Posted on October 5, 2011 by Christopher Thrall

“We have reached a level of gender equality unparalleled in history,” says masculinity researcher Dr. Michael Kimmel, “yet campuses remain terribly unequal.”

By Christopher Thrall

“We have become more gender-equal than nearly any other society in history,” says Dr. Michael Kimmel, “and have done so relatively quickly. The changes have been so dramatic – women can have any education, do any job, play any sport – that it leaves many young men wondering what is left for them.” Despite these changes, the ideology of masculinity has remained unchanged for 50 years: no sissy stuff, be rich and powerful, be sturdy in a crisis, and exude an aura of daring.

Among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today, Dr. Kimmel is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University of New York (SUNY). He was the first guest lecturer on the campus’ Academic Theme for 2011-2012: Living with Our Selves, Conversations on Sex, Gender and Sexuality. In his latest book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, he identifies a new stage in the life of the modern man.

Before 1900, childhood and primary-school education gave way directly to the role and responsibilities of adulthood. In 1904, G. Stanley Hall described a new stage between the two, called “adolescence”, where teenagers were still dependent on their parents and focused on psychological and intellectual development. In the 1950s, the average marrying age was 20.3 years: by then, most people had finished their education, moved out of their parents’ home and founded their careers before marrying and having children.

Today, the average marrying age in the United States is 28.4 and 40% of college graduates move back to their parents’ home after graduation. With an estimated lifespan into their 90s, young adults have no immediate interest in marriage and children or the steady climb of a single-stream career path. Most grew up with “helicopter parents”, who micromanaged their education and social lives for success but instilled risk aversion and a lack of resilience in their children. When these young adults encounter the freedom of post-secondary education, they want to spend time with their peers, discovering more about themselves and the world around them.

“We aren’t going to turn back the clock and see our young adults decide to start marrying at 20 again,” says Kimmel. “We have to decide how to navigate this stage.” He conducted extensive interviews of 400 young adults – and surveys of 20,000 more – from across the United States.

When they were younger, men were guided by fathers, coaches, teachers and elder siblings. In the adult-free atmosphere of post-secondary campuses, they have only their peers to guide them. In order to gain acceptance and desperate to prove their masculinity, young men are subjected to risky, intensely homosocial activities – many with distinct homoerotic undertones. The payoff is membership in a society of “bros before hos”, which dictates that brotherhood is more important than any potential relationship with a woman, and instills the sense of superiority over women.

Since young men are the gatekeepers of social activity on many campuses, they require women to conform to the “bitch or babe” aesthetic, dictating how they must behave in order to be included. On many campuses, this is the dominant dynamic even if other campus groups define themselves as “different than” this kind of conduct.

“We have reached a level of gender equality unparalleled in history,” says Dr. Kimmel, “yet campuses remain terribly unequal.” Young men assume that their wives will work – with commitment to their careers equal to their own – and that they will be far more involved in childraising than their own fathers. However, the turmoil on most post-secondary campuses is reflected in this tension between equality and guyland.

“As educators, parents and community members, we must cease abdicating our responsibilities to these young people but instead engage with them,” Dr. Kimmel advises. “We must provide honest reflections on our own experiences, and hold them – and us – accountable for their behaviour. Allow them to make mistakes and provide consequences. We can no longer simply educate from the head up.”

The next Augustana Theme event is the Faculty Colloquium on Monday, October 31. Dr. Tim Parker (psychology) will address Brain Organization and Sexual Orientation and Dr. Tom Terzin (biology) will examine Beauty Shaped by Sexuality in humans and in nature.


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