Are Men Man Made?
Masculinity is often understood as the outward expressions of being biologically male.* That is, men’s gender, the way they are, is merged with their biological sex.
When we talk about men’s health, this view tends to take on two forms. The first relates to the genetic fragility of men and their propensity to poorer health outcomes as a result of the XY genetic combination. For example, life expectancy for women at birth is 82.9 years but for men it is 79.2 years.
The second believes the male ‘behaviours’ themselves are biologically driven.* For instance, the Y chromosome and related hormonal influences, particularly testosterone, are seen as creating a drive towards particular behaviours in men such as - the hunter-gatherer or the breadwinner, being territorial, and sexual promiscuity - are all expressions of evolutionary mechanisms designed to ensure the survival of the species.
In today’s world it is rare to find this way of conceptualising masculinity as a single or sole explanation for the state of men's health, but it is often implicitly present in health professional and media explanations of “men’s health.”
Take this example from a GP a writing in a medical journal about men’s sexual health;
“Will [men] abandon their traditional Saturday afternoon shin-kicking and beer-swilling in favour of a warm community centre and a group discussion on better foreskin hygiene? I doubt it. Aggression and foolhardiness are carried on the Y chromosome and there’s not a lot government or anyone else can do about it.”*
On a Instagram post from @thehappylands where the concept of what it means to be a man was discussed, this comment was made;
“I very much feel hardwired as a caveman or viking to feel the traits you describe. I am strong, independent, aggressive and stoic. But these are useful traits…I think it is societies responsibility to realise that there are boys growing up who are hardwired for aggression, and power, and to be dominant.”
The biological, “hardwired” explanation of masculinity is clearly powerful and pervasive in the public domain, but we must consider whether the wide range of health inequalities that exist between the sexes, and the health inequalities between men of different ethnic groups, social classes, and geographical regions, can be explained for in this limited biomedical way.
Also and perhaps more importantly, seeing such differences as fixed leaves little or no possibility for change, which is something we know not to be true.
Psychological and sociological work has long questioned these biological explanations for human behaviour, which is where gender role theory and gender socialisation, come into play.
The goddess of gender role theory is Raewyn Connell whose work in the 1980s* is still the most influential theories in gender studies to date. For the first time men were seen as distinct from masculinity. In fact, Connell claims masculinities are not equivalent to men at all, but in fact they concern the position of men in a gender order.
Suddenly we have not just one masculinity, but many different masculinities, each associated with different positions of power. Above all, Connell argued that this model is a social construct. It is man made.
I don’t want to delve too much into what masculinity actually is in this post because that is an entirely different debate (and a post on that will be coming soon!), but Connell generally described hegemonic masculinity using characters such as, Rambo, Rocky and The Terminator. So you can catch my drift.
This, and many other theories, paved the way for gender socialisation. Gender socialisation is a relatively new term that describes social learning about two certain gender constructs; gender norms and gender identity.*
Gender Norms; are the sets of rules for what is appropriate masculine and feminine behaviour in a given culture.
Gender Identity: is the way individuals think of themselves as being male or female, or on the spectrum between the two.
So how do we learn gender?
You are probably wondering, if biology plays a part. To extent it does. The earliest biological understandings of gender were framed around the hormonal differences in the sexes* and adolescence with the onset of puberty and ‘raging hormones’, is a critical time for us to discover who we are.
It is thought the higher levels of sex hormones are the cause of many ‘high-risk’ behaviours, which are commonly seen more in boys and men. This is true. But are using the physical changes of puberty by placing an emphasis on acceptable gendered behaviour, and therefore consolidating the gender socialisation process further? For example, it is common for teenager boys to have early romantic and sexual experiences, is this a reflection of biological maturation or is it because it is an expected societal norm?
Likewise, saying teenage girls are more emotional than boys, is a gender belief, not a biological fact.
I know. Mind. Blown.
Gender socialisation plays a huge part in making a man. In early psychology it was believed gender socialisation happened through a process of rewarding children for doing the right sex-typed behaviour. This is called Social Learning Theory which believes that individuals learn from each other by observing, imitating and modelling.*
But the big problem here is that it sees children largely as passive recipients of socio-cultural ideas about gender, with little room to see them as active agents of their own socialisation.
Instead in the 1960s it was believed children acquire a sense of their gender identity by age 3. By age 5, they reach ‘gender stability’, which is a recognition that this identity does not change over time. The final stage ‘gender constancy’ occurs at age 7, which marks the stage at which the child can recognise that a person’s gender identity is not affected by gender-typed appearances, traits or activities.
According to Kohlberg* who developed this theory, ‘gender constancy’ is a critical stage in gender socialisation; after reaching this stage, children actively try to model their behaviour to what is considered feminine or masculine in their social context.
Not only does this throw up the problem of whether gender is fixed (spoiler, it’s not), but it also fails to acknowledge social and cultural influences on gender socialisation and fails to explain why sex became an important category of social organisation in the first place.
This is where sociology comes in, which is probably the table I would sit on at an awkward work party as a researcher. In fact, I am an intersectional feminist researcher, and yes I am a bundle of laughs at the office Christmas party.
I take that stance because it allows the freedom to consider each individual’s multiple, layered identities, that are born from social relations, history, place and location. We live in a complex, dynamic, world so intersectional analysis means context, racism, patriarchy, class oppression, sexual identity and other systems of discrimination, can all be considered when wondering how we came to be who we are.
With all this in mind, the UNICEF’s definition of gender socialisation hits the nail on the head. They say;
“Gender socialisation is defined as a process by which individuals develop, refine and learn to ‘do’ gender through internalising gender norms and roles as they interact with key agents of socialisation, such as their family, social networks and other social institutions. The process occurs over time and is influenced by inter-related context specific social, economic, and cultural factors operating at the structural, social-interactional and individual levels.”*
Let’s have a quick look at the three key agents UNICEF highlight in making a man;
During early childhood, the primary socialisation is the family. Theories of attachment make the parent-child bond the most critical relationship. Young children are influenced by how they are treated and expected to behave, as well as by observing the roles of their female and male family members. Studies have traced the influence of parents and family on the process of gender socialisation at multiple levels in early childhood, ranging from children’s play and participation in sports, family division of labour, type of media exposure, and knowledge/exposure to social norms, gender stereotypes and other social-structural factors.
Beyond parents and family, as young children’s worlds expand, they are drawn towards friendships outside the immediacy of the family. Peers become an important source of gendered interaction and learning and engagement in specific activities, such as sports, which influence how we become men* Peer dynamics act as a major site for the production and reproduction of gender and other social inequalities. Think high-school jocks dominating the school geeks or rugby lads having ‘banter’ about the girls in their class.
These include schools, sports clubs, churches and other establishments. Figures of authority in schools, in particular, impact children’s understanding of expected gendered roles and behaviours. In schools, gender socialisation occurs through the school curriculum and teacher-student interactions, which can either perpetuate or challenge existing gender norms. For example, there is evidence gender stereotyping in the school curriculum, whereby women are portrayed as passive and modest, while men are portrayed as assertive and ambitious.*
Finally, exposure to the media brings greater exposure to gendered programming, as well as wider opportunities to experience alternative gendered identities and roles – all of which shape how young people understand and form gender roles and expectations. Young adolescents’ notions of sexuality and body image are especially impacted by the sexualised and idealised bodies portrayed in the media. Studies have indicated that older adolescent girls are more likely to be influenced by these images, but the media does also affect male adolescents’ body image and ideas of masculinity, more commonly through sports and other images including pornography.*
What does all this mean?
The great thing about this is becoming and being a man, is shaped and re-constituted over time. We are constantly evolving as human beings. If as a man, you struggle to show emotion or affection towards loved ones, then you don’t always have to be that way. We can unlearn everything we have learnt. That means there is hope.
Rather excitingly, this means there is a new direction for the psychology of men to create positive principles of a healthy masculinity, which moves away from what is wrong with boys and men by identifying the personal qualities that empower males to improve themselves, their families, and the larger society.*
This is beginning to be recognised with campaigns from charities such as, the Mental Health Foundation, whose Chief Executive said “the idea of a ‘real man’ is as out of date as a John Wayne Stetson and we all have a role in setting men free from that parody.”*
I had great difficulty finding a way to add footnotes onto this blog so each reference is starred and feature in the order they appear in!
*Robertson, S., (2008) Theories of Masculinities and Men’s Health-Seeking Practices, Nowhere Man Presss
*Clare, A. On Men: Masculinity in Crisis. London: Arrow Books; 2001
*Hammond, P. Men’s bits. Nursing Times 1994, 90(16): 64
*Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, the person and sexual politics. Stanford University Press.
*Ryle, R. (2011). How Do We Learn Gender? In Questioning Gender (119-). Sage Publications.
*Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.
*Leaper, C. and Farkas, T. (2014). The Socialization of Gender during Childhood and Adolescence.
In J. Grusec and P. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.
*Leaper, C. and Friedman, C. (2006). The Socialization of Gender. In J. Grusec and P. Hastings
(Eds), Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research (561-587). New York: Guilford Press.
*Kabeer, N. (2001). Conflicts over Credit: Re-evaluating the empowerment potential of loans to women in rural Bangladesh. World Development, 29(1), 63-84.
*Leaper, C. and Farkas, T. (2014). The Socialization of Gender during Childhood and Adolescence. In J. Grusec and P. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research
*UNICEF (2017), Gender Socialisation during Adolescence in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: Conceptualisation, influences and outcomes, available online at https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/IDP_2017_01.pdf
*O’Neil, J., (2013) Gender Role Conflict Research 30 Years Later: An Evidence-Based Diagnostic Schema to Assess Boys and Men in Counseling, Journal of Counseling Development, Vol. 91, pp. 490 - 498.
*Rowland, M (2018) Putting the focus on men's mental health in November, Mental Health Foundation, available online at https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/putting-focus-mens-mental-health-november [Accessed 14th December 2018]