The last 20-30 years has brought significant changes in male and female sex roles. Whereas in the 1950's and 60's the roles for men and women were relatively well defined and non-changing, recent years have brought dramatic change. The changes have caused many men to have to reevaluate "old" or "traditional" notions of manhood and masculinity. While many men welcome these changes, this redefinition of roles has caused confusion and problems for some men. Below we will briefly examine some of the ways in which males have been affected by changing sex role definitions.
Old or traditional stereotypes of what it means to be a man (e.g., John Wayne, Rambo) emphasized the importance of males being "sturdy oaks" - strong, independent, inflexible, emotionless, and often, violent. The roles were clear: work hard, provide for your family, be the "boss", don't get emotionally close to anyone, etc. Not showing any vulnerability was central to this role.
Newer definitions of being a man are much less rigid and clear. Males are now often encouraged to share childcare duties and financial responsibility for their families. They are expected by their partners to be open emotionally and to be able to communicate effectively. New role models of masculinity stress BOTH strength and vulnerability - the ability to be strong and the ability to be vulnerable. Am I supposed to be "macho" or not? Which definition of "being a man" applies - the old one or the new one? When should I be vulnerable and when should I be strong? Confusing? Yes. in a number of ways.
Many males today are confused by the messages they get in relationships. "Be strong". "Be vulnerable" . "Be the provider" . "I want equality" . "I want a 'take charge' man" . "Don't try to dominate me." All of these messages, though confusing at times, reflect the changing nature of sex roles. Put simply, we are in the process of redefining sex roles in our culture. This leads to confusing messages from partners who also struggle with what they want in a man. The result for many men is to cling to old stereotypes in an effort to clarify the situation. Unfortunately this usually doesn't work. Today's culture requires males to expand the traditional notions of masculinity. It is important to know how to be both strong and vulnerable, both independent and dependent, logical and emotional. Confusing? Yes. Necessary? Yes. Clinging to old notions of being male will not solve the problem. New roles are evolving and it is important for males to experiment with these new notions.
New sex role expectations have opened new doors for men in terms of their careers and work life. No longer are men "forced" into only certain majors or careers. Males can now enter professions that were previously unavailable to, or unacceptable, for men. This causes confusion for many males. "I want to be a teacher, but my parents want me to be an engineer." For many men, there is still "real" pressure to stick with "real men" majors/careers. On the other hand, changes in sex roles have made it much more acceptable for men to enter traditionally "female dominated" professions. This can cause a real dilemma for males as they plan their careers. Again the added flexibility is freeing while also being confusing at the same time.
Ever wonder why the vast majority of people suffering form heart attacks, ulcers, and stress related illnesses are male? Ever wonder why males die younger than females? Many people think that a primary reason for this has to do with sex role socialization. Working long hours at stressful jobs and internalizing painful emotions eventually leads to a breakdown in the physical body. For some men such stress, coupled with difficulty expressing their emotions, even results in suicide. Some men, deathly afraid to talk about their emotional struggles, feel no options other than suicide. Tragic.
Learning to slow down, change jobs if it is too stressful, take time off, and express their emotions are ways that men can change this pattern. New sex role expectations allow males to take better care of themselves, emotionally and physically.
Ever wonder why the vast majority of drug and alcohol related problems involve males? Drugs and alcohol are one way that males confined by old sex role expectations use to numb (or vent) emotions. Unable to know how they feel, or to talk about how they feel, many men turn to drugs and alcohol to "turn off" or "numb out" the feelings. The result is often disastrous. Painful feelings remain hidden and unexpressed. Anger is vented in an alcohol-induced rage. Both can have very damaging consequences. Is all alcohol and drug use about "numbing out" feelings? No. But most of it is. The next time you reach for a beer or a joint, ask yourself: "what feeling am I wanting to numb?" Fear? Sadness? Shyness? Anger?
Very perceptive bumper sticker states: "Feminism is the radical notion that males and females are equal." This statement very nicely captures the dilemma for present-day males. Shifting sex roles in this country now encompass more equality for males and females. Whereas older, more traditional, notions of sex roles emphasized the superior power position of males, more recent formulations of sex roles emphasize equal power for males and females. This is threatening to many males. "How do I share this power?" "What does it mean to give women more power?" "Will this hurt me or help me?" More and more males are embracing this "radical" notion of equality. They are coming to see that doing so is actually FREEING for males. No longer having to be the "provider," males now have more flexibility in their careers and work life. No longer having to be the "strong and silent," men are seeing that their health improves and their relationships are more satisfying. In short, equality gives men options they didn't have before. Are changing sex roles sometimes confusing? Yes. Are they freeing? Definitely.for both women and men.
Like it or not, sex role expectations are changing in this country. Though scary and confusing at times for many, more and more males are beginning to see the advantages of these "new" roles. Improved health and less stress, more satisfying relationships, more career options, and less alcohol and drug abuse are but a few of the advantages.
If you are in doubt about where to turn for assistance, please feel free to call the Counseling Center at 661-654-3366.
This information was prepared by the Counseling Center at the University of Florida to assist students with changing sex role definitions. Information contained herein was gleaned from on-line publications.