Are You a “Real Man”? How Men Earn and Prove Manhood Status

Finally, it is important to note that our research participants in all of these studies have been a fairly homogenous group. They were generally between the ages of 18 and 30, and almost 90% of them identified as “exclusively heterosexual.” Moreover, approximately 60% of our participants have been White (with about 15% Black, 15% Latino, and 5% Asian American). When possible, we have compared the responses of men who differ in age, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity, and we have found little difference across groups. However, it is possible that our participants have simply been too homogenous to allow us to detect real differences. Therefore, we cannot state with confidence that beliefs in precarious manhood are universal, nor can we know how men of different ages, sexualities, and racial/ethnic groups might respond to manhood threats like the ones we used. These questions must await further research.

Some Explanations

Thus far, I have asserted that manhood is viewed as more precarious than womanhood, but I did not offer any explanations as to why this might be the case. Unfortunately, this is a difficult question to answer and my collaborators and I can only conjecture at this point.

One possibility is that beliefs about manhood reflect evolved adaptations to an early social environment in which men competed with one another for access to fertile female mates (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Trivers, 1972). Evolutionary theories posit that ancestral men’s reproductive success was closely linked to their position in status hierarchies, but status could easily be challenged by a stronger or more skilled competitor. Thus, men may have evolved a preoccupation with achieving and maintaining social status because ancestral men who were especially wary of status threats were also more successful at attracting mates.

Another possibility is that precarious manhood has its roots in long-established sexual divisions of labor (Eagly & Wood, 1999). Because men have historically occupied social roles that involve status-seeking and resource acquisition, people tend to associate manhood with qualities such as competitiveness, defensiveness, and efforts to “prove” status. That is, we imbue the status of manhood with the qualities that men have embodied in fulfilling socially assigned roles.

Of course, these perspectives do not justify or speak to the legitimacy of precarious manhood beliefs. If anything, they simply provide possible explanations for why we, as a culture, persist in teaching boys and men that they must struggle to become, and then remain, “real” members of their gender.


Daily life is replete with examples of men’s anxiety about violating the male gender role. Boyfriends and husbands refuse to watch “chick flicks” in the theatre; pop music enthusiasts keep their fondness for certain performers a secret (“I have lots of male friends who like Adam Lambert, but they don’t want people to think they’re gay”); and many men assiduously avoid hobbies and vocations such as knitting, baking, and fashion. When faced with examples like these, it can be tempting to hold individual men responsible for their own feelings of anxiety. As the work presented here suggests, however, doing so might be missing the bigger picture. Men – even those who are perfectly “secure in their masculinity” – are aware that their manhood is precarious and that they may, at any moment, lose manhood status in other people’s eyes. Until widespread beliefs about the elusiveness and tenuousness of manhood change, it may be unrealistic to expect the average man to violate gender role norms with ease.


Bettencourt, B. A., & Miller, N. (1996). Gender differences in aggression as a function of provocation: A meta-analysis.Psychological Bulletin, 119, 422-447.

Bosson, J. K., Vandello, J. A., Burnaford, R. M., Weaver, J. R., & Wasti, S. A. (2009). Precarious manhood and displays of physical aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 623-634.

article author(s)