How College Men “Do” Gender

Blog Post Author: Scott Radimer

Date: October 2014

Undergraduate men make up less than half of the undergraduate population, and among non-white students, the proportion is even more lopsided. They are less likely to graduate than their female peers, less likely to vote, study, or use career services. While they are less likely to participate in student organizations, they are more likely to hold high-status leadership positions. They are more likely to drink alcohol in excessive amounts, vandalize property, and physically or sexually assault someone; clearly both men and women would be better off if men acted more like women in these respects.

Only focusing on men’s behavior as problematic, however, misses how men are also victims. Outside of being the target of sexual assault, men are the most likely to be the victims of other men’s violence. Men are less likely to go to the doctor for physical illness or injury, and are much less likely to seek help for non-physical problems, like academic assistance or counseling. Men are significantly more likely to have an alcohol dependency, and much less likely to be diagnosed with depression, despite having equal or greater rates of mental illness.

The ways in which men suffer, or cause suffering, are generally made invisible, written off as “unmanly” outliers, or excused as harmless and just “boys being boys.” To ignore the many ways in which gender roles for men can cause harm is to damage the victims of that harm, and make men feel isolated and deviant for having feelings or experiences that do not conform to the ways society expects. To write off the negative behavior of men as just “boys being boys” is to deliberately ignore the ways in which gender is created and performed. It’s not that college men don’t want to go to be healthy or successful, it’s that they often feel like they don’t have a choice. Part of being a man is about acting tough, being competitive, and not complaining. While men are supposed to act like individuals and not be afraid to step out on their own, men will be routinely criticized and demeaned for being different from other men. This is why men in college tend to drink more when they’re around other men (and drink even more the larger the group of men is), and tend not to engage in the type of behaviors that would reduce harm from alcohol consumption.

The danger of alcohol consumption on college campuses isn’t an unknown or an ancillary concern for men, it’s a feature. Men drink because it is dangerous, not because they are ignorant of the dangers. Drinking allows men to prove that they’re tough; that they get to be rule breakers, and most importantly, that they get to conform to what it means to be a man in college. If we want men in college to act in more productive ways, we have to change what it means to be a man at college. When men feel it is normal, or even expected to engage in more positive behaviors, they do. The best predictor of healthy behaviors for a man is the behaviors of other men, coworkers, friends, and family, close to him. This means that if we are able to begin to shift the expectations for what it means to be a man by reinforcing more positive behaviors, not only will individual men change their behaviors, but they will also help encourage other men to act in similar ways as well.

Higher education is optimally situated to help redefine what it means to be a young man to be a more positive, and inclusive identity. Students largely come to college expecting to redefine themselves and become “adults” and we should help guide them through this process, both in the classroom and in co-curricular activities. Although it will not happen overnight, we should begin, as a field, to expect more positive behaviors from our undergraduate men, and communicate these expectations in clearly gendered language. Rather than talking about generic college students, faculty and administrators should explicitly talk about what they expect from men, as men. It is only when we start directly confronting the problems associated with how men perform their gender, and give them new scripts to perform, that we will be able to improve the lives of those men, and everyone they interact with.

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