Guys Have to Earn Their Status

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Me Tarzan. You Jane.

Well, not necessarily, although the ape man was doing what comes naturally when he asserted his manhood on the lady from England. There are biological, as well as social, reasons why a man has to prove his manliness, and a woman does not.

And a new effort to explain that difference between the genders concludes that the rights of passage for males at least partly explains why men are more aggressive than women. Manhood, according to psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello of the University of South Florida, is a "status that is elusive (it must be earned) and tenuous (it must be demonstrated repeatedly through actions.)"

So we guys must constantly prove that we are worthy of our "precarious manhood" by going off to slay the savage beast, if someone is watching, but you girls don't have to do anything to prove your womanhood. It came with the cradle.

The Florida researchers are building on the global research of anthropologist David D. Gilmore of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who found that certain male traits are present in diverse cultures around the world. A boy does not automatically become a man. He must earn it against what Gilmore called "powerful odds."

That most likely has an evolutionary basis. In the old days, before the Internet, males had to earn their status by protecting the hearth, proving they could be good material for mating, and even slaying an occasional beast. But when he could no longer slay the beast, he would lose that status, showing that manhood is indeed tenuous. Womanhood, according to Gilmore, is biological but manhood is a "cultural construct."

To keep his manhood he must remain aggressive, proving constantly that he is worthy of the status.

To Keep Manhood, Men Must Remain Aggressive

The need to slay the beast may be less important today, but the Florida researchers show that males still feel the need to prove their manhood, which is not likely to surprise anyone, regardless of gender. But they take it a step further. It may not be an altogether bad thing.

Bosson and Vandello describe a series of experiments in a study published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science showing that when a man feels his manhood is threatened he will likely become very aggressive. But that aggressiveness might also relieve his anxiety. Like so many studies in this field, all the participants are college students, and not necessarily representative of society as a whole.

In one of their experiments, male participants were divided into two groups. Some of the men were required to braid a woman's hair (stereotypically feminine) and the others "performed a gender-neutral rope-braiding task." They were then asked if they would like to hit a punching bag, or solve a puzzle. As expected, the men who had performed the feminine task were much more eager to punch a bag than the men who had braided a rope instead of a woman's hair.

In a subsequent study, after braiding the hair and the rope, the men put on boxing gloves and punched the bag, which had been equipped with a sensor to measure the intensity of the punch. All the guys punched the bag, but the men who had braided the hair blasted it a lot harder than the guys who had braided the rope.

Finally, in a third experiment, all the men braided the hair instead of the rope. And only half were allowed to punch the bag.

Aggression as a Manhood-Restoring Tactic?

"Men who punched the bag after the hairstyling task exhibited less anxiety than men who did not punch, suggesting that aggressive displays can effectively down-regulate men's anxiety in the wake of manhood threats," the study concludes. Thus, manhood restored, anxiety displaced.

But the researchers add that it might not work for all men. Especially little guys.

"To the extent that aggression is a manhood-restoring tactic, however, it is likely that men use it strategically by calculating when it is most likely to pay off successfully," they note. "Thus, for example, the effects of manhood threats on aggression may differ as a function of men's size and strength. Indeed, recent studies have shown that larger, stronger men are more prone to aggression, suggesting that these men might be especially likely to use and benefit from action to restore manhood."

So have at it Tarzan. You've got game.