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What is it that makes a man masculine asks Glen Poole?
Last week we explored the Seven Stages of Masculinity that men experience at different stages of life and history. But what creates these different stages of masculinity? Is it good old mother nature or the nurture of the "man's world" we live in?
If you view masculinity from an integral perspective then there a four distinct forces that shape your masculinity:
- Your biology
- Your psychology
- The cultures you inhabit
- The society you live in
These four distinct forces interact at every stage of masculinity to shape your experience of being a man. In simple terms biology and psychology represent the forces of nature while society and culture represent the forces of nurture. The importance your place on each of these four forces will be governed by the side you take in the nature vs nurture debate? Or maybe you don't take sides, maybe you believe that masculinity is a bio-psycho-socio-cultural construct.......!?
THE BIOLOGY OF MASCULINITY
Maleness is formed at a biological level in the XY sex chromosomes found in every cell of our bodies. The small proportion of men born with an XXY chromosome are less masculine in a variety of ways---they have less testosterone, smaller testes, less public hair, less facial hair, a lower sex drive, are less muscular, may have man boobs and can be shy and lack confidence in childhood.
By contrast, children with the condition congenital adrenal hyperplasia are exposed to higher levels of male sex hormones such as testosterone. Boys with the condition can enter puberty early leading to increased body hair and an enlarged penis at an early age, while girls with the condition may have unusual looking genitalia (such as an enlarged clitoris) and a tendency towards more masculine behaviours such as a preference for playing with “boys' toys”.
The impact of biological factors like chromosomes and hormones on our masculinity has been observed by researchers studying the journals of men undergoing testosterone replacement. What they discovered was that as men’s testosterone levels rose they used fewer words in their journals and wrote less about people and more about objects.
The apparent masculine interest in objects, more than people, has also been observed at a neurological level. According to Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) Theory the female brain is more often hard-wired for empathy while the male brain is more often hard-wired for understanding and building systems.
THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF MASCULINITY
The nature of masculinity changes over time in parallel with the common social systems that define a culture or historical era. In the agricultural age, for example, the invention of the plough revolutionized food production. The plough relied heavily on male upper body strength and required men to work away from their family while women stayed close to home. To this day the hard-working dad and the stay-at-home are still recognized as archetypal masculine and feminine roles.
As countries evolve from agrarian to industrial to post-industrial systems of economic production, the nature of masculinity and femininity also evolves. In modern industrial nations, women can reach the top of their field by adopting masculine traits. As post-modern, post-industrial nations emerge, feminine skills become more valued as we explored in our post: 10 reasons more male graduates end up jobless.
It is no coincidence that the UK’s modernist, industrial Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was considered to be the “best man” in her Government while the U.S.A.’s post-modernist, post-industrial leader, Barack Obama, has been repeatedly described as the country’s first female president.
The laws that govern sex and gender are also part of the social systems that shape our masculinity. In countries where men and women have generous and equal parental leave rights, women earn more and men do more childcare.
Is this because the men in these countries are more feminine, nurturing and caring naturally, or is their masculinity being nurtured in a new direction by the country’s parental leave laws?
THE CULTURAL CONSTRUCTION OF MASCULINITY
The values and beliefs of the communities we are born into play a huge role in defining our masculinity. Last week we talked about the Seven Types of Masculinity. These stages can be observed at a collective level as cultures progress through seven distinct stages of development as follows:
- Cavemen and Cavewomen
- Rules and Roles
- Integral Men and Women
Each stage brings a new set of values and beliefs. For traditional “rules and roles” cultures, social order is preserved by men and women conforming to set norms that restrict expressions of masculinity and femininity within limited confines. In simple terms men (and their masculinity) rule the public realm and women (and their femininity) rule the private realm.
At the “explorer” stage of cultural evolution women are usually granted equal rights and equal opportunities with men in the public realm. As high-flying women like Margaret Thatcher show, women who learn to play by masculine rules can reach the very top, but for most women equality of outcome is not possible.
Explorer societies tend to be competitive and individualistic and are divided into the “haves” and the “have nots”. When “peacemaker” societies emerge, they have a strong focus on the “have nots” and the pursuit of equal outcomes. The public realm becomes increasingly less masculine (as do men and boys) and the social shift towards a post-industrial economy sees a rise in the value of feminine qualities like empathy. The “peacemaker” wave of cultural evolution also sees men having a greater role in the private realm with the emergence of the “househusband” and the “stay-at-home-dad”.
The dominant values and norms of the cultures we live in have a strong influence on our masculinity. It’s hard to imagine young men today, who are mostly at the explorer and peacemaker stages of masculinity, accepting mass conscription in the way millions of men did in 1914-1918, when most men and women were operating at the “rules and roles” stage of their masculinity and femininity.
Similarly, in peacemaker Scandanavian countries it has become the norm for men to share in the feminine, nurturing role of raising children and women to share in the masculine, provider role of providing a household income. It’s difficult to image men and women in 1914 sharing the roles of nurturer and provider. Of course many women did take on “men’s work” at home while men went to war, but when those men returned, men and women generally returned to their distinct nurturer and provider roles.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MASCULINITY
The psychology of masculinity is perhaps the most interesting aspect to explore as it is in our own psychological world that we experience being a man, being manly and being masculine. Our psychological world is where our gender identity is formed and where we personally experience the influence that biology, society and culture have in shaping our masculinity.
Some biological determinists see gender differences in society as being the result of men’s and women’s psychological preferences and choices. For social and cultural determinists, the choices and preferences men and women express at the micro level are the result of coercion at a macro level. For example, If we don’t give fathers equal rights and opportunities as parents through laws and policies at a macro level, then this will effect the preferences and choices that individual fathers make at the micro level.
So is our masculinity shaped entirely from the outside by the social norms and cultural values that surround us? Or is it our nature that makes us masculine with our male hormones and choromosomes and neuro-biology simply triggering characteristics that have evolved over millennia and are now deeply embedded in the male psyche?
According to the Psychologist Martin Seager who chaired the UK’s first male psychology conference last month, there are three ancient rules of masculinity that create the “male script” that shapes and informs our experience of being a man. These rules are:
- Men should be fighters and winners
- Men should be protectors and providers
- Men should retain mastery and control
It has also been argued that men and women evolve psychologically through three similar stages of development (ie egocentric, ethnocentric and worldcentric), albeit in a different masculine or feminine voice.
Masculine psychological development is driven by rights: i.e. my rights, our rights, everyone’s rights. Feminine psychological development is driven by care: i.e. my care, our care, everyone’s care.
As you consider whether your masculinity is shaped by nature or nurture you may also reflect on your own masculine and feminine development.
From a masculine perspective do you assert your own rights? Do you take a stand for the rights of people in the groups you belong to, e.g. your family, your country, your gender? Do you recognize the rights of all human beings?
From a feminine perspective do you make sure your needs are taken care of? Are you mindful of the needs of people in groups you belong to, e.g. your family, your country, your gender? Do you recognize the value in taking care of the needs of all human beings?
Finally, what do you think shapes masculinity? Is it the biological differences that make us male? Is it the social systems like technology, the economy and the laws that affect men’s lives? Is it the gender norms and values of the cultures we live in? Or is it all down to male psychology? We’d love to hear your experiences and beliefs about masculinity so please leave us a comment.
Written by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men