Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Men Are Changing: Let’s Understand Why

Gender Roles, Parenting, Mental HealthAndrew Smiler

Cultures change over time, and so do the expectations and the behavior of the people in those cultures. Approximately 100 years ago, most American men worked for themselves or in small businesses, more people lived in rural areas than urban areas (and there were no suburbs), the median age of first marriage for men was 25, and mandatory public education through grade 6 was new. That was controversial; many people asked what would happen when boys spent their days sitting still in a setting dominated by female teachers instead of doing physical work in the company of men (sound familiar?). The Boy Scouts Of America were created in order to help meet that challenge.

About 50 years ago, most men completed high school but only a small percentage attended college. Modernization and industrialization were well established and a substantial percentage of men were “organization men” who worked for large companies. The median age of first marriage had fallen to just under 23—about the lowest it would be during the 20th Century—and young families aspired to move up the social ladder and live in the suburbs.

Today, an overwhelming majority of guys complete high school and about half start college promptly. The industrial age has passed in favor of the information age (or services age, if you prefer), and the recent recession devastated many “traditionally male” industries. The median age of first marriage has climbed to nearly 28, and there are approximately 2.7 million single-father households, a 900% increase since 1960.

It’s very clear that men have changed repeatedly, adapting to the culture around them.

When I hear people say that men haven’t changed or can’t change, it makes me think their knowledge of gender–especially masculinity–is limited to their personal experience. It’s very clear that men have changed repeatedly, adapting to the culture around them.

I’m not surprised when people tell me men can’t or won’t change. There are few opportunities to learn about masculinity in the structured setting of a classroom. I don’t think there are any textbooks or resources for middle or high school aged boys, but I could be wrong. A fair number of colleges and universities offer a course on masculinity, but very few offer more than one and I don’t think there’s any place where you can major in it. The University of South Australia is expected to admit the first students into a graduate program focused on men in 2014; they’ll be followed by Stony Brook University in 2015.

Ironically, most of my friends and colleagues that teach men’s courses say their enrollment is often 75% female. Or higher. Those young women routinely tell their professors that their male friends ask what they’re talking about in the course and occasionally read the material.

For contrast, consider that nearly every college or university in the US offers coursework in Women’s Studies (WS), typically contributing to a minor if not a major course of study. Many institutions offer graduate degrees as well, both at the Master’s and Doctoral levels.

If our goal is to understand gender in its entirely, feminine, masculine, gender-queer, and others, then we need to do a better job of studying both men and masculinity. I’m making a somewhat–but not entirely artificial–distinction between the group typically defined by the biological presence of one X and one Y chromosome (men) and the cultural standards this group is expected to live up to that can be invoked by expressions like “man up” (masculinity). These definitions aren’t perfect, and that’s one of the reasons we need a systematic approach to understanding them.

Studying and teaching about men would provide a means for helping challenge stereotypes about men while also educating people about effective ways to be mentors to boys and men.

This is about more than the pursuit of knowledge. WS programs routinely include a component of activism, for both faculty and students. It’s not unusual to hear WS faculty talking about empowering students so the students see themselves as more competent and capable of going out and changing the world.

Studying and teaching about men would provide a means for helping challenge stereotypes about men while also educating people about effective ways to be mentors to boys and men. Given the nearly perpetual concern about a “boy crisis” or “masculinity crisis,” greater understanding of exactly what the problem is and what’s causing it would provide more effective solutions. Alternately, if these crises are nothing more than overblown responses to cultural change, they would more readily be understood as smoke-without-fire.

Coursework would also help guys understand gender more broadly, including the ways it intersects with factors like ethnicity and social class. As feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, the system known as Patriarchy requires that both men and women follow its rules in order to maximize their benefits. Women (and girls) have learned a variety of techniques and created networks to challenge this system; this is most obvious in the increasingly female face of medicine and law, micro-business and micro-credit programs to support women’s small businesses (domestically and abroad), and things like grrrrl power.

Yet men are also bound by this same system, as both masculist Warren Farrell and feminist RaeWyn (aka Robert) Connell have pointed out. To use Connell’s framework (and my own set of adolescent examples), men are stratified across four broad levels: those who adhere to the “hegemonic” form that is idealized within that society (“jocks”), those who don’t quite measure up but are complicit in supporting this form (“average Joes”), those who are subordinated (“nerds”), and those who are marginalized (“druggies”). Understanding why these particular groups are given the social clout they have, or don’t have, helps develop ways to change the system.

Paralleling the Women’s Centers that exist on many campuses, Men’s Centers could also be beneficial. Providing resources that would facilitate conversations about gender–but focused on men and masculinity–makes sense. Similarly, providing or facilitating services for male survivors of sexual assault without stigmatizing them would certainly help that segment of the student population.

To me, the greater need is the less visible role that Center directors often provide: an individual on campus who can consult with other professionals to ensure that their programs meaningfully consider the unique needs of men when designing services.

The goal here is not to create a series of programs that oppose Women’s Studies programs or counter the work of Women’s Centers. Like courses in sexuality and GLBTQ centers, the goal is to enhance the campus environment and educational offerings by making sure that all groups are represented. In some areas, cooperation would likely be easy and straightforward; in other areas, it would be more difficult.

If we want to create a society where gender equality is the norm, then we need to gain a better understanding of men and masculinity. Although most American men under 50 believe that a woman should not be denied access to educational or occupational opportunities because of her gender, many of them resist large-scale cultural changes because they don’t have a framework for how to think about masculinity and lack knowledge of other gender systems. It’s time to fix that.

-photo by but a stranger/flickr