Pacific Standard spoke with a psychologist about new guidelines to improve men’s psychological and emotional health.
Stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression: These are traits typically associated with “traditional masculinity” in American culture. As new guidelines from the American Psychological Association warn, they might also have negative consequences for men’s relationships and health—and society at large.
The APA, the largest professional organization of psychologists in the United States, first released the guidelines in August of 2018, but the document rose to viral prominence this week as conservative writers pushed back with sensationalist headlines like “Psychologists Declare War Against ‘Traditional Masculinity.'”
In reality, psychologists want to help improve men’s health, not wage a war. As the guidelines note, socialization to traditionally masculine traits might prevent a suicidal man from asking for help, or skew another toward violence. Decades of research shows “that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly,” as Stephanie Pappas wrote in the APA’s Monitor on Psychology magazine.
Psychologists caution that the guidelines were never intended to be public-facing; Since 2005, at least 200 physicians and researchers have contributed to the document—a similar resource to those that the APA has developed for many other populations over the years, including women and girls. The advice to clinicians includes suggestions for helping fathers engage with their children, or cope with depression, substance abuse, and other health issues that disproportionately affect men.
To learn more about the guidelines’ significance and reception, Pacific Standard spoke with Ryan McKelley, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, who practices health and gender psychology with a focus on boys and men.
What’s the significance of these guidelines coming out now?
Based on the current time, in the wake of a lot of efforts in the #MeToo movement and people thinking about the impact of gender, it was accidentally timely. The importance of the guidelines is just helping encourage psychologists specifically, and any other therapists or health professionals, to help support the psychological and social well-being of boys and men.
The APA has previously released guidelines for special populations: girls and women, sexual gender minorities, racial minorities. There’s certainly a precedent to say these are groups of people who lived experiences that are important enough to understand in complex ways. This subfield of psychology looks at boys and men in a similar way.
Why has this taken so long, especially when there have been guidelines for women and girls since 1978?
During the women’s movement in the 1960s and ’70s, there was a lot of work that women did, reflecting on how gender impacts their lives. These guidelines are taking those lenses [to] look at boys and men from a gendered perspective and look at how we might support them in their well-being, while recognizing that men certainly hold privilege and power in sociopolitical fields and economically.
At the same time, there are also some health consequences: We can look at rates of completed suicide [and] rates of cardiovascular- and cancer-related deaths to say it’s time to think more complexly about these things.
Is this an attempt to correct for psychology’s history of focusing on men?
For a long time, male has been [thought of as] the “default gender.” Everything was compared [to them]. Most early medical research, with male participants, wasn’t as effective because we weren’t looking at women and people of different ages and health statuses. This is our answer to it in psychology, saying it is time to recognize that men are a gender and that maybe something about the way they experience gender has implications [for] their health.
Could you break down the term “traditional masculinity” and the ways it’s harmful to men and boys?
When we talk about traditional masculine ideology, those are the things in culture—and right now we’re in a particular historical time and culture—that are prescriptive (what boys and men should do) and proscriptive (what boys and men should not do). There’s a lot of diversity in the way masculinity is experienced and expressed. Some of these standards have held popular ideas in a certain segment of the population: Things like the avoidance of being seen as weak, extreme risk-taking, or extreme levels of aggression or violence.
When we talk about those harmful aspects, we recognize all genders can and do experience these things to a different degree. It becomes problematic when boys and men are really rigid in the ways they experience these things. For example, with emotional restriction or denying vulnerability or weakness, we know men complete suicide at four times the rate of women, and that’s a public-health problem. Part of that difference is men are more likely to choose a more lethal method, like firearm use, but it’s also an avoidance of seeking help along the way.
How has the field been able to tie these extremes to sources in our culture?
I want to be very clear that most boys and men are not violent. However, most extreme physical violence is perpetrated by men. We have to hold those two ideas in our head at the same time: Men are not inherently violent, but they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence against others. If we see these acts of violence happening, and we do—a mass casualty situation or domestic and intimate partner violence—[it] warrants serious attention.
What does it mean for psychologists to treat patients by “encouraging the beneficial aspects of masculinity,” as the guidelines suggest?
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t associate a gender with a trait. But, unfortunately, culturally, these [ideas] still exist. Things like courage, self-sacrifice, we’d call those “pro-social” approaches [to masculinity] and we’d want to support people expressing or experiencing those things.
Obviously men from benefit from the patriarchy, and yet they’re also subject to specific expectations of masculinity. What role has that dual relationship played for men who are victims or perpetrators of violence?
You think about privilege and power in an organization setting, for example—a work culture that favors aggressiveness and stepping on people on the way up—and maybe it speeds up their career in that particular setting. But those same skills that privilege them in one context may be quite detrimental in a romantic or familiar relationship. Stepping on people will eventually catch up to you.
How does this work differently, compared to the norms impacting women and girls?
Girls and women are often oppressed by their gender role, and boys and men are often restricted and constricted by their gender roles. It’s a similar pressure, but operating in a different direction. Women have historically been kept down and repressed, and men have been kept from leading fuller [emotional] lives. The very common example is the “boys don’t cry” phrase. Tell that to an infant. Infants don’t come into the world with gender socialization, saying I can’t ask for help or I can’t cry or I’ll get punished. It isn’t until later in life that we start to see some of those differences, and over time those become rules, and there’s fear about violating those rules.
Since the guidelines have been shared widely this week, there’s been a lot of pushback from conservative media and people who believe this is targeting men. What do you make of that response?
I think what’s happened is the word “traditional” has been co-opted. It’s a politicized word. Conservatives, with a big C or little c, hear “traditional values” being threatened. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of what that term means.
How do you change somebody’s view? I’m not tied to removing somebody’s traditional values. I would say it’s hard to dispute the facts—suicide, health outcomes, and disease. If we can agree these are problems, I think we could agree [to address them]. By asking somebody to explore or interrogate masculinity, we’re not asking people to give up being masculine. All we’re saying is, let’s explore additional ways you can interact in the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.