Masculinity and femininity are emotional styles that express our sexual self-confidence as a male or female person in relation to the opposite sex.*

They are psychological achievements that derive from our different anatomies and physiologies. Deficiencies in masculinity and femininity, that is, diminished confidence in oneself as a male or female person, are signs of an arrested development.

At birth, our minds are tabula rasa, which means our minds have no cognitive content. At birth, we begin processing the world we live in, which produces an initial cognitive content. As we grow, especially when we begin to talk, cognitive processing escalates.

Our character and personality, in other words, are self-created; genes and environment can influence us, but they do not create us. How well we cognitively process the world in which we live, that is, how objective and rational are the conclusions we draw, determines how psychologically healthy we will be in adulthood.

How well we process the world depends, in large part, on how well we have been taught by our parents and teachers about psychology, especially about how to introspect our developing psychologies to catch and correct errors in the processing.

Throughout history, and especially in today’s culture, the answer to the question “How well have we been taught?” must be: “not very well, if at all.” Thus, most of us reach adulthood with mental inhibitions, that is, deficiencies in self-esteem, often expressed as anxiety and defensive habits (defense mechanisms) to cope with the anxiety, for example, depression, obsessions, compulsions, projection, rationalization, hostility, and so on.

In today’s culture, consequently, most of us reach adulthood with arrested development in many areas of our psychologies, in varying degrees, not necessarily extreme. An arrested development, nonetheless, combined with mistaken ideas in the culture, may lead us to conclude that we are controlled by genes and environment.

To be sure, environment influences us in both helpful and hurtful ways, but we remain the ones who must process the events of the environment, draw conclusions about ourselves in relation to them, then act to deal with the situations.

This applies to the development of our masculinity and femininity. Thus, depending on our upbringing and schooling, we may conclude that masculinity means to be a “macho man,” with big biceps, and that femininity means to be a “clinging vine” or a fashion model.

Behavioral manifestations can and do express our masculinity and femininity, but they do not define them.

The essence of masculinity and femininity, according to psychologist Nathaniel Branden, derives from our respective sexual roles in a heterosexual relationship, and that, in turn, derives from our respective anatomies and physiologies. Men, says Branden, in addition to the obvious sexual differences, are bigger and stronger—they have stronger upper-body muscle, while women have broader hips. Geneticists, indeed, say there are over 6500 genetic expressions that differentiate men from women, and the differences begin in the womb. “Society” has nothing to say about these differences.

In the romantic-sexual relationship (and only in the romantic-sexual relationship), Branden goes on to say that the man is more active and dominant. “He has the greater measure of control over his own pleasure and that of his partner; it is he who penetrates and the woman who is penetrated (with everything this entails, physically and psychologically” (The Psychology of Self-Esteem, p. 206).

Healthy—fearless and guiltless—self-assertiveness, strength, and self-confidence, says Branden, are desirable in both men and women. Pride in oneself and one’s achievements and admiration of one’s partner are prerequisite to a healthy romantic-sexual relationship.

The difference is that the man feels his masculinity as romantic initiator and, more generally, as protector of the woman, while the woman feels her femininity as challenger and responder.**

To put this difference in the vernacular, the man’s job is to make the woman feel “real good.” In this process, the man also feels, or should also feel, if psychologically healthy, “real good” in performing the role. The woman’s job is to feel sufficiently free and confident to accept and experience the man’s offer of total trust and security, not to mention the pleasure he is giving her (and the reciprocal pleasure she gives him).

The romantic-sexual act of intercourse between a man and a woman truly in love becomes a feeling of total integration, an experience of being one, a union. Branden describes this as “the most intense union” and highest form of pleasure available to human beings (p. 136).

Behavioral manifestations of a confident masculinity and femininity become highly desirable, for example, to “look nice” for the opposite sex, and for men to hold the door open for a woman and for the woman to look up to and admire the man by saying “thank you.”***

Size of biceps, length of hair, and whether or not a man or a woman wears a skirt or pants do not define masculinity and femininity. These are just socially arbitrary conventions.

It is not unfeminine for a woman to run a railroad (as does Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged), nor is it unmasculine for a man to wear tight pants and excel as a world-class ballet dancer (as did Mikhail Baryshnikov).

Masculinity and femininity are objective, reality-based psychological achievements. An arrested development means self-doubt about our sex in relation to the opposite. A young man scared to death to talk to girls, let alone ask one for a date, is one example. A young woman who is afraid to respond to a young man’s rational advances, a man the young woman might actually admire, is another.

The objective, reality-based meaning of masculinity and femininity raises a question that will have to be deferred to another post. Is same-sex attraction and behavior psychologically healthy? I immediately hasten to add that such attraction or behavior is not in any way immoral or a sin.

But is it healthy?


* “Sexual self-confidence” is the term used by psychologist Edith Packer (Lectures on Psychology, chap. 7, section 2). Other psychologists have used the words “gender esteem,” an interesting narrowing of the broader “self-esteem.”

** Branden uses the terms “romantic dominance” and “romantic surrender,” but by using the above concepts I am trying to avoid the older, historical connotations of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress. “Initiator,” “challenger,” and “responder” are words used by Branden.

*** Tradition says a man walking on the outside of the woman, nearer to the street, originated in the days of chamber pots being emptied into the roadway. The man, as a gentleman, eagerly sought to protect his lady. Today, it is simply a pleasant gesture for the man to perform—and for the lady to accept.