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The Minotaur:

College Men and the Labyrinth of Higher Education

· Higher Education

Today’s college man is the Minotaur trapped in a labyrinth. According to Greek mythology, a complex maze was built in order to imprison an unsightly beast called the Minotaur (Ovid, trans. 1961). Half human and half bull, the Minotaur was a ferocious and confused animal. The Labyrinth was so intricate that the architect who designed it could barely escape from its suffocating walls. College men and their overwhelmingly problematic behavior resemble a monster akin to the Minotaur and higher education is the labyrinth that educators have constructed to contain and minimize the problem (Quackenbush, 1991; Dietz-Uhler & Murrell, 1992; Kuh & Arnold, 1993; Qualls, Cox, & Schehr, 1992; D’Augelli, 1991).

The Minotaur did not choose its gruesome appearance. Nor did the beast decide to have great power and strength. It was the product of someone else's design. Similarly, college men are socialized in a society where they are conditioned to believe that “real men” must follow prescribed masculine gender roles (Brannon, 1976; Davis, 2002; Edwards, 2009; Harris III & Struve, 2009; Kimmel & Messner, 2004; Kimmel, 2008). Although college men benefit from male privilege within a system of patriarchy, they are also harmed by this same system (Johnson, 2005). From containing their emotions and demonstrating dominance to avoiding weakness and femininity (Davis, 2002; Edwards, 2009; Good & Wood, 1995; O’Neil, J. M., et. al., 1986), male gender role socialization has instilled harmful values in the minds of boys and men. As a result, we have seen a growing trend of high-risk behavior, apathy, mental health, and aversion to seek help, from men on college campuses (Davies, et. al., 2000; Davis, 2002; Edwards, 2009; Harris III & Struve, 2009).

Though frightful and unimaginable, the Minotaur was still human. Likewise, the behavior of men at college is undeniably privileged and alarmingly problematic, but this does not mean that college men are inherently wicked. Despite all of their flaws, college males are still students in need of support and development while navigating the complex challenges of campus life. Given their often disruptive and destructive behavior however, many educators understandably see college men as problems first and students second (Laker & Davis, 2004; Laker, 2005). As a result, many male students are disconnected from developmental support and end up trying to navigate the challenges of college on their own (Laker & Davis, 2011).

Men's Gender Role Socialization

Just as the Minotaur has its complicated origin, the image of today’s college man wreaking havoc on campuses was born out of a social construction of masculinity. From a very young age, boys are taught the rules of manhood, including physical strength, emotional stoicism, fear of femininity, power, dominance, and self-reliance (David & Brannon, 1976; Pollack & Shuster, 2001). Beginning with toy trucks and evolving into violent video games, boys are socialized to see the world from a rigid lens that confines their behavior to only those things acceptable according to the laws of masculinity (Pollack & Shuster, 2001). Exploring the epic tale of how boys become men can help educators begin to understand the need for asset-based educational approaches when working with male-identified students in college.

Building upon the feminist movement of the 1970’s, Robert Brannon’s (1976) seminal work regarding the four rules of masculinity helps to clarify how male gender role socialization contributes to sexism and negatively impacts men. The first rule of masculinity according to Brannon is “No Sissy Stuff” or the stigma associated with anything resembling femininity (as cited in Levine, 1998, p.13). The second rule of manhood is to “Be a Big Wheel” (Levine, 1998, p.13) or a need to have power and respect. The third rule of masculinity is to “Be a Sturdy Oak” (Levine, 1998, p.13) or someone who does not express or communicate their emotions and deals with problems independently. The final rule of what it means to be a man is to “Give ‘Em Hell” (Levine, 1998, p.13) or to only use forms of violence, aggression, or risk-taking when communicating. These four rules have come to be the powerful reference points for scholars and educators who have set out to understand male gender role socialization over the past forty years.

In a foundational book on the sweeping implications of masculine gender role socialization, Real Boys’ Voices, William Pollack and Todd Shuster (2001) discuss the Boy Code that effectively silences young men and boys according to strict masculine gender roles. Sharing narrative stories, Pollack and Shuster demonstrate the negative psychological effects of the social construct of masculine gender roles. From not acknowledging one’s own pain to dismissing the feelings of others, the Boy Code teaches young males to restrict their emotions in order to avoid being perceived as weak. Much of the violence, from shootings to sexual assault, perpetrated by men can be attributed to the ways in which boys are taught to navigate their emotions.

College men, according to Michael Kimmel (2008) in Guyland, find themselves at a pivotal moment in their lives between boyhood and manhood. This liminal state is disconnected from the support and direction experienced in childhood, while also remaining separated from the responsibilities associated with adulthood. This period in men’s lives that Kimmel calls Guyland has three distinct cultural attributes: a culture of entitlement, a culture of silence, and a culture of protection.

The culture of entitlement results from a lifetime of trying to adhere to the strict rules of masculinity. College men in Guyland feel as if they’ve sacrificed by conforming to masculine gender roles and as a result, are entitled to power and privilege. The culture of silence tells young men to deal with their pain and emotions on their own or else they may suffer the judgment and rejection that comes with appearing weak in the eyes of other men. They are also expected to police the emotional expression of other men, establishing an expectation of silence and fear among college men. This silence leads to a culture of protection in which men are shielded from responsibility for their actions. In addition to men staying silent, parents, friends, community members, and educators are all guilty of looking the other way and dismissing men’s behavior as boys just being boys. These three cultures of Guyland help to explain the what masculine gender role socialization looks like in the lives of college men today.

According to a study from Harris III and Struve (2009), college is meant to be a time for men to explore and understand their gender identity. Given the higher trends of problematic behaviors unique to college men, including sexual violence, substance abuse, and homophobia, there is a pressing need to better understand men’s gender identity in college. College provides an opportunity for men to experience a diversity of masculine gender expressions by interacting with men who are different in many ways. Indeed, Thompson, Pleck, and Ferrera (1992) discovered the need to broaden the definition of masculinity, exploring how identities like age, sexual orientation, race, and class may shape conceptions of manhood. Despite this diversity of masculinity, college men in the study explained that those men who conform to traditional stereotypes of manhood were regarded with more positive peer attention than other forms of expression. Finally, men in college feel as though they must compete with one another regarding who can demonstrate their masculine superiority in order to gain the respect they desire.

Edwards and Jones (2009) developed a theory of men’s identity development in college based on the experiences of college males describing how they came to understand their own masculinity. In order to meet the gendered expectations placed upon them by culture and society, college men described a performance of masculinity that resembled wearing a mask. The process of men’s identity formation involves learning about the rules of masculinity, putting on a mask that resembles the rules of manhood, wearing the mask, and grappling with other definitions of masculinity that might allow them to remove the mask.

Men learn what it means to be a man from external sources such as family, school, and the media. They then feel pressure to put on the mask of masculinity in order to meet society’s expectations of what it means to be a man and hide the fact that they cannot live up to those expectations. In college, men wear the mask either by partying or preparing for their lives after graduation. Those with more social privilege tend to party and others focus on their grades in order to succeed after college. The theory describes negative effects of wearing the mask of masculinity, including degrading women, homophobia, competition, and a fear of being vulnerable or showing emotion. Once college men come to terms with their own authentic understandings of masculinity, they begin to see where the mask does not fit for them. Critical incidents tend to be the catalyst for men to gain these developed understandings of their gender identity.

While many of the theories and research related to college men’s gender identity have broad implications, intersections of other identities such as race, need to be considered in order to understand the full complexity of masculine gender role socialization. In addition to experiencing the pressures to conform to masculine gender roles, Men of Color must navigate the challenges of racism. In a study by Shaun Harper (2004), Black masculinity in college is broadly defined by an engagement in sports and a pursuit of women. For Black male achievers in college, there is an added emphasis on taking care of business academically and working hard in order to secure their future success. These men saw leadership and responsibility as a core component of what it means to be a man. Victor Saenz and Beth Bukoski (2014) discuss the unique characteristics of masculinity through a Latino lens. Machismo or pride has complex implications for Latino men in college, including a resistance to seeking help or succeeding academically. Paradoxically, Latino college men feel afraid to fail academically which may be seen as being lazy, unintelligent, or unable to represent their family well. For achieving Latino males, success means finding support from family and friends (Perez & Taylor, 2016).

Gender-Role Conflict

While the ancient Greek stories mostly focus on the fear and horror evoked by the Minotaur, there is reason to believe the life of this half man and half beast creature was troubled (Ovid, trans. 1961). From birth, the Minotaur was a shameful embarrassment for King Minos, whose wife had fallen deeply in love with a bull and the result of her affair was the monster. In addition to bringing shame with his birth, the Minotaur was sentenced to live alone in a dungeon for fear that he might terrorize the world. Sadly, the Minotaur became a frightful legend that ended in murder. Similar to the Minotaur, the behavior of today’s college man is partly the bi-product of his own gendered identity.

The term Gender Role Conflict was coined by O’Neil et al. in 1986 and refers to the harmful and damaging effects of gender role socialization. Through analyzing the experiences of men and women attempting to live up to the gendered expectations set forth by society, O’Neil revealed that both sexes experience stress and anxiety. The effects of Gender Role Conflict for men include restrictive emotionality, lack of emotional responses to situations, limited affectionate behavior with other men, homophobia, tension between work and family, and public embarrassment from not meeting gender role expectations. This research was seminal in that it was one of the first empirical studies to demonstrate the ways in which men are negatively impacted by stereotypical masculine gender roles.

One of the most significant negative effects of Male Gender Role Conflict (MGRC) is related to help-seeking behaviors. Addis and Mahalik (2003) explored the many reasons why men are consistently less likely to seek help for an array of problems, such as depression and substance abuse, which they are disproportionally more at-risk to experience than women. A study by Padensky and Hammen (1981) revealed that men and women have no differences in the ways they experience depression and stress but men require significant negative outcomes, like physical harm, before seeking support. Asking for help requires men to go against everything they have been socialized around masculinity, including independence, strength, and emotional disconnection (Brannon, 1976; Pollack & Shuster, 2001). Unlike men, women’s socialization may not present the same restrictive consequences when it comes to asking for help.

In some ways, men’s avoidance to seeking help is yet another way in which hegemony and patriarchy are perpetuated. By not revealing or admitting weakness, men are able to acquire and maintain positions of authority (Addis & Mahalik, 2003). Though men experience significant problems, their socialization to conceal their emotions and cope on their own allows them to establish social dominance over women and others by appearing strong and in control. This façade of power is one platform through which male privilege is established and sustained.

In terms of the impact of MGRC on communication, Davis (2002) discovered that college men are concerned about their safety, how others will perceive them, and socially acceptable forms of male expression. College men feel frustrated by the limited scope of acceptable behaviors, defined largely by an overarching fear of anything feminine or homosexual. Another conflict is an overall discomfort with traditional macho definitions of masculinity that are expected of men. Finally, many college men feel left out and alone on their campuses. Considering the many resources for women at institutions of higher education, men feel as though they are an afterthought in the minds of their educators.

The theme of college men feeling left out might seem unbelievable considering the many forms of male privilege, but there is compelling research revealing the ways in which educators passively promote male gender role conflict. In his insightful doctoral dissertation study, Beyond bad dogs: Toward a pedagogy of engaging male students, Jason Laker (2005) interviewed student affairs practitioners in order to understand what resources and pedagogies are used in developing male students. Laker begins by examining research and assumptions in the field of student affairs, which have largely ignored men’s identity development. While many of the theories and tools used by college educators were designed from the perspective of male students, they do not effectively explore masculinity.

The assumption that college men do not need attention allows “men to be invisible and thus their roles to be free of critical analysis” (p. 165). Through this qualitative study, Laker discovered that practitioners do not have a conceptual foundation of men as gendered beings and as a result are ignoring a fundamental aspect of identity development with approximately half of their students. By acknowledging the gender of college men and engaging them authentically without shame, educators can be more effective in their student development efforts. Additionally, this masculinities-centered approach has the potential to reduce problematic high-risk behavior seen from college men and improve relationships between students and educators beyond those required for correcting bad conduct.


Asset-Based Approaches to Working with College Men


Jason Laker and Tracy Davis (2004) offer a conceptual framework for how student affairs professionals and educators at colleges and universities can approach their work with men. Beginning with the assumption that most student affairs practitioners do not have a theoretical foundation that views men as gendered beings, Laker and Davis argue that most educators are actually complicit in reinforcing masculine gender stereotypes and male privilege. In order to effectively work against the hegemonic culture of masculinity, educators must focus on three core principles when engaging college men: men’s gender identity development, multiple dimensions of identity, and an appropriate balance of challenge and support.


By understanding male gender role socialization and masculine gender role conflict, student affairs professionals can gain perspective on why college behave the way they do. Additionally, they can help their students understand these cultural and structural underpinnings as a way to separate the individual from the behavior. Next, positioning each male student in a complex narrative of social identities allows educators to see how masculinity is shaped by the various ways in which other identities intersect with gender. There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to working with college men, because their intersecting identities make each individual definition of masculinity unique. Lastly, college educators must appropriately balance both challenging and supportive strategies with their male students. Teaching men about their privilege and holding them accountable for their actions is critical and those approaches must be coupled with compassionate pedagogies in order to best support the overall development of male students.


Several studies have indicated the potential positive and beneficial impact of an asset-based perspective for educators working with college men. Edwards and Jones (2009) highlight that men in their study needed “encouragement and help in actually being the men that they wanted to be and not the men they felt they had to be” (p. 224). Creating environments where men can analyze the masculinity mask and take it off without fear of judgment provides incredibly powerful opportunities for male student identity development. Harris and Struve (2009) discuss the importance for the men in their study to be exposed to curricular and co-curricular opportunities to reflect on masculinity and engage with others who have different expressions of masculinity. Given that most college men are caught between the pressures of their peers’ definitions of masculinity and their own desires to fit in, college educators are uniquely positioned to help men negotiate their authentic understandings of manhood.


Leveraging an asset-based educational framework with college men, like the one outlined by Laker and Davis (2004) can have profound impacts on the experiences of male students. Engaging men as gendered beings has the potential to improve men’s attitudes about counseling and increase their help-seeking behaviors (Addis & Mahalik, 2003; Chiang, Hunter, & Yeh, 2004; Good & Wood, 1995; Kiselica & Englar-Carlson, 2010). Approaching college men from an asset-based perspective helps in their development a social justice allies and advocates against sexual violence (Bridges & Mather, 2015; Broido, 2000; Fabiano et al., 2003). Finally, anti-deficit oriented educational perspectives have been shown to promote the overall success of specific populations of college men, including high-achieving Black and Latino male students (Harper, 2010; Perez & Taylor, 2016). Indeed, an asset-based educational approach that fully acknowledges college men as complex gendered beings has the potential to dramatically impact the development of male students and improve the climate of college campuses broadly.

A Different Ending

Research on college men is growing by leaps and bounds. Much work has been done to discover the gendered experiences of men in higher education, which has revealed important insights about the implications of gender socialization and gender role conflict (Bridges & Mather, 2015; Fabiano, et. al., 2003; Harper, 2004; Harper, S. R., Harris, F., III, & Mmeje, K., 2005; Kiselica, & Englar-Carlson 2010; Laker & Davis, 2004). Other scholars have much to say about the treacherous state of today’s male students (Quackenbush, 1991; Dietz-Uhler & Murrell, 1992; Kuh & Arnold, 1993; Qualls, Cox, & Schehr, 1992; D’Augelli, 1991), but there is very little scholarship discussing educational approaches that view men from an asset-based perspective. An example of an asset-based approach is one which primarily focuses on student success factors, like pre-college socialization and readiness, college achievement, and post-college success (Harper, 2010).

After being trapped inside the labyrinth, the Minotaur is hunted and killed at the pleasure of King Minos. But what if the story ended differently? What if instead of seeing the Minotaur as a frightful beast, the King saw a unique individual with strengths that could benefit others? What if the Minotaur was seen as an asset instead of a deficit? Many of the commonly held assumptions in higher education do not view college men as unique individuals with strengths. Educators seldom see male students as assets with solutions to the problems happening at institutions of higher education. Given the privileged, disruptive and often destructive behavior of college men, it is understandable that educators see them as problems first and students second. By reframing the outlook and approaching men with an asset-based perspective, however, college educators have the potential to change how the story will end for their male students and their campuses.


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