Men are commonly expected to act “masculine” (e.g., unemotional, self-reliant, tough, dominant, and fixated on sex) while avoiding stereotypically “feminine” traits (e.g., emotional expressivity, empathy, compassion, and nurturance). Few, however, realize that these qualities—when taken to the extreme—can cause emotional constriction, substance abuse, depression, poor physical health, aggression, and violence in men. Further, even though most men are not violent, decades of research have shown that masculinity is directly and indirectly related to sexual and gun violence and men’s poorer health. Considering how girls and women have benefitted from conversations on how to navigate their gender in a changing world, similar processes are urgently needed for boys and men. The Tough Standard connects the dots between masculinity and the present moment in American culture (defined by high-profile movements such as #MeToo, #MarchForOurLives, and #BlackLivesMatter), synthesizes over four decades of research in the psychology of men and masculinities, and proposes solutions to corresponding social problems.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Masculinity and the Present Cultural Moment
  • Theories of Gender and How Masculinity Is Measured
  • Consequences of Masculinity
  • Summaries of Research on Masculinity’s Harmful Linkages
  • Masculinity’s Role in Gun and Other Physical Violence
  • Masculinity’s Role in Sexual Violence
  • Men’s Health and Experiences of Trauma
  • Many Masculinities
  • What Can Be Done?
  • Coda
  • About the Authors
  • Appendix
  • References
  • Index

Read an Excerpt of the Book


Masculinity and the Present Cultural Moment

The time has come in our culture for a serious examination of the role of masculinity in sexual and gun violence—topics which have assumed a very high profile in U.S. society of late. Masculinity is a complicated and problematic phenomenon. We will also look at the role of masculinity in other contemporary social problems, such as the economic stagnation of White working-class men. In addition, there are long-standing issues of men’s greater mortality than women and their unremitted suffering from mental illnesses and trauma due both to their reluctance to seek help and other people’s use of a masculinist perspective to presume that men do not hurt. Because masculinity is a cultural idea and there are many different subcultures in the United States, we will discuss different versions of masculinity, or as they are often referred to—masculinities—and how they have been studied, based on cultural dimensions such as race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and age/developmental stage. In summary, we will identify a relatively unacknowledged factor—masculinity—that influences certain high-profile contemporary social problems, analyze the nature of its influence, discuss the evidence that supports the role of masculinity in these problems, and, most important, address solutions.

What Is Masculinity?

The term masculinity is understood in somewhat different ways by different cultural and demographic groups in our society, as we have just noted, but there are two major conceptual orientations to the use of this term. It is important to discuss these orientations at the outset and define the way we will use the term.

Masculinity Is Synonymous with Being Male

Most scientists recognize that human behavior results from an intricate interaction between nature and nurture, but most will also acknowledge that we are a long way away from knowing exactly how that works out in any specific instance. Some people ignore this dual causation and believe that nature is the only important determinant. Such folks tend to think that masculinity is synonymous with being biologically male. Examples abound, but here is one from a recent article in Psychology Today, in which Saad (2018) stated: “Women are attracted to ‘toxic masculine’ male phenotypes that correlate with testosterone.”

Hence, in criticizing masculinity, readers who view masculinity as synonymous with being biologically male may misunderstand our intentions and think that we are denouncing men. We are not. In fact, we feel quite a bit of empathy and compassion for boys and men in general and, in particular, for those boys and men whom we believe are imprisoned by masculinity. We use this prison metaphor throughout the book because (as we will explain in more detail in the following discussion) masculinity is understood to be obligatory by most men at some point in their lives, usually when they are children. For me (RL), my empathy and compassion stems in part from the fact that I was in that situation myself and had to struggle mightily to get out. Not only was I brought up in a working-class home and neighborhood where I conformed to traditional masculine norms, which took me many years and a 4-year course of psychoanalysis to work my way out of. But also, from the vantage point of over four decades of research, teaching, and clinical practice in the psychology of men and masculinities, I understand the powerful grip that masculinity has on many boys and men, and I will convey that understanding in this book. I have done research on boys’ and men’s adherence to masculine norms and on the socialization of boys to harden their hearts and restrict the expression of vulnerable and caring emotions. As a licensed psychologist, I focused my practice on traditional men. I have counseled many men seeking to overcome the effects of their socialization and open up their hearts to their families and regain their freedom. And I have taught many generations of students in these topics.

As a woman, I (SP) have seen the dark side of masculinity. As a sexual assault survivor, a daughter, a sister, and a psychologist-in-training, I have experienced how masculinity can negatively impact not only men themselves but also the people around them. I specialize in investigating and treating men who have experienced interpersonal trauma. I have seen how masculine norms can impede the healing process that men go through when dealing with past experiences of trauma.

Another View of Masculinity

There is another, more psychological view of masculinity, which is the one we use in this book. As Bohan (1997) noted, psychology distinguishes biological sex (being male, female, or intersex) from socio-psychological gender (referring to masculinity, femininity, as well as various nonbinary identities). In this vein, we define masculinity as a set of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that are generally considered to be appropriate for boys and men; importantly, it also includes those that are considered inappropriate for boys and men, against which it has drawn a bright line. It is often considered to be a set of beliefs that individuals hold, which are based in socio-cultural ideologies regarding gender. Masculinity is therefore a social construction distinct from male biological sex. Definitions of masculinity vary across different cultures and historical periods. Both males and females can perform masculinity and femininity. In Chapter 2 of this volume, we go into considerable detail on contemporary masculinity ideologies and norms, and we will define what we consider the dominant form today—traditional masculinity ideology. Throughout the book, whenever we use the term masculinity, we are referring to this dominant form.

In this view, masculinity is not “hard-wired” due to genes and hormones, and therefore it is not essential nor inescapable for boys and men. Hence, boys and men can retain their gender identities without conforming their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to masculine norms. This is the view we take in this book. We do so for several reasons. First, we are psychologists, not biologists nor medical physicians, and psychology is what we know. Second, psychological phenomena—thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors—are more amenable to change than genes and hormones, and change is our ultimate goal. We wish to free men from the prison of masculinity to both improve lives and benefit society.