American Psychological Association Warns Traditional Masculinity Is “Harmful” and “Oppressive”
For many, the APA means the Acolytes Protection Agency, the wrestling tag team of badass brutes Farooq and Bradshaw. Ironically, a gaggle of people who self proclaim to know what’s best for you are also known as the APA; American Psychological Association, and they have released a new report that warns about the “harmful” and “oppressive” effects of masculinity, particularly as this epidemic pertains to children.
The report starts with:
APA’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men strive to recognize and address these problems in boys and men while remaining sensitive to the field’s androcentric past. Thirteen years in the making, they draw on more than 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.
“Though men benefit from patriarchy, they are also impinged upon by patriarchy,” says Ronald F. Levant, EdD, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and co-editor of the APA volume “The Psychology of Men and Masculinities.” Levant was APA president in 2005 when the guideline-drafting process began and was instrumental in securing funding and support to get the process started.
They go on to describe the “needs of men”:
The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors. For example, a 2011 study led by Kristen Springer, PhD, of Rutgers University, found that men with the strongest beliefs about masculinity were only half as likely as men with more moderate masculine beliefs to get preventive health care (Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 52, No. 2). And in 2007, researchers led by James Mahalik, PhD, of Boston College, found 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 (Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 64, No. 11).
“Because of the way many men have been brought up—to be self-sufficient and able to take care of themselves—any sense that things aren’t OK needs to be kept secret,” Rabinowitz says. “Part of what happens is men who keep things to themselves look outward and see that no one else is sharing any of the conflicts that they feel inside. That makes them feel isolated. They think they’re alone. They think they’re weak. They think they’re not OK. They don’t realize that other men are also harboring private thoughts and private emotions and private conflicts.”
In the next section, titled “Multiple Masculinities”, the APA starts to ramp up the wackjobbery:
This vision of masculinity may summon up an image of a closemouthed cowboy, à la John Wayne. But there’s more to masculinity than macho swagger. When the rules of manliness bump up against issues of race, class and sexuality, they can further complicate men’s lives.
For example, the masculine requirement to remain stoic and provide for loved ones can interact with systemic racism and lead to so-called John Henryism for African-American men, a high-effort method of coping that involves striving hard in the face of prolonged stress and discrimination. John Henryism has been linked with hypertension and depression (Journal of Black Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 3, 2016). Race, ethnicity and discrimination can also intersect with immigration status: As of fiscal year 2017, 68 percent of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border were male (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2018). Most of these children arrive from Central America and Mexico, fleeing gang violence (Journal on Migration and Human Security, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2015), an additional psychological stressor.
Other people’s perceptions of masculinity matter, too—and many of these perceptions are rooted in racial stereotyping. Y. Joel Wong, PhD, and colleagues have reported that at least among white college students, Asian-American men are viewed as less manly than white or black American men (Psychology of Men & Masculinity, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2013). Men and boys of color may also be viewed with suspicion by schools, law enforcement and others, leading to harsher punishments compared with white men and boys, says Christopher Liang, PhD, a psychologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who helped draft the guidelines.
“Boys and men of color [are] dealing with all their hurts and their struggles in ways that are consistent with masculinity,” Liang says. “So, ‘be tough,’ and ‘don’t show your hurts.’ And they have to do this in a system where their behaviors are looked upon more negatively than boys and men from different groups.”
These dynamics play out in the prison system as well. As of 2014, black men made up 37 percent of the male state and federal prison population and were more than 10 times as likely to be incarcerated in state or federal prison as white men. Hispanic men were also overrepresented, making up 22 percent of the prison population despite making up only about 8 percent of the general U.S. population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015).
Gender and sexual minorities, too, must grapple with societal views of masculinity. This is an ever-shifting territory. When Levant and Rabinowitz launched the guideline-drafting process in 2005, only Massachusetts recognized same-sex marriage. Today, transgender issues are at the forefront of the cultural conversation, and there is increased awareness of the diversity of gender identity.
“What is gender in the 2010s?” asks Ryon McDermott, PhD, a psychologist at the University of South Alabama who also helped draft the men’s guidelines. “It’s no longer just this male-female binary.”
Though there is now more flexibility in gender norms than 30 years ago, according to Liang and McDermott, boys and men who identify as gay, bisexual or transgender still face higher-than-average levels of hostility and pressure to conform to masculine norms. The 2015 National School Climate Survey found that 85 percent of LGBTQ students reported verbal harassment at school over their sexual orientation or gender expression (GLSEN, 2015). Gender-nonconforming students reported worse treatment than did LGBTQ kids who conformed with traditional gender norms. These kinds of results indicate that gender policing still occurs, Liang says.
Sexual minorities or gender-nonconforming boys and men may face strained family bonds or even familial rejection. And family support can make all the difference in mental health. A 2016 study of a community sample of transgender children led by Kristina Olson, PhD, of the University of Washington in Seattle, found that those with supportive families were no more likely than nontransgender children to have depression, and were only slightly more likely to experience anxiety (Pediatrics, Vol. 137, No. 3, 2016).
They go on about how to “change the culture”:
First, clinicians must be aware of dominant masculine ideals, and cognizant of their own potential biases. Second, they must recognize the integrated nature of masculinity, and how factors ranging from spirituality to ability status to age and ethnicity interact. Mental health professionals must also understand how power, privilege and sexism work both by conferring benefits to men and by trapping them in narrow roles. They should consider how stoicism and a reluctance to admit vulnerability hamstring men in personal relationships, and they should combat these forces, in part, by encouraging fathers to engage more fully with their children.
And they should offer services sensitive to the socialization that men have undergone, while fighting against homophobia, transphobia, racial bias and other types of discrimination in institutions such as the criminal justice system.
The APA closes the report by explaining how to “support the positive”:
The clinician’s role, McDermott 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). He 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 yet to be measured systematically.
Indeed, when researchers strip away stereotypes and expectations, there isn’t much difference in the basic behaviors of men and women. Time diary studies, for example, find that men enjoy caring for their children as much as women do. And differences in emotional displays between boys and girls are small, according to a 2013 meta-analysis (Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 139, No. 4), and not always in the stereo-typical direction. Adolescent boys, for example, actually displayed fewer externalizing emotions such as anger than did adolescent girls.
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, McDermott says. “If we can change men,” he says, “we can change the world.”