Men and Masculinities
What Does it Mean to be Masculine or a Man?
Being a man or masculine-identified is often conflated with one’s biological sex; however, there is a difference between sex and gender. Sex at birth or biological sex, (e.g., intersex, female, male) is based on chromosomal composition, genitalia, and other physiological attributes that a person possesses when they are born.
Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct that is defined by individuals/groups within different societies, cultures, and areas of the world. Moreover, gender consists of a number of different dimensions that may change over time, such as:
- Appearance preferences (e.g., clothing, makeup)
- Mannerisms and behaviors
- Emotions and other psychological aspects
- How a person perceives and feels about themselves
As adults, we may have more agency in terms of how we define and express our gender in different spaces (e.g., school, work, with family); however, from birth and throughout our childhood, each of us tends to be socialized into specified gender roles (i.e., boy/man or girl/woman). Namely, when caregivers discover the biological sex of their offspring, they will begin to make choices for that child - sometimes even before birth - based on traditional/stereotypical gender expectations and roles that have been intergenerationally transmitted. For instance, when caregivers learn that they are having a boy (i.e., biological sex), they will begin to select names (e.g., Henry, Jeremiah, Louis), clothing and paint colors (e.g., blue, grey), and toys (e.g., fire trucks, footballs) that are stereotypically aligned with boyhood/manhood/masculinity, and are also often perceived as antithetical (or “opposite”) to girlhood/womanhood/femininity. Unfortunately, this contributes to a dichotomous/binary perception of gender.
Yet, each of us occupies both “feminine” and “masculine” attributes to varying degrees each and every day of our lives, regardless of our respective genders. With this in mind, men and masculine-identified individuals may embody and express their masculinities in a variety of ways across their lives. Put simply, the experiences of men- and masculine-identified (or “masc”) individuals are varied and there is no single, ubiquitous way to be masculine or a man; rather, we all - regardless of gender identity - define, create, express, and engage in our masculinities in different ways. However, as previously mentioned, there may be specific standards, or expectations, from different sources that seem to dictate what it means to be masculine or a man.
Traditional Standards Of Masculinity and Being a Man
Men and masculine-identified individuals often receive messages from society, media, family members, friends, peers, partners, and even complete strangers regarding their degree of adherence to traditional masculine stereotypes (Connell, 2000), such as:
- Being perceived as “weak” due to crying or showing fear
- Emphasis on physical strength
- Professional Success
- Being the “breadwinner” of the family
- Exerting dominance in relationships
- Being assertive
- Appearance standards (e.g., muscularity, facial/body hair, shorter hair)
- Independent and Self-reliant
While the above list signifies general masculine expectations in American society, there are also additional and/or conflicting expectations that masculine-identified persons and men may experience due to their intersecting cultural identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual identity). While the following list of examples is non-exhaustive, and may not apply to every man within a specific community, it emphasizes the complex standards that men and masculine-identified people of different cultural backgrounds may experience:
- Black men and masculine-identified individuals may experience various tensions and struggles in their lived experiences, which are often connected to White Supremacy and the history of Black enslavement in America. For instance, Black manhood and masculinity often align with the ideals of physical strength, while simultaneously providing support to their families and other members of their communities in various ways (Jefferson-James, 2020). However, within a White Supremacist society filled with prejudice and discrimination, Black masculine-identified people are also subjected to racial-profiling and other-raced based stereotypes (e.g., perceived as “threatening”), causing Black men and masculine-identified people having to be hypervigilant and non-emotional in American society as survival mechanisms. As such, these systems of injustice and oppression subsequently impact the freedoms, livelihood, overall health, and safety of Black masculine-identified persons in America (Jefferson-James, 2020).
- The concept of machismo is found within many Hispanic/Latinx/Latino communities and families. It encompasses various ideals of masculinity including sexual virility and hypersexuality, chivalry, violence, paternalism, courageousness, taking pride in raising children, and heterosexuality (Sequeira, 2009). Some dimensions of maschimos may further perpetuate stereotypical masculine standards and behaviors, including the notions of strength and heterosexuality; however, it is important to also note that machismo also emphasizes the importance of community, family, and caretaking. Navigating these different demands - some of which seem to be at odds with each other - while also juggling the added demands of masculinity, racism, and xenophobia in American society can be confusing, challenging, and stressful for masculine-identified Hispanic/LatinX/Latines people.
Relatedly, hegemonic masculinity is the construction of masculinity that maintains the power structure of White heterosexual men over women and argues that “some masculinities are dominant while others are subordinate or marginalized” (Connell, 2000, p. 10), which may promote discrimination towards different subpopulations of men and masculine-identified people (e.g., men of color, gay/bisexual/queer men, trans* men). For instance, a primary dimension of hegemonic masculinity is heterosexuality (or being “straight”) - that is, when boys and men (even slightly) deviate from traditional masculinity standards (see examples above), they may be verbally (e.g., being called a “sissy”) and/or physically (e.g., harassment) sanctioned by other men and masculine-identified people (Kane, 2006; Polihronakis et al., 2021). As such, queer (e.g., bisexual, gay, transgender) men may attempt to affirm their masculinity in other ways, thereby adopting stereotypically masculine behaviors and mannerisms (e.g., speaking with a deeper voice, striving for muscularity by taking steroids, risky sexual behaviors) (Hamilton & Mahalki, 2009; Polihronakis et al., 2021).
The Mental Health of Men and Masculine-Identified People
Unfortunately, hegemonic masculinity, adherence to traditional masculine gender expectations, as well as negative messaging within and outside of one’s different communities, may - individually and collectively - contribute to the development of mental health concerns among men and masc folks. These mental health concerns may include - but are in no way limited to - the following:
- Depression (Depression in men may emerge as irritability and anger)
- Substance (ab)use
- Often related to coping with emotions that men and masculine-identified people are told not to express or experience, such as sadness and fear.
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Emotional Dysregulation
- Body image and eating concerns
- Self-harm (e.g., cutting, burning, scratching, hitting self in the head)
- Suicidal thoughts and attempts
- Inability to Control/Contain Anger and Aggression
- Reduced Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem
- Sexual health and Intimacy concerns
- Romantic Relationship Concerns
However, men and masculine-identified individuals are also less likely than their women and femme-identified counterparts, respectively, to seek therapy - a pattern that is often connected to the internalized masculine beliefs of self-reliance, emotional strength and suppression, as well as independence.
Regardless, if you identify as a man or masculine and are noticing that some of the above concerns are emerging for you, it might be helpful to reach out to University Counseling Services for additional support. In addition, there are some resources available below that might be useful to you.
How Patriarchy & Adherence to Traditional Standards of Masculinity Impacts Individuals of Other Genders
Patriarchy is a term used to characterize societies and systems that cater to men and masculine-identified people. Patriarchy places masculine- and men-identified persons - particularly those who are White, heterosexual, and cisgender (i.e., hegemonic masculinity) - at the apex of power in society and different institutional settings (e.g., education, politics, workplace), thereby leading individuals of other genders (e.g., women, transgender people, genderqueer people) to feel disenfranchised in a variety of ways and in different spaces. Put simply, patriarchy signifies the unequal distribution of power and freedom between men and individuals of other genders, and contributes to the various privileges that men and masculine-identified folks are afforded in society (e.g., speaking over people, taking up more physical and verbal space) (Hunnicutt, 2009). Unfortunately, patriarchy is an ongoing factor in American society given the ongoing lack of equity regarding the rights of women (e.g., women making less than men) and trans* individuals’ (e.g., serving in the armed forces), which continue to be perceived as “debatable” topics in the eyes of men/masculine people in power. Thus, patriarchy has detrimental effects on individuals of all genders.
Historically, women and femme-identified people have been expected to abide by traditionally “feminine” gender roles intergenerationally (e.g., raising children, being “pure”, beauty and size expectations), all of which contribute to the oppression and exploitation of individuals within these communities. More specifically, women and femme persons who do not abide by these stereotypical gender expectations tend to be criticized and ridiculed in various ways. However, this sanctioning is not only conducted by men and masculine people; rather, femme people and women also sanction each other through body policing and the use of derogatory words aimed at shaming women who defy stereotypical gender role expectations in different social contexts (e.g., work, school, peer groups). And yet, when femme persons and women do meet traditionally “feminine” gender-based expectations imposed on them by a patriarchal society, they are then sexually objectified - or perceives a set of attributes or body parts - by men and masculine-identified individuals via cat-calling, groping, and other forms of unwanted sexual harassment/contact (Moradi, 2013). Such experiences are also compounded by standards of masculinity, which suggest that men can also physically control and batter women; thus, this often contributes to a sizeable number of women and femme-identified people also being survivors of physical assaults and domestic violence in American society and across the globe.
In turn, women may develop a number of different physical and mental health concerns as a result of patriarchy and its corresponding forms of gender-based discrimination (e.g., sexual objectification, sexual harassment, domestic violence). These concerns may include - but are in no way limited to - the following:
- Hypervigilance or hyperarousal
- Body image concerns
- Eating disorders
- Sexual health concerns (e.g., challenging achieving orgasm or being physically intimate with partners)
- Self-esteem issues
- Workplace dissatisfaction
In addition, patriarchal society also places an emphasis on the gender binary (i.e., cisgender men and cisgender women), thereby excluding Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming (or Trans*) individuals completely. Unfortunately, just because trans* individuals have been historically overlooked in conversations about patriarchy does not mean they are immune to the detrimental influences of patriarchy and standards of masculinity in American society. Rather, trans* individuals are subjected to experiences of isolation, discrimination (e.g., cissexism, transphobia), and exploitation in various social settings (e.g., workplace, schools, healthcare settings) as a result of patriarchy. For instance, due to cis-sexism promoted by patriarchy, transgender men and women may be questioned by cisgender people broadly - and cisgender men in particular - regarding the “validity” of their gender identities; however, to be very clear people who identify as transgender men are men, and those who identify as transgender women are women - there is nothing to validate or question about this fact! Furthermore, trans* individuals broadly - and trans* people of color specifically - experience significantly higher rates of physical and sexual harassment/violence relative to their cisgender counterparts. In turn, experiences of discrimination, harassment and oppression may result in a number of different physical (e.g., cancer, hypertension) and mental (e.g., depression, anxiety, emotional dysregulation) concerns to emerge among trans* individuals.
For more information regarding the experiences of Transgender and Gener Non-conforming individuals, please see the self-help tab.
Some Helpful Infographics
Outside of VCU
- Safe Harbor Support Group for Adult Male-Identifying Survivors of Domestic Violence
- Wednesdays 5:30 - 7 p.m.
- 804-249-9470 Ex. 12
- ManKind Project
- National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS)
- How Patriarchy Hurts Men too
- Connell, R. W. (2000). The men and the boys. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Edwards, K. E., & Jones, S. R. (2009). " Putting My Man Face On": A Grounded Theory of College Men's Gender Identity Development. Journal of College Student Development, 50, 210-228.
- Hamilton, C. J., & Mahalik, J. R. (2009). Minority stress, masculinity, and social norm predicting gay men’s health risk behaviors. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56, 132–141.
- Hunnicutt, G. (2009). Varieties of Patriarchy and Violence Against Women: Resurrecting “Patriarchy” as a Theoretical Tool. Violence Against Women, 15, 553–573.
- Jefferson-James, L. (2020). Masculinity under construction: Literacy re-presentations of Black masculinity in the African Diaspora. Lexington Books.
- Kane, E. W. (2006). “No way my boys are going to be like that!” Parents’ responses to children’s gender nonconformity. Gender and Society, 20, 149–176.
- Moradi, B. (2013). Discrimination, objectification, and dehumanization: Toward a pantheoretical framework. In S. J. Gervais (Ed.), Objectification and Dehumanization (pp. 153–182). New York: Springer.
- Polihronakis, C. J., Velez, B. L., & Brewster, M. E. (2021). Bisexual men’s sexual health: A test of minority stress theory. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 22, 201–215.
- Sequeira, David (2009): The Machismo and Marianismo Tango. Pittsburg: Dorrance Publishing Co.
- Shields, S. A. (2008). Gender: An intersectionality perspective. Sex Roles, 5, 301-311.