The American Psychological Association’s new guidelines on working with men and boys caused a media storm in the past month, because they endorsed the view that “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful”.
As with the now infamous Gillette ad, the guidelines have deeply divided opinion along binary gender political lines, with one side saying the APA is “harming men and boys” and the other side saying the guidelines will “literally save lives” and dismissing critics as "armchair psychologists".
Beyond the headlines, however, some heavyweight psychologists, have offered a considered critique of the APA guidelines. Perhaps the most high profile criticism came from Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who was quoted extensively in a New York Times article.
According to Pinker the APA report is “blinkered by two dogmas”. The first is that differences between men and women are socially constructed, a viewpoint Pinker challenged in detail in his 2002 book “The Blank Slate: The Denial Of Human Nature”.
The second “dogma”, according to Pinker, is the simplistic view that repressing emotions is bad and expressing emotions is good.
Pinker describes this view as a “folk theory….which is contradicted by a large literature showing that people with greater self-control, particularly those who repress anger rather than “venting,” lead healthier lives: they get better grades, have fewer eating disorders, drink less, have fewer psychosomatic aches and pains, are less depressed, anxious, phobic, and paranoid, have higher self-esteem, are more conscientious, have better relationships with their families, have more stable friendships, are less likely to have sex they regretted, are less likely to imagine themselves cheating in a monogamous relationship.”
Pinker concludes by saying that "one could argue that what today’s men need is more encouragement to enhance one side of the masculine virtues — the dignity, responsibility, self-control, and self-reliance — while inhibiting others, such as machismo, violence, and drive for dominance".
Is Traditional Masculinity Harmful?
Elsewhere, the British Psychologist, Christian Jarrett, supported Pinker’s view that the ability to control emotion is linked to positive health outcomes. There are “shelves of evidence documenting the positive consequences of having more mental and emotional self-control” he said.
Jarrett, who edits the British Psychological Society’s research digest blog, also challenged the APA’s view that “traditional masculinity is harmful”
“The APA report has been criticised on many grounds,” he said “but the most frequently mentioned issue is with the overly simplistic, sweeping nature of the “masculinity is toxic” message. Traditional masculinity clearly reflects a host of values, beliefs and behaviours, some of which may indeed be harmful in certain circumstances, but some of which may also be beneficial, at least some of the time”.
As an example, Jarrett cites a recent paper in the’s APA journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, which found that young men who more strongly endorsed the masculine ideal of “success and winning” tended to record higher psychological wellbeing scores. “Men who adhere to this norm may experience a sense of mastery and achievement through their accomplishments,” said the researchers, “which can in turn boost their...well-being.”
APA Defends Its Position
In response to the media backlash, the APA published a clarification on it's website stating that: "When a man believes that he must be successful no matter who is harmed or his masculinity is expressed by being sexually abusive, disrespectful, and harmful to others, that man is conforming to the negative aspects associated with traditional masculinity."
- American Psychologists Publish Guidelines For Working With Men (AMHF)
- The Fight Over Men Is Shaping Our Political Future (New York Times)
- Young Men Who Endorse The Masculine Ideal Of Success Enjoy Greater Psychological Wellbeing (British Psychological Society)
- What Can We Learn From Gillette's Masculinity Ad? (AMHF)