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When Is Masculinity Problematic?

New research probes how sex, intimacy, media and social forces shape masculinity

Masculinity is a more divisive topic nowadays than perhaps ever before, with strong voices decrying "toxic masculinity" and equally strong defenders of the faith. Some prefer the term “precocious masculinity” to reflect the imposition of beliefs and attitudes from society onto the self when boys are at an early stage of self-development, before they are able to appraise influences and give consent.

Underlying the cultural audit of masculinity taking place in the wake of countless revelations of abuse and harassment is an implication that traumatic and traumatizing notions of masculinity are passed from generation to generation via various mechanisms, including social learning. We can't condone violence–so poignant with Will Smith's assault on Chris Rock, dripping with traditional masculine norms and igniting a firestorm on social media–but we can try to understand the roots of problematic dynamics with hope for positive change.

How Men Learn Stereotypical Masculine Norms

According to Nielson, Ward, Seabrook and Giaccardi, in their recent article published in the Journal of Sex Research (2022), the mechanisms of intergenerational transmission of masculinity (not to mention other aspects of personality and identity organized around gender or otherwise), whether deemed constructive or destructive, are poorly understood.

They note that prior research has looked at single factors in isolation. Most studies of masculinity are of limited scope, for instance looking at a single slice in time rather than patterns over time. Studies suggest that men tend to lean on stoicism, eschewing emotional awareness and refraining from giving voice to feelings.

Masculine norms—including winning, dominance, emotional control, being a playboy, risk-taking, self-reliance, violence, primacy of work, power over women, pursuit of status and heterosexual self-presentation (measured with the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory)–have been shown piecemeal related to outcomes including sexual self-efficacy and capacity for close relationships. Nielsen and colleagues note that even men who do not hold these norms carefully track where they stand in relation to other men, aware of the risk of judgment for non-conformity. Likewise, more heterosexual men may wonder where they stand in the eyes of women, from the point of view of mating and dating (versus cross-sex friendship).

In the current study, the researchers sought to remedy the piecemeal approach by using a study design geared to tease apart many factors. 181 undergraduate male participants (average age 19 years old) completed measures at two time points one year apart (T1 and T2).

At T1, information on demographics was collected, including sexual orientation and relationship status. At T1 and T2, as applicable, participants completed the a) Pressure to Conform to Masculine Stereotypes Scale, which looks at pressure from peers and fathers to be tough (e.g. “hold your liquor”), strong, take risks, and be sexually capable (“have a lot of sexual partners”); b) exposure to magazines geared to masculine norms; c) consumption of popular sitcoms, music videos, and dramas (sitcoms often present masculine behavior in “softer”, less conventional terms); d) to what extent traditional norms are held via the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (the same as noted above); e) ability to do well in intimate relationships using the Self-Efficacy in Romantic Relationship Scale; f) the Sexual Self-Esteem subscale of the Sexuality Scale; and g) a question regarding to what extent sexual encounters involve significant alcohol use (“alcohol-primed”).

Data over time were analyzed for relationships among the various factors over the year of the study. On the basic level, participants reported moderate adherence to all of the masculine norms, ranging on a scale of 1 to 6 from 2.06 for “power over women” to 3.95 for winning. Pressure to conform from peers and fathers was low to moderate, stronger for peers than fathers.

All the socialization factors (media, peer pressure, etc.) were correlated with conformity to norms except for sitcoms. Masculine norms were correlated with sexual self-esteem and alcohol-primed sex, but not romantic relationship self-efficacy. White male ethnicity was significantly associated with alcohol-primed sex. Reported heterosexual orientation was correlated with romantic relationship self-efficacy.

Ten Ways Masculine Norms Shape Up

The following findings were significant in the best-fit model:

  1. Winning was related to peer pressure but not sexual outcomes (e.g. no correlation with sexual self-esteem).
  2. Heterosexual presentation was correlated with more alcohol-primed sex and was inversely correlated with sitcom watching (meaning those with stronger heterosexual identification tended to watch sitcoms less).
  3. Violence was correlated with watching TV dramas, but did not influence sexual outcomes.
  4. Power over women was related significantly with watching music videos, alcohol-primed sex, and peer pressure but predicted lower consumption of sitcoms.
  5. Playboy attitude was correlated with peer pressure, and it predicted greater reported sexual self-esteem.
  6. Emotional control predicted reduced relationship self-efficacy.
  7. Risk-taking was associated with peer pressure and increased sexual self-esteem.
  8. Self-reliance was related with increased music video watching, and reduced romantic relationship self-efficacy.
  9. Primacy of work predicted increased sexual self-esteem.
  10. Paternal influence, while significant in the basic analysis, was not significant when all factors were taken into consideration.

Manning Up in Understanding Masculinity

This is the first major study to look at how a constellation of masculine norms is related to various influences and outcomes in a diverse sample of young adult males. This research lends support to the assertion that social influences drive potentially maladaptive masculine norms: Peer pressure and media consumption have positive and negative effects on young men during formative years. The results of this study paint a chilling picture, in some respects, more optimistically setting the stage for constructive re-appraisal.

What men watch seems to make a difference, in addition to who men hang out with—though not how their fathers influenced them, at least in this study. Music videos, dramatic shows, and peer pressure were associated with problematic outcomes including wanting power over women, reduced relationship self-efficacy, and greater reliance on alcohol around sexual activity.

Masculine norms including a playboy attitude, primacy of work, and risk-taking were associated with greater sexual self-esteem, though it isn't clear from this study if sexual self-esteem is associated with positive outcomes, or if it could backfire and drive problematic behaviors. Self-reliance and emotional control were associated with reduced capacity for romantic relationship.

Notably, white males reported greater alcohol-primed sexual encounters. Violence was correlated only with watching TV dramas, a concern given the massive popularity of violent shows. Interestingly, watching more sitcoms was associated with less heterosexual presentation and reduced power over women, suggesting that people who are drawn to sitcoms may be less prone to masculine norms and that consumption of sitcoms may further blunt incorporation of stereotypical norms through modeling of nontraditional male behaviors and beliefs.

Future research can further sketch out how masculine ideals are learned with a broader range of ages over longer time spans. It would be interesting to look further at how norms come up earlier in childhood, where perhaps parental influences are stronger and may shape peer relationships. Likewise, correlating masculine norms with outcomes beyond relationship self-efficacy and sexual self-esteem would be helpful—to better understand how such norms relate, for example, to health and well-being, sense of self, attachment style, relationship and sexual satisfaction, and achievement of life goals. Also helpful would be attention to related factors such as sports exposure, pornography use, and personal values.

While many men avoid feelings of vulnerability and shame, others suggest that "real" strength comes from self-awareness, working through shame, self-hatred, and possibly trauma to become comfortable with emotional communication. They feel they ultimately come through with a stronger sense of self, greater compassion for oneself and others, and better relationships.

For now, controversy remains around traditional masculinity–whether viewed as “toxic” or applauded as virtuous. While one may debate whether self-reliance and primacy of work are problematic, and in what ways, seeking power over women, needing to be in control of emotions all the time, and perhaps even the single-minded desire to win contribute to profound social problems, the surface of which we are only beginning to scratch.


Matthew G. Nielson, L. Monique Ward, Rita C. Seabrook & Soraya Giaccardi
(2022): The Roots and Fruits of Masculinity: Social Antecedents and Sexual Relationship Consequences of Young Men’s Adherence to Masculine Norms, The Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2022.2049188.

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