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CategoriesIssue In FocusMasculinities and Sexuality

The Examined Life of Masculinities  

The Man-Woman binary is now, thankfully, nearly dead. The 2019 guidance[1] from the American Psychological Association gives us the good news that minus stereotypes and expectations, there isn’t much difference in the basic behaviours of men and women. Some studies[2], have established that, for example, men enjoy caring for their children as much as women do. And a 2013 meta-analysis[3] has found that adolescent boys, for example, contrary to expectation, displayed fewer externalising emotions such as anger than did adolescent girls.

Almost unwittingly, the man-woman binary has left behind a progeny that we are still getting to know – the dualism of the masculine and the feminine, characteristics of which, we now know, reside in each of us.  The masculine and the feminine have been in bed with each other’s powers, and weaknesses, more than with each other’s meaning. These categories left unto themselves have a propensity to overlap, mingle, intertwine and interwreathe within a person. These categories live in a trap of behaviours determined by stereotypes and expectations, which among other things, shape and influence our sexuality.

In unpeeling the many intersections between masculinities and sexuality, we need to place upfront the ‘traditional masculinity ideology’[4] which has been understood as a collective of characteristics such as anti-femininity, achievement, eschewing of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence. Stewed in the cauldron of culture, religion, ethnicity, popular cinema and literature – this traditional understanding of masculinity, and therefore of femininity has become pervasive and sometimes toxic, placing men and women and their diversities in cages, each neatly labelled, as though, for easy identification.

Let us briefly examine how two of these characteristics have played out in modern societies. First, the idea of achievement within the traditional masculine ideology has, in capitalist societies, been further contaminated with the narrow and unhelpful definition of success – i.e. success is the result of individual effort alone and little else. Previously it may have been routine to address the not-so-successful as ‘unfortunate’, keeping in mind the many influences in an individual’s life that contribute to their achievements, including plain good fortune. But with the rise of modern societies, it is common for the unsuccessful to be labelled the pejorative ‘loser’. In this context, any display of weakness, self-doubt or vulnerability is seen as adding flesh and substance to the label of loser. While modern societies were meant to shear masculinities of its stereotypes, they force the exact opposite process of solidifying them.

Second, it is worth noting a prevalent dualism parallel to that of masculinity and femininity – that of rationality and emotionality. Traditional masculine ideology has ascribed rationality to itself, steering rather clear of emotionality. Rationality, the reliance on logic and reason, is seen as increasing the likelihood of truth, and therefore useful for decision-making. Emotionality, i.e. the degree to which an individual may feel and express emotions, on the other hand, is seen, in the traditional male ideology as a display of weakness. Instead of an engagement with the rational truth, it is denigrated as merely being an expression of the ‘personal significance of a thing, an event, or a state of affairs’. Having internalised these two parallel dualisms men and women have further fortified the traditional masculine ideologies mentioned above.

Despite this, the good news is that men and boys have now started recognising (with some help, maybe, from the feminine influences in their lives) and indeed addressing these traditionally accepted characteristics of masculinity. They continue to resist the pressures to reproduce traditional norms. Unfortunately, people of different genders experience what is called the ‘gender role strain’[5] when they pushback – when they deviate from gender role norms of masculinity (and femininity) and replace them with their lived experiences rather than borrowed ones.

The bad news is that while modern men and masculinities have had some success in recalibrating their relationship with stereotypes and expectations of the traditional masculine ideology, one major gap persists. There are neither templates nor signposts to help steer masculinities closer to expression of human vulnerabilities. (Vulnerability can be loosely defined as the predisposition to be negatively affected either physically or emotionally – the word is derived from the Latin noun vulnus, meaning ‘wound’.) The reason this is bad news is because while masculinities have traditionally, and in modern times, done everything within their means to avoid the discussion on vulnerabilities, inner turmoil and anxieties, these are often the main initiators of the process of understanding and expressing sexuality.

Whichever gender the masculine may reside in – it seems to be losing in a poignant internal struggle.  This is the struggle between the inner world of the masculine which contains, and is capable of, wounds, and its outer world which seems bereft of the language of the fragile, the tentative and the hurt.

We may need to ask whether masculinities that cannot lean right into vulnerabilities (with the same bravado that they have perfected in other spheres of life) are at all capable of expressions of their sexuality in all its potentialities. We may need to ask if above all, the ‘examined life’ that Socrates exhorted us to live doesn’t include our capacities to wrest vulnerabilities out of the clutches of the masculine and free them for expression and breakthrough.

The inability to correctly identify, express and soothe (all three without exception, and in no particular order) inner vulnerabilities and imperfections is the weakest link between asserting masculinities and being able to properly live their full potential.


[1] https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/ce-corner

[2] Chaplin, Tara M, and Amelia Aldao. Gender differences in emotion expression in children: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 139,4 (2013): 735-65. DOI:10.1037/a0030737

[3] Rachel Connelly & Jean Kimmel (2015) If you’re happy and you know it: How do mothers and fathers in the US really feel about caring for their children?, Feminist Economics, 21:1, 1-34, DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2014.970210

[4] Levant, R. F., & Richmond, K. (2007). A review of research on masculinity ideologies using the Male Role Norms Inventory. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 15(2), 130-146.

[5] Pleck, J. H. (1995). The gender role strain paradigm: An update. In R. F. Levant & W. S. Pollack (Eds.), A new psychology of men (pp. 11-32). New York, NY, US: Basic Books.

                                                                                                                                                    Featured Image Source: Sveinn Steinar Benediktsson / Creative Commons

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Independent expert on development and social policy