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Niobe Way, Ed.D. Headshot

Penn State and the Crisis of Masculinity

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HEALTH IMPACT MASCULINITY
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The question on everyone's mind since the news broke of the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, and the ensuing firing and arrests of men heralded as leaders of a community and university for decades is, "How could they?" How could a man commit such terrible crimes? How could the witness not intervene? And how could men, respected men, with knowledge of these acts, not respond more aggressively, not make the safety and health of a child more valued than anything else?

The answer to these questions, according to decades of social science research, is simple. Our norms of masculinity -- what we teach our boys and men about what it means to be male -- is the primary reason why men disconnect from their own humanity and commit such acts of violence and betrayal.

The lone cowboy -- the cultural icon of masculinity in America -- suggests that "real men" should be emotionally stoic and independent; they should not need or rely on others; and they should, under no circumstances, cry. We repeat these expectations in our advertisements, books, movies and television shows. Ask any teenage boy, as I have over the past 20 years as a developmental psychologist, and they will tell you the same thing. To be a man is to be "emotionless," independent and tough.

Yet these teenage boys will also tell you something else. They will tell you not only that boys aren't really like that, but that they shouldn't be, because it's bad for their health. Boys will say things like "It might be nice to be a girl, because then you wouldn't have to be emotionless" or "My ideal best friend is a close, close friend who I could say anything to... 'cause sometimes you need to spill your heart out to somebody and if there's nobody there then you gonna keep it inside, and you will have anger. So you need somebody to talk to, always." The hundreds of boys that have participated in my studies, from across the country and of all races, underscore their desire for emotional expression, for intimate friendships and for the importance of such expression for their mental health.

Decades of research supports my findings. Sociologist Kirsten Springer studied 1,000 middle-aged men, and found that those who most rigidly adhered to ideals of masculinity (such as emotional stoicism and toughness) reported the worst physical health over a 40-year period. Psychologists Joseph Pleck and James Mahalik also found that adhering to norms of masculinity such as emotional stoicism for boys and men is significantly associated with poor mental and physical health and with high rates of risky behavior and violence.

Primatologist Frans De Waal, developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, among many other scientists, conclude that we need a complete "overhaul" in our conceptions of human nature to account for the extensive research that underscore our deeply empathic, cooperative, and relational nature. Caring about what others think and feel is the reason why, according to Charles Darwin, we have survived as a species. Being emotionally sensitive and caring about others is not a sign of being "girly" or "gay" but a core element of being human, essential for surviving and thriving.

Yet, we raise our boys to strive for emotional stoicism, independence and autonomy. We tell our teenage boys not only to think for themselves, but also not to care about what others think or feel. We foster ways of being that are not natural and do not bring about psychological or physical well being for boys or men. What happened at Penn State is the result of raising boys in this way -- boys who are taught to go against their nature grow up to be disconnected from their humanity.

If we help boys -- and men -- to stay connected to their humanity, we will, according to the research, see fewer examples of such brutal behavior. Psychologist Mary Gordon created the "roots of empathy" program in Canada 15 years ago -- a program that is being implemented in hundreds of schools -- to foster empathy among boys and girls. This program has significantly decreased the rates of bullying and aggressive behavior among boys and girls in schools.

It's time we understand that being human and being a man should be one and the same; that the reason why we have survived for so long as a species is because we, men and women, care about others and respond when others are in danger and need our help. These are the answers that would have prevented a lifelong trauma for the children who were the victims at Penn State.

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