Proof Traditional Masculinity May Actually Be Dangerous

Yet another reason ironclad gender norms may not be the best idea.
Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background
The pressure to be traditionally masculine can cause men to overcompensate when their masculinity is threatened. But what does that overcompensation look like? Previous research has suggested that men who are stressed about their masculine identities may be more likely to commit violence within intimate or sexual relationships, while other research linked that pressure with poor health outcomes and risky sexual behavior.

In a new study, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Georgia looked into other ways gender role threats may cause men to act out. They wanted to know: Will men who are undergoing psychological stress because of masculinity threats be more likely to engage in substance abuse and commit violent assaults?

The Setup
Researchers surveyed 600 men between the ages of 18 and 50 using an online questionnaire. To see if the men felt they measured up to societal masculinity standards (aka, gauge gender role discrepancy), the researchers asked them how much they agreed with statements like, "I am less masculine than the average guy" and "Most women I know would say that I'm not as masculine as my friends." To see how much stress they felt about their self-perceived masculinity (aka, measure the accompanying discrepancy stress), the researchers asked them to report how much they related to statements like, "I wish I was more manly" and "I worry that women find me less attractive because I'm not as macho as other guys."

Then, the men answered questions about their current substance use and lifetime history of DWIs. They also answered questions about their lifetime history of violence ("How many times have you been in a physical fight with another individual?" and "How many times have you attacked someone with a weapon intending to harm, injure, rape or kill them?").

The Findings
After analyzing the surveys, the researchers found that discrepancy stress was not associated with substance abuse. But they did find a couple of troubling links: Men who were stressed about not feeling masculine enough had the highest rates of DWIs and were more likely to commit severe acts of assault (those involving weapons and/or causing injury).

According to the researchers, these findings suggest that men who experience gender role discrepancy stress are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors that will hurt themselves and others. As they put it, "prevention of discrepancy stress may likewise prevent acts of violence with the greatest consequences and costs to the victim, offender and society."

The Takeaway
Considering the immense pressure men (and women) are under to conform to gender roles, these findings seem pretty disturbing. Keep in mind, however, that the researchers didn't determine if the discrepancy stress truly caused any of these violent outbursts -- they simply found an association between men who are stressed about their masculinity and aggressive, reckless behavior.

But it's easy to see how this link could provide insight into a bigger problem. A 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that about 75 percent of violent acts were committed by men. Another report, conducted in 2014 by the Center for American Progress, found that at least one third of all female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by male intimate partners. And with injury and violence listed among the leading causes of annual male deaths, it's clear that brute force is often directed at men, too.

A good place to begin progress, according to the researchers, is to focus on how boys and men are socialized and try to construct less rigid gender norms so that they don't stress out about not measuring up to traditional masculine ideals. Unfortunately, the study doesn't offer any tangible ways to do this, stating it's too early to "make recommendations about specific prevention strategies."

For now, it seems, it's up to individuals to accept the wonderful range of people there are in the world -- until societal norms catch up, that is.

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