Warning! The ‘Female Sex Role’ may be Dangerous to Your Health

Cover art by Anastasia Akhmedova (@simplyana.lines on Instagram)

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In 1978, James Harrison (a social scientist at the time) published an article titled: “Warning: The Male Sex Role May Be Dangerous to Your Health”, exploring potential reasons for the increasingly large gap in life expectancy between men and women. He looked to the work of several other researchers at the time, most interestingly in Robert Brannon’s work of 1976, where the ‘male sex role’ was split into the following:

1. No Sissy Stuff: The need to be different from women.

2. The Big Wheel: The need to be superior to others.

3. The Sturdy Oak: The need to be independent and self-reliant.

4. Give ‘em Hell: The need to be more powerful than others, through violence if necessary.

I have to agree with Harrison’s argument that gatekeeping men’s societal role can negatively affect men’s quality of life and life expectancy, and this can be backed up by recent statistics. Imposing this backwards ‘No Sissy Stuff’ and ‘The Sturdy Oak’ mentality has a massive impact on mental health. Men have significantly higher rates of suicide and by contrast, are less than half as likely as women to report depression and anxiety. Telling men to ‘Give ’em Hell’ and embody ‘The Big Wheel’ only encourages them to recklessly – and unnecessarily – take risks. The proportion of men smoking (15.9% vs 12.5%) and consuming more than 14 units of alcohol per week (24% vs 11%) are higher than women, alongside higher rates of injury and accidents.

But we can’t forget the other side of the coin. How does the ‘female sex role’ affect women’s health? 

It’s easy to see that gender  – defined as the socially constructed characteristics of men, women or non-binary – remains an unequal social structure maintained by both historical and modern day patriarchy.  The ‘female sex role’ (From here onwards, ‘female’ and ‘girls’ will be references and apply to ‘women’, and vice versa for ‘men’.) pressures women negatively to:

1. Be accommodating and emotional.

2. Have more domestic-centric behaviour.

3. Focus on physical appearance.

4. Accept subordinate status in exchange for men’s approval.

The pressure to take up a subordinate domestic role massively affects health. Globally, women are likely to have fewer years of education due to sex role pressures, domesticating them and discouraging full-time employment. According to UNICEF, around half of all girls in Bangladesh are married by the age of 15, with 60% becoming mothers by the age of 19. Pregnancy and childbirth can be extremely dangerous when there’s little access to antenatal care. 

Rates of sexual and gender-based violence are also much higher for women, such as in Russia, where at least one woman dies an hour due to domestic violence.

The female sex role inevitably manifests in physical appearance too. In South Korea, 50% of women in their 20s have had cosmetic surgery, according to the BBC. Women are also four times more likely to develop an eating disorder in their lifetime. Studies of films have also shown that the majority of male-to-female and female-to-female compliments are based on appearance rather than ability – deeply impacting the mental health and body image of women consuming such media.

Despite all this, the ‘female sex role’ has reaped some benefits. As mentioned in the original article by Harrison, women have been enabled to express their mental health struggles freely, and receive appropriate care in the modern day. This being said, the history of female mental health must be addressed, wrought with diagnoses of hysteria and doses of bed rest late last century, but in the present day, we have seen massive strides in female mental health. Meanwhile, male mental health is continually struggling. In one study, the NHS found that men make up only 36% of people who seek talking therapy (although it should be noted that some users may have been of other genders). Women are also over 30% more likely to have five or more people they could rely on for emotional support, according to research by MIND, the mental health charity.

Overall, the first step in making a change for the better is recognising the inequalities that are defined by gender, backed by research discussed in this article. Next up, we have to now tackle these inequalities head on. An example of this is the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals which push for increasing equality for women, helping provide access to education, skills and training facilities, public health and employment. That being said, these cannot be the only steps taken to address this issue. 

When tackling the patriarchy, I believe the ‘sex roles’ underpinning the very structure must be addressed to properly approach these inequalities. Moving forward into the modern age, these gender roles have to be reassessed even further. At present, although formal recognition of non-binary identities are shifting these old norms firmly into the past, despite the irony, it is needless to say that more needs to be done. So, the work of today’s feminists and activists are bringing about the cultural revolution Harrison predicted. Furthermore, as we begin to understand the intersectionality of inequalities, we can identify those facing the most systemic injustice, such as black women in Western society.

After all, as described by Sidney Marshall Jourard in his book The Transparent Self – quoted in Harrison’s article – people of all identities seek the same basic psychological needs: “To be known and to know, to be depended on and to depend, to be loved and to love and to find purpose and meaning in life.” 

Article by Riya Banerjee