Sexism is to blame for a lot of things that harm women, from the wage gap to violence against women. But a new study suggests something researchers have been alluding to for a while—toxic masculinity and sexism is bad for men too.
The groundbreaking research conducted by Indiana University Bloomington concluded that men who fall into certain stereotypically masculine behaviors have "poorer mental health and less favorable attitudes towards seeking psychological help." The researchers synthesized the results of 78 studies that spanned nearly 20,000 participants and looked at how conforming to traditionally masculine behaviors affected mental-health in men and the likelihood of seeking professional help with mental health concerns.
Researchers looked at eleven different norms they believed best reflected what society sees as "traditionally masculine." Out of the 11 traits and behaviors—which included disdain for homosexuality, primacy of work, self-reliance, sexual promiscuity, power over women, and risk-taking—most showed some association to negative mental health. Out of all 11, three showed the strongest link to negative mental health outcomes: sexual promiscuity, self-reliance, and power over women.
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Speaking to Broadly, the study's lead author Joel Wong says the results weren't necessarily shocking. "It supports and confirms research done in the last 60 years that people who conform to masculinity have poor mental health." However, some of the results did prove to be interesting findings—the relationship between mental health and masculinity varied depending on the stereotypically masculine trait. One example that stood out to Wong was the relationship between primacy of work (meaning, putting a strong importance on work) and mental health. "That was not correlated with any of the mental health outcomes at all."
Professor Andrea Davis, chair of the Department of Humanities at York University in Toronto echoes Wong's suggestions that the results of this study aren't particularly shocking. Speaking to Broadly, Davis says, "It shows that the performance of masculinity means that any sign of 'weakness' erases the facade that has been so carefully built up over time." Not only that, but it may also show how sexism and stereotypes about masculinity can almost act as a response to different kinds of stress that men experience. "Because men are supposed to have access to power, men who don't have access to those markers of power or even the traditional markers of masculinity might overcompensate by seeking to exercise power over women." To Davis, in a wider sense this also shows that society's understanding of masculinity might not be quite right.
But could men also act in stereotypically masculine ways because there is some benefit to them? When asked whether or not men who are sexually promiscuous at this way because it somehow benefits men, Wong says based on science, "The evidence from the research does not support the benefits of behaving this way."
However, what is most concerning from the new research isn't only that acting like an asshole doesn't benefit men—it may stop them from seeking out crucial treatment for mental health concerns. According to both Davis and Wong there's plenty society can do to help dismantle what we consider traditionally masculine behavior.
"I think it's possible to challenge and dismantle these norms." Wong says. "Two things: one, individuals and people do change and two, norms change over time. So that as a gender principle gives us hope." How do you go about doing that? First if more women and men challenged these norms. One example that gave him hope was the pushback against Donald Trump's sexist comments during the election cycle. "Things that were widely considered sexist had pushback. And it didn't just come from people but his allies were critical of those behaviors of things that were said."
Davis explains that, first, we need to acknowledge that masculinity in itself is a construct. "I think men who are self aware and want to change that pattern can, by acknowledging this," she says. Also, she adds that a wider discussion about gender, sexuality and masculinity need to reach the forefront of society: "We [society] haven't done a very good job in challenging sexism and the normative understandings of gender relationships."
Most importantly, Davis believes an intersectional way of thinking about societal issues can facilitate wider discussions, saying, "We have to talk more about this struggle and the ways gender intersects with race and class and make space for thinking through all of those issues."