Back in August 2018, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a set of practice guidelines for working with boys and men in psychotherapy. Over 13 years in development and backed by hundreds of research references, the guidelines seek to provide advice to psychologists (and really, any mental health professional) who regularly works with men and boys in their practice.
These guidelines largely went uncommented and unnoticed until the APA’s in-house magazine wrote an article about them that was published in the January 2019 issue. The article made disparaging editorial remarks about masculinity not found in the guidelines themselves.
So what’s the controversy surrounding traditional masculinity characteristics, and what does the research show?
The article, written by science writer Stephanie Pappas, had this controversial passage:
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).
I believe these editorial remarks — about “on the whole, [traditional masculinity is] harmful” — were the ones causing the most concern. This conclusion is a more strongly-worded finding than the guidelines themselves suggest. The guidelines instead say such masculinity may limit males’ development and can increase the likelihood of future mental health and physical concerns.
In short, I believe the author of the APA magazine article got it wrong — traditional masculinity itself is not harmful. Rather it appears to just increase a person’s risk for potentially troublesome behaviors and future problems. While “avoiding vegetables” is likely not a good long-term life choice, I’d hardly place it in the same category as heavy drinking or smoking (as at least one set of researchers did). 1
This comment set off a firestorm among conservatives, who came to the defense of traditional masculinity. David French, writing for National Review, notes:
The guidelines themselves argue that “traditional masculinity ideology” — defined as socializing boys toward “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” — has been shown to “limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict,” and negatively influence mental and physical health.
But instead of addressing the research showing these concerns, he creates a bunch of straw-men arguments about how men as a group — especially white males — are on the decline in society. (Awww, how sad.) And shouldn’t we not just support men’s risk-taking, masculine behaviors, even if it means men’s suicide rates continue to climb to more than four times those of women?
The APA’s Guidelines on Working with Boys and Men
In having read the actual guidelines, I believe the APA is on the right track here in trying to help psychologists and therapists better understand the unique challenges that are present in working with boys and men. If some men feel threatened or are bothered by, you know, actual scientific research, that appears to be symptomatic of their own insecurities more than anything.
While the guidelines were written specifically for psychologists — a type of mental health professional that has a doctoral degree with an emphasis in the science of psychology — they can equally apply to any therapist working with men and boys. And as you read through them, you’ll see they’re full of common sense advice.
The overall takeaway from the guidelines is simple. Recognize that there are a set of potentially unique (but in some cases, not all that unique) challenges that men face. But treat and work to understand the specific individual in front of you, and most definitely do not view them as a stereotype (even if some of their behaviors appear on the surface to be stereotypically masculine).
I don’t see this as a threat to men, any more than I see a TV commercial (see below) is. Men, as a group, can take it. Men who get upset at these efforts to bring greater equality to issues affecting both genders should reevaluate and perhaps reset their expectations in an ever-changing, modern society.
We’re not in the 1950s any more. And thank goodness for that.
APA’s Monitor article: APA issues first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys
APA’s response to the criticism: A Closer Look at the APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men
National Review: Grown men are the solution, not the problem
- Indeed, a few diets even suggest a person limit the consumption of certain types of vegetables. [↩]