimes vicious ways, I wonder if these trends don’t have more to do with the type of man the job itself attracts.

It’s easy to see why a career in law enforcement would captivate a man who yearns to feel and be perceived as manly. A police officer’s uniform comes with a presumption of authority, physical fitness and tactical prowess. It conveys an air of bravery, sacrifice and heroism. It even has its own brotherhood — to the detriment of female officers, I’d imagine — a built-in “boys club” that seems to value loyalty and tradition over transparency and progress. It’s a dangerous job, sure; but it’s also one with perks and a pension.

Now whenever I hear of or see a male police officer act rashly, confront peaceful compliance with violence, or actively refuse to admit wrongdoing, I wonder what drew him to that role. I wonder how many are driven by some subconscious desire to use a badge and a weapon to exert control over others; some misguided effort to achieve the kind of status and respect they’ve failed to accumulate in their personal lives, but society has convinced them is so terribly, intensely important. I see in these men — not all, but too many — a volatile machismo; the type that would deny the influence of gender, even as theirs shackles them.

Toxic masculinity didn’t kill George Floyd. Toxic masculinity doesn’t engage in racial profiling or murder people of color in their homes. But it does help create the kind of men who do. It can turn angry boys into brutish men, devoid of the insight and empathy we wish to see in those with power. And ultimately, it can shape a man who conflates admission of fault with weakness, who refuses to acknowledge his own bias and escalates encounters unnecessarily; a man with a fragile ego, authority and a gun.

Kyoko Thompson (kyoko.t@columbia.edu) is a gender, health and rights specialist with experience writing and researching for organizations such as UNICEF, UNFPA, Marie Stopes International, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.