News & Politics

APA’s ‘Masculinity’ Guidelines Now Facing Title IX Challenge

The American Psychological Association (APA) is now implicated in a Title IX complaint after the organization released guidelines alleging that “traditional masculinity” is  “psychologically harmful” to young men and boys.

The guidelines, in summary, urge psychologists to “recognize that masculinities are constructed,” exhort them to “understand the impact of power, privilege and sexism on the development of boys,” and generally view masculinity as negative for mental health.

The APA is the largest accrediting body of psychology programs in the United States. It oversees accreditation for at least 406 doctoral programs in the field, and has roughly 117,000 active members.

So, while the guidelines may seem like a drop in the bucket of the culture wars, they’re likely to have a significant influence on psychology departments, the training of future and current psychologists, and the practice of psychology throughout the nation.

This worries Kursat Pekgoz, a Ph.D. student, and retired lawyer John Davis. Together, they filed a Title IX complaint against Harvard University on Thursday, arguing that a Title IX violation exists by way of Harvard’s relationship to the APA.

According to the complaint, all Harvard psychologists are informed by APA code, Harvard’s program in clinical psychology is accredited by the APA, and Harvard also partners with the organization to offer “continuing education” classes.

“By using APA’s guidelines [which were released in August], Harvard University creates a set of different standards of behavior/sanctions/treatment for men and women. This is a violation of Title IX,” the complaint argues.

Further, the complaint argues that by “using APA’s guidelines, Harvard University has adopted biased training materials which rely upon sex stereotypes” and that in doing so, the school “discourages men from seeking counseling services.”

“No reasonable male person would seek counseling at a clinic where his sex is considered to be a form of mental illness, or a driving factor for mental illness,” the complaint adds.

Pekgoz said he chose Harvard as his test case due to the APA’s consistent relationship with the school. Not only does the APA oversee Harvard’s graduate program in psychology, but some Harvard faculty members also work with the APA, and the APA has awarded thousands of dollars in research grants to Harvard students over the past few years.

Kursat Pekgoz is a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California. Five other universities are currently under investigation due to complaints Pekgoz filed. Photo courtesy of Pekgoz.

Pekgoz also points out that the APA has no similar guidance for “femininity.”

Though the APA did release women-centric guidelines in 2007, those simply noted that women are more likely to face certain mental health issues, such as eating disorders and OCD, and suggested differing types of care.

“These double standards will mean that in practice, APA-informed counselors will treat all boys as potentially violent and insane, while imposing no such assumptions on girls,” said Pekgoz in an interview Wednesday night.

The complaint was filed to the D.C. Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education. Pekgoz and Davis hope that the APA will repeal or alter the new guidelines to ensure they don’t single out masculinity, but if they don’t, Pekgoz proposes that Harvard sever all ties with the group. (It’s unclear how feasible that option is, and it seems highly unlikely.)

But regardless: “Young men will be harmed,” Pekgoz warned.

Harvard University and the APA did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. This article will be updated if and when a response is received.

Follow the author on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen.