“Don’t be soft.”
“You’re acting like a girl.”
Most high school boys have heard these words time and time again.
These ideas are built upon the traditional meaning of masculinity — and even amid rapid social progress, their roots run so deep that many young men wonder what it means exactly to “be a man” in the 21st century.
Scott Davis whose A Call to Men organization seeks to explore masculinity’s foundation of aggression, said part of the issue is “we have learned to devalue women, objectify women, treat women as property and that those three things are upholding a culture of violence.” He said despite growing awareness and education concerning healthy manhood, masculinity still plays a large role in sexual assaults against women and even other men.
According to a 2015 study by Michele Harway and Jennifer H. Steel of Fielding Graduate University, a culture’s belief systems about masculinity and gender roles have a significant influence over sexual offenders’ propensity to commit sexual violence. Their research revolving around subcultures of the military, law enforcement, athletic organizations and college campuses proposed that each group’s ideals be assessed regarding how they “reinforce aggression and sexual conquests among men who perpetrate sexual assault.”
Davis, having been exposed to various demographics of men in his field, added, “We still live in a male dominant society, and that dominance is killing people, harming people. …”
A man’s mentality and sense of self is not only evident in his relationship and conduct with others, however, but in his behavior toward himself, he said.
Jemimah Steinfeld, in his 2017 HuffPost article “What Does 21st Century Masculinity Look Like?” echoes the idea that talking more about masculinity will directly benefit each individual man.
“Without wanting to be as alarmist as saying masculinity is in crisis (though plenty have argued just that), there are some pretty dire stats out there when it comes to men,” he writes, adding that men are 31/2 times more likely to commit suicide than women, and men far outweigh the number of women struggling with substance abuse or experiencing homelessness. “How these issues intersect with broader questions of gender and identity is essential to explore.”
Davis said that while “we have the opportunity to deepen that conversation,” his fear is “that people will misinterpret this as the condemnation of men.”
While conclusions confirming gender-based depression are scarce, some studies show that the shame and confusion tied to what it means to be a man can lead to anxiety and other mental health issues.
Just this month, University of New Mexico student-athlete Nahje Flowers killed himself, prompting state Sen. Mark Moores to propose the implementation of mental health education on state sports teams.
Research conducted by the American Psychological Association proposes that men sometimes express their depression through increases of fatigue, irritability and sometimes abusive anger.
Rowyn Bass, a senior at St. Michael’s High School and the oldest daughter of two brothers, points to the school shootings in America, a majority of which have been perpetrated by males. In general, she said, she believes men too often suppress their emotions, which causes a toxic buildup.
“Men have become emotionally constipated,” she said.
“It’s completely based on society’s idea of you’re supposed to be strong, you’re not supposed to feel anything; the only emotions you can express is anger and lust,” she added. “It’s good to be able to control yourself; it’s also good to express yourself.”
But Justin Sanchez, also a senior at St. Michael’s, said, “When it comes to having to put away emotions to make decisions, then men should be proud of that.”
Sanchez said his father has an emotionally challenging job working with disabled people, “but he doesn’t complain about it.” Rather than viewing this as suppression, Sanchez said, “I respect it. It’s one thing to take [expletive] and see [expletive], but it’s another thing to keep it to yourself and keep doing it because you do what you gotta do.”
Davis said it’s important for men to feel comfortable talking about their feelings and experiences. He said gender roles are a box that cisgender men need to reach beyond and step outside of.
“The biggest problem with gender roles is that we tell people if they’re not behaving that way it’s wrong,” he said. “If you step out of that box, then it’s wrong, so we have men who are not reaching out for help so we see suicide rates, substance abuse rates exponentially higher for men because we’re taught not to ask for help.”
He said the only real solution is for men to stand up and say, “It’s OK to be vulnerable, it’s OK to show weaknesses, it’s OK for me to ask for help, its OK for me to be sad and emotional and just have to cry.”
Dani Mosher, a transgender student at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, understands that the purpose of these societal norms is to uphold dominance.
“Gender is this societal thing that has these implications like how you’re supposed to function and what your role is supposed to be, but all of those things are often based on maintaining power, especially in our community,” she said.
Davis said these “rigid walls’’ were constructed to benefit and privilege men. As a heterosexual, white activist, he said he and other men with privilege have the responsibility to set new, more inclusive standards.
Mosher agreed: “Whenever you have privilege, you need to use that privilege and that platform to speak, and a big part of that is having conversations and being informed by women and other people.”
Perhaps this evolution, or revolution, of masculinity is, at its core, more about the need for a conversation about the individual man and where his identity sits beyond gender roles.
“More so than defining masculinity or femininity, I think it’s important to define yourself,” Mosher said. “The roles we have in this world should be the roles that we assign ourselves, the roles we want to take on.”
Gabriel Biadora is a senior at St. Michael’s High School. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.