I was recently asked by a male survivor of sexual assault why I don't write poetry about men who have experienced abuse. I had to sit with this for a while and consider it, as it wasn't something I intentionally omitted to alienate or exclude men. I do write a lot about my experiences as a woman, but it's never been my goal to leave men out of the conversation as I have the utmost respect and compassion for all survivors.

I've always been of the mind that nobody can tell a story as well as someone who lived through it, and that authenticity is key in artistic expression, regardless of the topic being discussed. I would much rather hear men tell their stories, listen to poetry or songs from them, see art which comes from a place of experience, than to insert myself and my own feelings into that expression.

What I had failed to take into account is the barriers men face when it comes to talking about abuse and sexual assault, the reasons precluding men from telling their stories and sharing their experiences.

Many men have been made to feel as though their voice isn’t one that will be heard, due to cultural pressures put upon male survivors, and men in general, to avoid feeling and expressing vulnerability. While I maintain that the best people to articulate and share the stories of male survivors are men themselves, we as a society must ensure we do more to encourage, support and listen to men if and when they do choose to speak up.

Upon hearing the phrase “toxic masculinity” a lot of people will have an initial defensive, negative reaction.

READ MORE: Covid Inquiry: Faith in Scotland’s pandemic leaders is badly shaken

I want to be very clear that masculinity as a concept is not toxic, neither is its expression, and that the phrase does not imply we should demonise or criminalise masculinity, nor pit it against femininity. Toxic masculinity refers to the inextricable linking of masculinity to behaviours of aggression, domination, and emotional suppression, while discouraging men from engaging in vulnerability, emotional expression, or any other behaviour perceived socially as weak, or feminine.

Two examples of phrases which uphold toxically masculine attitudes are when a man might commit gender based violence, and in response we hear “boys will be boys'', which reduces the man's actions to an inevitable consequence of his masculinity, inextricably lining it to violence, or “boys don't cry”, which defines emotional sensitivity as something which opposes masculinity, and is thus an undesirable trait that men should suppress or eradicate.

Boys and men are no less capable of treating others with respect and compassion, and boys and men are just as able to be victims of aggression, abuse and assault. Women are not inherently more emotional, however as a society we have socialised men to believe that their emotions should be kept private, stifled lest they be perceived as feminine.

The Herald: Men and women share the same householdsMen and women share the same households (Image: free)

This is harmful to men for a number of reasons, not only does it condition them to believe women are weaker for expressing emotions more readily, but also because an inability to allow yourself to feel and express emotions, pain and vulnerability can lead to the breakdown of relationships, and incredibly poor mental health, as evidenced by the extremely high suicide rate for men.

Seeking help for mental illness is not a sign of weakness, and if any men reading this have considered accessing services available to them I would highly encourage them to do so, and commend them for identifying and acting on their emotional needs. I'll add here that mental health care needs to be made more available, accessible and reliable, and that an investment in mental health is an investment in us all.

I wanted to see what the response was when men speak out about their experiences of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and rape.

I'm not going to generalise and say that all the women were supportive and all the men weren't, but the tone of the responses from many men were incredibly aggressive and dismissive.

I saw responses telling survivors to “man up”, that as a man he should have physically defended himself against an attacker, or worse that he should have enjoyed the experience because, of course, men are often assumed to want all sexual advances, all the time.

These kinds of responses highlight different aspects of toxic masculinity which are incredibly detrimental to men and their ability to express their experiences. Viewing men as purely sexual beings unable to control their physical urges implies that the sexual assault of women is inevitable and the sexual assault of men is impossible.

READ MORE: Pitchfork folds: The final coffin nail of music discovery

I do not believe that violence against women occurs as a result of inherent negative traits within men, nor do I believe that men are impervious to or incapable of being victims of violence themselves as a result of their masculinity.

The ways in which we view and treat masculinity under a patriarchy socialises men to view certain behaviours as acceptable, which contributes to both gender based violence against women, and the minimisation and mocking of male survivors.

It does a disservice to all men to reduce those who rape, abuse or sexually assault others to unthinking animals acting on instinct and inherently masculine traits, and it takes away the agency of those who abuse, absolving them of their responsibility.

Men who commit violent acts do not do so because they are men, and in the perpetuation of this kind of unscientific and immoral attitude, more men will be emboldened to commit violence against women, and less men will feel valid and worthy of speaking up if violence is committed against them.

Toxic masculinity harms us all, it contributes to a culture of misogyny but it is also incredibly harmful to men, hindering their ability to live healthy, comfortable lives through which they can express themselves and thrive emotionally.

If we are to inextricably link masculinity to strength, then it is masculine to nurture, it is masculine to experience and to show vulnerability, and it is masculine to develop and enforce boundaries.

The strength we value in men should not start and end with physicality, rather we should encourage boys and men to choose for themselves what strength looks like and how they want to express it. It is up to us not only to give men space to discuss their experiences, but to make this space, with support, compassion, and understanding.