College Men at the Intersection of Masculinity & Spirituality

In recognition of the recent 30th anniversary of the Standing Committee on Men & Masculinities (SCMM), the SCMM has launched a series exploring the concept of intersectionality as it relates to collegiate men.  Contributing authors will explore how dimensions of race, religion, gender, and other social identities converge and shape the experiences of college men and how higher education professionals can best assist these students. 

Be a man…but also a man of faith and spirituality?  Missing from the contemporary discourse on college men and intersectionality is an analysis of how college men reconcile and make meaning of their gender (masculinity) and faith/spiritual identities.  This gap is most pronounced with male subgroup populations who have faith, self-identify as spiritual and/or religious, and actively participate in faith-based initiatives (e.g. service, retreat, worship) offered by campus ministries, chaplaincies, and parachurch organizations.  Understanding men as spiritual and religious beings not only gives more breadth and depth to research on college men and masculinities but also provides new possibilities for student affairs practitioners to reconstruct gendered norms on campus.

As the UCLA Spiritualty Study suggests, college students are yearning for these questions, yet faculty and administrators are not adequately responding to the demand (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011).  By broadening the spectrum of masculinities to include intersections of spirituality and religion, student affairs practitioners can enter into a larger conversation with campus ministry/chaplaincy about serving the gender-specific needs, experiences, and challenges of college men of faith.  Moreover, this discourse continues to move the field of men and masculinities beyond deficit-oriented narratives that identify problems of college men, while offering few solutions for practitioners.

Using intersectionality as a theoretical perspective (Collins, 1990; Crenshaw, 1989, 1991), this thought piece aims to complicate and deepen contemporary understandings of college men’s multiple identities by exploring how faith/spiritual identity (along with race, class, sexuality, ability, etc.) intersects with men’s gender identity (masculinity) and how this intersection informs college men’s development.  To achieve this end, I will situate intersectionality theory in college student development literature, drawing upon historical roots and contemporary applications of intersectionality, including the Intersectional Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (IMMDI) (Jones & Abes, 2013).  In order to integrate intersectionality theory into contemporary discourse on college men, I will use a narrative approach grounded in a recent sociological work on sacred narratives (Ammerman, 2013).  This will provide a language and a framework to contextualize and make meaning of three complex and multifaceted narratives of college men of faith.  I will conclude by connecting theoretical understandings of intersectionality and sacred narratives to student affairs practice, providing implications and discussion questions for reflection-based action.

College Men & Intersectionality

Men and masculinities scholars have long called to dismiss singular, essentialist, and dominant/hegemonic forms of masculinity, which value the time-honored depictions of what it means to be a man, in favor of a plurality of masculinities – aptly termed multiple masculinities (Connell, 2005; Kimmel & Messner, 2003).  While this movement within the field has expanded our understanding of men’s gender identity, men and masculinities scholars have often viewed gender (masculinity) as an independent and discrete identity.  As scholarship has evolved, there has been a growing consensus that researchers and practitioners should attend to more than gender identity developmental models alone to more fully understand the experiential realities of college men (Harper, Wardell, & McGuire, 2011).  Harper and colleagues posit that gender cannot be understood in isolation from other identities such as race, class, sexuality, and religion.  This sentiment echoes earlier work by Jones (1997) that suggests the “braiding of gender” (p. 379) with other identities.  Scholarship on multiple identities has recently been refined to reflect aspects of intersectionality theory, as conceptualized in the Intersectional Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (IMMDI) (Jones & Abes, 2013).

Historically grounded in the Black feminist and womanist movements (Collins, 1990; Crenshaw, 1989, 1991), intersectionality research has emerged as a distinct, yet overlapping concept with multiple identities.  This concept arose out of Black feminists refusing the ways that white-located feminism consistently attempted to collapse race as a saliently organizing force.  Intersectionality is not simply about the addition of multiple identities, but also the hierarchies of social positioning (Bowleg, 2008; Spade, 2013; Stewart, 2010).  As a critical lens that deconstructs inequality and power structures, intersectionality is inherently connected to social movements.  As Collins (1990) describes, intersectionality is an ongoing “dialectic between oppression and activism” (p. 3); a bottom-up reframing of the issues that shifts limited paradigms of thought from an oversimplification of additive identities to multiple, intersecting axes of privilege and oppression.

Similar to the Black feminist and womanist movements, the field of college men and masculinities has too often taken a single vector approach that universalizes an experience of gender to all men.  This reductionism is potentially harmful, as it can essentialize the experiences of men to dominant identities (e.g. white, male, Christian), while ignoring subpopulations of men who have been historically marginalized and underrepresented in the academy.  Intersectionality theory seeks to transform the larger discourse about college men to include the experiential realities of men who experience multiple privileged and subordinate identities simultaneously.  The next section introduces a narrative approach to college men and intersectionality.

Sacred Narratives of College Men

The sacred narratives of college men provides an opportunity for student affairs practitioners to begin to identify and hold up narratives of college men who are reconciling and successfully integrating their masculinity and spirituality.  Sociologist of religion Nancy Ammerman (2013) explores the power of the sacred narratives in her recent text, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life.  She sought to discover spirituality in the everyday lives of ordinary American Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, unaffiliated, etc., as spiritual identity and religious affiliation cannot be confined to places of worship.

For Ammerman (2013), narrative is an appropriate method of inquiry for “nonexperts” (p. 7) (i.e. majority of college students), where conceptions of God and the world are communicated and passed down generationally through stories and rituals:

Stories are important, in part, because they are not merely personal.  They exist at the intersection of personal and public…We live inside a range of socially constructed stories that are not always of our own making or even fully conscious to us. (p. 8)

When the sacred narratives of college men are made public and shared broadly throughout the academy, it provides a space for all college men to reimagine what it means to be a college man.  By privileging alternative narratives, it broadens the permissive behaviors of men on college campuses to include spiritual identity and religious affiliation in hopes that all college men, particularly those from marginalized subgroups, may enact their masculinity with greater fluidity and acceptance from their male peer groups.

Through my work as an educator, minister, and scholar, I have encountered countless young men who experience many tensions in their gender and spiritual identities.  In most cases, faith, spirituality, and religion encourage these men to reflect, make meaning, provide service to others, and orient their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors towards more relational and communal ends.  From a gendered perspective, these notions are antithetical to dominant, hegemonic notions of masculinity by which boys and men are socialized, such as fear of femininity, restrictive emotionality, homophobia, insubordination, individualism, competition, power, success, domination, and aggression (Connell, 2005; Kimmel & Messner, 2003).  For many men, an outward spirituality is commonly understood as a violation of masculine norms – something to be shamed – relegated to the periphery as a soft and interior pursuit.  Consequently, the holistic development of college men is rendered incomplete.  Examples of this disintegration are evident in the following case study narratives:

  • John had a strong pre-college religious socialization through his family and faith-based high school experiences. Entering college, John becomes preoccupied with belonging to his male peer group, who hold up sexual activity (i.e. losing one’s virginity) as an essential component of college masculinity and the common male folklore.  John experiences deep tensions between his core religious beliefs and his need for validation from other men.  With no conversation partners on campus to talk about both his masculinity and his strong faith background, John feels even more isolated.  Ultimately, John loses his virginity in order to fit in with his male peers, while privatizing and ignoring the central tenets of his religious upbringing. He still struggles to make meaning of this experience three years later as a senior.
  • Michael has always associated his masculinity with “respect” and “aggression.”  Entering college, he demonstrated this through excessive drinking and violent behaviors with his male peer groups.  However, on the inside, he wrestles with coming out to his male peer group – a conversation he was never comfortable having in high school.  Homophobic slurs continue to keep his sexuality silent for his first two years of college.  As a junior, he finally comes out to his peers and, much to his surprise, is accepted and cared for deeply.  This experience allows him to feel less constricted in his masculinity.  Shortly thereafter, he feels open to explore his spiritual identity for the first time, in order to make meaning of these events.
  • Tyler is caught up in the duality of roles – he is both captain of the basketball team and the leader of an international service-immersion trip.  His peer groups are clearly delineated – his basketball peers validate his masculinity through toughness, aggressiveness, and other hypermasculine behavior, while his service-immersion peers are the only people on campus whom he feels he can be honest and open with.  For example, service-learning experiences are considered to be “girly” by his basketball peers.  Tyler tells the story of returning from his service trip, unclear how to process his emotions, and ultimately, getting “blackout” drunk with his basketball peers.  For many years, he struggles to integrate these two male peer groups, which both represent valuable aspects of person he wants to be.  He fully identifies with both peer groups, but lacks an integrative experience without conversations on campus to explore and process this dichotomy.

These narratives, which should not be essentialized to all men of faith, demonstrate some common struggles that men face in integrating their multiple identities in the midst of the larger sociocultural norms.  They each tell the story of fragmentation and situational identity, as they attempt to reconcile what it means to be a man and what it means to be a person of faith.

For John, Michael, and Tyler, faith, spiritual identity and religious affiliation were often understood as a violation of and threat to masculine gender norms, which caused faith-based conversations and participation in faith-based initiatives (e.g. retreat, service, worship) to be privatized and interiorized.  These men were comfortable enough to share their faith with adult mentors, especially those who facilitated faith-based initiatives and conversation groups; however, they deeply struggled in their male peer groups, where their voices and experiences became marginalized and minimized.  As John, Michael, and Tyler sought to develop their faith, they felt more alienated from their peers and more isolated and unsupported in their faith development.  In response to these disconcerting narratives, the next section provides a practical guide for student affairs professionals.

Integration of Sacred Narratives on Campus

As educators, we need to help college men navigate complex and multifaceted experiences of masculinity and spirituality.  Creating a campus culture that allows men to speak openly and honestly about their spiritual identity and their religious affiliation will inevitably broaden the spectrum of masculinities embraced on college campuses.

This can be achieved through a twofold approach.  First, student affairs practitioners need to identify where sacred narratives are already present on college campus.  As Ammerman (2013) asserts, these narratives do not simply exist in our campus worship communities or spiritual programming (e.g. retreat and service experiences), but across various religious and secular contexts in which college men live their lives.  Once identified, these narratives should be promoted throughout our campus communities.  Second, student affairs practitioners need to provide spaces for college men to share their sacred narratives, such as: 1) in the classroom, through spiritual pedagogy (Astin, 2004) such as journaling, reflection, and centering activities; 2) in retreat programming and gender/women’s resource center programming and events; 3) through panels of college men who describe how they have come to understand what it means to be men and persons of faith on their campuses; and 4) in campus media and publications, through newspaper columns and editorial pieces that provide a space for college men to share their sacred narratives.

True to the foundations of intersectionality, the suggested initiatives should aim to create positive social change through the deconstruction of inequality and power structures.  This can be achieved on both individual and systemic levels.  On an individual level, student affairs practitioners need to be intentional about featuring men of multiple marginalized identities, particularly non-white men, non-Christian men, and men who do not identify as strictly heterosexual.  On a systemic level, it is important to consider the historical dominance of Protestant Christianity in America, as Christian values permeate all institutions of higher learning, not simply Christian institutions.  Student affairs practitioners must be attentive and resistant to systemic oppression religious minorities may experience as a result of membership in a non-Christian group.  One possible response is to collaborate with campus ministry on multi-faith and interfaith initiatives for college men that seek to not only deconstruct hierarchies of faith traditions but also serve the gender-specific needs, experiences, and challenges of college men of faith.

Understanding college men as spiritual beings through the lens of intersectionality complicates contemporary understandings of college men both in theory and practice.  The present piece outlines an alternative way of conceptualizing college men as spiritual beings, grounded in a narrative approach to programming.  Showcasing sacred narratives of college men who have successfully integrated their masculinity and spirituality demonstrates the power of sharing one’s story in the creation of a new normative masculine behavior on college campuses.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do masculinity and spirituality interact, inform, and construct one another?
  2. Where do sacred narratives already exist on my campus?
  3. How does my campus provide space for men to reflect, discuss, and share sacred narratives?


Ammerman, N. T. (2013). Sacred stories, spiritual tribes: Finding religion in everyday life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Astin, A. W. (2004). Why spirituality deserves a central place in liberal education. Liberal Education, 90(2), 34–41.

Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ inner lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bowleg, L. (2008). When black + lesbian + woman ≠ black lesbian woman: The methodological challenges of qualitative and quantitative intersectionality research. Sex Roles, 59(5-6), 312–325. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9400-z

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston, MA: UnwinHyman.

Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139–167.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.

Harper, S. R., Wardell, C. C., & McGuire, K. M. (2011). Man of multiple identities: Complex individuality and identity intersectionality among college men. In Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp. 81–96). New York, NY: Routledge.

Jones, S. R. (1997). Voices of identity and difference: A qualitative exploration of the multiple dimensions of identity development in women college students. Journal of College Student Development, 38(4), 376–386.

Jones, S. R., & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kimmel, M. S., & Messner, M. A. (2003). Men’s lives (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Spade, D. (2013). Intersectional resistance and law reform. Signs, 38(4), 1031–1055. doi:10.1086/669574

Stewart, D. L. (2010). Researcher as instrument: Understanding “shifting” findings in constructivist research. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 47(3), 291–306. doi:10.2202/1949-6605.6130

About the Author

Danny Zepp is a Ph.D. Candidate in Higher Education at Boston College.  His dissertation focuses on the intersection of masculinity and faith in college men’s identity.  Last November, he presented a paper on college men and intersectionality at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).  In April, he presented a review of literature on college men at the intersection of masculinity and spirituality at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).  With over eight years of experience in higher education, Danny has a broad range of expertise in academic and student affairs and campus ministry.  He spent seven years as a first-year orientation and retreat director and pre-major academic advisor.  Danny currently serves as a graduate research and teaching assistant in the higher education program, where his primary role is to coordinate the Boston College Institute for Administrators in Catholic Higher Education (IACHE).  He also serves as a resident minister in a sophomore hall at Boston College.

Please email inquiries to Daniel Zepp.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.