APA issues guidelines calling traditional masculinity harmful to men, boys

Father and son surfing.
Father and son surfing. | Photo by Filios Sazeides on Unsplash

The American Psychological Association has issued new guidelines spelling out how "traditional masculinity" is "harmful" to men and boys for the purpose of helping the psychologists who work with them. The guidelines have already drawn considerable criticism.

The professional guidelines, which reportedly took 13 years to develop, are the first of their kind that the group has published for clinicians for working with men and boys.

The APA relies on 40 years of research "showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly," the January 2019 press release explains.

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Among the assertions the APA makes are that "the more men conformed to masculine norms, the more likely they were to consider as normal risky health behaviors such as heavy drinking, using tobacco and avoiding vegetables, and to engage in these risky behaviors themselves."

“What is gender in the 2010s?” Ryon McDermott, a psychologist at the University of South Alabama who helped draft the men’s guidelines asks in the report.

“It’s no longer just this male-female binary.” 

The role of the clinician, he says, can be to encourage men "to discard the harmful ideologies of traditional masculinity (violence, sexism) and find flexibility in the potentially positive aspects (courage, leadership)."

McDermott and his team are working on a "positive-masculinities scale" to capture peoples’ adherence to the pro-social traits expected from men, something that has not yet been measured systematically.

"Traditional" masculinity is never defined precisely in the report. But the authors do say it is "marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression [and] is, on the whole, harmful." 

Thus far, some reactions, spanning the political and professional spectrum, have dismissed the APA as an untrustworthy and ideological organization.

Christian thought leader and author Rod Dreher likened the report to totalitarian social engineering, believing the people behind it to have ill motives.

"To be fair, it’s not all PC codswallop, but given the social justice warrior jargon throughout, I suspect this is mostly about psychologizing the gelding of American males," he commented on his blog Monday, saying he did not trust McDermott, who is quoted prominently, as to what constitutes "healthy" masculinity.

"The more I think about it, the more Soviet this seems to me. Dissent from gender ideology (transgender, as well as progressive ideals of masculinity and femininity)? Well, experts say you must be insane," Dreher added in a follow-up comment.

Others were quick to point out the political nature of the organization.

Conservative writer and radio host Ben Shapiro observed Monday that the APA "has been an openly political body for years. These guidelines are just the latest symptom. "

Likewise, commentator Erick Erickson said the new guidelines have "way more to do with the left capturing an institution than in legitimate medical concerns."

The Atlantic's Jesse Singal, who is known for his in-depth reporting on gender dysphoria, weighed in that it is not good for an organization like the APA to get far ahead of the evidence just to make a point many progressives desire to be true but remains debatable.

Evolutionary psychologist and a University of New Mexico professor Geoffrey Miller was also not impressed.

"The APA using its army of clinical psychologists to wage a pseudo-therapeutic war against traditional masculinity, patriarchy, male stoicism, and rigid gender norms," he commented on Twitter.

Writing for National Review, David French commented that schools already go too far in suppressing healthy aspects of masculinity in boys. 

"Male children are falling behind in school not because schools indulge their risk-taking and adventurousness but often because they relentlessly suppress boys and sometimes punish boys’ essential nature, from the opening bell to the close of the day. Especially in fatherless homes, female-dominated elementary-school experiences often mean that boys are exposed to few — if any — male role models, and male restlessness is therefore viewed almost entirely as a problem to be solved rather than a potential asset to be shaped," he wrote. 

The report explains that men commit the overwhelming majority of homicides, are the group most at risk of being victims of violent crime, are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide, and their life expectancy is almost 5 years shorter than women's.

Rigid gender norms and traditional notions of masculinity are in part to blame, the APA appears to conclude, and urges psychologists to steer men them away from them.

"Getting that message out to men — that they’re adaptable, emotional and capable of engaging fully outside of rigid norms — is what the new guidelines are designed to do. And if psychologists can focus on supporting men in breaking free of masculinity rules that don’t help them, the effects could spread beyond just mental health for men," the report quotes McDermott as saying.

Dreher pointed out that these assertions do not paint the entire picture, noting that it is not just men who are murdering but black men and that it is mostly white men who are taking their lives.

"This suggests that there is something particular going on within black male society," he said.

"And the suicide rate being so unusually high among working-class, middle-aged white males tells us that something is going on with their own social psychology. That black and Hispanic working-class middle-aged men who suffer from the same hardships as whites are not killing themselves suggests that their social psychology has certain strengths that whites lack."

"It’s interesting to parse these differences and think about what they mean. The point here is that this APA press release citing the violence of men as a reason to demonize traditional masculinity is playing fast and loose with the statistics."

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