NEW YORK — They are men who shun pain and never back down from a fight. They drink, smoke and drive fast--without wearing seatbelts.
They used to be called macho. Now psychologists are calling them femiphobics.
"Every man has femiphobia, or fear of being female, to some degree because it's so much a part of our culture," said psychologist Denis O'Donovan. "For some, the fear makes them exaggerate certain behaviors that are actual hazards to their health and longevity."
At a recent annual meeting of the American Psychological Assn., dozens of psychologists met to discuss the newly defined disorder, which was unheard of five years ago.
O'Donovan, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and founding father of femiphobia, said studies indicate femiphobics die prematurely because they take unnecessary risks, thrive on dangerous confrontations and tend to ignore the warning signs of disease.
Fear of Becoming Girls
"Women worry about their bodies, about internal things, not men," O'Donovan said.
O'Donovan contends all young boys fear becoming girls because they see early in life that males have more authority and respect than females.
"The surest way to get a little boy not to play with a toy is to have him see a girl playing with it first," O'Donovan said.
In one study reported at the meeting, little boys were asked what they would do if they saw a contemporary playing with a female doll. The majority of boys said they would make fun of the child, avoid him and even physically hurt him.
Psychologists also reported on another study in which 4-year-old boys told they had to use a girls' bathroom expressed fear they would become girls if they did so.
"At some point of age, boys realize no matter what, they are not going to turn into girls," O'Donovan said. "So the fear goes underneath the surface.
"That frightened little boy within us is what femiphobia is about."
O'Donovan said femiphobics shun any behavior considered feminine and assert their maleness by indulging in behaviors that are considered masculine, from poker to driving hot rods.
They have a compelling need to have girlfriends so they can prove their masculinity, but they tend to treat women with little respect.
Most Likely Males
Most psychologists who study the disorder believe males raised in homes where females have little status or power are most likely to exert femiphobic behavior.
Some studies suggest boys with fathers who are emotionally distant or rarely home also tend toward femiphobia, but O'Donovan such research is far from conclusive.
"We don't really know what causes any phobia," he said. "The point is when there is a weakness, a fear, we tend to marshal all our resources to combat that fear, which only makes it worse."
Some psychologists at the meeting argued women also have a fear of appearing "like a man," but O'Donovan said his studies suggest men are much more anxious to appear masculine than women are over appearing feminine.