By Luke Morales
Around the world, more negative attitudes are held toward gay men than lesbian women (Bettinsoli et al., 2019). “Attitudes toward sexual minorities are robustly related to beliefs about the gender system” (Bettinsoli et al., 2019, p. 697), and gender systems are influenced by gender norms. Perhaps taking a look how gender norms interact with cultural mythologies can give some insight into why this is. A gender system can be defined as a “system of economic, social, cultural, and political structures that sustain and reproduce distinctive gender roles” (European Institute for Gender Equality, n.d.). Gender norms, according to a 2019 study exploring the attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women in 23 countries, are “widely shared societal and cultural beliefs distinguishing personality traits, behaviors, and interests as appropriate and desirable for either men or women but not both” (Bettinsoli et al., 2019, p. 697). The same study found that “there was no country where men or women reported more negative attitudes toward lesbian women compared to gay men” (Bettinsoli et al., 2019, p. 701), and that attitudes toward gay men were mostly influenced by male responses. Why are gay men seen under this more critical lens? More specifically, why are men (when compared with women) the ones with higher rates of disapproval toward gay men?
A study examining manhood as an elusive and tenuous social status could provide an answer. In many cultures, the transition to manhood from boyhood is one that must be earned, not given (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Once earned, however, manhood “can be lost relatively easily via social transgressions and shortcomings” (Bosson & Vandello, 2011, p. 82). The structure of manhood imposed by gender norms onto men creates what can be called “precarious manhood,” which is a gender status difficult to earn and easy to lose (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Historically, women haven’t had the same requirements of proof to maintain womanhood, so a woman’s status as such will not be challenged as readily as a man’s status will (Bosson & Vandello, 2011).
Two perspectives from the study offer explanations for the precariousness of manhood when compared with that of womanhood. One perspective, from an evolutionary standpoint, discusses how this precariousness may be reflective of the social environment in which men traditionally competed, using dominance, for female mates (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Men have evolved with the mindset to maintain social status and to respond to threats to this status because ancestral men with these qualities were more successful at attracting mates (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Another theory focuses more on social roles: men have historically occupied social roles that involve seeking status and resources, and so manhood has become associated with competitiveness, defensiveness, and the constant proving of worth and status (Bosson & Vandello, 2011).
Manhood as a social status, when combined with gender norms, works to prescribe behaviors that fuel a heteronormative system. Thus, men and women conforming to gender norms are seen as complements to one another, and therefore, heterosexual coupling seems normal. When a lesbian woman partners with another woman, though not necessarily conforming to the social standards of gender, there isn’t as much of a threat in relation to womanhood because, as mentioned earlier, womanhood as a status hasn’t historically been one that has had to be proven by women. When a gay man becomes with partner, however, he is neither conforming to masculinity nor gender, and as a result, his social status as a man is partially lost in the eyes of other, heteronormative men.
The relationship between precarious manhood and honor offers us a further look into the active demonstration of manhood status. Honor, in this sense, is about men’s willingness to protect their reputations—and that of their family—with violence if necessary, and about the strength and power a man has to enforce his will on others (Bosson & Vandello, 2011; Vandello and Cohen, 2003). Within cultures that place a strong importance on honor, manhood and honor are closely related (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). One example lies in the relationship between husband and wife: if a wife brings dishonor, it is the husband’s job to guard and control her behavior, because forfeiting honor is the equivalent to forfeiting manhood (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Again, this example perpetuates the idea that heteronormative relationships are the societal norm, and that a husband’s dominance over his wife—and male dominance over women in general—is the standard. There is no situation, at least in societies where manhood is associated with current gender norms, where a gay man can maintain the same level of honor as a heteronormative man: it inherently makes a gay man seem “less manly.” Additionally, “because manhood is a status that must be actively demonstrated, the study proposes that men and women differ in how they view, interpret, and use action and physical aggression” (Bosson & Vandello, 2011, p. 82). The societal expectation for active demonstration of manhood explains why men are likelier to be both targets and perpetrators of sexual prejudice (Bettinsoli et al., 2019)—a kind of paradox.
To test the relationships between manhood and honor, researchers examining precarious manhood and its links to action and aggression asked participants from an honor culture (Brazil) and a non-honor culture (U.S.) to read a scenario about a wife who was unfaithful to her husband. Brazilian respondents rated the man as less manly and honorable when his wife was unfaithful (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Furthermore, if the “husband retaliated by hitting (versus yelling at) his wife, Americans saw him as less manly and honorable, but Brazilians saw him as slightly more manly, because this aggressive display restored his honor” (Bosson & Vandello, 2011, p. 85).
Societal acceptance of male aggression brings to question traditional masculinity ideology. Coined as “toxic masculinity” by many scholars and activists, traditional masculinity ideology consists of “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” (American Psychological Association, 2018, pp. 2-3). This ideology has reported links to homophobia (including the critical lens gay men are seen through when compared with lesbian women), bullying, sexual harassment, and misogyny (American Psychological Association, 2018). The American Psychological Association recently warned that traditional masculinity ideology “has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental health and physical health” (American Psychological Association, 2018, p. 3).
The recognition from the APA of traditional masculinity ideology is important to note because, though men may benefit from their social power, it highlights that they are also confined by system-level policies and practices necessary to maintain male privilege (American Psychological Association, 2018). One guideline proposed for psychologists who deal with men’s issues, which should also be applied to general populations, is recognizing that masculinities are constructed based on social and cultural norms (American Psychological Association, 2018). The recognition of masculinities as socially constructed is the first step in working toward changing said social construction to one which doesn’t define a man by his most toxic and mundane characteristics: dominance, competitiveness, muscle mass, emotional (in)vulnerability, and self-reliance. We must also “understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men and on their relationships with others” (American Psychological Association, 2018, p. 9). By doing so, we can work toward reducing the high rates of problems men face and act out in their lives such as aggression, substance abuse, and suicide (American Psychological Association, 2018).
Applying APA guidelines to worldwide psychological curriculums, especially in relation to honor cultures, such as Latin and South American cultures with Iberian roots (Vandello & Cohen, 2003), could prove beneficial to reworking what defines masculinities. With different, healthier ways of defining and describing masculinities, societies can work toward eliminating problematic gender norms, improving men’s mental and physical well-being, and fostering better inter- and intragender relations. Additionally, working toward changing the norms associated with gender and masculinities can act as models for working toward changing and optimizing other socially constructed aspects of current world cultures, including race theories, class, language, economics, and law, allowing for the constant progression toward equity worldwide.
American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018). APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. http://www.apa.org/about/policy/psychological-practice-boys-men-guidelin...
Bettinsoli, M. L., Suppes, A., & Napier, J. L. (2020). Predictors of attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women in 23 countries. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(5), 697–708. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550619887785
Bosson, J. K., & Vandello, J. A. (2011). Precarious manhood and its links to action and aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 82–86. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411402669
European Institute for Gender Equality. (n.d.). Gender system. https://eige.europa.eu/thesaurus/terms/1225
Vandello, Joseph & Cohen, Dov. (2003). Male honor and female fidelity: Implicit cultural scripts that perpetuate domestic violence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84, 997–1010. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527