Old School Masculinity Relates to a Bunch of Bad stuff
Zachary Gerdes and Francisco Nicolás D’Auria describe how beliefs about masculinity can help or hinder men.
Believing that masculinity should be a strict set of traditional stereotypes relates to dozens of concerning findings across over 90 psychological studies, according to a new study from the Gender Research Lab at the University of Akron.
The study examined how endorsing certain traditional beliefs, about what men should be and do, is related to well-being (or lack thereof) in 91 psychological studies conducted with over 30,000 people. In this case, studies that used the Male Role Norms Inventory (MRNI) – a psychological measure with multiple forms – were analyzed to see what “norms” of men were related to what kinds of outcomes. Over the past 30 years, psychological research on men and masculinity has largely concluded that certain aspects of masculinity have been associated with a myriad of negative outcomes including: negative attitudes towards women and sexual minorities, dangerous risk-taking, substance use and abuse, psychological stress and strain, negative attitudes toward help-seeking, delinquent behavior, low self-esteem, hostility and aggression, higher blood pressure levels, depression, anxiety, marital and family problems, and violence. This study on male role norms found similar concerning relationships.
The norms of the male role that were examined in the studies analyzed for in our recent study were: avoiding femininity, self-reliance, aggression, attitudes about sex as something non-relational, fear and hatred of sexual minorities, achievement-seeking, and restricting emotions. When all these norms are combined into a number that represents overall beliefs about this so-called “traditional masculinity ideology,” it relates to dozens of concerning findings.
This study shows that highly endorsing traditional masculinity ideology (that is, the combined average score of the norms described above) relates to less help-seeking for medical and psychological services. This makes sense if we consider self-reliance as one of the components of traditional masculinity. In addition, higher traditional masculinity relates to less family cohesion and father engagement in parenting. It’s also associated with less life satisfaction. In other words, the more traditionally masculine a guy believes he should be, the less likely he is to be happy or an engaged father.
That’s bad news. And there is more.
Traditional masculinity also relates to sexism and prejudice towards minorities (like gay men); i.e., not exactly things guys should be proud of. Greater beliefs in traditional masculinity also relate to more conflict behaviors (such as aggression) and substance use (like alcohol and caffeine abuse). In addition, guys with high levels of traditionally masculine beliefs don’t identify, express, or empathize with emotions as well. These findings make sense in a U.S. society where what it means to be a man is often associated with things like binge drinking, violence, and being stoic with emotions. Just think about commercials for beer or trucks.
In short, believing that strict adherence to traditional masculine norms is the best way to be a man is detrimental to men’s health and well-being. Decades of research with thousands of people lends strong evidence suggesting it.
The good news is that masculinity doesn’t have to be traditional, strict, or limiting. Masculinity can be flexible and healthy if we create it that way. We need to create helpful definitions of masculinity that men can use to be better man. Masculinity, or more aptly the plural, masculinities, must be treated as flexible and able to be created authentically by men rather than some “traditional” conception that psychological evidence shows is harmful. Traditional notions of what it means to be a man must be challenged.
However, we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Men are too often left with a no-win option: either choose between what might be considered masculine or choose what may be healthy or authentic for them. Guys need to create options for being masculine that are more adaptive and less harmful. We need ways to reduce the negative outcomes related to believing in traditional masculinity, while providing men to identify as masculine in healthy ways.
For example, it’s not helpful to say to guys: “Hey – ignoring your problems and not going to the doctor is harmful, so quit it,” because what that communicates is: “Hey – be less of man.” However, if we re-conceptualize masculinity by saying men should seek resources because “men” should be evolutionarily adaptive, we can allow them to endorse a healthier version of a gender identity: “Hey guys – real men should use all the tools and resources they have access to. Going to the doctor is about using another tool.” We might also teach men that being a good partner, spouse, father, or friend includes emotional awareness and expressivity: “Hey – guys should be able to ‘call it like it is’ when it comes to emotions because it makes us better men, husbands, fathers, and friends.”
The point is, we must find ways to provide and encourage non-harmful ways for men to perceive and create their own personal masculinities. Otherwise, beliefs and actions around men trying to be men will continue to be related to harmful outcomes.
Click here to access the full article published in the Psychology of Men and Masculinity.
Zachary Gerdes, M.A., teaches psychology at the University of Akron and conducts research on men and masculinities. He applies psychology to men’s health in university, hospital, government, community, and criminal justice settings. He writes on men’s issues and presents on ways to engage men and prevent sexual assault, mental health issues, and substance abuse through healthy masculinity. More at http://www.mindsandmen.org/.
Francisco Nicolás D’Auria, B.A., is a Counseling Trainee at The University of Akron’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling graduate program. He is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Gerontology. He focuses his clinical training on the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders in older adults, especially older men. He specializes in motivational interviewing and mindfulness-based therapy.