gender: masculinity

In February, CBS Sunday Morning aired a short news segment on the bro hug phenomenon: a supposedly new way heterosexual (white) men (i.e., bros) greet each other. According to this news piece, the advent of the bro hug can be attributed to decreased homophobia and is a sign of social progress.

I’m not so sure.

To begin, bro-ness isn’t really about any given individuals, but invokes a set of cultural norms, statuses, and meanings. A stereotypical bro is a white middle-class, heterosexual male, especially one who frequents strongly masculinized places like fraternities, business schools, and sport events. (The first part of the video, in fact, focused on fraternities and professional sports.) The bro, then, is a particular kind of guy, one that frequents traditionally male spaces with a history of homophobia and misogyny and is invested in maleness and masculinity.

The bro hug reflects this investment in masculinity and, in particular, the masculine performance in heterosexuality. To successfully complete a bro hug, the two men clasp their right hands and firmly pull their bodies towards each other until they are or appear to be touching whilst their left hands swing around to forcefully pat each other on the back. Men’s hips and chests never make full contact. Instead, the clasped hands pull in, but also act as a buffer between the men’s upper bodies, while the legs remain firmly rooted in place, maintaining the hips at a safe distance. A bro hug, in effect, isn’t about physical closeness between men, but about limiting bodily contact.

Bro hugging, moreover, is specifically a way of performing solidarity with heterosexual men. In the CBS program, the bros explain that a man would not bro hug a woman since a bro hug is, by its forcefulness, designed to be masculinity affirming. Similarly, a bro hug is not intended for gay men, lesbians, or queer people. The bro hug performs and reinforce bro identity within an exclusively bro domain. For bros, by bros. As such, the bro hug does little to signal a decrease in homophobia. Instead, it affirms men’s identities as “real” men and their difference from both women and non-heterosexual men.

In this way, the bro-hug functions similarly to the co-masturbation and same-sex sexual practices of heterosexually identified white men, documented by the sociologist Jane Ward in her book, Not Gay. Ward argues that when straight white men have sex with other straight white men they are not necessarily blurring the boundaries between homo- and heterosexuality. Instead, they are shifting the line separating what is considered normal from what is considered queer.  Touching another man’s anus during a fraternity hazing ritual is normal (i.e., straight) while touching another man’s anus in a gay porn is queer.  In other words, the white straight men can have sex with each other because it is not “real” gay sex. 

Similarly, within the context of a bro hug, straight white men can now bro hug each other because they are heterosexual. Bro hugging will not diminish either man’s heterosexual capital. In fact, it might increase it. When two bros hug, they signal to others their unshakable strength of and comfort in their heterosexuality. Even though they are touching other men in public, albeit minimally, the act itself reinforces their heterosexuality and places it beyond reproach.

Hubert Izienicki, PhD, is a professor of sociology at Purdue University Northwest. 

In 2015 I wrote an essay in which I speculated about why we don’t see men kicking each other in the balls more often. We leave no stones unturned here at SocImages, folks.

I argued that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it would reveal to everyone an inherent and undeniable biological weakness in every man, not just the man getting kicked.  In other words, it’s a secret pact to protect the myth of masculine superiority.

I expected a reaction, but I was genuinely surprised at what transpired. In public — in the comments — men debated strategy, arguing that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it’s actually a difficult blow to land or would escalate the fight. But in private — in my email inbox — men sent me hushed messages of you-are-so-right-though.

This is interesting because people rarely bother to go to the trouble of googling me, finding my email address, and writing me a note. The comments thread is right there and there’s a link to my twitter account at the end of the post. Most people criticize or compliment me publicly. Moreover, the emails have never stopped coming. I get one now every couple months — almost two years later — which I think means that ball kicking is something men (and it’s always men) are quietly seeking information about.

So, what do they say in private to me?

The one I received today was characteristic and the guy who wrote it gave me permission to share some of it. I’ll call him “Guy.”

First, Guy agreed that the vulnerability of having testicles is distressing to him specifically because he has been taught that boys and men are supposed to be stronger than girls and women.

Boys usually think of themselves as being tough and we want to be tough and tougher than girls especially. The idea that a girl could hurt a big strong boy like me is ridiculous right. But then I got older and learned about testicles and that girls didnt have them and i was embarrassed that I had a weak spot and they didn’t.

Second, he acknowledged that knowing that other people know about this vulnerability adds to the stress of having it.

I always hate in movies when a guy gets hit in the balls and drops especially if a woman did the kicking and if I am watching it with women. I don’t want anyone to know I have a weak spot or to acknowledge it. I still try to workout and be big and strong but I always feel vulnerable down there. My older sister and i used to play fight and i started getting bigger than her and winning. Then one time she faked a kick to my groin and i jumped back and covered myself. She had this self satisfied smurk on her face like ya dont mess with me and i never did again.

This vulnerability, Guy emphasizes, isn’t just a trivial thing; it’s everything. It affects how he feels about his whole body (“your only as strong as your weakest link”) and it’s psychologically consuming (“I hate knowing this”).

Your only as strong as your weakest link and guys have the weakest link on the body. I hate knowing this and I’m afraid women realize this and I think alot of guys feel the same even if they dont admit it.

“They dont admit it,” Guy writes, which means it’s a secret shame. And, like many of the men who’ve emailed me, he thanks me for putting it out there in public and says that it’s a relief to actually talk about it.

Anyway I think you really hit a nerve with this article and I think its kinda therapeutic to talk about it cause I usually keep it to myself. Keep up the good work and Take Care!

I think this is amazing.

I’m touched, first of all, by the emotional vulnerability that Guy and the other (mostly young) men who’ve emailed me have shown. Behind all of the pretending like they’re a “big strong boy,” these guys are nervous, worried that their front is going to be exposed and everyone is going to see them as a fraud and a failure. Not a Real Man at all.

In fact, they worry that everyone already sees them that way. The sister’s smirk tells Guy, in no uncertain terms, that his front is transparent. “I won’t expose you,” it says. “Not today. But I can and we both know it.” No matter how hard he tries — no matter how big his biceps or bank account, no matter how corner his office is or how hot his wife — he’s got those goddamn testicles and they’re right there.

Guy explains that it makes him want to compensate. He works out to be “big and strong.” But it’ll never be enough. He says, “I always feel vulnerable down there.” He feels vulnerable anyway. There’s really nothing he can do.

This is telling us something profound about what it feels like to be a man in America today. Told to live up to an impossible standard of invulnerability; they inevitably feel like failures. Told specifically to be more invulnerable than (and not vulnerable to) women, by biological accident, they’re not. What a cruel twist of the testicles. It hurts.

And I wonder how much of what men do in their lives is a response to this psychic injury. How many of Donald Trump’s shenanigans, for example, have to do with the fact that he knows, and he knows that everyone knows, that someone could just drop him with a kick to the balls at any time? It sounds absurd to blame the risk of nuclear war on Trump’s testicles, but these young men are telling me that, right around puberty — as they are graduating from boys to men, doubling down on their difference from girls and women, and being told that to earn others’ esteem they have to be bigger and stronger — they have a disturbing revelation that compels them to embark on a lifetime of proving they’re not weak.

Until we all agree to let men be human, they’re going to keep living lives of quiet desperation. And the rest of us have to keep fearing what they will do to avoid being exposed.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Both men and women face a lot of pressure to perform masculinity and femininity respectively. But, ironically, people who rigidly conform to rules about gender, those who enact perfect performances of masculinity or femininity, are often the butt of jokes. Many of us, for example, think the male body builder is kind of gross; we suspect that he may be compensating for something, dumb like a rock, or even narcissistic. Likewise, when we see a bleach blond teetering in stilettos and pulling up her strapless mini, many of us think she must be stupid and shallow, with nothing between her ears but fashion tips.

The fact that we live in a world where there are different expectations for men’s and women’s behavior, in other words, doesn’t mean that we’re just robots acting out those expectations. We actually tend to mock slavish adherence to those rules, even as we carefully negotiate them (breaking some rules, but not too many, and not the really important ones).

In any case, I thought of this when I saw this ad. The woman at the other end of the table is doing (at least some version of) femininity flawlessly.  The hair is perfect, her lips exactly the right shade of pink, her shoulders are bare. But… it isn’t enough.  The man behind the menu has “lost interest.”

It’s unfortunate that we spend so much time telling women that the most important thing about them is that they conform to expectations of feminine beauty when, in reality, living up to those expectations means performing an identity that we disdain.

We do it to men, too.  We expect guys to be strictly masculine, and when they turn out to be jocks and frat boys, we wonder why they can’t be nicer or more well-rounded.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at There’s Research on That!

With a group of coal miners standing behind him, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first 100 days reversing Obama-era climate change policies, claiming that he would bring back coal while putting miners to work. Yet, can or will coal mining jobs come back, and will this lead to economic and social development in places like Appalachia?

Probably not.

Much research has shown that the loss of mining jobs in the U.S. is largely due to mechanization and labor-cutting management practices — not environmental protections. Thus, placing the blame on climate change policies is unfounded. Instead, it’s used to scapegoat environmentalists and draw our attention away from corporations and changes in the global economy.

Even if Trump’s executive order could bring back the jobs, it might not have the effects coal miners are hoping for. Researchers find that mining does not always lead to economic growth and well-being. Thus, keeping coal mines open does not guarantee economic prosperity and well-being. A study found that in West Virginia the counties with coal mines have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates compared to surrounding counties without active mines.

Moreover, sociologist William Freudenberg argues that economies based solely around mining are prone to booms and busts, subject to the whims of the industry. Towns in Appalachian coal country and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota become “addicted” to extraction. But dependence on fossil fuel industries is economically precarious.

Why don’t these facts change miners’ deep ties to mining as a way of life? Because many have strong cultural connections to mining, often coming from multiple generations of miners. Through her experiences working in a coal mine, anthropologist Jessica Smith Roylston saw how the miner identity connects with masculine ideals of hard work and providing for one’s family.

Photo by nottsexminer; flickr creative commons.

Industry has tapped into these sentiments to generate public support and weave the industry into the fabric of community life. Mining companies, particularly in Appalachia, have actively worked to create a positive image through public relations and other cultural and political tactics, such as sponsoring high school football tournaments and billboard ads.

These corporate strategies place the blame on outsiders and environmentalists, provide a cover for environmentally destructive and job-cutting industry practices, and keep coal politically relevant.

Erik Kojola is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota interested in the environment, labor, social movements and political economy.

The average man thinks he’s smarter than the average woman. And women generally agree.

It starts early. At the age of five, most girls and boys think that their own sex is the smartest, a finding consistent with the idea that people tend to think more highly of people like themselves. Around age six, though, right when gender stereotypes tend to take hold among children, girls start reporting that they think boys are smarter, while boys continue to favor themselves and their male peers.

They may have learned this from their parents. Both mothers and fathers tend to think that their sons are smarter than their daughters. They’re more likely to ask Google if their son is a “genius” (though also whether they’re “stupid”). Regarding their daughters, they’re more likely to inquire about attractiveness.

Image via New York Times.

Once in college, the trend continues. Male students overestimate the extent to which their males peers have “mastered” biology, for example, and underestimate their female peers’ mastery, even when grades and outspokenness were accounted for.  To put a number on it, male students with a 3.00 G.P.A. were evaluated as equally smart as female students with a 3.75 G.P.A.

When young scholars go professional, the bias persists. More so than women, men go into and succeed in fields that are believed to require raw, innate brilliance, while women more so than men go into and succeed in fields that are believed to require only hard work.

Once in a field, if brilliance can be attributed to a man instead of a woman, it often will be. Within the field of economics, for example, solo-authored work increases a woman’s likelihood of getting tenure, a paper co-authored with a woman has an effect as well, but a paper co-authored with a man has zero effect. Male authors are given credit in all cases.

In negotiations over raises and promotions at work, women are more likely to be lied to, on the assumption that they’re not smart enough to figure out that they’re being given false information.

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Overall, and across countries, men rate themselves as higher in analytical intelligence than women, and often women agree. Women are often rated as more verbally and emotionally intelligent, but the analytical types of intelligence (such as mathematical and spatial) are more strongly valued. When intelligence is not socially constructed as male, it’s constructed as masculine. Hypothetical figures presented as intelligent are judged as more masculine than less intelligent ones.

All this matters.

By age 6, some girls have already started opting out of playing games that they’re told are for “really, really smart” children. The same internalized sexism may lead young women to avoid academic disciplines that are believed to require raw intelligence. And, over the life course, women may be less likely than men to take advantage of career opportunities that they believe demand analytical thinking.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sexism in American society has been on the decline. Obstacles to female-bodied people excelling in previously male-only occupations and hobbies have lessened. And women have thrived in these spaces, sometimes even overtaking men both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Another kind of bias, though, has gotten worse: the preference for masculinity over femininity. Today we like our men manly, just like we used to, but we like our women just a little bit manly, too. This is true especially when women expect to compete with men in masculine arenas.

A recent study by a team of psychologists, led by Sarah Banchefsky, collected photographs of 40 male and 40 female scientists employed in STEM departments of US universities. 50 respondents were told they were participating in a study of “first impressions” and were asked to rate each person according to how masculine or feminine they appeared. They were not told their occupation. They were then asked to guess as to the likelihood that each person was a scientist, then the likelihood that each was an early childhood educator.

Overall, women were rated as more feminine than men and less likely to be scientists. Within the group of women, however, perceived femininity was also negatively correlated with the estimated likelihood of being a scientist and positively correlated with the likelihood of being an educator. In other words, both having a female body and appearing feminine was imagined to make a woman less inclined to or suited to science. The same results were not found for men.

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Banchefsky and her colleagues conclude that “subtle variations in gendered appearance alter perceptions that a given woman is a scientist” and this has important implications for their careers:

First, naturally feminine-appearing young women and those who choose to emphasize their femininity may not be encouraged or given opportunities to become scientists as a result of adults’ beliefs that feminine women are not well-suited to the occupation.

Second, feminine-appearing women who are already scientists may not be taken as seriously as more masculine-appearing ones. They may have to overperform relative to their male and masculine female peers to be recognized as equally competent. Femininity may, then, cost them job opportunities, promotions, awards, grants, and valuable collaboration.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Emma M.H., Rebecca A., Natalee B., Josh L., Anna M., Jordan G., and an anonymous reader all sent in a link to a new analysis released by OkTrends, this time of members’ profile essays and the likes/interests/hobbies the essays mention, broken down by race/ethnicity and gender. They list items that were statistically unevenly distributed by race/ethnicity, showing up much more in some groups’ profiles than others’; these aren’t necessarily the most common items listed by each group.

White men:

White women:

Christian Rudder, the author of the OkTrends post, points out an interesting trend: rural identifying/mythologizing. White men mention “I’m a country boy,” while for White women, being a “country girl” features prominently, meaning both groups are more likely to use this term than other racial/ethnic groups. The men also mention liking hunting/fishing, while White women include horses/horseback riding, bonfires, and the “midwest,” as well as country music/musicians. Most OkCupid users, according to Rudder, are in large metro areas. Of course, you can live in a city and still go riding or fishing, or these can be things you did before you moved to the city that you still really wish you could do and so remain an important part of your identity; and given current demographics, it’s more likely that a former rural resident would be White than non-White, thus showing up more in Whites’ profiles. But I also suspect that references to the “midwest,” or things associated with romanticized rural life (you know, running around in a beautiful wheat field during a thunderstorm and stuff) are a code for a certain type of masculinity and femininity. Among Whites, hunting/fishing indicates you’re a particular type of “guy’s guy,” while being “a country girl” who likes horses and thunderstorms is, I think, a stand-in for implying you’re down-to-earth, nice, not superficial. Being “country” is thus, a lot of the time, shorthand for being authentic.

Moving on, here’s the image for Black men:

We see more self-description than in White men’s profiles — “I am cool,” “tall, dark, and handsome,” “god-fearing,” “calm,” “laid-back guy.” White men (and to a lesser extent women) seem to focus on what they like, not really what they are like, with only “I’m a country boy” and “I can fix anything” showing up in the analysis.

Black women:

If you combined general references to religion, they would stand out even more. In fact, African American men and women are quite a bit more likely than other groups to mention religion:

Data for Latino men:

Like Black men, they more frequently than White men  mention personality characteristics — “I’m a funny guy,” “respectful,” “I’m a simple guy,” “outgoing and funny,” etc.

Latinas, like Latino men, mention specific dances, not just a love of music or musicians:

Rudder notes that Asian men are the most likely of any group to highlight a specific ethnic/national identity in addition to the more general “Asian” label:

I see that above with Latino men, too — references to being Peruvian, Colombian, Dominican, etc. If I had to take a stab at explaining this, I’d guess it was related to differences in how racial/ethnic categories have been applied to different groups. In the U.S. over time, White ethnic categories (say, being Dutch-American vs. Polish-American) have largely faded into the background, all subsumed under the powerful racial label “White.” Distinctions within that grouping have become largely optional, a neat thing to mention, perhaps, but not very socially meaningful. African Americans have often found themselves in the same situation, but due to much more negative forces. The generally shared experience of slavery, racism, and discrimination, as well as negative stereotypes of anyone perceived as Black, mostly erased ethnic identifications among African Americans. Being Black became a master status, such a socially important racial categorization that even those who wanted to be recognized as from a specific location (South Africa, Jamaica, etc.) often found themselves unable to get others to recognize their ethnic distinction.

The broader “Asian” and “Hispanic” labels emerged more recently in U.S. history, and members of both groups often actively fought to preserve distinctions within them. It wasn’t until the ’60s that a pan-Asian identity really began to emerge, such that being called “Asian” really meant anything to people, as opposed to thinking of themselves as Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. And “Hispanic” refers to ethnicity, not race (most Hispanics identify as White); ethnic identities are generally more flexible than racial categories. Aside from personal attachments, many groups thrown into the labels Asian and Hispanic have seen clear advantages to preserving distinctions based on nationality, believing that, say, being Japanese American would be less negatively stereotyped than being simply “Asian.”

So I wasn’t extremely surprised to see that Latino and Asian men specified identifies within those categories…but look back at the Latina image, and then this one for Asian women:

Nothing. Not one specific identifier for either group stood out. I don’t know what to make of that, and would love to hear your suggestions.

There are also specific breakdowns for Asian Indians and Pacific Islanders on the OkTrends, if you’re interested.

Middle Eastern men (a sort of odd category, but whatever) also specify nationalities, which is to be expected as this is another group that has engaged in active contests about their racial categorization in the U.S. (in particularly, fighting to be considered White, not Asian or Black) and also focus on technical/financial careers or expertise:

Middle Eastern women are the only group who prominently mention something about their physical appearance (“petite”), for whatever that’s worth, and again, no nationalities listed:

Of course, as Anna pointed out when she sent in the link, this data isn’t necessarily about people’s actual likes/interests, it’s about what they present as their likes/interests in the dating marketplace. On a dating website, you’re trying to present a profile of yourself…but one tailored to be attractive to others. She wonders to what degree social stereotypes of your racial group, as well as the group you’re interested in dating (if you have any preference) affects how you would describe your interests. That is, it’s possible that in some cases people highlight interests or hobbies that seem to fit social expectations of what they’ll like doing…or what they think the individuals they want to date will want to do, or want their date to want to do. To interpret these results, as OkTrends does, as straightforward evidence of differences in preferences by race/ethnicity, ignores the important fact that these are interests presented as part of an intentional performance for strangers, and may or may not reflect what we actually spend time doing, learning about, or paying attention to in our daily lives.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 3.40.39 PMIn 2014, a story in The New York Times by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz went viral using Google Trend data to address gender bias in parental assessments of their children—“Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius?”  People ask Google whether sons are “gifted” at a rate 2.5x higher than they do for daughters.  When asking about sons on Google, people are also more likely to inquire about genius, intelligence, stupidity, happiness, and leadership than they are about daughters.  When asking about daughters on Google, people are much more likely to inquire about beauty, ugliness, body weight, and just marginally more likely to ask about depression.  It’s a pretty powerful way of showing that we judge girls based on appearance and boys based on abilities.  It doesn’t mean that parents are necessarily consciously attempting to reproduce gender inequality.  But it might mean that they are simply much more likely to take note of and celebrate different elements of who their children are depending on whether those children are girls or boys.

To get the figures, Stephens-Davidowitz relied on data from Google Trends. The tool does not give you a sense of the total number of searches utilizing specific search terms; it presents the relative popularity of search terms compared with one another on a scale from 0 to 100, and over time (since 2004).  For instance, it allows people selling used car parts to see whether people searching for used car parts are more likely to search for “used car parts,” “used auto parts,” or something else entirely before they decide how to list their merchandise online.  I recently looked over the data the author relied on for the piece.  Stephens-Davidowitz charted searches for “is my son gifted” against searches for “is my daughter gifted” and then replaced that last word in the search with: smart, beautiful, overweight, etc.

And while people are more likely to turn to Google to ask about their son’s intelligence than whether or not their daughters are overweight, people are much more likely to ask Google about children’s sexualities than any other quality mentioned in the article.  And to be even more precise, parents on Google are primarily concerned with boys’ sexuality.  Below, I’ve charted the relative popularity of searches for “is my son gay” alongside searches for “is my daughter gay,” “is my child gay,” and “is my son gifted.”  I included “child” to illustrate that Google searches here are more commonly gender-specific.  And I include “gifted” to illustrate how much more common searches for son’s sexuality is compared with searches for son’s giftedness (which was among the more common searches in Stephens-Davidowitz’s article).

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The general trend of the graph is toward increasing popularity.  People are more likely to ask Google about their children’s sexuality since 2004 (and slightly less likely to ask Google about their children’s “giftedness” over that same time period).  But they are much more likely to inquire about son’s sexuality.  At two points, the graph hits the ceiling.  The first, in November of 2010, corresponds with the release of the movie “Oy Vey! My Son is Gay” about a Jewish family coming to terms with a son coming out as gay and dating a non-Jewish young man.  The second high point, in September of 2011, occurred during a great deal of press surrounding Apple’s recently released “Is my son gay?” app, which was later taken off the market after a great deal of protest.  And certainly, some residual popularity in searches may be associated with increased relative search volume since.  But, the increase in relative searches for “is my son gay” happens earlier than either of these events.

Relative Search PopularityIndeed, over the period of time illustrated here, people were 28x more likely to search for “is my son gay” than they were for “is my son gifted.”  And searches for “is my son gay” were 4.7x more common than searches for “is my daughter gay.”

Reading Google Trends is a bit like reading tea leaves in that it’s certainly open to interpretation.  For instance, this could mean that parents are increasingly open to sexual diversity and are increasingly attempting to help their children navigate coming to terms with their sexual identities (whatever those identities happen to be).  Though, were this the case, it’s interesting that parents are apparently more interested in helping their sons navigate any presumed challenges than their daughters.  It could mean that as performances of masculinity shift and take on new forms, sons are simply much more likely to engage with gender in ways that cause their parents to question their (hetero)sexuality than they used to.  Or it could mean that parents are more scared that their sons might be gay.  It is likely all of these things.

I’m not necessarily sold on the idea that the trend can only be seen as a sign of the endurance of gender and sexual inequality.  But one measure of that might be to check back in with Google Trends to see if people start asking Google whether their sons and daughters are straight.  At present, both searches are uncommon enough that Google Trends won’t even display their relative popularity.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.