Several people asked me about the American Psychological Association’s (APA) statement about “toxic masculinity”. You can find the statement, which is actually a practice guideline, here.
I read the entire guideline. My reactions and opinions follow:
1. The title of the practice guideline is not “Toxic Masculinity”. The title is “APA Guidelines
for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men”. The word “toxic”, let alone the phrase “toxic masculinity”, does not appear anywhere in the document.
2. This APA practice guideline, like other clinical practice guideline, is a “statement[s] that suggest or recommend specific professional behavior, endeavor, or conduct for psychologists”. Psychologists are the intended audience. On page one of the document, it states:
These guidelines serve to (a) improve service delivery among populations, (b) stimulate public policy initiatives, and (c) provide professional guidance based on advances in the field. Accordingly, the present document offers guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men.
3. The introduction to the document includes a section of definitions. Language is how we communicate with each other, but, wow, can words get in the way. I suspect some readers had strong reactions to the definitions (and, perhaps, to the legitimacy of some of the words defined). And if those readers do not agree with the definitions (or question the validity of the words themselves), then the rest of the document will seem like a pile of poo.
My guess is that the phrase “traditional masculinity ideology”, tucked into the “masculine ideology” section, and the accompanying definition made some people clutch their pearls. I myself did not react one way or another to the phrase “traditional masculinity ideology”, which the APA defines as
anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.
This phrase has apparently been in use since 2007. This definition gets more attention later in the document, which may have caused the strands holding the pearls to rip, thus sending hundreds of pearls clattering to the floor.
So many words. So many opportunities to develop heartburn over words.
4. The practice guideline includes ten specific guidelines. Here they are:
- strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.
- strive to recognize that boys and men integrate multiple aspects to their social identities across the lifespan.
- understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men and on their relationships with others.
- strive to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence the interpersonal relationships of boys and men.
- strive to encourage positive father involvement and healthy family relationships.
- strive to support educational efforts that are responsive to the needs of boys and men.
- strive to reduce the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives such as aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide.
- strive to help boys and men engage in health-related behaviors.
- strive to build and promote gender-sensitive psychological services.
- understand and strive to change institutional, cultural, and systemic problems that affect boys and men through advocacy, prevention, and education.
Lots of striving happening here.
While I can understand why some people might hurl spittle at their electronic screens at a few of these guidelines, most of them are reasonable and want to improve the well-being of boys and men. Don’t we want boys and men to successfully integrate various aspects of their identities? Who objects to helping men become better fathers? Why would anyone get upset about reducing the problems that boys and men are more likely to encounter in both behaviors and health?
4. I took the most notes for the first three guidelines:
Guideline 1: Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.
And this is where the pearls spilled all over the floor.
Recall that the APA’s definition of “traditional masculinity ideology” refers to “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence”. In this section, APA asserts that this ideology “can be viewed as the dominant… form of masculinity” that “strongly influences what” people in a culture assume is normal.
APA goes on to assert that this “dominant masculinity” has historically excluded men “who were not White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and privileged”.
So many words in there that induce emotional reactions, right?
I argue, however, that this definition is fair. Let’s go through a thought experiment together:
In the United States, the image of a cowboy easily comes to mind upon hearing the word “masculine”. Picture a cowboy in your mind’s eye, if you will:
- What color is his skin? Does he look like this or this?
- When he is riding off into the sunset, who does he want to make sweet love to? Why was Brokeback Mountain so scandalous?
- Did you even consider that your cowboy could be a trans man?
- Does your cowboy wear glasses? hearing aids? a prosthetic limb?
- And does your cowboy push the saloon doors open with bravado? Or does he brush off all the dust from his face and clothes, ensure that he has proper identification on him, and knock on the wall of the saloon?
APA never states that this definition of “dominant masculinity” is “toxic”. Instead, APA asserts that the “ideal, dominant masculinity is generally unattainable for most men”. As a consequence, men “who depart from this narrow masculine conception by any dimension of diversity… may find themselves negotiating between adopting dominant ideals that exclude them or being stereotyped or marginalized”.
Because it’s too hard to reach that ideal, “men not meeting dominant expectations often create their own communities”.
APA then recommends that psychologists work with individuals in their care to “become aware of how masculinity is defined in the context of their life circumstances”. More importantly, APA advises that “psychologists strive to understand their own assumptions of, and countertransference reactions toward, boys, men, and masculinity”. Because if I think Mr. Doe should be like a cowboy and refrain from crying after the death of his child, Mr. Doe is going to pick up on that, even if he wants to weep. And, thus, I’m a jerk and I’m not helping him.
Guideline 2: Psychologists strive to recognize that boys and men integrate multiple aspects to their social identities across the lifespan.
This guideline delves more into the intersection of things like race, age, sexual orientation, etc. and being a boy or man. And these intersections aren’t limited to these “social justice warrior” flavors: A man who has served in the military has a social identity that many others lack. Military service is its own culture and affects how men interpret and define masculinity.
As such, APA recommends that psychologists “working with boys and men strive to become educated about the history and cultural practices of diverse identities” and
[w]hile attempting to understand, respect, and affirm how masculinity is defined in different cultures, psychologists also try to avoid within-group stereotyping of individuals by helping them to distinguish what they believe to be desirable and undesirable masculine traits and to understand the reasons upon which they base these beliefs”.
This recommendation is easiest to understand through a lens of race or ethnicity (e.g., a black man or a refugee from Somalia), though has other applications.
Guideline 3: Psychologists understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men and on their relationships with others.
More words that have the power to launch spittle across the screen.
My overall read of this guideline suggests that the ostensible privilege that boys and men have can also trap them. If boys and men are trying to fit into a masculine ideal that is unattainable, and that masculine ideal includes behaving in ways that are intended to restrict resources and power from others, that pursuit impairs their abilities to have effective and meaningful relationships with human beings. This leads to suffering for all involved. This ties into Guideline 4:
Psychologists strive to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence the interpersonal relationships of boys and men.
The recommendation is that psychologists
can discuss with boys and men the messages they have received about withholding affection from other males to help them understand how components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers.
For me, the punchline of the practice guideline is actually tucked in the section that defines “masculine ideology”. The last sentence in that section is:
acknowledging the plurality of and social constructionist perspective of masculinity, the term masculinities is being used with increasing frequency. (emphasis mine)
If there are multiple definitions of “masculinity”, and knowing that those definitions can change over time, even within the same person, then we can use those changing definitions to help improve the psychological and physical health of boys and men.
Do I think the moral fiber of our nation will disintegrate if a boy or man chooses to wear nail polish? No.
Do I want boys and men to stop trying to achieve things? No.
Do I want them to avoid risks and adventure? No. (Do I want them to avoid stupid risks and pursue noble adventures to make great achievements? Yes.)
Do I want boys and men to engage in less violence? Yes, because I want everyone to engage in less violence. I value cooperation over conflict… and that’s the only way we’re going to survive as a species.
Do I think men should feel comfortable crying in public when they feel heartbroken? Given what some (many?) of them have experienced, yes. I want them to know we don’t think less of them when they need help… because we all do.
The “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” of “traditional masculine ideology” is not “toxic” or evil. There were assumptions behind that definition and it’s outstanding that we can now challenge those assumptions. It means that we’re growing and learning, and don’t we want people and societies to change for the better as time passes?