New guidelines offer psychologists new ways to talk about masculinity.
By Dr. Anees Benferhat and Dr. Saumya DaveJan 17, 2019 6:55 PM ET
How is a man supposed to act? What is masculinity and when does it become toxic? And how should psychologists approach the concept of masculinity when seeing patients?
These are questions an increasing number of psychologists must consider as dialogue around toxic masculinity, sexual abuse and harassment and the #MeToo movement continues across the country. Most recently, an ad for the razor company Gillette prompted many men to throw away their Gillette products in a defensive protest. The ad asked men to be better, to stand against toxic masculinity and stop excusing sexual harassment, bullying, and fighting as “boys will be boys.”
The ad was released just days after the American Psychological Association (APA) published new guidelines that are meant to help mental health professionals with treating boys and men. They are the latest in a series of guideline updates from the APA dating back to the 1960s, and were not a direct response to the #MeToo movement. Although the guidelines aren’t intended for the general public, they generated their own controversy after an accompanying APA article said that “traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful.”
In a tweet linking back to the article, the APA added that these claims were supported by “more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage.”
ABC News spoke to Ryan McKelley, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin and president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinities, the division of the APA that published the guidelines. Here’s what he had to say about them.
The guidelines are not ‘anti-masculinity.’ The APA’s view is more nuanced.
McKelley said that the APA’s tweet was viewed as a definitive stance against masculinity, when the APA actually sees masculinity as multifaceted.
“Unfortunately, when the guidelines came out, the tweet said something about traditional masculinity being harmful, and what we saw was that people latched onto that. … It got out of hand,” he said.
Leadership abilities, confidence, assertiveness and courage. These are all aspects of traditional masculinity that are positive, healthy and pro-social in most circumstances, McKelley said. However, he also said that when these qualities are taken to their extremes — like many other behaviors and attitudes — they can cause problems.
Men should also be able to express their emotions more freely, he added. Those who aren’t able to might find themselves acting out harmfully.
“Rigid emotional inexpression, a rigid belief that aggression and violence are ways to solve problems or a rigid belief that you can’t show weakness or ask for help. The men and boys who adhere to these extreme stereotypical attitudes are the ones at most risk for physical, psychological and social problems,” McKelley said.
He emphasized that masculinity isn’t under attack, but also said that “in a perfect world, we wouldn’t describe traits as belonging to one gender or another, because all of these things…all humans experience [them].”
The controversy distracts from real medical and mental health challenges that boys and men face.
Men are more likely to die from cancer and cardiovascular disease than women are, and it’s likely because they aren’t seeing doctors for preventive screenings as much as women, McKelley said, noting that this could be because they are taught to appear strong and that they shouldn’t ask for help when a problem comes their way.
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