The health costs of male privilege

By Roy Ribitzky

Men’s assumed and undeserving position in society is coming at a huge cost to our health. The performance of hegemonic masculinity is forcing men of all races, classes and education to sacrifice their mental and physical health.

Men are expected to be strong, athletic, successful, competitive, in control, relentless, risk takers, promiscuous, able to drink a lot of alcohol, breadwinners and stoic. When men are compelled to take the impossible task of fitting into society’s socially constructed image of what a real man is, the consequences on their mental health are ignored. We all know men who partake in risky and unhealthy behaviors. But we also know men who are alone, depressed and in conflict with who they are versus what they are supposed to be. It is called the “paradox of masculinity.”

Men are the dominant beings in patriarchal societies: Most Fortune 500 CEOs are men, most federal judges are men, most representatives and senators in the United States Congress are men. So while men as a group are powerful in our society, men as individuals feel powerless in the struggle to be a hegemonic man. Like all oppressions, there are costs to those who are privileged. Institutionalized racism negatively affects whites because it prevents integration among the races. Additionally, homophobia negatively affects straight men because of the violence perpetrated by homophobic individuals onto any man whom they deem to be gay or feminine. In no way do racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc., affect dominant groups in the same way it affected marginalized groups and individuals, but the oppressor’s house was still built with the tools of oppression.

On average, men die at least five years earlier than women. Men are more likely to suffer from heart and lung disease than women. For every woman that commits suicide, four men do, and it is the second leading cause of death for college students. Men are more likely to engage in unsafe sex practices, unhealthy drinking behaviors and suffer injuries in sports and in the workplace. Men are not as likely as women to get emotional or medical support. Before and after Columbine, it has been young men who pulled the trigger.

So much for health experts, pharmaceuticals and gender stereotypes claiming that women are weaker than men. The facts suggest otherwise: Men need help. Our mental health can no longer afford to be ignored and cast aside as something only “weak men” worry about. At the root of these gendered medical disparities is not biology. Why more men are committing suicide, binge drinking, dying earlier than women and shooting their classmates is better understood by asking this question: Are men who believe in traditional masculine behaviors destined to struggle with health?

When heterosexual men engage in binge drinking, it is not to impress women – on the contrary, most college men drink heavily to gain approval from their male peers. Men are held to a certain standard where if one does not reach that level, they are seen as less of a man. Masculinity, the realm of behaviors, practices and beliefs men hold each other to, is the standard.

If men held each other to the amount of alcohol the average woman consumes, it would contradict the notion that hegemonic masculinity is superior to femininity. So while at some social gatherings both women and men like to see a man who can handle his liquor, it is not usually the woman who gives the guy a pat on the back when he chugs his fifth beer. These negative health affects are physically obvious when binge drinking. It is what we do not see that is equally dangerous.

Even when men gain approval from their peers, they are just as likely to suffer from shame, fear and depression as men who are marginalized or do not fit the hegemonic standard. Last year’s student suicides made constant headlines and forced communities to take a hard look into bullying and the idea that “boys will be boys.” Suicide is not a disease. In the context of gendered suicide, it is a series of emotional, psychological, verbal and physical abuses that culminate in one’s final belief that their life is not worth living anymore. In some cases of young gay teens and college students who committed suicide, it was because of the incessant homophobic bullying they suffered everyday. The same was true for the Columbine shooters.

When men are violent towards other men and women, when men are diagnosed as depressed, when men are pressured into living a stereotypical college lifestyle, we often see individuals making personal choices. What we ignore is that those actions are a result of a culture, or a code, that men engage in. If we do not critique this code, men will constantly be in a cycle of violence, fear and shame. Is masculinity really something worth dying for?

Roy Ribitzky is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]