Friday, May 16, 2014

"Football Is a Man's Sport": The Social Costs of Hypermasculinity in America

Last Saturday, Michael Sam was the first openly gay individual drafted in the NFL or any major sport. After receiving the good news, Sam turned to his boyfriend and kissed him while they were on television. Needless to say, there were some that did not react too kindly. There are some who didn't like it because "homosexuality is being shoved in peoples' faces." I find that to be amusing, and as for the reason, I'll give it to you straight: it's "normal" or "acceptable" for straight people to hold hands, kiss, get married, talk about their children, or post pictures on Facebook as a couple, but when gay people do it, it suddenly becomes "flaunting sexuality in others' faces?" Really? At least double standards these days are blatantly obvious.

Setting aside my derisiveness for a moment, I honestly think there is something more profound going on here. In American society, part of the definition of a "real man" has to do with the gender of a man's partner. "Real men sleep with women. If you sleep with another guy, that's totally gay." The fact that the word "gay" is still synonymous with the word "stupid" says something right there. The aversion here goes beyond one's sexuality. Football is seen as a man's sport. There are those who think allowing an open homosexual to be drafted into the NFL feminizes football. 

But it's more than just football. We come across these sensationalized forms of masculinity and gender stereotypes all the time (Archer, 2010). Be a man. Man up. Real men don't cry. Boys will be boys. Men are taught that if they want to be "real men," they need to keep their emotions contained and not show them (Ben-Zeev, 2012). The problem with bottling up emotions is that they swell up and eventually erupt in a volcanic-like manner, which leads to nasty, and quite possibly violent, outbursts. It's going to be difficult to cover so much ground in such a short blog entry, but I would like to provide a brief overview on the problems of how America defines masculinity in such a constraining, counterproductive manner.

Before continuing, I would like to state I recognize that there are some fundamental differences between men and women. However, I'm not going to ignore the narrow, distorted definitions of masculinity that are nothing more than societal constructs. It can be as subtle as "wearing pink is not manly." It can be as something as noticeable and detrimental as "expressing emotions is what women do" or "having deep friendships with other guys is girly." You want to know why guys can't have healthy, emotional same-sex friendships that involve either emotional or physical intimacy? Part of it is because we have relegated emotions to being "feminine," but there's also the puritanical part of American society that has sexualized any physical intimacy between two guys. Forget something like two guys being comfortable enough with their sexuality to cuddle or spoon together and not have it be sexualized (Andreson and McCormack, 2014). In American society, when you see two guys holding hands, the default assumption is that they are a gay couple because people conflate affection with sexuality. Friends platonically hold hands to show the profundity of their friendship in places like Africa, Asia (e.g., India), and Arabic countries, of all places. You can't do that in this country without someone sneeringly labeling you as a homosexual. There was a time, even in American culture, when two guys could have a platonic relationship that included physical intimacy, and that relationship was so strong that it easily could surpass the profundity of their relationships with their spouses. Believe it or not, guys want to be really close to each other platonically, and it's exceptionally difficult to find that in this country because doing so is "too gay or womanly." If a man cannot develop emotionally healthy relations or have a healthy emotional outlet, how does that affect how men interact in society?

President Bush holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah (2005)

For one, men are much more likely to commit suicide than women. I admit that part of the uptick has to do with the economy, but since a man's self-worth has been societally defined in the stark gender role of "breadwinner," is it a surprise that an economic downturn combined with a narrow definition of what makes a man contributes to this? It also doesn't help that the women's right movement and increasing equality in the workplace did not help with the ego of any man who holds to these narrow definitions of manliness. Christina Hoff Sommers at the American Enterprise Institute brings up the fact that men have lower rates of depression, but higher rates of suicide. The issue is that the vast majority of suicides in this country stem from depression, which means that men are hiding their depression because doing so is a form of "manning up." If men were allowed to express their emotions in constructive manners, I'd make an educated guess that fewer men would feel the need to resort to suicide.

In addition to suicide, hypermasculinity does not help with scholastic achievement (Santos et al., 2013), nor does it help with levels of male violence (e.g., bullying), particularly towards women in the forms of domestic violence and sexual violence. Since there isn't a correlation between gun ownership rates and homicide rates, I'm starting to subscribe to the theory that Americans are more violent than their European counterparts because of hypermasculinity. While inherent gender differences will maintain some sort of gap, I think that at least by addressing it, we can minimize the gender-based gap of violence. In spite of the research that might already exist, I would really be excited to see a meta-study that directly deals with how American society's narrow definitions of masculinity affect the upbringing of boys, as well as how grown men handle their lives. The same goes for a cost-benefit analysis on the topic, especially since measuring social costs is much trickier than something like the costs and benefits in the economic transaction of tangible goods.

I'm not advocating to get rid of masculinity. That would be ridiculous. What I would ask for is that we exchange the toxic masculinity that is so prevalent in American society for a healthy view of masculinity (e.g., being a gentleman) because I want men to have healthy relationships, as well as stable emotional and mental health. Both boys and men should be comfortable with their masculinity, but at the same time, we should remove the violence and aggression, not to mention the aversion towards emotions, that come with the stereotypical form of masculinity.

History has taught us that there are many legitimate ways to express masculinity that go beyond the stereotypical "manly man" with bulging biceps, aggressive behavior, needs to be "a player," doesn't cook because "that's what women do," and has to love sports and activities, especially football, hunting, or fishing. We need to realize that much like femininity, masculinity also comes with its complexities and nuances, which means transcending a simplistic view of machismo. Men also have the ability to care, show compassion, as well as exude sympathy and the ability to put himself in someone else's shoes. Replace aggressiveness with assertiveness. Resilience is a good trait to have in life, but men are also human and sometimes need to cry. Accepting our limits is a part of maturity and having a clearer picture of life, which is preferable to acting out or taking it out on others because emotions have been bottled up for too long. These are just some examples of how we can modify and expand the definition of masculinity for the better.

There isn't a government policy that is going to fix this problem, which I fittingly label as a negative externality. Much like with any civil rights movement, these types of societal changes require a bottom-up approach. The first step is to recognize the problem. After that, we need to find ways for communities to encourage positive male role models for children. We need to let boys and men know that it's okay to express emotions and that it's acceptable to have profound and intimate friendships with other males. We also need to recognize that much like with the federal government, there is not a "one-size-fits-all" approach to masculinity. Some men will be more attracted to more traditional definitions of masculinity. Others will be more comfortable with a non-traditional form of masculinity. Since people are diverse, we should encourage both forms of masculinity so that men can be both comfortable with their sense of masculinity while being able to live as enjoyable of lives as possible.


  1. Wow. Wow. One of your most profound and powerful blogs yet. Bravo. I'm going to filter this a little bit thru the gay experience, because that has been my experience. The rainbow-colored prison- er, prism. LOL. Once upon a time, I read a book called something like "The New Guide to Gay Sex." I read it deep in the stacks of my library and left it on a table facing down so no one could see what I had been reading. I was expecting it to be salacious and amusing and fun. It was all of that. But for me, the most interesting part was how the book eventually morphed into a psychological treatise on why many gay men fear emotional intimacy and open expressions of affection like kissing. The author hypothesized that, due to internalized self-loathing and years of closeted-ness, many gay men find emotional honesty difficult, and always feel the need to maintain a facade, even with their nearest and dearest.

    I've also discussed this with gay friends, including men in their 40s and 50s, those who came of age during the AIDS crisis and the immediate post-Stonewall era. Have you seen Rocky Horror Picture Show? In the floor show song, Rocky sings, "The only thing I've come to trust/ Is an orgasmic rush of lust/ It rose tints my world, keeps me safe from my trouble and pain." I have met many gay men who were that way: and I have even myself been that way also, so I am casting no stones here. I think gay men use sex like an anesthetic, a drug. Raw sex, devoid of emotional context, becomes a proxy, a substitute, a way of faking an emotional closeness that many are too frightened to actually let themselves experience. In this way, the narrow confines of American masculinity hurt gay men too.

    The cliche is that it's more acceptable in the U.S.A. for two men to hold guns than hold hands: but the cliche has truth to it. That's why I remain horrified and intrigued by Jeffrey Dahmer. True, the man was diseased in body and soul, but his society produced him and was responsible for his disease. When he murdered his lovers, wasn't he simply conflating violent drive with sexual drive?

    On a final, and more upbeat note: I have had many straight male friends come to me for intimacy. And no, that's not a brag and it's not me being sketchy. (See how even in this conversation I have to carefully de-sexualize?) What I mean is that I have had straight male friends cuddle me, hug me, and hold me, and ask me to cuddle, hug and hold them, quite openly and with the understanding that no sexual subtext was involved. I think they feel "safe" to display it with me because they know that, as a gay man, I will recognize it, respond to it, be open to it in myself and others, and even seek it out. So things are changing, slowly slowly.

    To me, the true mark of the empowered man is self-ownership, taking responsibility for your own actions, taking responsibility for how those actions affect others, creating a safe space to express your own identity, and taking responsibility for your emotions by asking for what you need from others directly, without being ashamed of the request.

  2. Great post. Its very informative and helpful. Thanks for your nice post.
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  3. Steve,

    Just to touch on a bit of this, I think you are mistakenly looking at the aspect of how American society hypersexualizes platonic intimacy between men and ascribing it to Puritanical values. I think that is, actually, the exact opposite of what is happening. The hypersexualization that sees many forms of physical contact as inherently sexual is because in modernity everything is hypersexualized. Nothing is not code or innuendo for something sexual. This is the result of our overly sexual culture, which I suppose one can trace back to the 60s and “free love.”

    The other point I would make is that I think much of modern definitions of manliness are a countercultural reaction to modern feminism. If modern feminism postulates (and puts into practice) that “women can do everything guys can do as well as guys can do it” (which is sometimes true, but not always; and I’m not just talking about birth) then women have successfully expanded their identity to include both traditional female roles and many (if not most) traditional male roles. What’s left exclusively for males? I think part of the moving to extremes is an effort by men (broadly speaking) to carve out a distinct niche. Whether it’s healthy or not, whether it will last or not, that’s al debatable. But I think feminism has consequences, and like most things that have consequences, they aren’t all benign.


    1. Zac,

      As for your first paragraph, I would argue that this problem predates the hippie countercultural movement, specifically when society put a label on homosexuality as a sexual orientation (as opposed as to mere sexual behavior).

      Your second paragraph brings up an interesting point about "what is left exclusively for men?" I would say that even if there are some women who have taken on some of the traditional male roles, that doesn't mean men could reclaim these roles as "predominantly male roles" (although specifics might help because there are still roles out there that are predominantly or exclusively male). Again, I'm not denying that there are generally some basic differences between the two genders, but this does feel like a continuation of our discussion on gender roles and how society perceives the extent and importance of those roles.

      Kol tov,


  4. Steve,

    Point 1: Fair enough. I concede that that sort of mentality existed prior to the summer of love. Though I do think it was exacerbated by the 60s counterculture.

    Point 2: Do you mean to say that men "couldn't" reclaim these roles? And yes, certainly a link in my posts. Gender differences are important for all levels of society, not just marriage.

    kol tov,

  5. Zac,

    Point 1: I would not be surprised if the summer of love aggrandized the issue. But to reiterate, this was a problem prior to the sixties.

    Point 2: Yes, thank you for the correction. I meant "couldn't." Too bad Blogger doesn't allow you to edit comments once they are posted.

    Kol tov,