The issue of hyper-masculinity in college men is well documented. So, I’ll spare some space by telling you that it’s a problem up front. Instead, I would like to highlight some of the nuanced aspects of what I will call “masculine culture” in college settings. In particular, I think it’s important to identify the “why” these things manifest, and the “how” to engage these conversations from my perspective.
We understand that male relationships, friendships that is, are often complicated in their simplicity. Typically, these relationships have the same general characteristics regardless of where they are taking place (in the United States at least). Often, the relationships lack emotional depth, revolve around “masculine” activities, and possess some level of mutual degradation. But why? Here are some conclusions I have made which have been informed by my experiences and research.
Striving for Status: Evolutionary psychology suggests that striving for high(er) social status is a process that has been embedded in our DNA. Status is often explained as a finite resource and the more someone else has, in this case another male, the less that is available for others. I think it’s plain to see how this tends to play out in our male groups. This view of status as a resource that has a limit, results in competition, which is the next piece of the bro tie puzzle.
Competing for…Everything: If status is a finite resource, then clearly there must be competition for what’s left of it, in a society that gives some a leg up over others at birth based on unearned privileges (a conversation for another time). These competitions tend to manifest in countless ways, but some more subtle but potent competitions are competing for high status friends (fraternity/group involvement), competing for better appearance physical and otherwise, and competing for sexual partners. All of these competitions have their own sets of issues and lead to our last piece of the puzzle: comparison.
Literal Pissing Contests: Anyone who thinks the old adage “pissing contest” is not about literal pissing contests clearly hasn’t spent much time in fraternity houses. Men are constantly competing and comparing everything and anything. Comparison is the only way to know if you’ve gained, or lost status day-to-day or week-to-week. Within groups of male friends, these comparisons often come while recapping a long night out where they may discuss how much they drank, who they slept with, or who did or did not throw up (all status symbols). As we can see, this will only reinforce the desire for more status and begins the cycle again!
But what can we do about it? Working against evolution isn’t the easiest thing we’ve done. But I think it’s easier than we think.
If you know me, it’s likely you know that I wear bow ties more than long ties. Initially, this started as my own status symbol, but eventually turned into something more. Any time I’ve been wearing a bow tie at a conference with young, undergraduate men, I’ve had a group of at least four or five, run up to me after a presentation and say something along the lines of “cool bow tie!” Every time. So, I started to think about this and what it meant. In reality, it is my way into these conversations with students I know or those I’ve just met.
The bow tie, in their minds, gave me status and therefore credibility as a “man.” Dysfunctional though it is, it gave me the opportunity to flip the striving for status narrative. Now, I began to use my status symbol(s) as a facilitator of these conversations. I began to be able to model for young men that high social status can mean something different than being a “man’s man.”
These conversations became about “high status” men being educated, thoughtful leaders who made a difference in their community. But also, these “high status” men weren’t judgmental of other men’s ways of being. Though they don’t condone asocial behaviors, they understand that patience and collaboration is needed in the reeducation of young men. What they need, rather than a lecture or a punishment (barring gross criminal offenses of course), is a mentor or an ally. A person who can likely be the first positive male role model they have had in their lives to that point. A person they can admire for how they treat people well, not for how they demean others.
I know what I have written here isn’t groundbreaking or complicated, and that’s the point. I don’t believe it needs to be in order to make a difference. What we really need are men who are willing to find their “bow ties” and jump into these conversations about flipping the script. In order for others to do better, we need to first be better and show them the way. Eighteen years of indoctrination and hundreds of thousands of years is hard to change immediately, but it starts by finding that bow tie into the conversation.