What does Positive Psychology tell us about positive masculinity and how it relates to femininity and sexuality? Bridget Grenville-Cleave wondered the same thing, asking, Dare We Let Boys Be Boys?. My curiosity led me to check in with Brianna Booth, MAPP graduate and doctoral student in Human Sexuality at Widener University. Brianna works in a field she calls Sexual Well-being at the intersection of the Positive Psychology and Human Sexuality fields. She helped me sharpen my interest in the concept of male identity, which led me through the men’s movement of the 80’s and 90’s, to the work of psychologist and author Christopher Blazina, and to Roy Baumeister’s provocative article about what there is that is good about men.The Men’s Movement
The “men’s movement” emerged in the 1980’s as a complementary counterpart to the feminist movement. It explored the different roles men play and identities that men hold. Like the feminist movement, it was not simply psychological. Works by writers such as Robert Bly, John Eldredge, Sam Keene, John Gray, and Robert Moore were also sociological, philosophical, political, and even environmental, spiritual, and mythological. The movement offered alternatives to traditional male role models exemplified by John Wayne and Gary Cooper.
As helpful as the men’s movement is, it seems more involved in advocacy than concerned with empirical research. Many authors promote their own specific views of masculinity rather than support an individual’s search for his own masculinity. From my own exploration, I haven’t found much descriptive research into how men see themselves as men and how these perceptions affect men as well as boys. We do not know enough about male identity.
The Ten Myths of Growing Up Male
Psychologist Christopher Blazina tells a story about one of his counseling clients who finally said in frustration, “Look, can we just cut to the chase? Can you tell me how I am supposed to be as a man?”
In his recent book, Blazina explains that many men operate under a set of misunderstandings about what men are supposed to be. These misunderstandings are inadvertently taught and enforced mainly by men. He sums them up in what he calls the ten commandments of growing up male, myths that permeate our society.
- There is only one way to be a man.
- Fear the feminine.
- Men must funnel all their feelings into sex or aggression.
- Affection is always associated with sex.
- Boy society is based on power, strength, and paranoia.
- A boy needs a male role model or his sense of being a man is flawed.
- If your father is rejecting, you must learn to please him.
- If you don’t please your mother, you must marry someone like her.
- Being a man is a 24/7 job.
- A man must follow the commandments even if it causes him to be emotionally stunted or leads him off track.
These myths are contradictory, confusing, and demand that men conform to an unachievable standard that overlooks the nuances of men as individuals. Following the commandments, men generally concede that they can’t live up to society’s definition of masculinity. Blazina argues that once we recognize the way that the commandments dictate our lives, we can rewrite them to reflect our unique positive identities.Provider, Protector, Progenitor
Throughout his book, Blazina makes two core assertions. The first is that men and women are more alike than they are different. The second is that there is no one way to be a man. The feminist movement helped establish this fact for women. It now sounds strange to ask what a “real woman” is. The same should be true for masculine identity, but as a society we still seem to have more rigid expectations for men.
Blazina draws on anthropologist David Gilmore’s research into what is considered masculine across cultures. Gilmore groups traditional roles of males in most cultures under the three P’s: protector, provider, and progenitor. Masculinity is often defined within a culture as a man’s ability to achieve all three roles.
The three Ps are not inherently destructive. However, they do cause boys and men to question whether they have what it takes to act in these roles. Blazina sees these role standards as a checklist in which a man either succeeds or fails. Significant psychological angst can occur if a boy or man concludes that he doesn’t measure up.
The View from Society as a WholeNoted psychologist Roy Baumeister points out that men dominate both the top and bottom of the social ladder. The large majority of our top CEOs, scientists, and politicians are men, but so are the majority of prisoners and homeless. Baumeister argues that
“The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring. The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.”
Positive Perspective: Looking Forward
But this is a view of society as a whole, not one focused on the well-being of individuals. If we shift our view to individual well-being, how can boys and men define their own positive and achievable roles in reference to their male self-identity?
Blazina contends that a man’s identity must evolve as he ages. An athlete will need to redefine himself when his physical skills decline. A businessman will need to redefine his role when he retires. Additionally, Blazina recommends that we replace our notion of traditional male role models with the concept of guardians, male or female, who can support a boy’s development of a healthy, authentic sense of self. Boys and men need guardians throughout their lives as their roles change and as they face new challenges in what it means to be men.
Blazina has a vision of a man’s sense of his own masculinity as “a common tie that binds all his responsibilities and endeavors [. . .] a rich resource, bolstering who he is every step of the way along life’s journey.”
My question is how we, both as members of society and as adherents of positive psychology, can arrive at this point. What do we still need to learn from research to better embody positive concepts of masculinity in our personal lives?
Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Is There Anything Good About Men? Invited address to the American Psychological Association.
Blazina, C. (2008). The Secret Lives of Men: What Men Want You to Know About Love, Sex, and Relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Bly, R. (1990). Iron John: A Book About Men. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
Eldredge, J. (2003). Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
Gilmore, D. (1990). Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Gray, J. (1992). Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex. New York: Harper Collins.
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2010). Dare We Let Boys Be Boys? Positive Masculinity and Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology News.
Keen, S. (1992). Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. New York: Random House.
Moore, R. (1991). King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. New York: HarperCollins.