The American Psychological Association is on the defensive over its newly released clinical guidance (PDF) for treating boys and men, which links traditional masculinity ideology to a range of harms, including sexism, violence, mental health issues, suicide, and homophobia. Critics contend that the guidelines attack traditional values and innate characteristics of males.
The APA’s 10-point guidance, released last week, is intended to help practicing psychologists address the varied yet gendered experience of men and boys with whom they work. It fits into the APA’s set of other clinical guidelines for working with specific groups, including older adults, people with disabilities, and one for girls and women, which was released in 2007. The association began working on the guidance for boys and men in 2005—well before the current #MeToo era—and drew from more than four decades of research for its framing and recommendations.
That research showed that “some masculine social norms can have negative consequences for the health of boys and men,” the APA said in a statement released January 14 amid backlash. Key among these harmful norms is pressure for boys to suppress their emotions (the “common ‘boys don’t cry’ refrain”), the APA said. This has been documented to lead to “increased negative risk-taking and inappropriate aggression among men and boys, factors that can put some males at greater risk for psychological and physical health problems.” It can also make males “less willing to seek help for psychological distress.”
As proof of these harmful norms in action, the APA noted that compared with women, men are more likely to commit and be the victim of violent crimes, are more likely to die by homicide and suicide, and are more likely to have substance abuse issues and conduct disorders.
“Therefore, compelling evidence exists supporting the need for guidelines for psychologists who provide services to boys and men,” the APA concluded in the introduction of its guidelines.
The clinical recommendations went on to lay out 10 actionable items to help practicing psychologists approach masculinity issues and better serve their male clients. This included addressing power and privilege, promoting interpersonal relationships, encouraging fathers to be positively involved in family, and supporting educational efforts.
Along the way, the guidelines addressed the pitfalls of “traditional masculinity,” defined as “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” Rigid adherence to this ideology can lead to a range of issues, from homophobia, sexual violence, and bullying to cardiovascular problems, the guidance cautioned.
Criticism has been swift and sharp, particularly from conservative voices and outlets. Some accused the association of stereotyping men. Others took exception to the conclusion in an APA magazine article about the guidelines that traditional masculinity is, “on the whole, harmful,” though the guidelines themselves do not state this conclusion.
In a piece in the , senior writer David French wrote:
We do our sons no favors when we tell them that they don’t have to answer that voice inside them that tells them to be strong, to be brave, and to lead. We do them no favors when we let them abandon the quest to become a grown man when that quest gets hard… traditional masculinity isn’t the problem; it can be part of the cure.
In his Intelligencer blog for conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote that “the decision by the APA to pathologize half of humanity is terrible news.”
As you read the guidelines, you realize that the APA believes that psychologists should be informing men that what they might think is their nature is actually just a set of social constructs that hurt them, murders thousands, and deeply wounds the society as a whole.
In its apparent rebuttal this week, the APA argued that violence and aggression aren’t “hardwired” into men and that it hopes to help men embrace their masculinity—the good bits, at least.
Psychologists who treat men and boys already know that their male clients aren’t stereotypes. They have feelings, needs, and desires. They’re adaptable. They possess many positive masculine characteristics. The guidelines are designed to give psychologists a framework to help men and boys embrace their masculinity in ways that are helpful, rather than harmful, to their health and quality of life.