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Fact Sheet: Stereotypes of Manhood

December 1, 2000

A stereotype is defined as a standardized mental picture held in common by a group of people. They are found in all cultures and may have a negative impact on social interaction.

Stereotypes of men cross many cultural lines and drive male behavior, often inspiring risk taking that can be lethal in the face of AIDS. Such behaviors profoundly affect their loved ones. Around the world, young men die more often than young women from accidents, violence, sexually transmitted diseases and drug use -- factors often related to ideas of "manhood."

What are our cultural expectations of boys and men, based on stereotypes? What messages do we send them? In the U.S., as in most cultures, men are traditionally expected to be physically and emotionally strong, dominant, daring and virile.

While biological factors do contribute to the behavioral differences between men and women, men's conduct is determined at least in part by expectations of how men should act -- expectations often shared by women as much as by men.


Some Traditional Stereotypes of What "Real Men" Do . . .

  • take risks

  • have frequent sexual intercourse

  • often have more than one sex partner

  • exercise authority over women (sometimes forcing sex on unwilling partners)

  • view safe sex as "unmanly," including the use of condoms

  • view drug-injecting as a risk worth taking

  • don't have sex with other men

  • don't express their emotions

  • don't take care of children

  • don't ask for help with personal problems

  • don't go to the doctor

Boys Will Be Boys

These cultural expectations of manliness are what our boys are trying to live up to. In the popular book Real Boys, author William Pollack talks about our tendency to treat boys as "little men."

Pollack states that, as a result of our expectations, our sons develop a "mask of masculinity" that fits our culture's boy code -- that unwritten but powerful code of conduct that puts boys and men into what he calls a "gender straightjacket" of rigidly accepted masculine behaviors.

Boys Learn the Stereotype of the "Real Man" . . .

  • when they don't live with a male role model who teaches them otherwise

  • when the traditional boy code is reinforced (by fathers, mothers, teachers, peers, movies, television, music)

  • when we try to toughen them up

  • when we tell them "big boys don't cry," and drive their feelings underground

  • when we accept or even encourage their aggressive behavior

  • when they see women treated as sex objects

  • when role models engage in risky behaviors

  • when their fathers and other male influences are aggressive or violent with women

Breaking the Boy Code

We can redefine the boy code. Boys will become the kind of men we teach them to be. Talking openly about the negative aspects of our traditional expectations of manliness will ease boys' anxieties, debunk myths and misconceptions and reassure them that it is acceptable to talk about their concerns.

Failure to openly discuss such issues can be the start of lifelong difficulties in talking about sex and other sensitive issues. Openness will encourage our boys to learn the facts rather than believe the many myths that surround the subjects of sex and manliness.

  • Boys whose fathers and other male family members offer a positive role model develop a more flexible vision of manhood, according to studies. They are more respectful in their relationships with women and less likely to take foolish risks to prove their manliness.

  • Boys who discuss sexual issues with a parent are less likely to give in to peer pressure and to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

  • Boys who think they might be gay are often terrified of how others might respond and fail to speak about their feelings unless actively encouraged to discuss their sexual concerns.

[See the Fact Sheet "Successful Prevention Programs"]

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This article was provided by American Association for World Health. It is a part of the publication AIDS: All Men -- Make a Difference!.