The American Psychological Association has released new guidelines for psychologists to help boys and men overcome pathologies researchers say are caused by traditional masculinity.
According to the APA, this socially constructed masculinity has “held sway over large segments of the population” and is defined by “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” This notion of traditional masculinity is cited as the cause of several pathologies affecting boys and men, including sexual abuse, murder, poor education, mental illness, and suicide.
“In the past 30 years, researchers and theorists have placed greater emphasis on ecological and sociological factors influencing the psychology of boys and men, culminating in what has been termed the New Psychology of Men,” the report says. “For instance, socialization for conforming to traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental health and physical health.”
This, they say, has caused an overrepresentation of boys and men in many psychological and social problems. “For example, boys are disproportionately represented among schoolchildren with learning difficulties (e.g., lower standardized test scores) and behavior problems (e.g., bullying, school suspensions, aggression). Likewise, men are overrepresented in prisons, are more likely than women to commit violent crimes, and are at greatest risk of being a victim of violent crime (e.g., homicide, aggravated assault).”
Researchers who have been steeped for decades in intersectionality and studies critical of traditional masculinity have come to the conclusion that the conflicts men face are “related to four domains of the male gender role”—a role that they claim has been wrongly sociologically determined for them since birth.
These include “success, power, and competition (a disproportionate emphasis on personal achievement and control or being in positions of power); restrictive emotionality (discomfort expressing and experiencing vulnerable emotions); restrictive affectionate behavior between men (discomfort expressing care and affectionate touching of other men); and conflict between work and family relations (distress due to balancing school or work with the demands of raising a family.)”
To fix the damage done to men and boys by traditional masculinity, the APA suggests 10 guidelines for mental health professionals, as follows.
Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.
“When trying to understand the complex role of masculinity in the lives of diverse boys and men, it is critical to acknowledge that gender is a non-binary construct that is distinct from, although interrelated to, sexual orientation,” researchers say. “Heteronormative assumptions often falsely conflate sexual and masculine identity for men, as well as disregard sexual attraction and gender role adherence for those who identify as a sexual minority, transgender, or gender nonconforming.”
Psychologists must help boys and men recognize that their masculinity has been defined by their life circumstances and therefore can be redefined. Professionals should help them “navigate restrictive definitions of masculinity and create their own concepts of what it means to be male.”
Psychologists strive to recognize that boys and men integrate multiple aspects to their social identities across the lifespan.
“Gender identity development begins before birth, shaped by the expectations that parents and other significant adults have for how a boy should be treated and how he should behave,” researchers claim. “Boys (and girls) begin to make distinctions between males and females during infancy and increasingly assign certain meanings to being male based on their gender socialization experiences.”
“Over time, a boy’s gender identity becomes crystallized and exerts a greater influence on his behavior. By the time he reaches adulthood, a man will tend to demonstrate behaviors as prescribed by his ethnicity, culture, and different constructions of masculinity.”
Psychologists should “understand the important role of identity formation to the psychological well-being of boys and men and attempt to help them recognize and integrate all aspects of their identities.” To do this, psychologists need to cast off their biases formed by traditional masculinity and see men in light of their personal experiences.
Professionals should seek to “reduce and counter the damaging effects of microaggressions by teaching boys and men from historically marginalized backgrounds skills to cope with racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination and by working with families, schools, and communities to provide supportive environments for these populations.”
Psychologists understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men and on their relationships with others.
“Although privilege has not applied to all boys and men in equal measure, in the aggregate, males experience a greater degree of social and economic power than girls and women in a patriarchal society,” the report says. “However, men who benefit from their social power are also confined by system-level policies and practices as well as individual-level psychological resources necessary to maintain male privilege. Thus, male privilege often comes with a cost in the form of adherence to sexist ideologies designed to maintain male power that also restrict men’s ability to function adaptively.”
Because of this male privilege, sexism can become “deeply engrained in their construction of masculinity.” Being a part of the patriarchy can also “contribute to important public health concerns such as gender-based violence.” Not being allowed to express vulnerable emotions since childhood can “have lasting influence into adulthood in ways that shape their intimate relationships.”
Once men understand their male privilege, researchers say, they’ll be “less apt to rely on power, control, and violence in their relationships.” The report, therefore, encourages psychologists to “help clients develop awareness of systems that assume cisgender masculinity expression is the expected norm, and identify how they have been harmed by discrimination against those who are gender nonconforming.”
Psychologists strive to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence the interpersonal relationships of boys and men.
“Although there is tremendous social and cultural diversity inherent in parenting approaches, some boys are socialized from an early age to avoid intimacy and deep connections with others, potentially leading to serious relational difficulties later in life,” the APA researchers claim. “Indeed, several studies have identified connections between adult attachment insecurity and men’s adherence to traditional masculinity ideologies.”
“Additionally, traditional masculinity ideology encourages men to adopt an approach to sexuality that emphasizes promiscuity and other aspects of risky sexual behavior, such as not learning a partner’s sexual history or engaging in sex without protection from pregnancy or disease transmission. Indeed, heterosexual men’s adherence to traditional, sexist aspects of masculinity has been connected to sexual assault perpetration, as well as decreased condom use and increased casual ‘hook-up’ sex.”
Researchers also claim that traditional masculinity keeps men from being intimate with others and is why most men don’t have many friends. To help boys and men overcome the toxic effects of masculinity, psychologists should encourage them to be more emotional, empathetic, and relational instead of encouraging “hypercompetitive and hyper-aggressive” behaviors.
“Psychologists can discuss with boys and men the messages they have received about withholding affection from other males to help them understand how components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers.”
Deconstructing ‘Traditional Masculine Socialization’
Other guidelines include: encouraging positive father involvement and healthy family relationships; supporting educational efforts that are responsive to the needs of boys and men (e.g., anti-bully campaigns); reducing the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives such as aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide; and helping boys and men engage in healthy behaviors.
One approach to overcoming these pathologies is for psychologists to expose the negative influence of “traditional masculine socialization.” Psychologists are also encouraged to help men who have been influenced by traditional masculinity by promoting “gender-sensitive psychological services.”
“Psychologists assessing boys and men strive to be aware of traditional masculine gender role characteristics that render underlying psychological states difficult to assess,” the report says. “Psychologists in clinical settings are encouraged to ask boys and men questions about mood and affect and to be willing to probe more extensively when faced with brief responses. Psychologists are also encouraged to note discrepancies between self-expression and the severity of precipitating factors, which might have resulted from many men’s relative emotional inexpressivity.”
The final guideline focuses on the bigger societal picture and strives “to change institutional, cultural, and systemic problems that affect boys and men through advocacy, prevention, and education.” This will involve disseminating information to mental health professionals and policymakers “regarding the destructive aspects of rigid notions of masculinity may result in inclusion of gender-sensitive public health initiatives for boys and men.”