Feminizing Boys as We Masculinize Girls

Should we try to make our sons like what our daughters used to be?

Posted Mar 29, 2018

One of the things I remember from my graduate school experience was learning about “Occam’s razor.” Basically, what I recall is that it meant that when competing theories arise, it is best to use the one that makes the fewest assumptions, i.e., the simplest one.            

If ever there were a place where there are all kinds of competing theories and explanations today, it’s the study of gender. And while academics (and I have my credentials here, with a PhD in psychology and more than 25 years of research and college teaching) will constantly speak in careful terms, and hem and haw, at least in public, I suspect that, like me, in the privacy of their own homes, or definitely in the privacy of their own minds, things are much simpler. Even if they don’t use Occam’s razor in their public pronouncements, it’s there. Life is too complicated for it not to be.

My title is my attempt to apply Occam's razor to trends I see all over the academic world and in the media:  We are feminizing boys as we masculinize girls.

Peter Hershey/StockSnap, CCO
Source: Peter Hershey/StockSnap, CCO

I have been obsessed by gender issues for more than 40 years — “monomaniacal” about it is the way my younger brother put it a couple of decades ago. But these days the whole country seems to have joined me in my obsession. And in so much of what I read, there is a major message: Masculinity is a problem, so we have to re-educate our boys. (I use the term “re-educate” quite purposely because it does have negative connotations; for example, it has been used to describe what took place during the Cultural Revolution in China.) Whether the title of a piece is “The Stigma of Masculinity: Can Men Still Manly Without Feeling Ashamed," or "How to Raise a Feminist Son," or "Re-Defining Masculinity,” the message is the same: There is something inherently wrong with boys, or at least in the way they have been raised in the past (and many are still); and we have to do something about it.

What are “masculine” and “feminine” anyhow? In spite of a difficulty with a gender binary that so many people have these days, I strongly believe that there would still be general agreement on terms for each category. One frequently used measure of masculinity and femininity – and “androgyny,” which would be a relatively high score on both sides – is the Bem Sex Role Inventory (or BSRI) developed by Sandra Bem more than 40 years ago (Bem, 1974).  Here are just a few items from that 60-item self-administered instrument, where individuals put a number from 1 ("never or almost never true (of me)” to 7 (“always or almost always true (of me).”  Among the characteristics associated with masculinity are self-reliant, defends own beliefs, aggressive, acts as a leader. Among characteristics on the feminine side are these:  yielding, helpful, sensitive to the needs of others, and gentle.

Another self-scoring test measuring masculinity and femininity (though referred to as “instrumentality” and “expressivity”) is the Personal Attributes Questionnaire (or PAQ), developed by Janet T. Spence, Robert Helmreich, Joy Stapp in 1975. Among the masculine characteristics on that 24-item scale are independent, self-confident, and competitive; among the feminine characteristics are emotional, very aware of the feelings of others, helpful to others.              

There is no question that today parents are being urged to encourage their sons to be sensitive to the needs of others, emotional, and helpful; and not to be aggressive. At the same time they are encouraging their daughters to defend their beliefs, take leadership roles, and be self-reliant and competitive.

The problem for boys and men whose masculinity is being subject to attack is that many studies have shown that both women and men who scored higher on the masculinity (than the femininity) scale were more likely to have higher self-esteem (which often correlates with success). The original thinking by Bem and others was that the most highly successful people would be androgynous – defined as scoring above the median on both masculinity and femininity; so it was surprising to many that this was often not the case, but rather that scoring higher on masculinity was frequently the best predictor of success.

I am not saying that extremes of masculinity, which could include violence, are acceptable. But given the association of masculine traits with self-esteem and success, something which our society has now at least tacitly recognized for our daughters, and given the many ways in which boys and young men are lagging behind girls and young women in their education as well as many other ways, it seems unwise to feminize our sons while we encourage independence, self-confidence, and competitiveness in our daughters.

Finally, if evolutionary psychology means anything at all -- and there is much evidence that it does -- will our independent, strong, and confident daughters ultimately want men who don’t share these traits?

We shall see. Sweden is experimenting with trying to make its pre-schools as gender-neutral as possible, but this necessarily means a reversal of the usual sex roles. The headline of a front page story in the New York Times several days ago reads “In Sweden’s Preschools, Boys Learn to Dance and Girls Learn to Yell.” Is this the wave of the future? If so, decades of research suggest that it is a very uncertain one.

References

Bem, S. L. (1974). The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42(2), 155-162.

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