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New Study Links Harmful Gender Norms with Violence and Mental Illness

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Certain ideas about how men should act and behave are deeply embedded in our culture. This includes the notions that men should: not show their emotions, be self-sufficient, be physically strong, and be sexually aggressive. Together, these ideas form the basis for what has been called the “man box,” a visual representation of how our society pushes boys and men to fit certain ideals of masculinity, known as gender norms. When we value certain traits over others for boys and men, we are putting them into a relatively small box of masculinity, limiting the ways that they can express themselves.

The concept of “the man box” isn’t new. The idea was first developed in the 1980s, as the Oakland Men’s Project developed the “Act Like a Man Box” activity to illustrate how society tells men that they should act. Later, activist Tony Porter popularized the term “the man box” with a TedWomen Talk and a book on the subject. Recent research from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Promundo-US has specifically tied the attitudes associated with the “man box” with bullying, sexual harassment, depression and suicidal thoughts.

This study used a 15 item scale to analyze how 3,600 men in three counties — the United States, the United Kingdom, and Mexico — felt about things like self-sufficiency, acting tough, physical attractiveness, rigid masculine gender roles, hypersexuality, and control. The study participants, aged 18 to 31, were asked about their attitudes on statements in these categories. They were then given a “man box” score, with higher numbers assigned for individuals who agreed more strongly with statements like:

  1. A man shouldn’t have to do household chores.

  2. Men should use violence to get respect if necessary.

  3. A real man should have as many sexual partners as he can.

  4. A man who talks a lot about his worries, fears, and problems shouldn’t really get respect.

  5. A gay guy is not a “real man.”

The study’s authors found that a higher score was correlated with up to five times higher rates of verbal, online, or physical bullying and with sexual harassment. Men with higher scores were approximately twice as likely to experience depression or suicidal ideation when compared to men with lower scores. A strong response to five statements from the 15 item scale mentioned above were most closely associated with violence and poor mental health.

These results confirm previous studies that show that men who follow these gender stereotypes or norms have poorer levels of physical and mental health, and are more likely to engage in violent behavior. By using the idea of the “man box,” this study established a standardized way to research this issue.

We know that gender norms can be very harmful to everyone: women and men, boys and girls. When we decide that there is only one way to be a man — or to be a woman — it can seriously affect a person’s health and well-being. It can also lead to a wider, more far-reaching impact, as that person engages in violent or abusive behavior associated with stereotypes of what a man or woman should be. For example, a man who strongly believes that using violence is an acceptable way of getting respect for men and that men shouldn’t have to do household chores may be abusive to a partner who asks them to help around the house or who is otherwise “disrespectful.”

We can change this reality, starting with our own families and friend groups. If you have kids, encourage them to express themselves without the pressures of gender norms. With others, challenge comments or statements that reinforce traditional gender norms. You can also do some self-reflection to explore the ways that you may have internalized these ideas of how men and women should act…and think about how you can change your beliefs.

As always, we are here for victims of violence and crime. If you need help, we are available 24 hours a day at 1-888-832-2272. Calls to our hotline are free of charge, confidential, and can be anonymous.

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