Sex Roles

, Volume 79, Issue 7–8, pp 375–392 | Cite as

What Threatens, Defines: Tracing the Symbolic Boundaries of Contemporary Masculinity

  • Christin L. MunschEmail author
  • Kjerstin Gruys
Original Article


A robust literature ties emasculation to a range of compensatory behaviors. The present study shifts focus away from the effects of masculinity threat toward an understanding of young adult men’s experiences of emasculation in their own words. Drawing on 42 in-depth interviews with undergraduate men attending a selective U.S. university, we examine the behaviors, situations, and narratives—both experienced and hypothetical—that privileged young men perceive as threatening. We use these data not only to contribute to the empirical literature on masculinity threat, but also as a novel approach for theorizing about the meaning and structure of masculinity more broadly. This is an important task given recent social and economic changes that may have altered contemporary definitions of masculinity. Emasculation accounts provide unique analytical leverage for revealing men’s often unspoken understandings of acceptable masculine behavior. We find that, while many interviewees superficially espoused egalitarian and anti-homophobic beliefs, their emasculation narratives implicitly call for the subordination of women and other men. These performances consequently obscure and maintain traditional, hegemonic power relations. We discuss the implications of our finding for scholars, practitioners, and individual men who desire a more equitable gender structure.


Men Masculinity threat Hegemonic masculinity Hybrid masculinities Boundary violations Gender inequality 



We are grateful for research assistance from Thomas Carman, Jessica Kendra, Stephanie Menke, and Claire Sears-Tam. For helpful feedback, we thank Mary Bernstein, Shelley Correll, Susan Fisk, Beth Hirsh, Sharon Jank, Ed Lawler, Nancy Naples, Karen Powroznik, Daisy Reyes, Jessica Su, Catherine Taylor, and Lindsey Trimble O’Connor.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

This research involves human participants. The protocol was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board for Human Participants at Cornell University (Protocol ID#: 0911001024).

Informed Consent

Participants received two copies of the informed consent form which contained information about the study procedures, expected benefits, and risks to participation. Participants were asked to read the form carefully and were given the opportunity to ask questions. Participants granted consent by signing both copies and giving one copy to the investigator.

Supplementary material

11199_2017_878_MOESM1_ESM.docx (20 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 20 kb)


  1. Abma, J. C., Martinez, G., Mosher, W. D., & Dawson, B. S. (2004). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing, 2002. Vital and Health Statistics, 23, 1–44.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, E. (2008). Inclusive masculinity in a fraternal setting. Men and Masculinities, 10, 604–620. Scholar
  3. Anderson, E. (2009). Inclusive masculinity: The changing nature of masculinities. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Anderson, E. (2011). Updating the outcome: Gay athletes, straight teams, and coming out in educationally based sports teams. Gender & Society, 25, 250–268. Scholar
  5. Anderson, E., & McGuire, R. (2010). Inclusive masculinity theory and the gendered politics of men's rugby. Journal of Gender Studies, 19, 249–261. Scholar
  6. Bartkowski, J. P. (2004). The promise keepers: Servants, soldiers, and godly men. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Berrill, K. (1992). Anti-gay violence and victimization in the United States: An overview. In G. Herek & K. Berrill (Eds.), Hate crimes: Confronting violence against lesbians and gay men, (pp. 19–45). Newbury Park: Sage.Google Scholar
  8. Blumer, H. (1954). What is wrong with social theory? American Sociological Review, 18, 3–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 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. Scholar
  10. Boushey, H. (2011). Not working: Unemployment among married couples: Unemployment continues to plague families in today’s tough job market. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from Accessed 22 Oct 2017
  11. Bowen, G. A. (2006). Grounded theory and sensitizing concepts. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5, 12–23. Scholar
  12. Bridges, T. S. (2010). Men just weren’t made to do this: Performances of drag at ‘walk a mile in her shoes’ Marches. Gender & Society, 24, 5–30. Scholar
  13. Bridges, T. (2014). A very ‘gay’ straight?: Hybrid masculinities, sexual aesthetics, and the changing relationship between masculinity and homophobia. Gender & Society, 23, 58–82.Google Scholar
  14. Bridges, T., & Pascoe, C. J. (2014). Hybrid masculinities: New directions in the sociology of men and masculinities. Sociology Compass, 8, 246–259. Scholar
  15. Byrnes, J. P., Miller, D. C., & Schafer, W. D. (1999). Gender differences in risk taking: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125(3), 367–383. Scholar
  16. Carrigan, T., Connell, R. W., & Lee, J. (1985). Toward a new sociology of masculinity. Theory and Society, 14, 551–604. Scholar
  17. Cha, Y., & Thébaud, S. (2009). Labor markets, breadwinning, and beliefs: How economic context shapes men's gender ideology. Gender & Society, 23, 215–243. Scholar
  18. Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and power: Society, the person and sexual politics. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Connell, R. W. (1992). A very straight gay: Masculinity, homosexual experience, and the dynamics of gender. American Sociological Review, 57, 735–751. Scholar
  20. Connell, R. (1995[2005]). Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  21. Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender & Society, 19, 829–859. Scholar
  22. Coontz, S. (1992). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  23. Davies, A. R., & Frink, B. D. (2014). The origins of the ideal worker: The separation of work and home in the United States from the market revolution to 1950. Work and Occupations, 41, 18–39. Scholar
  24. Dean, J. J. (2013). Heterosexual masculinities, anti-homophobias, and shifts in hegemonic masculinity: The identity practices of black and white heterosexual men. The Sociological Quarterly, 45, 534–560. Scholar
  25. Demantas, I., & Myers, K. (2015). ‘Step up and be a man in a different manner’: Unemployed men reframing masculinity. The Sociological Quarterly, 56, 640–664. Scholar
  26. DiPrete, T. A., & Buchmann, C. (2013). The rise of women: The growing gender gap in education and what it means for American schools. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  27. Donaldson, M. (1993). What is hegemonic masculinity? Theory and Society, 22, 643–657. Scholar
  28. Dresing, T., Thorsten, P., & Schmeider, C. (2015). Manual (on) transcription: Transcribing conventions, software guides and practical hints for qualitative researchers. Marburg: Self-published. Retrieved from Accessed 22 Oct 2017
  29. Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Self-discipline gives girls the edge: Gender in self-discipline, grades, and achievement test scores. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 198–208. Scholar
  30. Eisler, R. M., & Skidmore, J. R. (1987). Masculine gender role stress scale development and component factors in the appraisal of stressful situations. Behavior Modification, 11, 123–136. Scholar
  31. Ely, R., & Meyerson, D. (2008). Unmasking manly men: The organizational reconstruction of men’s identity. Harvard Business Review, 86, 20. Scholar
  32. Ely, R., & Meyerson, D. (2010). An organizational approach to undoing gender: The unlikely case of offshore oil platforms. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 3–34. Scholar
  33. Faul, M., Xu, L., Wald, M. M., & Coronado, V. G. (2010). Traumatic brain injury in the United States: Emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Retrieved from
  34. Fry, R., & Cohen, V. (2010). Women, men and the new economics of marriage: A social and demographic trends report. Washington, DC: The Pew Research Center.Google Scholar
  35. Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  36. Gerson, K. (2010). The unfinished revolution: How a new generation is reshaping family, work, and gender in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Gerstenfield, P. B. (2011). Hate crimes: Causes, controls, and controversies. Los Angeles: Sage.Google Scholar
  38. Ginsburg, H. J., & Miller, S. M. (1982). Sex differences in children’s risk-taking behavior. Child Development, 53, 426–428. Scholar
  39. Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley: Sociology Press.Google Scholar
  40. Goffman, E. (1989). On fieldwork. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 18, 123–132. Scholar
  41. Gottzén, L., & Kremer-Sadlik, T. (2012). Fatherhood and youth sports: A balancing act between care and expectations. Gender & Society, 26, 639–664. Scholar
  42. Grazian, D. (2007). The girl hunt: Urban nightlife and the performance of masculinity as collective activity. Symbolic Interaction, 30, 221–243. Scholar
  43. Greenfield, L. (1997). Sex offenses and offenders. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  44. Greenfield, L. A, Rand, M. R., Craven, D., Klaus, P. A., Perkins, C. A., Ringel, C., … Fox, J. A. (1998). Violence by intimates: Analysis of data on crimes by current or former spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from Accessed 17 Apr 2012
  45. Heyder, A., & Kessels, U. (2017). Boys don’t work? On the psychological benefits of showing low effort in high school. Sex Roles, 77(1–2), 72–85. Scholar
  46. Hochschild, A., & Machung, A. (1989). The second shift: Working families and the revolution at home. New York: Viking.Google Scholar
  47. Hughey, M. W. (2011). Backstage discourse and the reproduction of white masculinities. The Sociological Quarterly, 52, 132–153. Scholar
  48. Kimmel, M. S. (1997). Masculinity as homophobia: Fear, shame, and silence in the construction of gender identity. In M. M. Gergen & S. N. Davis (Eds.), Toward a new psychology of gender, (pp. 223–242). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  49. Kimmel, M. S. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  50. Kimmel, M. S., & Mahler, M. (2003). Adolescent masculinity, homophobia, and violence: Random school shootings, 1982–2001. American Behavioral Scientist, 46, 1439–1458. Scholar
  51. Labaree, R. V. (2002). The risk of “going observationalist”: Negotiating the hidden dilemmas of being an insider participant observer. Qualitative Research, 2, 97–122. Scholar
  52. Lamont, E. (2015). The limited construction of an egalitarian masculinity college-educated men’s dating and relationship narratives. Men and Masculinities, 18, 271–292. Scholar
  53. Lamont, M., & Molnar, V. (2002). The study of boundaries in the social sciences. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 167–195. Scholar
  54. Maass, A., Cadinu, M., Guarnieri, G., & Grasselli, A. (2003). Sexual harassment under social identity threat: The computer harassment paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 854–870. Scholar
  55. McCormack, M. (2011). Hierarchy without hegemony: Locating boys in an inclusive school setting. Sociological Perspectives, 54, 83–102. Scholar
  56. McGuffey, C. S., & Rich, B. L. (1999). Playing in the gender transgression zone: Race, class, and hegemonic masculinity in middle childhood. Gender & Society, 13, 608–627. Scholar
  57. Merton, R. K. (1972). Insiders and outsiders: A chapter in the sociology of knowledge. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 9–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Messner, M. A. (1993). ‘Changing men’ and feminist politics in the United States. Theory and Society, 22, 723–737. Scholar
  59. Messner, M. A. (1997). Politics of masculinities: Men in movements. Lanham: AltaMira Press.Google Scholar
  60. Messner, M. A. (2007). The masculinity of the governator: Muscle and compassion in American politics. Gender & Society, 21, 461–480. Scholar
  61. Mishler, E. G. (1997). The interactional construction of narratives in medical and life-history interviews. In B. L. Gunnarsson, P. Linell, & B. Nordberg (Eds.), The construction of professional discourse, (pp. 223–244). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  62. Mora, R. (2012). ‘Do it for all your pubic hairs!’: Latino boys, masculinity, and puberty. Gender & Society, 26, 433–460. Scholar
  63. Morris, E. W. (2012). Learning the hard way: Masculinity, place, and the gender gap in education. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Morrongiello, B. A., & Rennie, H. (1998). Why do boys engage in more risk-taking than girls? The role of attributions, beliefs and risk appraisals. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 23, 33–44. Scholar
  65. Munsch, C. L., & Willer, R. (2012). The role of gender identity threat in perceptions of date rape and sexual coercion. Violence Against Women, 18, 1125–1146. Scholar
  66. Naples, N. A. (1996). A feminist revisiting of the insider/outsider debate: The “outsider phenomenon” in rural Iowa. Qualitative Sociology, 19, 83–106. Scholar
  67. Narayan, K. (1993). How native is a “native” anthropologist? American Anthropologist, 95, 671–686.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869–70 through 2021–22. Digest of education statistics. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from Accessed 22 Oct 2017
  69. O’Connor, E. C., Ford, T. E., & Banos, N. C. (2017). Restoring threatened masculinity: The appeal of sexist and anti-gay humor. Sex Roles, 77, 567–580. Scholar
  70. Padgett, D. K. (2004). Coming of age: Theoretical thinking, social responsibility, and a global perspective in qualitative research. In D. K. Padgett (Ed.), The qualitative research experience (pp. 297–315). Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.Google Scholar
  71. Pascoe, C. J. (2005). Dude, you’re a fag: Adolescent masculinity and the fag. Sexualities, 8, 329–346. Scholar
  72. Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  73. Pedulla, D. S., & Thébaud, S. (2015). Can we finish the revolution? Gender, work-family ideals, and institutional constraint. American Sociological Review, 80, 116–139. Scholar
  74. Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). A meta-analytic review of research on gender differences in sexuality, 1993-2007. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 21–38. Scholar
  75. Pew Research Center. 2017. Changing attitudes on gay marriage. Retrieved from
  76. Pfaffendorf, J. (2017). Sensitive cowboys: Privileged young men and the mobilization of hybrid masculinities in a therapeutic boarding school. Gender & Society, 31, 197–222. Scholar
  77. Raley, S. B., Mattingly, M. J., & Bianchi, S. M. (2006). How dual are dual-income couples? Documenting change from 1970 to 2001. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 11–28. Scholar
  78. Robinson, S., Anderson, E., & White, A. (2017). The bromance: Undergraduate male friendships and the expansion of contemporary homosocial boundaries. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. Scholar
  79. Schippers, M. (2007). Recovering the feminine other: Masculinity, femininity, and gender hegemony. Theory and Society, 36, 85–102. Scholar
  80. Schrock, D. P., & Schwalbe, M. (2009). Men, masculinity, and manhood acts. Annual Review of Sociology, 35, 277–295. Scholar
  81. Schwalbe, M. (1996). Unlocking the iron cage: The men's movement, gender politics, and American culture. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  82. Schwalbe, M. (2014). Manhood acts: Gender and the practices of domination. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.Google Scholar
  83. Singh, S., Wulf, D., Samara, R., & Cuca, Y. P. (2000). Gender differences in the timing of first intercourse: Data from 14 countries. International Family Planning Perspectives, 26, 21–28. Scholar
  84. Steffensmeier, D. (1995). Trends in female crime: It’s still a man’s world. In B. R. Price & N. L. Sokoloff (Eds.), The criminal justice system and women: Offenders, victims, and workers, (pp. 89–104). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  85. Thébaud, S. (2010). Masculinity, bargaining and breadwinning: Understanding men’s housework in the cultural context of paid work. Gender & Society, 24, 330–354. Scholar
  86. Tichenor, V. J. (2005). Earning more and getting less: Why successful wives can’t buy equality. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Townsend, N. (2002). The package deal: Marriage, work and fatherhood in men’s lives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  88. Voyer, D., & Voyer, S. D. (2014). Gender differences in scholastic achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 1174–1204. Scholar
  89. Weaver, K. S., & Vescio, T. K. (2015). The justification of social inequality in response to masculinity threats. Sex Roles, 72, 521–535. Scholar
  90. Willer, R., Rogalin, C. L., Conlon, B., & Wojnowicz, M. T. (2013). Overdoing gender: A test of the masculine overcompensation thesis. American Journal of Sociology, 118, 980–1022. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of Nevada, RenoRenoUSA

Personalised recommendations