Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Yes, Men's Studies. You Got A Problem With That?

Gender Roles, Parenting, Mental Health, Sexuality, Violence, Social JusticeAndrew Smiler

A few weeks ago, the New York Times pondered “A Master’s Degree in…Masculinity?” The headline itself suggests the NYT is not convinced this is a good idea. Placing the article, written by Jessica Bennett, in the Fashion & Style section implies this might be a passing fad, not an ongoing scholarly pursuit.

Programs designed to better understand men and disseminate that knowledge are long overdue.

Readers answered the question, offering more than 750 responses so quickly that the paper reprinted some of them on Monday. Some were in favor, others opposed, and yet others were guarded about the idea.

Quite frankly, programs designed to better understand men and disseminate that knowledge are long overdue. A growing number of academics agree, joining organizations such as the American Men’s Studies Association and the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity. Their work, and the work of many others, supports at least seven academic journals devoted to the study of boys, men, and masculinity.

Men’s Studies could have a broad impact, as illustrated by a few simple statistics. Males are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorders at least four times more often than females, commit 90% of homicides—includingalmost all mass shootings–and make up 75% of homicide victims, and are four times more likely to complete a suicide attempt. Men typically defer seeing a doctor until they are very sick, leading to more expensive treatments and a lower likelihood of full recovery. A better understanding of men and their needs might change this.

Research shows that most men do not fit our stereotypical notions or engage in these behaviors, despite near constant encouragement to do so that starts in boyhood.

Some people argue these behaviors are inherent to being male, that being XY instead of XX leads to these behaviors. Yet research shows that most men do not fit our stereotypical notions or engage in these behaviors, despite near constant encouragement to do so that starts in boyhood. The reality is that most men quietly go about the business of being male without ever throwing a punch, trying to have a horde of sexual partners, or being a jerk.

Men’s studies isn’t just about changing the statistics. It also sheds light on the current generation of fathers, many of whom are trying to be more involved and connected than their fathers were. Men’s studies can help us understand who these men are and why they do it. Despite decades of efforts to recruit male teachers and nurses, men still make up small minorities in these fields. Men’s studies can explain why. Attending to men would help us understand the plight of the approximately 40% of boys and men who are sexually assaulted or raped, giving us responses better than Bill Maher’s “that’s not getting raped, that’s getting lucky.”

Men, or at least heterosexual white men, are often positioned as the enemy. Feminists (and others) have long recognized that these men are also trapped by the patriarchal system, but that message has yet to reach men. Perhaps it’s the stigma of listening to women or taking a women’s studies course, perhaps it’s because questioning the definition of masculinity is considered un-manly, and perhaps it’s because our culture is not yet convinced that men have “gender.” Or maybe it’s because men are supposed to get degrees in “practical” fields that will lead to high-paying jobs in order to support a family, not degrees in areas that might enhance their personal well-being.

Taught to compete in every realm, become a breadwinner, and follow the rules, many men can only understand race-based hiring as reverse discrimination.

Without a men’s movement to explain it, and with only a small number of men’s studies courses and activists, how can men understand the way cultural prescriptions of being a “real man” shape their behavior? Lacking a conceptual framework or socially acceptable alternatives, men defend the only role they have. And so they engage in extensive online trolling and harassment of female activists,blame women’s menstruation for …whatever, and otherwise impede women’s societal progress. For some men, like the Isla Vista shooter, this means killing women.

The lack of understanding impacts racial attitudes as well. Taught to compete in every realm, become a breadwinner, and follow the rules, many men can only understand race-based hiring as reverse discrimination.Homicide is one result, as is the absurd scenario of three white male students filing a racial discrimination caseagainst their black professor after a class on structural racism.

Men’s studies is the missing piece.

At the cultural level, we accept the need for programs that study women, sexual minority members (LGTBQ), and specific ethnic minority groups (African American, Native American, etc.). All these are positioned as “corrective” to mainstream courses that focus exclusively on white heterosexual men. Programs typically engage in, or at least encourage, efforts to create change. Without complementary programs to study men and masculinity, these programs are necessarily limited. Men’s studies is the missing piece.

-photo by Quinn Dombrowski/flickr used under Creative Commons 2.0 license