Women have used the tactic for years: Call a guy a sissy, and he'll try and fix the sputtering carburetor. Now, a new study demonstrates just how sensitive men can be to attacks on their manhood. The result might shed light on how males are adjusting to changing roles in society.
Freud argued that people respond to attacks on their identity by exaggerating the threatened trait. Scientists have noted since the 1950s that men who were insecure about their masculinity were more likely to be racist and authoritarian, though few sociologists have tested this by manipulating men's insecurities experimentally.
To investigate the effects of psychological emasculation, sociologist Robb Willer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and colleagues gave 111 Cornell undergraduates a gender identity survey, and regardless of the answers, told half that they appeared extremely feminine and half that they seemed terribly masculine. The researchers then surveyed students' attitudes towards politics, homosexuality, and car purchases. Males who were told they were effeminate were more likely to support the Iraq war, Bush's handling of the war, and a ban on gay marriage. Threatened men also expressed greater interest in buying an SUV, and they were willing to pay up to $7,000 more for the vehicle than their nonthreatened peers. Female students, on the other hand, had similar responses regardless of where they were told they fell on the gender continuum, Willer will report at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Philadelphia on 15 August.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel of Stony Brook University in New York advises against generalizing the results of the study to all American males. "There's no way that 20 year old college guys are secure in their masculinity," he says. Older men wouldn't show the same effect, he predicts. But social historian Rocco Capraro of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York, says that if the work holds up in additional studies, the results suggest men aren't gracefully accepting their changing role in society. As women move into traditionally male domains, men are taking up more female roles and are being put on the defensive. But instead of fighting back with hypermasculinity, men should accept the changing times, Capraro says. And leave the engine to their female mechanic.