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What’s Belonging Got to Do With Masculinity?

Men and Masculinities
February 23, 2015 Terrell L.Strayhorn

Man up. Stop being a b*tch. No homo. All of these phrases signal how traditional notions of hegemonic masculinity become easily embedded within the normative structures, practices, and social interactions of our society. I’ve witnessed on many occasions young children, under the age of 6, newcomers to the English language utter these words as a way of protecting themselves from the looming insults that threaten all those who dare transgress boundaries for acceptable masculine behaviors. Insults that threaten men who express affection, emotion, or vulnerability. Men who cry, fear, or whine. Men who watch “chick flicks,” wear pink, write poetry, or win a baking contest. Why do so many men—young and old—use preambles of this kind to protect against such threats? Because contrary to popular belief not all men desire to be breadwinners, sexually promiscuous, violent, or athletically competitive, but all men (and women) yearn to be accepted, respected, needed, wanted, and loved. All men (and people) want to belong.

Sense of belonging is an important concept, a social psychological construct, and, as I’ve written elsewhere (Strayhorn, 2012), a key to educational success for all students. Sense of belonging is a basic human need; all people want to belong. It’s a fundamental motive sufficient to drive human behavior; people do things, say things, and even adapt their own behaviors and thought to satisfy belongingness needs. Years of research on college student populations suggest that belonging takes on heightened importance in certain contexts (e.g., college campus, residence halls, fraternities), at certain times, and among certain populations. It is related to mattering and finding a sense of belonging is associated with positive outcomes such as achievement, adjustment, and satisfaction, to name a few.

Two quick anecdotes about belonging and masculinity for college men. First, I gave a keynote address at a conference held at a Midwestern university last year and met a young African American man, Junius (a pseudonym), who was majoring in electrical engineering and “hoped to work for the military one day, [he thought].” Given my research on ethnic minorities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, I conveyed my keen interest in Junius' line of work, cited a few examples that demonstrated my general knowledge of electrical engineering, and then probed why Junius chose engineering as a major. “Well, my parents always told me that I need to be an engineer so I can make a living and take good care of my wife and kids.” Surprised by the implied biography, I replied: “Oh, I didn’t realize you were married, with wife and kids. How many do you have?” He started abruptly: “Oh, no, I don’t have any kids and I’m not married (laughing). Actually I don’t even ever see myself getting married. That’s just what my parents used to say…like that’s what I’m supposed to do as a man.” Convinced that the country needs many more STEM majors generally and engineers specifically, yet unsure that Junius was one of them, I asked: “So what do YOU want to do as Junius?” After a long pause, Junius admitted that he really didn’t know but wanted to work a job that he enjoyed, found rewarding, and felt like a valued member of the team. In essence, belonging. All men (and people) want to belong.

One of many college sites where traditional notions of masculinity are circulated, exchanged, and become embedded in the norms, traditions, and beliefs is fraternities. Several years ago, my research team and I were engaged in a multi-year qualitative study of men of color. I met a young man who shared the following sentiments in a focus group interview:

I did everything they asked me to do when I ‘rushed’ the fraternity. My would-be older brothers told me to do things that I thought I would never do. But I did them, especially since it was for those who would be my brothers if I got picked [to join the fraternity]. Since there were several of us trying to rush, it was important to ‘stand out’ from the rest…it was really competitive. It was long nights and so many wild parties…but to hang out with the brothers, you had to learn how to party and party hard.

Partying hard, bragging about sexual conquests (usually of women), and competition are traditional masculine notions. In fact, the whole concept of brotherhood has been conceptualized as traditional masculinity (Jackson, 2012). And despite this young man’s adherence to the “brother code” (Dancy, 2012), he was not selected to join the fraternity, which triggered strong feelings of rejection, emotional vulnerability, and distress in him. “I wanted to cry but I didn’t. I wanted to hide because I was so hurt and let down. I didn’t want to see them again. I felt so bad but I knew that I had to be strong.” (Me: Is that what you wanted…to be strong?) “No, I wanted to be selected, to be in, to be part of the fraternity (laughing).” That is a near universal refrain of belonging. Because, yes, all men (and people) want to belong.


  1. What’s masculinity, in your own words?
  2. What’s belonging, in your own words?
  3. What’s the relationship between belonging and masculinity, in your own words?
  4. What can we do as college student educators to challenge hegemonic masculinity and offer students less restrictive avenues to healthy masculinities, or should this be our goal? 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Terrell Lamont Strayhorn is Professor and Director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise (CHEE) at The Ohio State University, where he also serves as senior research associate or faculty associate of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, Todd A. Bell National Resource Center, and Criminal Justice Research Center. Author of 8 books, more than 60 chapters, and over 100 journal articles, reports, and reviews, Strayhorn has been named “one of the most prolific contemporary scholars” in higher education by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Diverse Issues, and “Top 20 to Know in Education” by BusinessFirst magazine. Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, Professor Strayhorn is Faculty-in-Residence of the NASPA Men and Masculinities Knowledge Community.


Dancy, T. E., III. (2012). The brother code: Manhood and masculinity among African American males in college. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Jackson, B. A. (2012). Bonds of brotherhood: Emotional and social support among college Black men. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 642, 61-71.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success. New York, NY: Routledge.