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Open any newspaper, and you can see a pattern so widespread that it is rarely noticed: Almost all the serious stories are about men. In societies scholars label patriarchies, men dominate the most important public institutions, including law, politics, business, science, and the military; men also control economic and political decisions in more private realms, such as the family. Yet patriarchy is not universal, and the forms of masculinity that it perpetuates are neither natural nor inevitable.


According to sociocultural theories of gender, while sex (physical characteristics) is biologically inherited, gender (behaviors and attitudes associated with a given sex) is socially learned. What it means to be a man, or masculinity, varies both within and across eras and cultures by race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, occupation, education, age, geography, and other social characteristics (Kimmel and Messner 2004). For this reason, although biology interacts with the social and physical environment to produce these variations, scholars acknowledge that masculinity is predominantly learned rather than genetically inherited (Coltrane 1998; Connell 1995; Lorber 1994). Despite the many versions of masculinity in existence, scholars have identified common characteristics that distinguish masculinities in egalitarian societies from masculinities in patriarchal societies. In egalitarian societies, women tend to share in the control of property and political decision-making, and men are taught to be soft-spoken and nonviolent, taking part in child care while generally avoiding exclusively male initiation rituals and displays of masculine bravado and male superiority. As exemplified by select tribes in the South Pacific islands, the African rain forest, and the Amazon river valley, egalitarian societies have existed in every major region of the world (Coltrane 1992). Modern societies have adopted some egalitarian practices, as exemplified in the social policies of several Nordic countries.

Yet, partially due to colonial exploitation, the vast majority of societies assume a patriarchal form, ranging from ancient agrarian civilizations to modern industrialized nations. Patriarchal societies have existed around the world and on every major continent. Patriarchies, literally translated as rule by the father, are defined by male control of resources and symbolic privileging of the masculine over the feminine (Coltrane 1992; Connell 2005; Gutmann 1997). In patriarchal societies, men rule by virtue of their power in family and kinship systems, and masculinity revolves around hierarchal male power. Beyond the family, men in patriarchal societies rule the public institutions by writing and enforcing the laws, controlling the political system, occupying the highest posts in government, running the businesses, monopolizing the highest paying jobs, shaping access to and the focus of science, and dictating funding and execution of war-related activities. Meanwhile, women are expected to perform household chores and provide child care, tasks that are rarely rewarded with financial or political power. In addition, men in patriarchal societies often treat wives as sexual property and tend to exploit the labor and sexuality of women who do not have male protectors (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, and Perrin 2005; Coltrane 1992; Coltrane 1996; Coltrane and Collins 2001).

Men not only dominate women in the public and private realms of these societies, but they also shun femininity. As such, feminine characteristics of nurturance and collaboration are treated by men as symbols of weakness to be avoided. Masculinity instead encourages men to focus on achieving power through independence, aggression, and violence (David and Brannon 1976; Maccoby 1998). Each of these gendered behaviors serves to help men maintain control of society at the expense of women. First, the disdain for anything feminine leads men in power to value the opinions of men over women. Second, the desire for power instilled in men and the desire for serving others instilled in women help men to obtain and hold positions of authority. Third, the masculine value of independence helps men take leadership roles as well as avoid sharing influence with women and less powerful men. Fourth, men use aggression and violence to control and intimidate women and less powerful men. For example, women are much more likely than men to be victims of child sexual abuse, rape, and partner violence, and their abusers are almost always men (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, and Perrin 2005).

In patriarchal societies, men begin learning masculine styles of behavior at birth and continue to be reinforced for masculine traits and behaviors well into adulthood. For instance, in modern industrialized nations, experiments show that only after being notified of a babys sex will children and adults tend to label baby boys as stronger, bigger, and noisier than girls (Coltrane 1998). By expecting that boys will be boys, male offspring are treated as already embodying masculinity. They are given greater encouragement in sports and other whole-body stimulation while girls are given more verbalization, interpersonal stimulation, and nurturance. As boys grow into men, the people in their lives (parents, siblings, relatives, friends, teachers) continue modeling and teaching acceptable masculine behavior, rewarding compliance and punishing deviance by granting or denying social acceptance. Cultural influences (stories, media, schools, politics, religion, customs, and rituals) also illustrate and model acceptable masculinity and, in addition, provide arenas in which men can practice the gendered behavior they have been taught (Adams and Coltrane 2004). While gender is malleable in the sense that men can stray from it in small ways without retribution, deviations are not tolerated (especially when compared to tomboy behavior in girls). Eventually, men realize that their happiness and success depend upon their ability to demonstrate masculinity on their own, so they no longer require external incentives and reminders to enforce gendered behavior (Bem 1993; Coltrane 1998; Connell 1990). In reproducing masculinity, men are given the tools to maintain positions of power in patriarchal societies.


Both women and men experience the costs of masculinity. Despite increases in equality between men and women in the past century, most patriarchal societies, the United States included, still endorse the idea that men are naturally superior to women in public affairs and that they deserve authority over women in the home. As a result, being born a woman carries penalties in most societies. Furthermore, men in patriarchal societies are also harmed by the pressure to maintain high levels of masculinity. First, men take more risks than women, helping explain why men are far more likely than women to die in car crashes (Powell-Griner, Anderson, and Murphy 1997; National Center for Health Statistics 2006). Second, masculinity demands that men be physically strong, inhibiting them from acknowledging and addressing serious medical problems or following prescribed medical regimens (Courtenay 2003). In part because of this, men are more likely than women to die of heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and pneumonia (National Center for Health Statistics 2006). Third, masculinity confines and isolates men emotionally; they have higher suicide rates than women, and cross-national research shows that men report greater loneliness than women when without a romantic partner or children (Stack 1998; National Center for Health Statistics 2006). Fourth, masculinity encourages men to be violent, a leading reason men are more likely than women to suffer injury, commit violence, be the victims of violence, die from homicide, and have a shorter life span (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2004; Centers for Disease Control 2004; National Center for Health Statistics 2006).


Despite widely held beliefs that boys will be boys and that men are naturally violent and unemotional, comparative scholarship shows that manhood ideals are culturally conceived and that boys are turned into manly men through a combination of family, social, and personal processes. Perhaps taking a cue from past egalitarian societies, new models of masculinity in industrialized societies are emerging, with gradual recognition that women can be the equals of men and should enjoy similar public and private rights and obligations. Because masculinity itself is socially constructed, with time and effort, men can discard the negative aspects of masculinity that promote subjugation of women and deterioration of their own emotional and physical health.

SEE ALSO Aggression; Alpha-male; Family; Fatherhood; Femininity; Gender; Gender Gap; Masculinity; Masculinity Studies; Militarism; Patriarchy; Sexual Orientation, Determinants of; Sexual Orientation, Social and Economic Consequences; Social Dominance Orientation; Violence


Adams, Michele, and Scott Coltrane. 2004. Boys and Men in Families: The Domestic Production of Gender, Power, and Privilege. The Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, ed. R. W. Connell, Jeff Hearn, and Michael Kimmel, 230248. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Barnett, Ola, Cindy L. Miller-Perrin, and Robin D. Perrin. 2005. Family Violence Across the Lifespan: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bem, Sandra L. 1993. The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Centers for Disease Control. 2004. Surveillance for Fatal and Nonfatal Injuries: United States, 2001. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53 (S S07): 157.

Coltrane, Scott. 1992. The Micropolitics of Gender in Nonindustrial Societies. Gender and Society 6 (1): 86107.

Coltrane, Scott. 1996. Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Coltrane, Scott. 1998. Gender and Families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Coltrane, Scott, and Randall Collins. 2001. Sociology of Marriage and the Family: Gender, Love, and Property. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Connell, Robert W. 1990. The State, Gender, and Sexual Politics. Theory and Society 19 (5): 507544.

Connell, Robert W. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Connell, Robert W. 2005. Change Among the Gatekeepers: Men, Masculinities, and Gender Equality in the Global Arena. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30 (3): 18011825.

Courtenay, William H. 2003. Key Determinants of the Health and Well-Being of Men and Boys. International Journal of Mens Health 2 (1): 130.

David, Deborah S., and Robert Brannon, eds. 1976. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2004. Crime in the United States, 2003: Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, DC: Author.

Gutmann, Matthew C. 1997. Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 385409.

Kimmel, Michael S., and Michael A. Messner, eds. 2004. Mens Lives. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson A and B.

Lorber, Judith. 1994. Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Maccoby, Eleanor E. 1998. The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

National Center for Health Statistics. 2006. Health, United States, 2005: With Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans. Hyattsville, MD: Author.

Powell-Griner, E., J. E. Anderson, and W. Murphy. 1997. State-and Sex-Specific Prevalence of Selected CharacteristicBehavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 1994 and 1995. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Surveillance Summaries SS-3) 46: 131.

Stack, Steven. 1998. Marriage, Family, and Loneliness: A Cross-National Study. Sociological Perspectives 41 (2): 415432.

Scott Coltrane

Adam Messinger

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