What the APA's Report on Men and Masculinity Really Tells Us: A Psychologist's Perspective

Rather than recognizing the common ground this report represents, both sides of the aisle seem hell-bent on making this into yet another divisive political issue.

Because we didn’t have enough to be angry about, this week brought us another subject for outrage: the American Psychological Association (APA) hates men. The APA’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, published in August 2018, has come to prominence in the media, supposedly demonstrating psychology to be the latest social science to join the ranks of the war on men.

Upon deeper examination, however, this report should have served as a wonderful opportunity for dialogue regarding masculinity. The report reflects concerns raised by both sides of the political spectrum, and there is far more common ground than might be expected. However, rather than finding any opportunity for civilized discussion, the news media would rather engage in the typical strategies of oversimplification, exaggeration, and polarization that so define modern politics.

What the APA Actually Said

The APA report highlights a number of facts that many, such as Dr. Christina Hoff Summers, have raised previously. For example, men are more likely to commit and be the victims of homicide and are three times more likely to commit suicide. The report further outlines 10 guidelines for psychologists to consider in addressing these and similar issues.

The norms of “a real man” depend on factors like age, ethnicity, and culture, each of which may provide its own specific challenges.

Many of these guidelines should be uncontroversial regardless of your political orientation. Indeed, many of them have been talking points of the political right for several years, such as recognizing the importance of caring fathers in the family unit. Similarly, the report recognizes—and indeed emphasizes—that there is no single conceptualization of masculinity.

The norms of “a real man” depend on factors like age, ethnicity, and culture, each of which may provide its own specific challenges. The report focuses on psychologists learning to recognize and address these challenges in the treatment of men, as well as dealing with the antisocial phenomena that may result, such as unfettered aggression, misogyny, or emotionally restrictive norms like “boys don’t cry.”

Rather than calmly reporting the facts (heaven forbid!) or recognizing the common ground this report represents, both sides of the aisle seem hell-bent on making this into yet another divisive political issue. On the left, the response has been triumphant crowing about toxic masculinity and the dangers men pose to a civilized society. On the right, the response has been a reactive moral panic about how the left hates traditional manhood. Both of these responses are polarizing, oversimplified, and worst of all, useless.

Reactance on the Right

One particularly worrying response from the right is the assertion that the masculine traits “maligned” in this report, such as aggression, dominance, and the desire to be breadwinners, are positive and even desirable traits in “real” men. This response is called reactance, and it seems to define modern political discourse.

It seems that many would rather blindly assert these traits to be positive, never stopping to consider the potential negative consequences raised by the APA’s report.

The fact is, almost no trait, masculine or otherwise, is inherently good or bad. Yes, some of the traits warned about in the APA’s report can have positive manifestations, which the APA report already admits. Aggression can be positive when used to defend the self, the home, or the family unit. Dominance, in the proper dosage, can be an important part of leadership. The desire to provide can be an important part of maintaining a healthy family unit. However, each of these traits also has a dark side.

I sincerely hope it is uncontroversial to say that aggression is maladaptive, harmful, and immoral when it takes the form of spousal or child abuse. Dominance is likewise undesirable when it causes a predilection to start bar fights over minor insults. Even the desire to be the “breadwinner” can also be maladaptive if a man is uncomfortable when his wife makes more than him and it harms their relationship.

Again, I hope none of these facts would be considered controversial. However, it seems that in their reactance-fueled ire, many on the right would rather blindly assert these traits to be positive, never stopping to consider the potential negative consequences raised by the APA’s report. With demonstrated potential risks like abuse, homicide, and suicide in play, such a reactive response seems foolish and dangerous.

Masculine Honor Ideology and the Dangers of Unchecked Masculinity

Much of my own research focuses on a specific set of cultural norms known as honor ideology, which highlights the dangers of unchecked, badly focused masculinity. In an honor culture, a man’s worth is entirely measured by his willingness to engage in violent retaliation to insults or threats. Honor ideology has been consistently linked to many of the same phenomena raised by the APA’s report, including needless risk-taking, stigmatizing mental health treatment, violence against women, and increased risk of suicide. In each of these cases, the norms and requirements of being a “real man” have real, concretely deleterious effects for men who subscribe to them or live in a culture where they are enforced.

The phenomenon still serves as a concrete example of how masculinity and its associated norms can have severe risks for its adherents.

Honor ideology is a widespread phenomenon in America, despite what some on the right claim about the harmful effects of masculinity being “outliers.” Millions of men subscribe to these norms and suffer the negative effects of doing so, including the “gender role strain” mentioned in the APA’s report. Failing to subscribe to honor norms makes one less of a man, which can lead to everything from mental health crises such as suicide to taking dangerous risks in order to regain “lost” masculine honor.

While not all masculinity is tied up in honor ideology, the phenomenon still serves as a concrete example of how masculinity and its associated norms can have severe risks for its adherents. These risks are not simply for “outliers.”

Common Concerns and Common Ground

Obviously, not everything in the APA’s report will be agreed upon by everyone of every political orientation. However, the report still contains a number of opportunities for finding common ground. The problems raised by the report are real, and they are not partisan. They afflict men across cultures, ethnicities, ages, and political persuasions. They are widespread problems, and they need a solution.

The goal of the report was to draw attention to the ways that masculinity can go wrong rather than to condemn masculinity outright.

The APA’s Division 51 has even issued a clarification, highlighting the positive elements of masculinity and stressing the fact that the goal of the report was to draw attention to the ways that masculinity can go wrong rather than to condemn masculinity outright. However, it seems both sides of the political spectrum would rather ignore these common issues in favor of continuing the anger and polarization that define modern politics.

If you have not read the APA’s original report, I encourage you to do so with fresh eyes. You may be surprised to find that your ideas, on either side of the political spectrum, will be challenged. Regardless, the problems raised by the APA report are not going away, and without finding common ground, it is likely that they will not be solved.

Further Reading

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