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Self-Esteem

How Much Does a Man's Masculinity Matter?

Basing one's self-worth upon masculinity can result in increased prejudice.

Key points

  • When a portion of our self-worth depends on an element of our identity, we refer to this as a "contingency" of self-worth.
  • Masculinity-contingent self-worth is the degree to which someone measures their self-worth based on how well their adhere to societal expectations of men and masculinity.
  • Threatening the masculinity of men with high masculinity-contingent self-worth contributes to negative attitudes towards transgender people, according to new research.
  • Revaluing femininity so that it is not something that men need to shun in themselves and others may reduce prejudice against individuals who transgress gender norms.

This article was co-authored with Trent University LGBTQ Psychology Student, Abigail McBride.

What Are Contingencies of Self-Worth?

Are there certain aspects of your identity that are particularly important to you? Perhaps some aspect that if it were removed, you’d have a more challenging time defining your own personal sense of self-worth? The notion that our sense of self-worth can depend upon or be very closely linked to various other aspects of our lives, such as features of our identity or social roles that we fulfill, is referred to as contingencies of self-worth. In other words, your self-worth may be contingent upon your role as a mother, the quality of your relationship or friendships, or another important aspect of your identity. Recently, researchers have been exploring the role that masculinity can play in determining individuals’ sense of self-worth and have thus coined the term “masculinity-contingent self-worth.”

Masculinity-contingent self-worth refers to the extent to which an individual, usually a man, measures his degree of personal worthiness based upon the extent to which he adheres to societal expectations of men and masculinity. For the most part, this is conceived of as "hegemonic masculinity" or the type of masculinity that is associated with being dominant, abrasive, heterosexual, and at all times, the antithesis of femininity. Masculinity theorists, such as Connell and Pascoe, have suggested that hegemonic masculinity is the standard expectation for all men and that to stray from the confines of this type of masculinity is to risk social exclusion.

Why Is Femininity in Men Shunned?

 Cottonbro/ Pexels.
If femininity in men were generally more accepted, would it, therefore, be seen as less of a threat to masculinity?
Source: Cottonbro/ Pexels.

A particularly important element of hegemonic masculinity and its connection to masculinity-contingent self-worth is the repudiation of femininity, or in other words, the embodiment of femmephobic principles. One of the simplest ways for men to confirm and convey their own "manliness" to others is to ensure that they strip themselves of any indication of femininity. When men do demonstrate traits that can be considered feminine, they risk their status in society. However, according to theories of contingent self-worth, not everyone will place the same degree of importance on each aspect of identity. Thus, men can vary in the degree to which their self-worth is contingent upon upholding traditional masculinity. This means that some men may be very low in hegemonic masculinity but still have high self-worth if they do not consider their self-worth to be contingent upon adhering to masculine social norms.

New Research Explores Masculinity-Contingent Self-Worth and Transprejudice

To explore the influence of masculinity-contingent self-worth on the treatment of outgroups, a recent study by Ching (2021) published in Psychology & Sexuality examined how men reacted to having their sense of masculinity threatened, and how their reactions varied based on the extent to which their self-worth was rooted in their masculinity. The author theorized that for men who place great value in being masculine, the experience of having their masculinity threatened would cause them to lash out in ways that are intended to reaffirm their masculinity. In particular, the author wondered how levels of transprejudice might vary among men high and low in masculinity-contingent self-worth after having their masculinity threatened.

Transprejudice is the devaluation and disapproval of those who identify as transgender and/or who do not conform to the gender binary. The need to assert masculinity can lead men to not only reaffirm their own masculinity but also denigrate anything that they view as a transgression of masculinity or masculine norms in others. To this extent, trans women can be viewed as inherently transgressing the norms of masculinity by perceived voluntarily transitioning from embodiments of masculinity (maleness) to femininity (femaleness). The goal of Ching’s study was to explore how men’s transprejudice might vary as both a function of their individual degree of masculinity-contingent self-worth and their experience of having their masculinity either affirmed or threatened.

In the study, participants first completed a set of measures, including one assessing their masculinity-contingent self-worth and a measure of their levels of masculinity and femininity. The participants were then randomly assigned to receive one of three different types of bogus feedback about their own masculinity. One group of participants was informed that they had scored above average for masculinity, the second was told they had average masculinity scores and the third group – the masculinity threat group – was told that their masculinity scores were below average.

After receiving the feedback, the participants began participating in what they believed was a second, unrelated study, in which their attitudes towards other groups were measured, including their attitudes towards trans people. If the experience of having masculinity threatened is likely to lead men to lash out against others, especially those who transgress gender norms, then the men in the group who were told their masculinity was below average should later report the highest levels of transprejudice. However, if masculinity-contingent self-worth was also important, then this relationship should only appear for men who placed more weight on their masculinity when determining their own self-worth.

What Happens When a Man's Masculinity Is Threatened?

The results of the study confirmed Ching’s hypotheses. Overall, all men who received the false feedback that their masculinity scores were below average, or in other words, had their masculinity threatened, demonstrated higher levels of transprejudice. This effect was, however, particularly strong among the men who also placed greater value on their masculinity in terms of their masculinity-contingent self-worth.

The researchers also explored two different types of masculinity-contingent self-worth, one in which men are particularly sensitive to having their masculinity threatened, such that when it is threatened, their self-worth goes down. The other explored the extent to which men experience a boost in self-worth when their masculinity is affirmed. In theory, it is possible for men to only experience the “boost” form of masculinity-contingent self-worth. In Ching’s study, men who were only high in this “boost” form of masculinity-contingent self-worth did not show the same heightened degree of transprejudice upon having their masculinity threatened. In other words, it is possible to have one’s self-worth improved by affirmations of masculinity without also being overly sensitive to threats to masculinity.

“When a sense of manhood was under threat, men with higher levels of the threat aspect of masculinity-contingent self-worth displayed particularly strong negative attitudes towards transgender people and showed less support for transgender rights. By contrast, men who did not stake their self-esteem on masculinity were not affected.”

Ching’s findings add to the growing body of literature suggesting that a societal revaluation of femininity – particularly the ability of men to venture into the realm of femininity – could play a significant role in the reduction of prejudice. In particular, if men felt less pressure to repudiate femininity in all of its forms, specifically within their own identities, the notion of threatening their masculinity would be greatly reduced, thereby reducing the subsequent need to lash out at others who transgress societal gender norms.

References

Türkoğlu, B., & Sayılan, G. (2021). How is masculinity ideology related to transprejudice in Turkey: the mediatory effect of femmephobia. Psychology & Sexuality, 1-15.

Ching, B. H. H. (2021). The Effect of Masculinity Threat on Transprejudice: Influence of Different Aspects of Masculinity Contingent Self-Worth. Psychology & Sexuality.

Pascoe, C. J. (2011). Dude, you're a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Univ of California Press.

Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829-859.

Hoskin, R. A. (2019). Femmephobia: The role of anti-femininity and gender policing in LGBTQ+ people’s experiences of discrimination. Sex Roles, 81(11), 686-703.

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