For nearly 15 years I’ve been studying, analyzing, and researching how college men experience their gender identity. Specifically I’ve been looking to better understand how they identify as men, how that changes over time, and what influences those changes. This research is both empirical, grounded in data, and personal, grounded in my own experiences as a man.
I conducted a series of in-depth interviews with 10 college men who represented a variety of social group identities (particularly race, class, and sexual orientation) and a variety of college experiences (e.g. RA, Black campus leadership, scholarship football player, LGBT campus leadership, service focused, sexual assault prevention educator, fraternity men, and Latino campus leadership).
Each participant shared with me how they felt they were expected to behave according to outside expectations of them as men and their own personal definition of manhood. Eventually, each participant shared with me their secret. The secret was that they didn’t feel that they always measured up to those expectations and so they faked it by putting on a performance or wearing a mask. Each participant thought they were the only one who did this and that it came naturally to other men.
They put on this mask for two reasons.
The first was to cover up who they really were because they didn’t feel that it would measure up to others expectations. Because of the impossible and unrealistic expectations society has for men they felt insecure for just about any reason – too big AND not big enough, not smart enough AND too smart, etc. The second was to portray an image to others that would meet these external expectations – an image that was confident, stoic, unemotional, strong, etc.
As college men they summarized the specific expectations of them in one word – “partying.” This included drinking to excess, doing drugs, breaking rules, having competitive heterosexual sex, and not preparing academically. Those of us who work on college campuses see the ways these performances play out in individual incidents and over time.
As educators we can easily be frustrated with men’s behaviors, especially when we have been hurt by men and these behaviors in the past. The challenge for us is to do what we can to reach the man behind the mask and hold him accountable for his behavior while affirming who he really is. This is especially challenging when he won’t show you who is behind the mask.
Men’s performances while wearing the mask has consequences for people of other genders, our relationships with other men, and our own humanity and authenticity.
The most obvious of these are the consequences for people of other genders – women, trans, and gender non-conforming folks. Interacting with men who are feeling insecure and who get messages that proving their manhood is often about heterosexual sexual conquest affects relationships with women at best and leads to sexual and other violence at worst. It also affects our relationships with other men, becoming an obstacle to our relationships with friends who are men and our fathers.
Finally, when we perform to external expectations that aren’t who we really are we lose our authenticity. When we deny aspects of who we really are because it doesn’t fit with external expectations (crying when moved, being vulnerable, etc.) we sacrifice our own humanity.
The college men I interviewed did describe times when they were able to remove the mask and be their full selves. Some things that helped them be able to temporarily remove the mask were critical academic courses, facing major life decisions, experiencing and surviving emasculating trauma, and even the interviews themselves helped them better live their lives as the men they aspired to be.
I began my research thinking that we needed to teach college men a different way of being a man. What I learned instead is that they already know a different way – it is who they really are under the mask. What we need to do is give men permission to stop being the man they feel they have to be and grant them permission to be who they really are. That’s what the data tells me. That’s what my own life experiences have told me as well. How about you?