Stereotypical masculinity norms

Masculinity norms are social rules or frameworks for how guys are expected to act – that is, what behaviours and attitudes are considered okay. From earliest childhood, adolescent boys learn to pay attention to those norms, and most people know what norms apply in a given situation and in society as a whole, even if these norms are generally unspoken and not talked about. There are also strong ties between violence and masculinity norms. As boys grow up, they learn to live up to the expectations of how a “real man” should act, including being able to use – and endure – violence.

Ideas and beliefs of what it means to be a man are sometimes referred to as “the Man Box” – a box where the walls consist of the norms that are considered acceptable in a group or community. Young men adapt to, or reject, masculinity norms in different ways depending on the situation. Most try to remain within the walls of the box to fit in, while others strongly reject the box, and still others step into and outside of it. But all of them are interacting with the box in some way.

Everything that is considered unmanly is a step outside of the box. Norms become extra clear when you break them, which can lead to punishment from those around you. Young men can be teased, or even beaten up if they do not follow the expectations of being heterosexual, or being tough and emotionally restrained. But it is important to remember that everyone has a choice – there are always other, constructive and nonviolent ways to be a boy or a man.

In 2009 two American researchers, Oransky and Fischer, summarised key masculinity norms affecting adolescent boys in the following way:

Constant Effort – to constantly strive to prove oneself tough and strong.

Emotional Restriction – being emotionally limited both regarding one's own feelings and to the feelings of others.

Heterosexism – the categorical avoidance of femininity and homosexuality.

Social Teasing – that one must be able to cope with other boys and being teased by other boys.

Oransky and Fischer also identified links between the masculinity norms and a range of risk behaviours among adolescent boys, including violent and aggressive behaviour, criminality, bullying, homophobic attitudes, reluctance to seek medical help, high-risk sexual behaviour, lower self-esteem and a greater tendency to have untreated mental illness.

This means that many of the norms imposed on adolescent boys increase the risk of using violence. A Swedish study found that many young people in Sweden encounter violence in their everyday lives, and that adolescent boys who are negative towards equality and have stereotypical perceptions of gender roles are at 4.4 times greater risk of committing acts of violence. (Youth survey, Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society, 2015). A corresponding relationship was confirmed in a study conducted in Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom, in which young men with restrictive notions of manhood were three to six times more likely to report having perpetrated sexual harassment (The Man Box: A Study of Being a Young Man, Promundo, 2017).

MÄN is working to change these norms, for an equal world without violence. Our support hotline (in Swedish) offers supportive conversations with adolescent boys. We also have a therapy office where young men aged 15–25 are offered conversational therapy with a psychologist or guidance officer.

Machofabriken (“the macho factory”) is a package of creative method videos, exercises and discussion questions based on the Man Box concept. Mentors in violence prevention (MVP) is a programme for schools that aims to stop and prevent men’s and boys’ violence. Read more about MÄN’s gender transformative work with young men.