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Let’s be real. There is nothing as detrimental to communities of poverty and to the prison system as toxic masculinity. 

After a lifetime of violent crimes that propelled me from home through juvenile halls, camps, youth authorities, prison terms, and now to life in prison without the possibility of parole, I have absorbed toxic ideas of what it means to be male. 

Toxic masculinity ruined my life. It destroyed relationships. It devastated my family. Worst of all, it drove me to hurt other human beings in ways that I am ashamed of and remorseful about. I know I am not the only person who let his toxic ideas about what it means to be a man destroy his own humanity. 

In 2014, I stabbed a man seven times across his torso for an act I perceived as disrespectful. It was my third battery with a weapon charge in prison, the second riot I incited and the fourth in-house court case. That act destroyed the possibility of relief from my life-without-parole sentence. The despair nearly killed me. I felt utterly and thoroughly broken in heart and mind. 

After this phase of self-pity and self-hatred, I began the arduous journey to change myself. At first, I was inspired, thinking maybe I would find a way to reverse what I did. Eventually, the will to change became a motivation in and of itself. 

For as long as I could remember, I hadn’t treated myself well. I subjected myself to countless incarcerations and attempted many murders just to satisfy the need to prove my manhood. But what did that mean?

Man is a gender role and identity resulting from biological, psychological, and social factors. I love certain aspects of my masculinity such as my need to be self-sufficient and autonomous. I love that I am driven to excel at whatever I put my mind to. I love that I reason more than act upon emotion. 

But masculinity taken to the extreme is an abuse of self and others. It is choosing an image over truth. It rejects feelings and emotions. Men can turn violent over ideas of manhood and bravado. My father beat and abused my mother and spent the majority of his short life incarcerated before dying of an overdose. Other male figures in my life encouraged me to join a gang, use illegal narcotics and oversexualize women. 

My misguided ideas about what it means to be a man was also a way for me to deal with the sexual abuse I suffered as a child.

In “Growing Up Male,” Paul Kivel notes that one out of six male children experience sexual abuse. That truth gave me no solace. Even now, my tattooed-covered skin, bullish physique, and macho facade quiver like a whimpering child as I confess this secret. I’ve become everything I used to think was contrary to manhood. 

Though my trauma touched every aspect of my life, I couldn’t find the space, resolve or trust to admit I was sexually abused as a child. I thought men weren’t supposed to cry or express emotions, and they most certainly didn’t engage in sex with another man. 

It did not matter that I was forced or that I had been a child. I attributed my victimization to being weak and unmanly. Of course, that is untrue, but many men experience what happens to them through the lens of male stereotypes and that makes them unable to work through the trauma. 

Superficiality used to run my life. Certain kinds of sex made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t tell anyone that, so I ran amuck with one-night stands. I abused a partner, calling her names when she was being amorous with me. After years of abuse, anything that made me feel like an object repelled me and caused me to act out. I turned sex into something to be paraded rather than shared as an intimate experience. Needless to say, I had a very negative idea of sex.

I am not suggesting that men who have been sexually abused grow up to become sexual predators like me, laying waste to their communities. No! Those are my evils. I accept that my wrongdoings are a result of my screwed-up mentality. 

But it wasn’t just sex. I was mean to everyone. I had a very unhealthy need to dominate. And though I am a heterosexual, I dealt with insecurity about my sexuality by being aloof and distant. To this day, I don’t have a healthy relationship with any man or woman. 

However, during my rehabilitation, I had to work through this complicated and profound part of my childhood. Fortunately, at that time, I was in solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit. There were no outside influences and social pressures to maintain my facade. 

Ultimately, it was the acceptance of being OK with not being OK that carried me through.

I’ve been struggling with whether I should discuss this publicly, but I’m a writer. I love the craft, and it limits me if I’m not willing to address the most intimate parts of myself. I write because I’m passionate about the art of writing. It compels me to be more real than my prison file or my history of violence and gang affiliations. 

Toxic masculinity doesn’t always stem from sexual abuse. It’s not a character trait related to our criminality. However, it is a primary reason so many of us are trapped in cycles of self-abuse and criminal lifestyles. 

Let’s be real. Let’s give that child a chance to breathe. Let’s tell the next one it’s OK to not be OK, and maybe he will manage to make this conversation OK.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Peter Sierra is a writer who is determined to change his life, provide a voice to the voiceless and address issues around incarceration. He has published a poetry book called “Walking Metaphors,” and he’s currently working on a novel about incarceration. He is incarcerated in California.