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Ronald F. Levant Ed.D.

Learning to Be a Man Without Masculinity

Masculinity is harmful.

In recent years, with the #MeToo movement and rampant gun violence, the behavior of men has come under intense scrutiny, as we grapple to understand motivations for the heinous acts of rape and sexual aggression, and the indiscriminate mass killings that have badly damaged the psychological fabric of our country. In both cases, as has been widely noted, these are crimes almost always committed by boys and men. Although males perpetrate most violence and sexual aggression, most males are not, in fact, violent.

Any attempt to determine how we struggle with the reality of sexual and gun violence means confronting the complicated role of masculinity in modern life and then taking the next step: making a distinction between masculinity and being a man. We must consider the difficult truth that men and boys are encouraged relentlessly by society, their families and peers, to exhibit characteristics of masculinity: Being self-sufficient, stoic, strong, dominant, tough, and unemotional, while avoiding conduct that is stereotypically feminine, such as empathy, and nurturance.

While there are many positive elements associated with masculinity, it can promote the constriction of emotions in such a way that leads men to aggression and violence.

What’s important to understand is that masculinity is not hard-wired into the brain by genes and hormones. Therefore, masculinity is not essential, nor inescapable, for boys and men. This is the key truth for changing course, as coauthor Shana Pryor and I explain in our new book, The Tough Standard .

Boys and men can retain their gender identity without conforming their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to masculine norms. Masculinity is not synonymous with being biologically male. In many segments of the populations, this is a difficult truth to understand. The result is that boys and men become imprisoned by masculinity, and it’s understood to be obligatory for most men at some point in their lives, usually when they are children. This is deeply damaging to their development and ability to have relationships with others.

In fact, too many men are harmed by masculinity, suffering from poor physical health, shorter lives, depression, substance abuse, difficulty in recovering and growing from trauma, and, most tragically, suicide—all as a result of adherence to masculine norms . New efforts to help boys and men find new ways to be in the world are needed, to both address urgent social problems and to help the men themselves and their families.

Despite the prevalence of sexism and the challenges women still face, ironically, girls and women have benefited from many decades of conversation about how to navigate their gender in a changing world. Similar discussions are urgently needed for boys and men. What we need to learn —and teach our children—is how to be a man without masculinity.

The challenge now, and what we hope psychologists and counselors can take up moving forward, is this larger question of masculinity. It affects us all, and if left unchecked, can lead to horrific consequences.

There are options and tools available for freeing men from the prison of masculinity—gender neutral parenting, large-group awareness training, and psychotherapy. But the first step must be understanding the consequence of the tough standard: masculinity as a set of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are generally foisted on boys and men. This lets us isolate the problem and consider a way forward.


Levant, R. F., & Pryor, S. (2020). The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths about Masculinity and Violence. New York: Oxford University Press. More information is at

About the Author

Ronald F. Levant, Ed.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Akron who researches the psychology of men and masculinity.