Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Starting to Define Healthy Masculinity

by Patrick McGann
Director of Strategy and Planning

When I typed in “defining healthy masculinity” to do a Google search, the first link that came up was to “Choosing Healthy Masculinity and What That Means” on the Men Can Stop Rape Web site, and I thought, oh, good, maybe we’ve already defined it. “Healthy masculinity” seems to be a term gaining credence in world of gender-based violence prevention. I use it all the time. We’re all about healthy masculinity, I say. And I mean it. Even if I don’t know exactly what it means.

Joe Samalin (2009), my colleague who wrote “Choosing Healthy Masculinity…” gives examples – it “is a group of high school boys volunteering at a local domestic violence shelter, it is straight and cis-gendered college men partnering as allies with LGBTQ student organizations, and it is the enlisted men and officers in the Air Force who come to us for training on how to create safer workplaces.” But when it comes to defining it, he claims “there is no single definition or ideal of healthy masculinity—there are as many definitions as there are men.” I love Joe; it’s an honor to work with him, but that is a lot of definitions.

So is healthy masculinity a kind of “I know it when I see it” thing? Or is it, “You do your healthy masculinity, I do mine”? Maybe it’s the recovering academic in me, but I’m feeling definition-deficient. Maybe I’m holding onto some grand ivory tower illusion that a definition will help solidify our shared understanding of the term.

I did manage to track down one attempt to define healthy masculinity. Michael Obsatz (2003) takes a stab at it, listing 15 qualities, all of them beginning with P:

1. Purpose
2. Power for and with, not over
3. Passion
4. Paternity
5. Piety
6. Persistence
7. Presence
8. Patience
9. Pardon
10. Partnership
11. Pliability
12. Playfulness
13. Peacemaking
14. Politeness
15. Perspective

He goes onto explain each of the 15 in a sentence or two. While I am a fan of the letter P and while I appreciate his comprehensiveness, I was hoping for a little more compactness. So, I’ll attempt something briefer, with the recognition that it’s very much a definition in progress. Healthy masculinity:

• involves the ability to recognize unhealthy aspects of masculinity – those features that are harmful to the self and/or others
• replaces risky and violent masculine attitudes and behaviors with empathetic behaviors and attitudes that benefit men and others
• is based on supporting gender equity and other forms of equity
• includes social and emotional skills used to positively challenge in yourself and in others unhealthy masculine attitudes and behaviors

Anyone else out there feel the need to define? If so, indulge your elucidation tendencies and say what you would keep or change about these two definitions of healthy masculinity.


Obsatz, M. (2003). From shame-based masculinity to holistic masculinity. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from the Anger Resources Web site:

Samalin, J. (2009). Choosing healthy masculinity and what that means. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from the Men Can Stop Rape Web site:

Patrick McGann, Ph.D. has been involved with Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) since the organization’s inception in 1997. As Director of Strategy and Planning, Patrick co-authored a sexual assault prevention strategy for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in 2008 and oversaw the development of the HURTS ONE. AFFECTS ALL. public education campaign for DoD in 2010. He regularly gives presentations across the country on engaging men in the prevention of gender-based violence. Share

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