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What Is Masculinity and How Do Psychologists Measure It?

A serious examination of the role of masculinity in sexual and gun violence.

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Examining masculinity from a psychological standpoint provides an opportunity to isolate factors that contribute to sexual and gun violence and men’s poorer health. Psychology distinguishes biological sex (being male, female, or intersex) from socio-psychological gender (referring to masculinity, femininity, as well as various non-binary identities). In my forthcoming book The Tough Standard, co-authored with Shana Pryor1, we define masculinity as a set of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are generally considered to be appropriate for boys and men; importantly, it also includes those that are considered inappropriate for boys and men, against which it has drawn a bright line.

It is often considered to be a set of beliefs that individuals hold, which are based on socio-cultural ideologies regarding gender. Masculinity is, therefore, a social construction distinct from male biological sex. Definitions of masculinity vary across different cultures and historical periods. Both males and females can perform masculinity and femininity.

As a result, masculinity is not "hard-wired" due to genes and hormones, and it is not essential nor inescapable for boys and men. Boys and men can retain their gender identities without conforming their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to masculine norms. Considering masculinity from a psychological perspective offers us a great opportunity as thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors are more amenable to change than genes and hormones. We wish to free boys and men from the perceived obligation to conform to masculine norms to both improve lives and benefit society.

Hybrid and inclusive masculinities

Although it is certainly not easy, it is possible for boys and men to opt to not conform to—by actively resisting — masculine norms, or to pick and choose which masculine norms to conform to and how they will conform. One form that this may take is “hybrid masculinities,” defined as privileged “men’s selective incorporation of performances and identity elements associated with marginalized and subordinated masculinities and femininities,” such as those of sexual minorities.

Another example is “inclusive masculinities.” Drawing on various male-oriented settings (e.g., sports teams, fraternities), scholars have argued that cultural homophobia is declining, with boys and young men shown to be comfortable in having close emotional ties and expressing physical affection to other males, having positive attitudes towards gay men, and even going so far as to stigmatize homophobic comments.

Traditional masculinity ideology

Despite this, there is one dominant set of masculinity beliefs in the U.S. that had reigned largely unopposed prior to the feminist movement of the late 1960s — traditional masculinity ideology (TMI). This dominant masculinity remains so deeply ingrained in US culture that all boys and men, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other dimension of diversity, must contend with it at some level. TMI refers to the cultural beliefs regarding the norms that inform and sustain men’s masculinity practices.

TMI is operationally defined and measured in several closely related scales — we’ll discuss three here. The foundational version of a TMI scale, developed by the psychologist David Brannon, is the Brannon Masculinity Scale (BMS), which specified four norms: That men should not be feminine ("No Sissy Stuff"); that men should strive to be respected for successful achievement ("The Big Wheel"); that men should never show weakness ("The Sturdy Oak"); and that men should seek adventure and risk, even accepting violence if necessary ("Give 'em Hell").

A current version — the Male Role Norms Inventory-Short Form (MRNI-SF) ­— that I developed with my colleagues at Boston University in the late 1980s, specifies seven norms: Avoidance of Femininity, Negativity Toward Sexual Minorities, Self-Reliance Through Mechanical Skills, Toughness, Dominance, Importance of Sex, and Restrictive Emotionality. Our goal was to improve on the BMS by developing a scale through an exhaustive literature review to determine the major masculine norms. With this scale and its successors, we studied how masculinity varied by subcultures in the US and across other nations, as well as its connection to a host of harmful outcomes, including sexual and physical violence and poor health behaviors.

The BMS, MRNI-SF, and other similar scales are measures of TMI. They ask respondents to indicate to what extent they agree or disagree (from strongly agree to strongly disagree) with statements about how men ought or ought not to think, feel, and behave on scales ranging from 0 to 4 or 1 to 7. A sample item from the MRNI-SF is “men should be detached in emotionally charged situations.”

Another widely used scale measures the extent to which participants conform to traditional masculine norms, the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI) developed by Jim Mahalik and colleagues. Instead of assessing beliefs, as does the MRNI-SF, the CMNI assesses self-concept. The original CMNI specified 11 norms: Winning, Emotional Control, Risk-Taking, Violence, Dominance, Playboy, Self-Reliance, Primacy of Work, Power over Women, Disdain for Homosexuality, and Pursuit of Status. A sample item is “taking dangerous risks helps me to prove myself.”

Biological sex vs. gender

There is a misconception held by many in our society that masculinity is synonymous with being male. In fact, few people may realize that biological sex is different from one’s gender performance. Traditionally, it was thought that there was an inherent need for men to conform to a set of norms that dictate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, there is no evidence to support the view that there is some biologically driven need for men to conform to norms of masculinity.

In actuality, psychological science has determined that masculinity is socially constructed and is a reflection of the views that society has on how men should behave. Additionally, research has found that there is no “one way” to do masculinity. Indeed, masculinity can look different depending on one’s different identities such as gender identity (gender-conforming vs. gender-nonconforming), race, sexual orientation, age-cohort, and ethnicity.

Psychological researchers have been measuring and studying masculinity for decades. A multitude of scales such as the BMS, MRNI, CMNI, and others have been created that highlight the norms that society dictates men should adhere to, such as aggressiveness, dominance, restrictive emotionality, power over women, and negativity towards sexual minorities, just to name a few. Despite society's misconceptions about gender, men have more options than were previously realized. Men can opt for a more “hybrid” type of masculinity, or a kind of masculinity that is more inclusive to their own different identities. Today, we are advocating for a man’s right to pick and choose what kind of man he wants to be.


[1] An excerpt from Levant, R. F., & Pryor, S. (2020). The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths about Masculinity and Violence. New York: Oxford University Press. Forthcoming.

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