Psychologists Declare War Against 'Traditional Masculinity'

Photo Eugen Sandow in Eugen Sandow: Life of the Author as told in Photographs Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Image of masculinity

The American Psychological Association (APA) effectively declared war on “traditional masculinity” in its newly released rules on how psychologists should deal with men. Acting like masculinity is a disease will only further alienate the men psychologists aim to serve, however. It will also serve to blind psychologists and academics to the good aspects of masculine virtue.

In announcing the new guidelines on the APA website, Stephanie Pappas noted that most of the top CEOs, business leaders, and politicians are men, but that men also commit most homicides, are most likely to be victims of violent crime, have a shorter life expectancy than women, and face harsher punishments in school.

“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,” Pappas wrote. “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.”

The guidelines themselves warn against “masculinity ideology,” which refers to a “particular constellation of standards” such as “anti-feminity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.”

The guidelines mention gender role conflict, defining masculinity as separate from femininity and focusing on “four domains:” success, power, and competition; fear of experiencing vulnerable emotions; discomfort with expressing affection among men; and conflict between work and family relations.

“The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful,” Pappas explained. She cited research that the men who most believed in masculinity were less likely to seek preventive health care and more likely to “consider as normal risky health behaviors such as heavy drinking, using tobacco and avoiding vegetables.”

Because masculinity emphasizes stoicism — keeping your struggles close to the vest — men are less likely to seek help when they need it. Men are less likely to voice their struggles and therefore less likely to be diagnosed with depression, even though they successfully commit suicide at rates higher than women.

Boys and men are also far more likely to drop out of school at young ages, damaging their prospects long-term. Even retirement can prove difficult, as men struggle with a lack of accomplishment and a sense of not being needed.

While Pappas and the APA were right to note the struggles of boys and men of color who are more likely to be viewed with suspicion by schools and law enforcement, they also jumped down the rabbit trail of gender confusion. “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 writer noted.

The APA rules are not entirely negative about masculinity, however. In the last section of Pappas’s article, she addresses the “positive.”

“It’s also important to encourage pro-social aspects of masculinity, says [Ph.D. psychologist Ryon] McDermott. In certain circumstances, traits like stoicism and self-sacrifice can be absolutely crucial, he says. But the same tough demeanor that might save a soldier’s life in a war zone can destroy it at home with a romantic partner or child,” Pappas wrote.

“There are times when you need to be able to power through,” McDermott told her. “But if you only do that, and you believe that if you don’t do that then you’re somehow less worthy as a person, that’s where you have a problem.”

“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),” Pappas concluded. She admitted that some “pro-social” traits are “expected from men,” although these are “yet to be measured systematically.”

In his response to these new APA rules, National Review‘s David French seemed to ignore this crucial conclusion. However, French rightly offered a full-throated defense of masculinity against the psychologist’s attack, noting that traditional masculinity involves taming and rightly directing masculine energies.

Pappas and French defined “traditional masculinity” very differently. Heavily influenced by the idea that masculinity involves oppression, Pappas quoted a psychologist who described the “patriarchy” as a force that gives men power but also mentally subjugates men to a life of close-minded competition. French, on the other hand, identified masculinity as the success of becoming a “grown man,” a strong and capable man who can score the final touchdown or carry his wounded son to safety.

French saw what Pappas and other feminists would condemn as “toxic masculinity” as the original flawed nature of man — using strength merely for power over others. French responded by defending “traditional masculinity” as the quality of tempering natural strength for the service of others.

Masculinity is not itself a bad thing. The traits that define maleness — strength, striving for adventure and success, and a disdain for failure or weakness — can be used for virtue or vice. The Western tradition — from Plato and Aristotle to Jesus Christ to the medieval notion of chivalry — has consistently called for masculinity to be restrained and tempered toward “social good” and virtue.

The true answer to “toxic masculinity” is not to warn against all masculine gender norms. That will only worsen the identity crisis boys and men face. Furthermore, it will alienate many boys and men who take pride in their biological sex. Psychologists, by encouraging men to become more vulnerable, may only convince those men that psychology is a weapon against them.

Men do need to hear that it is okay to open up about their struggles. The stoicism in modern western masculinity has arguably gone overboard.

Men also need to hear that seeking danger and adventure needs to be tempered with wisdom. My father, a volunteer fireman, is a great example of this. He will pursue danger to save people’s lives, and he gets a rush of adrenaline by putting his life on the line. But he does it for a noble cause, and he trains and studies relentlessly to make sure that when he rushes into harm’s way, he comes back to his family unscathed.

The four cardinal virtues — prudence (wisdom), fortitude (bravery), justice (treating others in the right way), and temperance (self-restraint) — are a far better way to turn “toxic masculinity” into a vibrant virtue that serves others while fulfilling the natural ambition that comes with maleness.

Both the Left and the Right need to accept that something is wrong with men, and something is right with men. We do abuse our natural strength, we often do run into danger needlessly, and we can harm those around us. Some norms may need to be altered.

The answer isn’t throwing out “traditional masculinity,” but recovering the wisdom found in it.

Shame on the APA for repeating liberal talking points and bashing “patriarchy” rather than returning to the true wisdom of traditional masculinity. This does the men they serve a grave disservice.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.