My role


Is heavy drinking a masculine trade off?

Are the words 'masculine' and 'healthy' incompatible? Richard de Visser of Sussex University reports on his research into how young men's notions of masculinity affects their behaviour.


DrinkerThe aim of this study was to explore how men's beliefs about masculinity influence their health-related behaviour. Rather than assuming that masculinity is bad for men's health, this study sought to interrogate the links between masculinity and health. One key focus was how men forge a masculine identity that does not involve unhealthy behaviour?


The research focus was on young men's own experiences of growing up, socialising, and developing a masculine identity. To do this, a qualitative study was designed. The participants were 18-21 year old men living in inner London. This group of men was chosen to complement the existing body of research into school-aged boys.

There were two levels of class/socioeconomic opportunity - some men were contacted from job centres and newspaper advertisements, while others were recruited at universities. The sample was also selected to ensure sufficient numbers of white, black, and Asian young men. This meant that we could examine of how class and race influence the links between masculinity and health-related behaviour.

We conducted in-depth individual interviews with 31 young men. The focus of the individual interviews was personal experience and identity. The specific aim was to examine how young men develop a masculine identity in relation to society's ideas of masculinity, and how their masculine identities are displayed in the form of healthy or unhealthy behaviour.

We also conducted 5 group discussions to continue the examination of masculinity and health-related behaviour. Again, participants were a mix of students and unemployed men, and black, white and Asian men. The aim was to address several questions:

  • how do young men define masculinity?
  • how do they define health?
  • which behaviours are considered to be healthy or unhealthy?
  • which behaviours are considered to be masculine or non-masculine?

As part of these discussions, participants discussed images of famous men who present different versions of masculinity and health such as David Beckham, Jonny Wilkinson and Will Young. This discussion gave an insight into the different ideas about masculinity available in society, the range of ways of being masculine, and the extent to which different ways of being masculine were deemed acceptable and appropriate.

Analysis of the data is ongoing, but some results have already been published. The overall conclusion is that there are not simple links between masculinity and unhealthy behaviour. Men are actively involved in the development of their masculine identities. Health-related behaviours such as sport, drinking, drug use, and sex can all be important ways in which young men test and display their masculinity.

One important addition this study makes to existing knowledge is the finding that men may trade competence in one 'masculine' domain for competence in other domains. Thus, men who feel inadequate in one domain may try to make up for this by gaining credit through drinking excessively. This clearly has implications for health promotion. So too does the corollary: men who feel competent in one 'masculine' domain may be able to use this as credit to resist pressure to engage in unhealthy 'masculine' behaviours such as binge drinking.

One paper entitled "Mister in-between: a case study of masculine identity and health-related behaviour” will soon be published in the Journal of Health Psychology. This case study demonstrates the importance of health-related social behaviours such as drinking, drug use, physical activity, sport, and sexual behaviour in developing a masculine identity. It also reveals that the way in which men see themselves in relation to society's ideas about masculinity can have important implications for their masculine identities and for their health-related behaviour.

A second paper entitled "Alcohol consumption and masculine identity among young men” will soon be published in the journal Psychology & Health”. This paper examines how young men's patterns of alcohol consumption are related to their beliefs about masculinity, and the importance of drinking to their masculine identities. There was also evidence that men traded drinking competence with competence in other behavioural domains: so, men who were good athletes could resist pressure to drink.

However, the flipside of this has implications for men's health: men may use binge drinking as a way to prove their masculinity. However, it was also important to note that many men had strong masculine identities that did not involve drinking or excessive drinking. This paper shows that the links between masculinity and health-related social behaviours such as drinking are not simple.

A paper examining further the links between masculinity and alcohol consumption is currently under preparation. The findings have implications for interventions aimed at reducing:

  1. damage to individual men's health from drinking and
  2. harm to society associated with excessive alcohol consumption among young men.

A further planned paper will focus on data from the discussion of the images of different men. This paper will examine variety in definitions of masculinity and the variety of ways in which young men display their masculinity.

  • More details about the study and the results will be available on the ESRC website. Additional results will be published on the ESRC website and on here. The principal researcher was Richard de Visser, who can be contacted here at the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex.
  • This study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (Grant 187027) and the Economic and Social Research Council (grant RES-000-22-0406).

Page created on May 1st, 2006

Page updated on December 1st, 2009