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  • Writer's pictureRyon McDermott

New Research Summary: How do Black Men's Adverse Childhood Experiences Impact their Masculinity?

We sat down with Michael Curtis, a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Georgia, to talk about his recently published study in our flagship journal, Psychology of Men & Masculinities. The article is titled Contextual adversity and rural Black men’s masculinity ideology during emerging adulthood.

Photo by Edson Habacuc Rafael from Pexels

What were the research questions you were answering with this study?

To understand our study, it helps to know a couple key terms. First, Masculinity ideology refers to ideas, beliefs, and rules associated with what it means to be a man. Second, emerging adulthood is a term used to describe a period of development spanning from about ages 18 to 29. This is a critical point, because it is a time when men are answering the question, "what kind of man am I?" and trying out various masculinity beliefs, especially regarding love and work. In this study, we were interested in investigating how childhood adversity (i.e., childhood experiences of abuse and family poverty), and adulthood socioeconomic instability (i.e., unstable working and living conditions) predicted changes in men's masculinity ideology in emerging adulthood.

In short, we focused our investigation on examining how childhood adversity and adulthood socioeconomic instability influenced emerging adult men's adoption of two types of masculinity ideology: respect-based masculinity, which values characteristics like hard work, and education; and reputational-based masculinity, which values self-reliance, aggressiveness, and sexual promiscuity.

What are some of the key findings of this study?

1) Elevated levels of childhood adversity were associated with increases in adulthood socioeconomic instability.

Simply put, our findings suggest that childhood experiences of abuse and family poverty may make it more difficult for emerging adult Black men to find and maintain gainful employment and stable living arrangements, which may be due to a lack of social and economic support from family members.

2) Elevated levels of childhood adversity and socioeconomic instability in emerging adulthood were each associated with decreases in respect-based masculinity and increases in reputation-based masculinity.

Thus, experiencing abuse in childhood not only impacted Black men’s current employment, but it also was related to reductions in positive or beneficial aspects of masculinity (e.g., hard work and valuing education), as well as increases in more of the potentially harmful aspects of masculinity.

These results indicated that socioeconomic instability in emerging adulthood is one process that helps to explain the association between childhood adversity and men's adoption of certain types of masculinity ideology. Given our results, it appears as though men who have been raised in particularly harsh or stressful environments begin to align themselves with a type of masculinity that values toughness and self-reliance.

In essence, their environment teaches that them that their survival is directly connected to their masculinity and ability to be perceived as tough, imposing, and independent.

What are some key implications of your findings for research or practice?

Our findings suggest that men's endorsement of certain types of masculinity may be linked to coping strategies learned from living in highly stressful environments. For example, aspects of reputation-based masculinity, such as aggressive behavior, may be adaptive, in the short term, for men who grew up in high-crime neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, what is adaptive in one developmental context may not be adaptive in others. For example, the same aggressive behaviors that helped protect men from being victimized could at the same time limit their ability to build strong, positive interpersonal relationships with others, such as romantic partners.

Where do you see this line of research heading in the future (i.e., what's next)?

Future research will focus on studying changes in masculinity across the lifespan. Much of the research on antecedents of masculinity ideology is focused on adolescence, but our study shows that men's masculinity ideology changes even in adulthood and that these changes may be linked to features within men's environment.

How did you become interested in this line of inquiry?

I am a Queer, Black American man who grew up relatively poor. I eventually became the first person in my family to attend college. Although my parents were extremely hard workers, our family experienced frequent bouts of food and housing insecurity.

Growing up in this context has made me keenly sensitive to the systems of oppression that impact the health and wellbeing of Black men. As a result, understanding the situational and environmental factors that influence the health, mental health, and wellbeing of Black men is very important to me.

My work as a scientist, marriage and family therapist, and educator addresses the impact of oppression on the lives of marginalized populations in general and Black American men in particular. Early on in my doctorate program, I became interested in masculinity ideology among Black men, as there is a wealth of research documenting its effects on their health and wellbeing. In doing this research, I came to understand that there was a significant gap in our understanding of the contextual and developmental predictors of masculinity ideology and to challenge the idea that masculinity was stable after adolescence, which brought me to this project.

Michael Curtis, M.S.

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