The phrase "toxic masculinity" is used a lot these days, but it's not always clear what it means. In some ways, it's misleading, because it seems to imply that masculinity in and of itself is dangerous or poisonous, or even more oversimplified, that "men are bad." That's certainly not true, and it's not what gender equality advocates actually think or believe.
Actually, we're talking about a very specific form of masculinity: the ideas about how boys and men should think, feel, and act that are dominant in society and accepted as "normal." Once you start looking at how these specific, dominant ideas affect men, boys, their families, and their societies, that "toxic" label starts to make sense. When boys and men are pressured to fit into a single one-size-fits-all role, with few alternatives, the results can be poisonous – for men, for families, and for societies.
That's why SERniña by REALgirl offers two programs for boys, SERniño (REALboy) and SERlider (REALleader), in parallel with their girls' programs. The programs help boys recognize and question society's expectations and make decisions about the kind of men they want to be and how they want to live. It helps them find their own voices to become better partners, fathers, and leaders in their communities – while learning to become more true to themselves at the same time. SERniña's boys' programs aim to help participants realize that there are many tender, egalitarian and valuable ways to be a man.
A fairly rigid and well-defined set of expectations about what it means to be a "real" man is prevalent in society today. Although specific expectations vary by culture, a standard pattern is recognizable worldwide. "Real men," according to this myth, are supposed to:
- Be tough
- Hide emotions
- Endure pain
- Take risks
- Provide for their families
- Have multiple sexual partners 
Rigoberto Ajcalón Choy, a researcher from the Kaqchikel Sololá community in Guatemala, reports that in his community, the culturally-specific specific embodiment of this ideal especially stresses "the importance of [men's] roles as responsible parents and hard workers. The man is the one who goes out to work the land because he has the strength, the skills, the endurance, and the knowledge to work it. A man’s work in the field … protects his wife and his children." 
The ideals of masculinity can be formally laid out via laws, religion, and traditions, but are also conveyed through popular culture, families, and interactions with friends and peers growing up and throughout life. Through all these channels, the expectations are accepted as normal and define society's idea of what a "real man" is like.
Multiple problems are created by buying into a standardized, idealized definition of masculinity. First, the assumed dominance of masculinity is at the heart of the imbalance of power between men and women. As Ajcalón Choy explains about his community specifically and gender relations generally, "This assumption legitimizes the subordination of women through cultural practices and institutions. Men have not only developed domination in the home, but also have maintained it in the political, social, and cultural arena. This is evident in the configuration of gender in the workplace, school, and church." 
In the same way, damaging and “toxic” views of masculinity are one of the root causes of the disempowerment of women, violation of women’s rights, and the high rates of violence towards women and femicide.
In addition to subjugating women, the myth of "real" masculinity is harmful to men themselves. For example, the Kaqchikel values of good parenting and hard work are undoubtedly positive ideals. But linking them to masculinity means that if men can't live up to them — if they can't have children, or there's not enough work, or they have to migrate away from their families to find work — the men are often faced with questions about their "manliness" and their own self-identities, compounding the stresses they already face and leaving them feeling "depressed and unworthy." 
When men feel pressure to live up to the standards described above, they often respond by exaggerating the traits they're trying to demonstrate, resulting in:
- Lack of connection with their emotions and their true selves
- Substance abuse
- Violent behavior
- Work-related stress
- Participating in illegal activities to earn money
- Isolation from family
- Poorer health and earlier death 
It's clear that when we don't question and challenge the stories we as a society tell ourselves about gender roles, everyone suffers.
It's only recently that masculinity has been recognized as the flip side of the gender equality coin; for a long time, activists focused mainly on changing ideas and policies regarding women and girls. But it's clear that boys' and men's identities and social roles are as malleable as women's, and it only makes sense that well-rounded, self-realized boys and men are crucial allies in the struggle for gender equality. And, boys and men deserve to be able to know, feel, and express their true and complete selves, just as girls and women should be able to!
The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank have all called for engaging men and boys in gender equality [6, 7], and the SERniño and SERlider programs were created to help answer that call. The programs are run by local young men, age 19 to 30, who come from the communities they're working in, and who've been trained extensively in the SERniño philosophy. The facilitators meet with boys and young men for a year, serving as relatable, positive mentors and role models.
Building on and in parallel to the girls' curriculum, the SERniño program offers modules on:
- Critical thinking and active listening
- Discovering your true self
- Understanding and protecting your rights
- Becoming the author of your own story
- Understanding money and the importance of saving
- Identifying and overcoming gender roles
- Puberty for males and females
- Respecting your own body
- Healthy relationships with self and others
- Sexual and reproductive health
- Reclaiming your inner strength and ancestry
The goals of SERniño and SERlider are to cultivate fair and rational young men who are able to overcome the strict gender roles set by society and understand how these narrow gender roles not only negatively affect girls and women, but also limit their ability to grow into full, healthy men.
By developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness, and putting into practice critical thinking skills, each SERniño participant learns to choose his own future and make decisions for himself instead of simply following the limiting gender roles set by society. And, SERniño participants learn to see the unique value of women in society and understand the benefit of working in partnership with girls and women, becoming full and equal partners in society, in their families, and in life.
Learn how to get involved with or support SERniña and SERniño programs today!
1. Greene, Margaret E., et al. Masculinities, Social Change, and Development. World Development Report 2012 Background Paper. World Bank. p. 2.
2. Ajcalón Choy, Rigoberto. Examining Masculinity and Gender in Kaqchikel Sololá, Guatemala. Portal: Web Magazine of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. University of Texas at Austin. March 18, 2016. p. 14
3. Ajcalón Choy, p.13
4. Greene, et al.
5. Greene, et al. p.5
6. Evolving Men: Initial Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). International Center for Research on Women and Instituto Promundo. 2011. p.10.
7. Green, et al. p. 26.