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Men and Masculinity

The Male Sex Role

The usual conception of "sex role" is that a man or a woman enacts a general set of expectations attached to their sex. There are always two sex roles in any cultural context, one male and the other female. Masculinity and femininity are quite easily interpreted as internalized sex roles, the products of socialization. The reason why this socialization occurs, according to structural-functionalist sociology and anthropology, is that it is necessary for the stability or reproduction of the society as a whole. Sex differences in behavior (which are persistently exaggerated in the sex role literature) are thus explained on the small scale by social learning, on the large scale by the functioning of society.

Most often, sex roles are seen as the cultural elaboration of underlying biological sex differences. But the idea of a biological base can be dispensed with. The most sophisticated statement of sex role theory was made in the mid-1950s by Talcott Parsons, the leading sociological theorist of the time. In Parsons's argument, the distinction between male and female sex roles is treated as a distinction between "instrumental" and "expressive" roles in the family (when considered as a small group).

The idea that masculinity is the internalized male sex role allows for social change. Change was a central theme in the first detailed discussions of the male sex role that appeared in U.S.. social science journals in the 1950s. The most notable was a paper by Helen Hacker called "The New Burdens of Masculinity," which suggested that expressive functions were now being added to instrumental functions. Men were thus expected to show interpersonal skills as well as being "sturdy oaks." For the most part, however, the first generation of sex role theorists assumed that the roles were well-defined, that socialization went ahead harmoniously, and that sex role learning was a thoroughly good thing. Successful internalization of sex role norms contributed to social stability, mental health, and the performance of necessary social functions.

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