Ask the average American to paint a picture of the evils behind the AIDS epidemic and you’ll get a variety of responses. Commonly, the average Joe blames gay bathhouses and back alley needle-sharing. Fortunately, those who mingle in more cerebral circles have taken a look at the problem with more investigation and less assumption. Sociologists Michael S. Kimmel of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Martin P. Levine of Florida Atlantic University claim that people mistakenly view AIDS as a “gay” or “drug addict” disease rather than as a “men’s disease” fostered by risk-taking as a measure of masculinity. The tendency for men to ignore the signs of health risks is seen as a fundamental part of the male gender’s role in society.
Further compounding man’s hunger for risk-taking is stigmatization. Among men who are the least secure in their sexuality, this breeds amplified forms of male-identified behaviors. This stigmatized gender identity leads to hypermasculinity, a psychological term describing the exaggeration of typical male behavior. The emphasis is on physical strength, aggression, body hair, body odor and virility.
Among those to first study the realm of hypermasculinity was Donald L. Mosher and Mark Sirkin in 1984. The two researchers defined this psychological state of mind, also referred to as the “macho personality,” as consisting of three variables. These include “a callous sexual attitude toward women,” “the belief that violence is manly” and “the experience of danger as exciting.” It is this final component of hypermasculinity that leads us back to man’s propensity for ignoring risks for the thrill of it, and nowhere is this syndrome more prevalent than in the bedroom.
Caught up in the throes of passion and prompted by personal, societal and cultural influences, some men have been known to throw caution to the wind. Some of these behaviors may also be displayed to rebuff stereotyped or generalized behaviors. Some groups of oppressed males challenged by socially constructed views of their communities may also assimilate hypermasculine images and attitudes. This is particularly true when the oppressive conditions consist, in part, of societal attitudes, laws and practices that alter norms and traditions that the marginalized group sees as important.
The problem, states Kimmel and Levine, is that so-called safer-sex programs “encourage men to stop having sex like men, because safe sex is an oxymoron. We must enlarge the definition of what it means to be a real man and eroticize responsibility to prevent the inexorable spread of AIDS.”