It was barely 45 years ago that the American Psychological Association officially (if not entirely) stopped calling homosexuality a form of mental illness. As of 2019 it now casts the same slur at “traditional masculinity.”(APA. 1/2019) The APA has promulgated its Guidelinesfor Psychological Practice with Men and Boys and, like the government, the APA is here to help (APA, 8/2018). Look out lads people like Michael Kimmel have proclaimed that they understand you and – quelle surprise! – no one but them can give you the help you so urgently need.
What’s been most publicized about the guidelines is the continuing education paper by Stephanie Pappas linked to above in which she memorably explains that “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful.” Of course the guidelines themselves make no such assertion, but it’s helpful to have Pappas around to give voice to the reality behind the carefully-chosen words of the actual APA document.
Now, given the astonishing claim quoted above, inquiring minds want to know just what is this thing called “traditional masculinity” that is so “harmful” to, well, the masculine half of humanity. Sadly and astonishingly, the guidelines are quite coy on the subject that is the focus of the entire 31-page article. Here is what they say:
Masculinity ideology is a set of descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive of cognitions about boys and men (Levant & Richmond, 2007; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1994). Although there are differences in masculinity ideologies, there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence. These have been collectively referred to as traditional masculinity ideology (Levant & Richmond, 2007).Leave aside the fact that the first sentence is such bad grammar as to be unintelligible. Notice that this “constellation of standards” comes to us without the courtesy of a citation. It’s just a naked assertion by whoever wrote the guidelines. In what way did those traits “hold sway” and what is meant by “large segments of the population?” 5%? 95%? Who measured that and how? Did anyone? And, since the listed traits (anti-femininity, etc.) aren’t exclusive, what are the others? We’re left to guess.
And what about the list that’s provided? Does it in fact describe men or to what they aspire? The idea that men generally are “anti-feminine” is patently absurd. Most men, I venture to say, want women (and particularly those to whom they’re close) to be at least somewhat feminine. They’re less enthusiastic about feminine men, much as women are about masculine women. But, for each sex, that’s more a matter of identifying with the sex one is. Again, the idea that men are “anti-feminine” is nonsense.
Achievement? Yes, men as a rule value achievement and women value achieving men. Is this a problem? Let’s hope the APA doesn’t view it as one because most of civilization (including the profession of psychology) exists solely because of it. As Camille Paglia once remarked “If it had been up to women, we’d still be living in grass huts.” Men are strongly encouraged by biology and by women to achieve and that’s not a bad thing. Nowhere does the APA tell us that men shouldn’t aspire to achievement, so why is that trait included among others that are called “harmful?”
Adventure and risk of course are mostly a function of testosterone. Men have it in abundance and the hormone is strongly associated with those behaviors. So what does the APA intend to do about that? Many psychologists are now transforming boys into girls via sex reassignment “therapy,” so why not the whole male population? But is that a serious proposal? The guidelines don’t say so and rational minds reject it outright.
And of course there’s “violence.” We men are all violent, aren’t we? No, we’re not. Indeed, violence of any serious sort is rare among us and has always, since the dawn of civilization, been treated as either criminal or pathological. Yes, boys on the playground may indulge in the odd punch-up and drunks in a bar sometimes do too. So what? And yes, most violent crime is committed by males, but again, perpetrators make up just a tiny portion of the male population, so it scarcely makes sense to identify men generally with that small percentage who tend toward violence. Any therapeutic approach to men and boys that assumes us to be the thug on the street is bound to be wrong and destructive.
As to the eschewal of the appearance of weakness, that’s a generally accurate description of (I should think) most men. But here’s the kicker: it’s mostly a good thing. As I’ve said recently, in order to accomplish anything and certainly anything of value, a bit of stoicism is a prerequisite. Some tasks are hard. Some take a long time (sometimes a lifetime) to do. Many resist accomplishment by visiting failure on the person again and again. Weakness is, among other things, quitting at the first indication that the job is hard. Success requires not giving in to weakness. Our vastly rich, varied, safe, productive and stimulating culture exists because of male eschewal of the appearance of weakness.
So the items listed as constituting “traditional masculinity” don’t bear even casual scrutiny. That’s because they either have little or nothing to do with masculinity generally or because we should in no way try to tag them as deficiencies to be fixed or pathologies to be cured.
I’ll have a lot more to say on this subject in the future, but for now I’ll close by urging the writers of the guidelines to consult a bit of history. In the context of history, their idea of “traditional masculinity” looks a good bit like neither.
First, since long before the written word (and therefore about as traditional as it’s possible to be), the idea of men and masculinity has been vastly broader than the APA grasps. For example, among the first non-warrior men were the shamans, i.e. those in touch with the spirit world. Then there were the poets like Homer whose use of words and song moved their listeners and by some were considered in touch with unseen worlds. More recently, men have been healers, scientists, philosophers, explorers, priests, artists, etc. All of those are and have always been accepted forms of masculinity. Men and masculinity have always been understood to be broad concepts encompassing many, many ways of being. The “constellation” of behaviors listed by the APA entirely fails to describe the vast sweep of historic masculinity.
Stated another way, Charlemagne and Julius Caesar were men, but so were the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Lao Tzu. So were Aristotle and Plato, Darwin and Einstein. So were Shakespeare and Rembrandt and Leonardo. And the pages of history are littered with the greatest warriors weeping for a fallen comrade or even a fallen foe. Did they “eschew the appearance of weakness?” Or were they capable of great strength and at the same time great honesty about their feelings?
The problem with “traditional masculinity” is current-day ignorance of it. Social Justice Warriors have defined traditional masculinity to be A and then described A pejoratively in order to make war on it. Their Achilles heel is that they have no clue about what constituted traditional masculinity. Times far better informed than our own accepted as legitimate men the Warrior, the King, the Priest, the Poet and countless others. If we were to do so now, all this talk about “toxic masculinity” would be consigned where it belongs – the ash –heap of, yes, history.