Research More than two decades
of research--often originating in US colleges and universities--have
crystallized the strongest possible links between internalizing narrow norms of
traditional masculinity and femininity and lower reproductive health outcomes
for at-risk youth, because gender "scripts” for how boys and girls are
supposed to act are what drive behavior in sexual situations, especially during
the "gender intensification” years of late adolescence and early teens
when young people are most likely to buy in to primitive gender codes and most
vulnerable to peer pressure to live up to them.
Youth The impact
of narrow gender norms can be most harmful in disinvested and under-resourced
communities, where codes for masculinity and femininity are apt to be
particularly narrow, and penalties for transgressing them especially harsh
("Why We Can't Wait," Ford Foundation, 2005)
Men For instance,
research shows that young men who internalize ideals of traditional masculinity
as defined by strength, toughness, sexual prowess, and aggression
have earlier sex, more sexual partners, and lower condom use. They
are more likely to believe in sex as adversarial, that women are
responsible for preventing conception, and that pregnancy validates
manhood (Pleck, et al., 1993).
Partner Violence In
addition, they are more likely to view violence against an insubordinate female
partner as justified, and to engage in sexual coercion either through physical
or psychological abuse.
together, this collection of behaviors and beliefs is almost a perfect
prescription for lower reproductive health outcomes.
MSM The effects are not limited to
heterosexuals -- young gay men internalize many of the same masculine norms,
and may strive all the harder to emulate them. For instance, studies show that
narrow codes of masculinity among young men who have sex with men (MSM) are connected
to avoiding HIV testing,
"bare-backing” (not using protection), valorizing promiscuity, and
eschewing safer sex behaviors (like caressing and touching) that do not
prioritize penetration but do entail emotional vulnerability.
Women Women are
affected as well. For years researchers have known that internalizing
narrow codes of femininity which place a premium on passivity, obedience,
docility, conflict avoidance, and physical beauty is strongly linked to lower
sexual self-efficacy, condom use and safer sex negotiation among young women as
well as higher rates of body objectification, acceptance of male infidelity,
and tolerance for sexual coercion or violence (Tolman & Porche, 2000;
Tolman, et al., 2003).
Gender codes can be
especially harmful for women in at-risk communities. For instance, machista
codes of femininity that prioritize passivity, obedience, purity, motherhood,
and deference discourage young Latinas from learning about or discussing
sex, and from carrying or using condoms while simultaneously encouraging them
to become mothers early, tolerate sexual coercion or violence, and defer to
male sexual prerogatives (Gomez and Marin, 1996). Combined with male codes of machismo,
such traditional norms can decrease gender equity and disempower young Latinas.
like these have created an increased focus on and commitment to what leading
authority Geeta Gupta called "gender transformative" programs and
policies. Approaches, which are gender transformative, highlight,
challenge and ultimately change belief in harmful norms of femininity and
Agencies like UNAIDS,
UNFPA, PEPFAR and WHO have already implemented gender transformative approaches
that are more effective at increasing gender equity and improving life outcomes
for young women.
longer funds new programs that lack a strong gender analysis–including gender
norms–and it launched a website (www.IGWG.org) just to coordinate information
on gender sensitive initiatives. WHO developed an in-depth report to document
the increased effectiveness of gender transformative work with women and girls
("The 'So What'
Report: A Look at Whether Integrating a Gender Focus in Programmes Make a
Difference in Outcomes.”).
Yet the US still
lags behind. In 1995 Hortensia Amaro, a leading expert on young women of
color, wrote in one of the most often-cited reproductive health papers ever
that the US still pursues improved reproductive health outcomes and gender
equity for at-risk women "in a gender vacuum." That remains true
today ("Love, Sex,
Power: Considering Women's Realities in Preventing HIV,"
There is a wide and
growing disconnect between research and actual practice. For
instance, the CDC's two dozen Evidence-Based Programs lack a strong, specific
focus on gender norms, and Emerging Answers, the bible of teen pregnancy
policy, mentions gender norms specifically only in a footnote.
But that is all
starting to change. Gender transformative approaches are quietly gaining wider
• For instance, our recent convening at
the Ford Foundation to explore launching a National Council on Gender drew
affirmative replies from 47 researchers, funders, policy-makers and NGOs.
• A growing roster of
international-facing US groups like Population Council, EngenderHealth, and
International Planned Parenthood are launching gender transformative efforts of
• And the White House recently invited us
to brief them on gender transformative approaches to improving reproductive
health outcomes for at-risk youth.
Our Work This is what a new discourse starting to catch looks like. Research
shows that addressing gender norms is a key to improving reproductive health
outcomes for young women and men. TrueChild is dedicated to leading and
partnering in that effort.