For the first time, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued “guidelines” for psychologists in their treatment of men and boys — that traditional masculinity, defined as “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression,” is psychologically harmful.
For decades, psychology focused on men (particularly white men), to the exclusion of all others. And men still dominate professionally and politically: As of 2018, 95.2 percent of chief operating officers at Fortune 500 companies were men. According to a 2017 analysis by Fortune, in 16 of the top companies, 80 percent of all high-ranking executives were male. Meanwhile, the 115th Congress, which began in 2017, was 81 percent male.
Next comes a litany of statistics pointing to the toxicity of being male:
- Men commit 90% of homicides and represent 77% of homicide victims in the United States.
- Men are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide.
- Men’s life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s.
- Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls.
- Boys face harsher punishments in school—especially boys of color.
To compensate for pschology’s “androcentric past,” APA’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men, 13 years in making, draws on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes both inward and outward damage. As Ronald F. Levant, EdD, a former APA president, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron, and co-editor of the APA’s The Psychology of Men and Masculinities, puts it: “Though men benefit from patriarchy, they are also impinged upon by patriarchy.”
The new APA guidelines enumerate how “traditional masculinity” is “on the whole” harmful because men socialized this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors:
- 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).
- 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).
- Research led by Omar Yousaf, PhD, found that men who bought into traditional notions of masculinity were more negative about seeking mental health services than those with more flexible gender attitudes (Psychology of Men & Masculinity, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2015).
- Men are often reluctant to admit vulnerability, says Fredric Rabinowitz, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Redlands in California who has stewarded the new guidelines since 2005, when he was president of APA Div. 51 (Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinities). Rabinowitz says: “Because of the way many men have been brought up—to be self-sufficient and able to take care of themselves—any sense that things aren’t OK needs to be kept secret. Part of what happens is men who keep things to themselves look outward and see that no one else is sharing any of the conflicts that they feel inside. That makes them feel isolated. They think they’re alone. They think they’re weak. They think they’re not OK. They don’t realize that other men are also harboring private thoughts and private emotions and private conflicts.”
- Though men report less depression than women, they complete suicide at far higher rates than women, and their suicides are increasing. The suicide rate for non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native men jumped 38% between 1999 and 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; for white men, suicide rates increased 28% in that time span (National Center for Health Statistics, 2016). Suicide rates for women have been on the rise as well, but because men complete suicide more often than women, men’s suicide death rates remain the highest.
- Military men are more vulnerable to depression when they retire: “When retirement comes, a lot of guys get thrown into an abyss,” Rabinowitz says, particularly for veterans who identified as workers and achievers (Health Services Research, Vol. 43. No. 2, 2008).
- The problems of non-white males are compounded by racism, homophobia and transphobia:
- Men and boys of color may be viewed with suspicion by schools, law enforcement and others, leading to harsher punishments compared with white men and boys, says Christopher Liang, PhD, a psychologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who helped draft the guidelines.
- As of 2014, black men made up 37% of the male state and federal prison population and were more than 10 times as likely to be incarcerated in state or federal prison as white men. Hispanic men were also overrepresented, making up 22% of the prison population despite making up only about 8% of the general U.S. population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015).
- 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 2015 National School Climate Survey found that 85% of LGBTQ students reported verbal harassment at school over their sexual orientation or gender expression (GLSEN, 2015). Gender-nonconforming students reported worse treatment than did LGBTQ kids who conformed with traditional gender norms.
- A 2016 study of a community sample of transgender children led by Kristina Olson, PhD, of the University of Washington in Seattle, found that those with supportive families were no more likely than nontransgender children to have depression, and were only slightly more likely to experience anxiety (Pediatrics, Vol. 137, No. 3, 2016).
The APA Guidelines urge psychologists to encourage men to “break free of masculinity rules”; “discard the harmful ideologies of traditional masculinity (violence, sexism)”; “find flexibility in the potentially positive aspects (courage, leadership)”; and to be “adaptable, emotional and capable of engaging fully outside of rigid norms”.
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