Male Socialization and Masculinity

Read about important lessons in male socialization and the messages they send.

Male Socialization and Masculinity

The social construction of masculinity begins as soon as we are born and continues for the rest of our life (Bem, 1993; Money & Tucker, 1975; Zilbergeld, 1992). Money and Tucker (1975, p.86) assert we learn gender identities and expected gender roles much the same way we attained speech. We are born hard-wired for speech, but not programmed. Programming for speech occurs as we are exposed to the language spoken to us by our parents and those around us in our society. From the moment the doctor pronounces "it's a boy" males begin to establish a sense of gender-identity. By the time we can speak, we can already identify our gender (Thompson, 1975). As we learn the language of our society, we also learn what the expected gender-roles are for us. According to Bem (1993), 'male-female difference is superimposed on so many aspects of the social world that a cultural connection is thereby forged between sex and virtually every other aspect of human experience, including modes of dress and social roles and even ways of expressing emotion and experiencing sexual desire."

According to Zilbergeld (1992), by the age of six or seven most of the important lessons in male socialization have been learned. One of these messages is "don't be like a girl' (p. 23). Zilbergeld explains, "Since females of all ages are the softer ones--the people who express feelings, who cry, who are people oriented--not being like them is an effective way to suppress the softer side of males" (p. 23). Negative reinforcers such as name-calling--"sissy" "girl" or "fagot"--keep boys from straying too far from what is expected. They also send the message that to be masculine, you must be heterosexual (Herek, 1986).

Homophobic name-calling is used to keep boys in line (Linn, Stein & Young, 1992). Name-calling creates or reinforces hostility towards the gay and lesbian population and it forces all children to follow strict sex-role behaviors to avoid ridicule (Gordon, 1983). Homophobia, in this sense a fear of being perceived as gay, is said to be perhaps the greatest pressure boys face while growing up (Friedman, 1989) and is considered the ultimate weapon in reinforcing rigid sex-role conformity (1983). According to Friedman (1989), homophobia sparks male hatred of women and fear of closeness to other people. Rigid sex role stereotypes prevent heterosexual males from establishing meaningful and intimate relationships with other men and women and set up male-female relationships based on male superiority that preclude the possibility of true intimacy (Neisen, 1990).

Boys also learn the primary thing in life is performing, (Farrell, 1986; Zilbergeld, 1992) or "getting the job done" (Bem, 1974, p. 156). In general, masculinity and masculine traits seem to reflect a competency cluster (Broverman, Broverman, Clarkson, Rosenkrantz & Vogel, 1970).

The end result of male socialization is a set of defaults that are programmed by society, culture, media, family, and religion. The typical male attributes are supposed to be: strength and self-reliance, success, no sissy stuff or don't be like women, sexual interest and prowess, active, independent, tough, aggressive, dominant, stoic, and never cries (Bem, 1974; Broverman et al., 1970; Herek, 1986; Zilbergeld, 1992). These defaults define a fanciful standard of masculinity.

Males who internalize these standards are prone to experience anxiety that they will fail to measure up to their role. According to Herek (1986, p. 567), "The source of this anxiety is fear of losing one's sense of self, or identity, as a heterosexual man (which is equivalent to a male's identity as a person)." The socialization of males provides very little that is of value in the formation and maintenance of intimate relationships. Male socialization also carries over into what boys learn about sex.

What Boys Learn About Sex and Manhood

What boys learn about sex and manhood becomes a critical treatment concern when they reach adulthood and are faced with sexual dysfunction resulting from a disability or illness. According to Zilbergeld (1992), boys learn that their manhood is tied to their penis, and having and using erections has something to do with masculinity: "before having sex with partners or even themselves, boys know that sexual interest and prowess are crucial to being a man...Since sexuality is such a crucial component of masculinity, males feel pressured to act interested in sex whether or not they really are....This is a great setup for faking, lying, and feeling inadequate' (p. 32).

Zilbergeld asserts that what adolescent boys learn about penis centered sexuality creates an incredible confusion between personhood or identity and one's sexual organ. When their penis doesn't operate according to spec men equate this with loss of manhood. This is no different for a man who acquires a disability.

According to Zilbergeld.(1992), boys learn a fantasy model of sex: "It's two feet long, hard as steel, always ready, and will knock your socks off"(p. 37). Zilbergeld explains further: "Sexual education goes on all the time...[via sexual jokes, sexually implicit or explicit movies, novels or television that involves sex or adult relationships]...Because all the media portray essentially the same sexual message, it's virtually assured that all men and women will learn the same model of sex...The sexual messages conveyed in our culture are the stuff of fantasy...Because we don't have any realistic models or standards in sex, we tend to measure ourselves against these fantasies...We usually aren't even aware that we're comparing ourselves to anything. We just know that we feel bad because our equipment and performances aren't what we wish they were...end up feeling inadequate about our bodies and our partners'...We compare ourselves to what we have learned, and almost everyone feels that they've come out on the short end" (37-42).

Read other excerpts from Dr. Tepper.


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Linn, E., Stein, N. D., & Young, J. (1992). Bitter lessons for all: sexual harassment in schools. In J. T. Sears (Ed.), Sexuality and the Curriculum: The Politics and Practices of Sexuality Education (pp. 366). New York: Teachers College Press.

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Reprinted with permission from Dr. Mitchell Tepper.

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