What Is Masculinity? Definition & Interplay w/ Femininity

Men and women are endlessly fascinating.

There is a whole world of interesting differences in men’s and women’s strengths, in masculine traits and feminine traits, and that’s what we’re about to explore together today.

We’ll get to the valuable core of masculinity, how it relates to femininity and a surprising dimension of relationship dynamics.

Here’s what is on the agenda: 

  • First, we’ll go over why we need this discussion in the first place.
  • Then, I’ll explain the essence of masculinity and femininity.
  • Finally, we will explore a dimension of relationships that makes things even more interesting.

From masculine domination to feminine surrender to amazing chemistry well outside of those things, there’s a lot happening in this piece.

Let’s dive in!


Why we’re having this conversation right now:

What it means to be a man today has been evolving.

A lot of men are questioning their value, which hurts quite a lot.

For example, here’s how one thoughtful IA Reader feels:

I do often feel useless. Sometimes it seems like because I’m a guy, I’m told there’s nothing I can do that can be helpful or good. Like my gender is just inherently “the problem” regardless of my actual feelings or actions.

It also seems like any attempt to express that feeling or defend myself is seen as further proof of my “toxic masculinity.” It’s paralyzing and heartbreaking on so many levels. 

I can imagine how painful that is, and it cuts so deep to the core.

If you feel like that, I want for you to feel the clarification and healing that happens from respect.

Here in this article, that will be our focus. We’ll be talking about manhood and womanhood in a way that celebrates the deep-down innate strength and beauty of each.


First, let’s retire the term “toxic.”

Toxic is for chemicals, not for human beings. I would be so happy to see us retire the terms “toxic masculinity,” “toxic people,” and “toxic relationships” far away from how we would ever describe ourselves or each other.

As humans, we are not toxic. We are learning… Big difference. Though sometimes we’re on a really slow learning curve, we are nevertheless all still learning.


“Good men” / “real men”

For decades, popular culture and Hollywood glorified the idea of “real man.”

Today, modern society is advocating more for the “good man.”

The thing is, we need both.

And we need them both in the same man.

In our Introverted Alpha program, Become A Benevolent Badass, the opening module compare-contrasts the good men and real men. It discusses how these are two parts of the same thing: a Benevolent Badass.

With “bene” being the Latin word for “good” and “voleo” being the Latin root for “power,” benevolent is about using your power for good.

And badass simply means knowing what you want and pursuing it with focus and passion.

These two innate aspects of a man complement each other:

  • Good man: Benevolent, looking out for the good of others.
  • Real man: Badass, pursuing what he wants and staying true to himself.

As a result, a truly good man is also a real man, and vice versa.

When honor and courage come together, that’s deeply fulfilling.


Masculine challenges in society today

Masculinity today can be confusing.

Even though people are still saying things like, “Boys don’t cry,” and, “Man up,” men are now also being told to be more sensitive and caring.

From work to home, it’s less clear what a man’s place is, as we explored in this article.

  • The downside of this shift is an uncomfortable questioning of what masculinity is anyway.
  • The upside is that in the displacement from how things were a few decades ago, men are now craving to reach their next level individually. They want to understand and develop themselves more as leaders.

As men now give more attention to their own personal freedom, emotional well-being, and mental health; they can still integrate whatever they connect with about traditional masculinity in their daily lives with work and family.

So what is masculinity?

Let’s go to the core of it:


couple in bed - what is masculinityThe essence of masculinity and femininity

At the heart of masculinity and femininity are not qualities or traits per se.

Rather, at the heart of each are directions or origin points, like yin and yang.

These directions are exciting and dynamic, and they are penetrative and receptive.


Penetrative and receptive.

Here are their dictionary definitions:

  • Penetrative is defined as “able to make a way into or through something.”
  • Receptive is defined as “able or willing to receive something, especially signals or stimuli.”

So, as we can see, penetrative and receptive are two complementary capabilities: (1) actively making a way in and (2) actively receiving that.

It’s useful to see masculine as penetrative and feminine as receptive since these are directions or proclivities, rather than fixed points.

As such, one can be anywhere along the continuum from masculine/penetrative to feminine/receptive as a person.


Everyone expresses these directions differently.

The dictionary definition of masculinity is simply “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men,” and femininity is defined likewise.

Men biologically have more testosterone, which is linked strongly with penetrative tendencies. And women biologically have more estrogen, which is linked strongly with receptive tendencies.

That said, there is a ton of variability person to person.

Masculine characteristics and feminine characteristics have a lot to do with the individual:  

  • essentially, to the core of that person
  • in a particular time in life
  • in a particular situation
  • as relating to another person
  • as a combination of all of these factors.

The interplay of all these variables is extremely complex, which is fantastic.

There are infinite expressions of masculinity and femininity among billions of human beings, which means there is so much to explore!


At its core, masculinity is penetrative.

Masculine men are those with a strong penetrative tendency, relative to other people.

On an x-axis of Masculine/Penetrative to Feminine/Receptive… 

  • Masculine men are on the far left-hand side.
  • Masculine women and feminine men are somewhere in the middle.
  • Feminine women are on the far-right side.


X-axis Only - what is masculinity

Please note that no point along this axis is any better or worse than another point. They’re just different.


man with backpack on hill - what is masculinityWhat is masculinity? 

Masculinity is penetrative.

Penetrative means focused, unbending, and able to dominate.

Here is how one IA Reader describes masculinity.

I feel that it well-demonstrates the far left-hand side of the continuum, the masculine man side: 

For him, masculine means…

The desire to compete. The desire to lead, to be courageous and adventurous and physical and to fill a needed role. The need to dominate a woman sexually and have her surrender to you.

I really love this description. It gets to the essence of penetration.

He then goes on to say that, unfortunately…

These desires are “constantly being presented to you as morally inferior… Society tells men to not trust their basic masculine nature because it will lead them astray.”

That is a real shame because masculine men are a wonderful and needed part of society, as they create an excellent and exciting polarization to the feminine woman, which I’ll get into below.


Masculinity isn’t always extreme.

Another IA Reader describes masculinity beautifully as well. His definition is a little closer in from the edge, between the far-left and the middle.

Here is a gentler and equally wonderful expression of masculinity: 

To me, masculinity is (in no particular order): the desire and will to improve yourself and those around you; strength (can be physical, mental, emotional, you name it, be strong in some way true to you); assertive and confident (NOT aggressive; that’s different); thoughtful, courageous, chivalrous.

You can see the penetrative qualities throughout.

Being masculine doesn’t mean “to the edge” extreme masculine. 

There are many ways to be masculine, and there’s so much distinctive beauty in different points along the continuum.

Here is one more IA Reader’s take on masculinity, who doesn’t resonate with the word “dominate” at all: 

I would rather define masculinity in terms of having ambition towards positive goals that benefit both yourself and society, establishing competence in a field of interest, and having the self-discipline to achieve your goals and competence in your field and to adhere to standards of moral/ethical conduct in your dealings with others.

This is a fantastic illustration of manhood.

There are so many appreciative perspectives on masculinity in this world. They are certainly not all on the extreme edge, and they don’t need to be.


At its core, femininity is receptive.

With our x-axis of Masculine/Penetrative to Feminine/Receptive, femininity is on the far right-hand side.


woman on ferris wheel - what is masculinityWhat is femininity? 

Femininity is receptive.

Receptive means open, soft, and inviting.

In the first IA Reader quote above, the part about “dominate a woman sexually and have her surrender to you” is very important to the quite feminine woman on the far right-hand edge of the continuum.

She longs to experience full receptivity within herself because that’s in her nature.

Receptivity is an active, rather than passive, willingness and full desire to be overcome, overtaken, penetrated, and made “weak”…

Except it is not weak at all to surrender because of the incredible electric charge that happens between two people as this occurs.

The energy is so strong and beautiful that both have undoubtedly contributed to it:

  • Without penetration, there would be no activity at all.
  • Without receptivity, there would be no megawatt, mind-blowing spark.

Femininity is the place where masculinity goes to feel itself, to explore, to rest, and to be.


Masculine and feminine polarization.

What very feminine women want can seem paradoxical, and like the epic calling of a lifetime for the very masculine man.

It’s as if women are saying, but not with words, just from their deepest desires whether they’re conscious of it verbally or not:

  • “Respect me, and also dominate me.”
  • “Be moved in my presence, and also penetrate me.”
  • “Cherish me, and also mercilessly overtake me.”

Certainly, not *all* women desire this!

It’s only people who are quite feminine (open, soft, inviting) who desire other people who are quite masculine (focused, unbending, able to dominate).

The interplay of this 100% role difference is what people on the edge of the continuum live for.

Now, what about people who are not so far out on the edge?

While the people all the way at the ends experience the desires I just outlined more intensely, the people in towards the middle, or between the edge and the middle, can have the most amazing sex and union as well.

Rather than one person being extremely masculine and one being extremely feminine, they can enjoy a wider range *within* each person in a flowing, exciting relationship.


The interplay between the sexes is shaped by intensity.

Intensity is defined in the dictionary as “extreme force, degree, or strength.”

As people, we desire varying degrees of intensity in our lives at large as well as in our romantic lives.

Our attraction to or aversion from intensity informs a lot about us as individuals and, therefore, what we’re attracted to in others.


The X and Y Axis of Romance

Just as I described Masculine and Feminine along an x-axis earlier in this piece, I’ll now share how intensity is the y-axis.

Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, shares that everyone needs security on the one hand and adventure on the other.

We need security in order to feel safe and stable, and we need adventure in order to feel passionate and in love. Each individual is more oriented towards one or the other of these, just as each individual is more masculine or more feminine.

I’ve correlated these needs that she identified with the y-axis of intensity like this:

  • Security correlates to Low Intensity.
  • Adventure correlates to High Intensity.

Together, the x-axis and y-axis make a full map of the range of romantic tendencies and desires.

See the image below:

Simple X and Y Axis of Romance - what is masculinity


The X’s throughout represent different possible places to be across each axis. The possibilities are plentiful.


Intensity is a continuum.

As you can see in the image just above, the intensity is less “black and white” and more of a continuum, like masculinity and femininity or introversion and extroversion.

Esther makes an interesting point about security and adventure on the y-axis of intensity:

Once a routine is established in a relationship, it’s tempting for many couples to slink into security and forfeit adventure.

That said, too much adventure and not enough security between two people isn’t healthy long term either, though that’s less of a natural tendency for most people.

We all need both security *and* adventure to be happy in a relationship; we just need them to different degrees, depending on our nature and desires.


Helen Fisher’s Director, Negotiator, Builder, Explorer

Now for the climax of this article. I’m so excited about this!

All four modes we’ve explored can be mapped one-for-one to the four personality essences that Helen Fisher writes about in her book, “Why Him? Why Her?”.

She explains these in her book, and we’ll go over the gist of it below.

Here’s how the four modes of being we’ve discussed correlate to Helen Fisher’s: 

  1. Masculine/Penetrative = Director (decisive, leading, competitive)
  2. Feminine/Receptive = Negotiator (empathetic, nurturing, feelings-oriented)
  3. High-intensity/Adventure = Explorer (risk-taking, spontaneous, sensual)
  4. Low-intensity/Security = Builder (reliable, steady, practical)

How amazing that each of her four types corresponds perfectly to one of the aspects we’ve discussed, one of the directions on the x-axis (Penetrative, Receptive) or y-axis (High-Intensity, Low-Intensity).


Mapping to our X/Y axis, it would be… 

  • The X-axis is from Director (Penetrative) to Negotiator (Receptive).
  • The Y-axis is from Builder (Security) to Explorer (Adventure).

See below:

X and Y Axis of Romance - what is masculinity


They perfectly correspond.

So wherever your place is, whatever your general coordinates on the X/Y axis map, shapes who you are and who you are attracted to.

As Helen points out, these types are independent of gender identity or sexual orientation. Therefore, any person can be any combination.

While gender studies show that more men are Directors than they are Negotiators and more women are Negotiators than they are Directors, the types don’t fall neatly down gender lines.


How Helen’s types work and interact:

Helen explains that everyone has a primary and a secondary mode of being.

These are expressed as the primary followed by the secondary, though we, of course, all have each of the four types within us.

Most of how we are as individuals and in a relationship depends on our primary and secondary type.

There are twelve possible combinations: 

  1. Negotiator-Explorer
  2. Negotiator-Builder
  3. Negotiator-Director
  4. Director-Explorer
  5. Director-Builder
  6. Director-Negotiator
  7. Explorer-Builder (rare)
  8. Explorer-Negotiator
  9. Explorer-Director
  10. Builder-Negotiator
  11. Builder-Director
  12. Builder-Explorer (rare)

Amazingly, while Director and Negotiator are complements and are attracted to each other as opposites, Builders and Explorers are attracted to people *like themselves*!

This is exciting news because we don’t need polarization to be happy unless perhaps we are a polarizing type (Director or Negotiator).

If we’re a Builder or Explorer, we’re happiest with someone like ourselves.

This is why, yes, opposites tend to attract (Director <> Negotiator), but so do people who are very much the same (Builder <> Builder // Explorer <> Explorer).


The big picture

We all need each other in order to make the full picture of the beauty of humanity.

If we only had super masculine men and super feminine women, then we’d be missing out on a LOT.

The more subtle and nuanced men and women of the world offer so much to society at large and interpersonally.

Also, our masculine and feminine qualities are often context-dependent like we talked about above.

So someone may have a more “feminine” and inspired/affected artistic side and still channel “masculine” drive at work to penetrate the environment and get things done.

When masculinity hurts and when it heals: 

On its own, penetrative masculinity is a pure gift.

Penetrative only becomes destructive when it is misshapen into exploitation, abuse, or sexual assault. Those are the deformations of masculinity, but the deformations of something doesn’t describe the true thing.

True masculinity is indispensably important and quite valuable. We need *more* masculinity today, not less.

Masculinity is healing when it is fully and meaningfully expressed, with benevolence, respect, and using its power for the good of oneself and of others.


Expressions of masculinity in society

Forms of masculinity differ in larger cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago; compared to smaller towns. This is because of subculture values.

While the larger cities tend to value masculine qualities like business success, social and professional prestige, being well-dressed and in-shape; smaller towns tend to value robust physical strength, self-defense/fighting abilities, and physical provision skills like hunting and fishing.

Different cultures also have different material symbols of masculine strength.

While perhaps a nice watch is a status symbol in a city, a big truck may be the same thing in the country.

These differences not only apply to the size of a local population but to geography as well, for example, American masculinity compared to French masculinity.


Moving forward with flexibility and curiosity

Since gender expressions have become much more free-form with women’s rights, there is a new phenomenon of so-called “masculine women” and “feminine men” whose gender roles have become “flipped” (the woman working out of the house, and the man caring for the family).

What we understand now after going through all the points above together is that even when doing one’s work, worshipping God, tending to family, or enjoying a night of passion (all in the same day, perhaps!), who we are as individuals may overlap with gender norms or the traditional female or male role but don’t always conform to them.

The independent person finds his or her own way to be that feels true deep down.

And thank goodness, none of us has to conform to external expectations because the world gets our best when we are most uniquely ourselves.

If, for you, that means being an edge-of-continuum masculine man, then great. But that is in no way necessary for you to feel fulfilled and happy, to lead a meaningful life, and to attract an amazing match just for you.


Next steps

If you’d like to get to know yourself more, here’s what you can do next:

  • Take Helen Fisher’s quiz in her “Why him? Why her?” book. This will give you a good understanding of where you are on the “X and Y Axis of Romance” map above.
  • Then to find your particular attractive qualities in a fun and supportive way, go to the exercise in our free 22-page ebook right here (or in the box below).

Signing up for the ebook also subscribes you to emails, so that you can get more from me. You’ll be sent not only helpful email training but also new article updates.

Thank you for reading, and cheers to you being your best and to knowing yourself more every day.

Sarah from IA
Sarah from IA
Sarah is founder and CEO of Introverted Alpha; the top dating coaching company for introverted men; featured by Forbes, Business Insider, Cosmo, and more. Pick up your free copy of Introverted Alpha's 22-page ebook in the box below.

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