Traditional masculinity can be psychologically harmful according to an article by the American Psychological Association (APA) promoting their first-ever Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. The article, published on the APA’s website, drew a swift backlash from men’s rights activists and conservative pundits like Fox’s Laura Ingraham and the National Review’s David French. The new guidelines, they proclaimed, were nothing less than a wholesale assault on the manliness of manly men. But the Ingrahams and Frenchs of the world are ridiculously misguided. The real question shouldn’t be “Why is the APA trying to dismantle traditional masculinity?” It should be: “Why didn’t we start doing it sooner?”
The ten guidelines in question are highly clinical and woefully unsexy. When you consider guideline one for instance — “Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.” — it makes sense that it took the APA a full 15-years to hammer them out. But distilled in the guidelines is 40-years of psychological research into masculinity. And much of that research points to grim consequences for boys and men socialized in traditional masculine norms of strength, stoicism, and self-reliance.
But it shouldn’t take 40-years of research to recognize the consequences of traditional masculinity for boys and men. All you need is a sense of history and open eyes. In their controversial article on their new guidelines, the APA points to a few eye-opening facts. For instance, men are over three times more likely to die of suicide than women. Men live shorter lives than women, often because they take more risks and seek help less often. And not only do men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States but they are also 77 percent of homicide victims. Which is to say, men have been in crisis long before the APA weighed in.
The men’s rights activists and conservative defenders of traditional masculinity would suggest this crisis is happening precisely because manliness is being eroded by liberal activist eggheads with a feminist agenda. That is complete bullshit.
Consider for a moment that the suicide rate for men has pretty much outpaced women for decades — long before any feminist or cultural challenges to masculinity. In fact, the suicide rate for men in America was at its highest in the 1950s when men were at the peak of unmitigated masculinity.
There are other signs that cultural critique of masculinity aren’t what’s driving the crisis in men. Consider the fact that since the 1970s, as feminism rose and the traditional role of men at work and home shifted, crime rates for men plummeted. If men, angry and bitter at their social shift, were more prone to violence, as some suggest, wouldn’t the rate have increased?
The problem isn’t that traditional masculinity is being attacked and eroded. The problem is that it continues to exist. The issues we see with men’s health, loneliness, and depression aren’t because men are becoming unmoored in their masculine identity. It’s because centuries of telling men how they should be has codified thinking that prevents them from seeking help and promotes behavior that puts them at risk so they can appear strong and independent.
The startling truth of the APA guidelines for practicing with men and boys is that they somehow did not come sooner. But now that the guidelines have arrived, maybe we’ll finally see some movement away from the yoke of traditional masculinity. Maybe men and policymakers will be moved to find new definitions of masculinity that allow us to seek help and affect positive change. After all, our lives, literally depend on it.