By Rico Fischer
According to Vadenllo and Bosson’s (2017) precarious manhood theory, (1) men are not born with manhood but they must earn it; (2) a man earns being seen as a man by behaving in the way that society expects a man to behave; (3) manhood is difficult to earn but easy to lose. So, what happens when your sense of manhood is threatened? According to the theory, men feel aggressive and anxious, and cope by acting in stereotypically masculine ways.
Whether threatening manhood does indeed trigger anxiety, aggression and stereotypically male behaviour was tested in a study recently published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity. Danielle S. Berke and her colleagues asked 212 American university students to fill out a survey and take part in an experiment. Of course, the participants were not properly informed before the experiment was conducted to not distort their answers.
The questionnaire measured masculine gender role discrepancy (MGRD), to see how much men feel like typical men. In the experiment a week afterwards men were divided in to two groups. Each group received a test to measure their knowledge of typically male or female things. While the test was real, the feedback was bogus. One group received feedback that showed that their gender knowledge was like that of other men, but the other group received feedback putting them below the average – a threat to their manhood. To see how much their manhood was threatened, the MGRD was administered again. At the same time, they also received two questionnaires to measure aggression and anxiety. Then, their pain tolerance was measured. Finally, the MGRD was administered a third time to see whether they felt more like men again after experiencing pain.
The researchers found that men who were in the group in which the manhood was supposed to be threatened both felt more threatened and aggressive. The same group also endured more pain on average than the control group. However, not all hypotheses were confirmed. While men who felt threatened in their manhood felt more aggressive, they did not feel more anxious. According to the scientists, this could be because men often only learn to express aggression as an appropriate emotion. Also, standing more pain did not elevate the MGRD scores again. The researchers assume that a reason for this could be because manhood is “hard won, and easily lost.” In other words, they could have already felt like they lost their manhood at this point and now needed more time to regain it.
As with any study, this study is not without flaws and Miss Berke and her colleagues were quick to point out a few of these. All participants were very young. It could be that older men are less sensitive to threats to their manhood. Also, this is a laboratory experiment so it might not hold up in the real world. Nonetheless, the researchers say that these findings could be very useful for understanding the actions of young men. It could be that if young men have a rigid sense of masculinity they might feel threatened in their manhood and use techniques they perceive as manly (such as heavy drinking) to prove their manhood to others and themselves. Because this is an ineffective strategy they might end up in a vicious cycle of dysfunctional behaviours such as substance abuse and depression. To stop this from happening the researchers propose that “interventions designed to challenge norms about “real men” and bolster skills for managing challenging emotions and situational stressors may be an important focus for efforts aimed at reducing men’s negative behavioural health outcomes.”
John Barry’s view on this study:
This is an interesting study, but I feel lacks real-life validity. Outside the laboratory in the real world, the cause of aggression and substance abuse is often childhood trauma or abuse rather than threats to masculinity (Spataro et al, 2004). It’s true that men might drink too much as a demonstration of manhood (or just for fun), but that’s a cultural right of passage that we need to contain but not pathologise.
In my view, masculinity can best be understood as a schema through which a person expresses themselves, including expressions of love and duty, as well as expressions of anger and trauma. It is harmful to men to pathologise masculinity (e.g. in the way demonstrated the film The Mask You Live In), and in fact evidence from anthropology shows that encouraging a strong sense of manhood makes men better members of the community (Brown, 2016). In the end manhood has many positive aspects (working in dangerous jobs, protection of the community in times of war etc.) which would be lost to society if we decided, unwisely, that it is something that needed to fundamentally change.
Martin Seager thoughts were:
The idea of precarious manhood that was tested here fits well with the idea that all societies expect men to bear more pain and hide it at the same time because protecting others is what men have evolved to do. Something as ancient and central to our species as masculinity is unlikely to be a social construct. The men whose manhood was threatened in this study are reported as feeling more aggressive but no more anxious. In my view there is a lot of evidence to show that men do not report or admit vulnerable feelings. This study is no different. Men can admit angry feelings but not fear. It would be naïve therefore to assume from these results that a man who feels threatened does not feel more anxious underneath. It is just that he doesn’t show it.
Brown. B. (2016). From boys to men: The place of the provider role in male development. New Male Studies, 5(2), 36-57.
Spataro, J., Mullen, P. E., Burgess, P. M., Wells, D. L., & Moss, S. A. (2004). Impact of child sexual abuse on mental health. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 184(5), 416-421. Available online http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/184/5/416#sec-2
About the author
Rico Fischer is a final year BSc(Hons) student at Glasgow Caledonian University. Besides being a part of the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Research Team he manages the website and part of the social media outlet for the Male Psychology Network.