Gender Role Stress – How GRS might help explain sexual assault on college campuses

By Lisa Maletsky, MPH
Coordinator, Student Persistence Research

The Office of Student Persistence Research assessed sexual assault in two campus-wide surveys conducted in 2014 and 2016. Results from the most recent 2016 survey are consistent with the sexual assault literature (NETMAT presentation of survey highlights is available on the “Presentations” page of this blog). For example, the majority of respondents who identify as victims of sexual assault are female (87%). The majority of victims identified the perpetrator as male (90%) and as someone they know (89%). Sorority members and fraternity members are more likely to identify as victims as well (19% and 7% respectively). A quarter of male victims hesitate reporting their victimization because they are afraid it is not important or will not be taken seriously. Finally, a majority of all respondents believe alcohol facilitates sexual opportunity (59%) and alcohol was in fact consumed prior to a majority of victim reports (65%).

These gendered disparities indicate that social constructions of gender and gender role stress (GRS) may function as possible mechanisms underlying sexual assault. Gender role stress (GRS) is the experience of anxiety related to one’s perception that they are not performing their gender role adequately; individuals with stereotypical views of gender are more likely to experience this stress (Pleck, 1981). For men, the traditional masculine gender role is defined by power, dominance, extreme self-reliance, competitiveness, restricted emotionality, aggressiveness, and demonstrations of sexual prowess (Cohn & Zeichner, 2006; Unger, 1979). Research has connected male GRS to increased levels of aggression, emotional lability as well as emotional restrictiveness in tender situations, lower self-esteem, misogynistic and sexist attitudes, sexual prejudice, and sexual violence in particular (Cohn & Zeichner, 2006; Copenhaver, Lash, Eisler, 2000; Eisler, Skidmore & Ward, 1988; Saurer & Eisler, 1990). Thus, men who hold a narrow definition of manhood may use sex and sexual dominance to bolster feelings or perceptions that they are “real men.” Male GRS may also account for the reluctance men feel about identifying as victims of sexual assault because victimization is a threat to their masculine identity.

Much less research has been conducted on female gender role stress (FGRS). Gillespie and Eisler (1992) defined five stressors women are more likely to face women than men: 1) fear of unemotional relationships, 2) fear of physical unattractiveness, 3) fear of behaving assertively, 4) fear of not being nurturing, and 5) fear of victimization. Conceptions of femininity, however, have changed over time as increased numbers of women complete college and enter the workforce. Therefore, female gender role stress is likely more complicated as some aspects of traditional femininity (i.e., emphasis on appearance) may continue to be emphasized whereas other aspects have diminished (i.e., fear of being assertive).

GRS is an important social psychological element to understand as young men and women are developing their identities during their college years. Undoubtedly, some students use their time in college to expand their gender identities as they become more gender fluid. Other students, however, will experience stress in the face of developmental uncertainties and increasingly adhere to more conventional gender norms in response. In fact, increased uncertainty and need for confirmation may embolden predatory sexual behaviors. This is further complicated by “hook up culture,” which is the pervasive belief that casual sexual encounters facilitated by alcohol are “what college students do.” The rules of participation in hook up culture are highly gendered as well, with different rules for men and women (Wade, 2016). Therefore, GRS may play a role in the extent to which college students engage in hook up culture.

I am currently exploring GRS and hook up culture in my dissertation research to disentangle how students manage their gender identity development, negotiate traditional gender roles, and pursue sexual relationships. I believe it will lend insight in to how identity development is associated with sexual experiences including sexual assault on college campuses.



Cohn, A., & Zeichner, A. (2006). Effects of masculine identity and gender role stress on aggression in men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(4), 179.
Copenhaver, M. M., Lash, S. L., & Eisler, R. M. (2000). Masculine gender-role stress, anger, and male intimate abusiveness: Implications for men's relationships. Sex Roles, 42(6), 405-414.
Eisler, R. M., Skidmore, J. R., & Ward, C. H. (1988). Masculine gender-role stress: Predictor of anger, anxiety, and health-risk behaviors. Journal of Personality Assessment, 52(1), 133-141.
Gillespie, B. L., & Eisler, R. M. (1992). Development of the feminine gender role stress scale: A cognitive-behavioral measure of stress, appraisal, and coping for women. Behavior Modification, 16(3), 426-438.
Pleck, J. H. (1981). The myth of masculinity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Saurer, M. K., & Eisler, R. M. (1990). The role of masculine gender role stress in expressivity and social support network factors. Sex Roles, 23, 261-271.
Unger, R. K. (1979). Toward a redefinition of sex and gender. American Psychologist, 34, 1085–1094. doi:10.1037/ 0003-066X.34.11.1085
Wade, L. (2017). American hookup: The new culture of sex on campus. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.