What does it mean to be a man today? And what does it mean to be a woman?
Even as societal views shift in the era of the #MeToo movement, men and women face pressures on how to behave, and how not to. Expectations are often reinforced in popular culture, in the way men and women are portrayed in movies, TV shows and advertisements.
More critically, researchers say, gender roles are learned at an early age through socialization with caregivers at home, school and elsewhere—and that can amplify health and cultural problems as boys and girls grow into adulthood.
“People learn how to perform,” says Christopher Liang, associate professor of counseling psychology. “They learn what the expectations are for their sex. So if you are born a biological male, you might be taught a certain way of dealing with your emotions. Don’t show your sadness, don’t show that you’re hurt, don’t show that you’re weak. Be strong. Be tough.”
Conversely, those born as a biological female might be taught to be nice, nurturing and giving.
“Women have this invisible burden of caretaking that’s often ignored or devalued,” says Nicole L. Johnson, assistant professor of counseling psychology. “Women are taught to sort of stifle their experience, to be appeasing or attractive to men.”
While socialized behaviors might not be unhealthy unto themselves, the researchers say, problems can develop or persist when men and women are rigid in their conformity to those expectations, resulting in health issues for individuals or fueling violence against women.
Catwoman in a heart frame
“We know that women are overwhelmingly victims [of sexual violence], and we know that men are overwhelmingly perpetrators,” says Johnson. “What about being a man increases that? We teach our boys to be strong and aggressive and not to take ’no’ for an answer, and then we teach our girls to be passive and pretty and nice and not to be assertive.
“In my mind this kind of creates this perfect scenario for sexual assault to happen, because if we’re teaching our boys not to take ’no’ for an answer, and we’re teaching our girls to be seen and not heard, that creates a really hard situation on both sides. … There’s this socialization that occurs that makes sexual assault normative.”
Liang has conducted extensive research into men and masculinity, including the impact on health outcomes and gender role conflict among minority men, as he seeks to help men engage in healthier behaviors and improve their overall mental and physical health. He is among a team of scholars who helped draft the American Psychological Association’s first-ever set of “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” The newly released document, based on a synthesis of empirical and scholarly works, is meant to guide psychologists and researchers in their work with boys and men on masculinity issues.
Separately, Johnson has conducted extensive research and programming on rape culture. She co-authored the fifth edition of Women and Gender, a textbook released in November 2018 that explores women’s relationships, physical and mental health, and violence against women, among other areas. The book addresses the social construction of gender and explores ways to effect change, including through political advocacy.
In their work, both Liang and Johnson emphasize the need to understand gender differences.
“We need to interrogate gender, really unpack it, figure out what it means and how it contributes to people’s well-being—both men and women, and people who don’t identify as men or women,” Liang says. “[We need to] put it at the forefront, understand that gender-role ideology influences a lot of our behavior, influences a lot of our thinking and influences our perceptions.”
How Men Experience Masculinity
In helping to draft the American Psychological Association (APA)’s new “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” Liang drew on his extensive research into men’s experiences with masculinity and racism, especially those of men of color. He also has served as president of the APA’s Division 51, the Society for the Study of Men and Masculinities. He has done additional research into sexual violence prevention.
Liang worked on the APA guidelines in collaboration with other scholars over the past seven years, though efforts began earlier. In drawing on more than 40 years of research, the scholars also sought rounds of feedback from other experts and the public as they refined the document, which aims to help practitioners work more effectively with boys and men.
“Unfortunately psychology for a long, long time was looking at its constructs and engaging in its studies in a very androcentric way—so focusing on men but not really understanding men, centering psychological experiences based on men’s experiences, but not really understanding what men’s experiences are as it concerns gender,” Liang says.
The document recognizes the need to help boys and men—as well as their parents, teachers and coaches—gain awareness in how masculinity is defined in the context of life circumstances and how those social forces can be a detriment to mental health.
“Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural and contextual norms,” the first guideline states. The other nine guidelines address the impact of power and privilege, family relationships, education and public-health issues.
“One of the key things to come from the document is the importance of looking at something like masculinity,” Liang says. “Oftentimes, we think of gender as this immutable thing, that you’re born with it.” But, he adds, “You’re born with a sex, then you learn how to do gender.”
The new APA guidelines encourage researchers and practitioners to focus more attention on some of the ways that men engage in unhealthy forms of masculinity. They also encourage an understanding of how to capitalize on the more positive aspects of masculinity and how to engage in more positive health-related behaviors, such as a willingness to ask for help.
Men who have been socialized to appear tough but who are hurting might feel greater stigma if they were to seek help from a professional, Liang says. Instead, they might opt to deal with their pain by abusing substances or by hurting themselves or their partners.
“A man who is feeling some loss of power at work may cope with their loss of power by reasserting power at home,” he says. “It could be through physical violence or sexual violence.”
Though boys and men, as a group, tend to hold power and privilege, they also disproportionately face mental health issues, academic challenges and other health-related problems, the APA says in the document. Men account for three-quarters of all suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“Men on average die six years earlier than women,” says Liang. “Some of this can be attributed to higher completed suicides, but it’s also telling that men are more at risk for heart disease and stress-related illnesses. Instead of saying, ‘well, that’s how men are,’ we need to figure out why. Maybe if they engaged in help-seeking earlier, they’d be better off.” If they didn’t feel pressure to meet gender-role expectations or fear losing an opportunity at work, he says, they might take the time to go to a mental health practitioner or doctor.
Individuals need to be cognizant of gender, much like being aware of their racial biases, Liang says. With concerns over men’s suicide rates and drug addictions rising, “we need to understand how men are coping with job loss, with underemployment,” he says. “If we were to center gender, then we might be able to help these men in different ways.”
Although examining gender can be useful in identifying possible disparities between men and women in such areas as health, education and the justice system, Liang says, the guidelines underscore the importance of moving away from gender as an independent variable in studies.
“We know that gender-based violence—sexual violence in particular, intimate partner violence—disproportionately impacts women more than men,” he says as an example. “And we know that because our data tells us that. But that’s all it tells us—that there are differences. The next layer is, why are there these differences?”
Illustrations by Jacob Haupt
This story originally appeared as “Centering Gender” in the 2019 Lehigh Research Review.