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What is Restrictive Masculinity?

Voices Against Violence (VAV) imagines a campus where compassion, understanding, empathy, inclusion, and respect are guiding values for students to develop their own sense of masculine identity. Healthy masculinities include many behaviors rather than one singular idea of "masculinity."

However, the reality many young men on campus face is to "act like a man," as if there was only one true way. For example, restrictive notions of masculinity imagine a single, rigid identity that emphasizes aggression, competition with men, devaluation of women, and few tools to develop communication skills or emotional maturity. Educator and activist Paul Kivel ( developed the "act like a man box," which illustrates how traditional ideas of masculinity place men into rigid (or restrictive) boxes that pressure men and masculine-identified individuals to emulate this ideal and prevent them from developing their emotional maturity. What are men expected to be, what feelings men are expected to have, and what men are expected not to be

© Kivel

MasculinUT recognizes unhealthy masculinity as restrictive and exclusionary in the sense that it only affords a narrow definition of what it means to be masculine. This definition of masculinity also restricts what is acceptable in terms of appearance. This also makes it exclusionary, because a restrictive definition of masculinity depends on excluding people from that definition. Students who do not feel what a "real man" should feel, think the way a "real man" thinks, or looks the way a "real man" is supposed to look are vulnerable to violence from others who cannot accept male students who stray from this narrow definition. Students who feel targeted are also at risk of engaging in violent behavior in an attempt to not be the target of violence. Restricting the definition of masculinity can turn students into "pressure cookers," where if a student is not allowed to express all of their emotions and thoughts, these just build up and can explode in various, unhealthy ways (such as violent behavior or coping mechanisms such as drinking).

If you are a male student at UT reading this right now, we hope that learning about this helps you not to feel guilty about having participated in these definitions of masculinity, and instead feel empowered to break the cycle!

To help explain what unhealthy masculinity looks like, MasculinUT has summarized academic research examining the lives of men and boys into the following five unhealthy attitudes and behaviors:

Patterns of Restrictive Masculinity

  1. Restrictive masculinity is taken for granted and is often expected of male and male-identified students. The harm that this can cause to the self (such as high-risk drinking or reluctance to seek out help) and harm against others (such as sexual harassment, sexual assault and other forms of abuse and violence) is often ignored or condoned by believing that "boys will be boys."
  2. Unhealthy masculinity can restrict the emotional development of students, yet recognizes aggression and violence as common and normalized behavior for men.
  3. Unhealthy masculinity works by excluding students who are judged not to measure up to the values of "real men." This is especially pronounced in the exclusion of feminine gender expressions, gay, bisexual and queer men, and gender-expansive students, which perpetuates sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
  4. To prove who is a "real man" means proving who is not a "real man." This can take the shape of competition between men, which often results in devaluing and/or hurting some men in order to appear more masculine. If unhealthy masculinity is not questioned, it could lead to racist, classist, ableist, and other violent behavior to devalue other students in the competition to prove who is a "real man."
  5. Unhealthy masculinity works to exclude any "femininity" from a masculine identity. This can create challenges when students want to have relationships on campus (platonic or romantic). A lack of empathy and a devaluation of femininity can result in unhealthy behavior and risks the occurrence of relationship and sexual violence. It also perpetuates the exclusion of women from academic and extracurricular activities.

Unhealthy masculinity is not just restrictive because it denies a range of different things to students (such as emotional development, behaviors, hobbies, relationships, etc.), but it also condones some harmful behavior as natural or otherwise acceptable. Restrictive masculinity promotes distorted and fundamentally untrue ideas about what it means to be a masculine person:

  • MYTH: Men have uncontrollable sexuality: this creates pressure in men to prove their heterosexuality (even in the cases of gay, bisexual, queer and transgender men), creating anxiety if relationships with women do not succeed, and increasing the risk of sexual and relationship violence if students truly believe that men's sexuality should be voracious or men should be entitled to women's sexuality.
  • MYTH: Men should be fiercely independent: what this does is compel men not to seek help from others and feel solely responsible for any challenges or problems they are facing. This can affect the mental and emotional health of men.
  • MYTH: Men are naturally aggressive: because emotions are restricted, one emotion that is acceptable in restrictive models of masculinity is aggression. Anger, frustration, sadness, and even love can often be channeled as aggression or violence if male-identified students do not develop other emotions.
  • MYTH: Masculinity is only heterosexual: often, masculinity has to be proven through heterosexual relationships. It may create pressure in men to have a heterosexual relationship, and create anxiety if this is not the case. This marginalizes male students who are part of the LGBTQ community, as well as female students, who wish to identify as masculine.
  • MYTH: Masculinity is the opposite of femininity: this myth assumes that there are two acceptable ways of existing: as a masculine person or a feminine person. The myth is unrealistic, because it assumes that masculinity and femininity are opposites and mutually exclusive. Feminine men are devalued under this myth, as well as masculine women. However, to be a successful person, a student has to inevitably engage in behavior that can be both masculine and feminine. If a student does believe masculinity and femininity are opposites, they may engage in behavior that pushes away and devalues anything feminine (even within themselves).

Why does unhealthy masculinity exist?

Whether we are aware of it or not, often "masculinity" or "manhood" is expressed through competition or comparison between peers. This is because there is nothing innate about "masculinity." Different societies and cultures define what acceptable behavior is for men. Even different groups of students can have their own definitions of what "real masculinity" looks like depending on their culture, age, college major, student group activities, involvement in athletics, etc. The definitions of masculinity can even change over time in the same society! At different points in time, definitions of masculinity shift, proving that there is no singular natural or biological basis for behavior deemed "masculine."

The risks of trying to live up to restrictive masculinity

Because masculinity is not "innate" and the definition of "real men" shifts throughout time and between different contexts, this creates a challenge to some people who want to appear masculine. If there is no inherent mark or bar, how do you prove you are masculine? One way people attempt to prove they are "really masculine" often involves comparing one-self to those who are "not really masculine" or those who are "feminine." For example, a student may try to see how masculine or un-masculine they are by comparing themselves to a caring or empathetic male student, to a female student who expresses masculine traits, or to a gender-expansive student. Unfortunately, this exclusionary practice often reproduces the idea that a specific, restrictive type of masculinity is the only true masculinity, and those who fail to measure up are somehow deficient. Moreover, when people want to prove how masculine they are, they often do so at the expense of rejecting aspects of our humanity traditionally understood as "feminine." Thus, "really masculine" students can potentially fall in the trap of not developing empathy, care, consideration, a responsible lifestyle, a supportive attitude, different complex emotions, and the ability to keep their impulses under control, and more, just to prove they are not feminine. Simultaneously, anyone feminine is seen as being "less than" or lacking what "real masculinity" has. Defining masculinity as "not feminine" does not create a stable identity with its own values. In fact, it is so unsustainable that often college students who want to appear very masculine resort to high-risk or aggressive activities, such as binge drinking and predatory behavior towards women or "girl hunt,"3 to cope with the struggle of restrictive masculinity.

Resisting Restriction: The Fluidity of Gender and Sexuality

One's gender is the self-presentation and actions one uses to appear a certain way. In our society, there are two traditional gender expressions: femininity and masculinity. However, as mentioned before, we are complex individuals; we limit ourselves when we restrict our understanding of gender identity and "performance" to the gender binary (only 2 options). The "Gender and Sexuality Model" below is a useful way to think about all the parts that make you who you are. Different components of gender and sexual orientation including gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation and romantic orientation.

Source: Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Texas at Austin: "Based on a model by Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) and Revised by Agüero Vásquez and the GSC Education Team"

The lesson to learn from the above graphic is that who you are attracted to is not dictated by your biological sex or by your gender expressions. Likewise, the type of body you are born with does not dictate your gender expression, or set your gender expression in stone. Someone defined at birth as "male" may act in feminine ways and be attracted to masculine women. Someone defined at birth as "female" may express a very masculine gender identity and be attracted to women. Gender expression and sexuality can vary in a student’s life. In other words, at different points in their life, students may identify as straight, queer, bisexual, masculine, feminine, etc. Students should not feel pressured to restrict their gender identity, sexuality, gender expression, or any part of whom they are if they don’t want to.

With that in mind, on this page we offer some guidelines for men who want to take more control over their gender identity and develop a healthy sense of masculinity. It is also a resource for women, transgender, masculine-identified individuals and gender-expansive students to learn how to enact and/or encourage a wider range of behaviors of masculinity. It is important to reflect on how our own patterns and expectations encourage unhealthy behaviors in the men and masculine-identified individuals around us. How can we start to support men and masculine-identified individuals in exploring masculinities without holding them to rigid ideas of masculinity?

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Grazian, D. (2007). The Girl Hunt: Urban Nightlife and the Performance of Masculinity as Collective Activity. Symbolic Interaction, 30(2), 221–243.

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