Toxic Masculinity or Cultural Misandry?

The etiology of the mental health crisis facing boys and men.

Posted Jul 28, 2019

Some years have passed since my article on “Father Absence, Father Deficit, Father Hunger: The Vital Importance of Paternal Presence in Children’s Lives,” yet I still hear from scores of fathers about the severe challenges they face in maintaining their day-to-day relationships with their children. Fatherhood involvement continues to be a major focus of my academic research, and the forced alienation of fathers from children’s lives remains a central issue of concern.

Amidst the many challenges faced by many North American fathers in their efforts to maintain some semblance of meaningful involvement in the lives of their children, six months ago, the American Psychological Association issued their guidelines for "Psychological Practice for Boys and Men." The guidelines were 13 years in the making and consolidated 40 years of empirical research, mainly from a feminist standpoint. The guidelines are based on the view that “traditional masculinity” and a masculine sense of entitlement is the root cause of men’s mental health problems, not structural factors such as misguided family laws and policies and mean-spirited cultural responses to men-at-risk. Abusive behavior is described in the guidelines as male-typical behavior, and traditional masculinity is part and parcel of a patriarchal ideology that fosters violence and abuse, sexual harassment, and rape. Selfish, violent, and abusive behaviors of men are not considered as pathological exceptions, but in line with masculine norms.

I add my voice to the chorus denouncing the ideological bias of the guidelines as profoundly anti-male, as essentially a denigration of men, and misandrist. The authors of the guidelines exploit narrow definitions of masculinity for their own ends. The view that violent and abusive behaviors are engrained in cultural prescriptions of traditional masculinity and reflected in masculine character is not based on the lived experiences of men and boys with mental health issues.

Such a reductionist perspective taints the entire APA report, which unfortunately deflects attention away from its many positive elements. For example, the guidelines emphasize the critical importance of fatherhood in child development. The gendered bias of therapists against male clients is acknowledged. The pitfalls that boys face in educational and social settings are discussed. The limitations of conventional talk therapy for men and boys are emphasized, and the guidelines call for male-specific mental health protocols. Finally, given the “collapse of work” for men, the APA advocates strongly for the vocational advancement of young men, and thus addresses a vital social policy issue.

The guidelines also correctly identify “stoicism” as a fundamental feature of traditional masculinity, a form of restraint that lowers the incidence of aggressive behavior but also works against boys and men being able to open up about their struggles and challenges in the context of the current mental health crisis facing boys and men.

Although the APA examined 40 years’ worth of research on this issue, it did not include research suggesting that anti-male ideology and misandry work against many men today, including divorced fathers.

In fact, traditional masculinity may be part of the answer to men’s mental health problems, not the cause. Fathering and mentoring boys in masculine development is an important determinant in child health and well-being. The guidelines discount positive and pro-social practices of masculinity. The majority of men are guided by a sense of duty, responsibility, protection of their loved ones, and active involvement in their children’s lives. Yet the word “responsibility” only appears twice in the entire 36 pages of the guidelines report, a lack of acknowledgement of both the salience of responsibility as a core need of many men and the duty of psychologists and other human services professionals to support men in the fulfillment of their responsibilities, including supporting fathers as they tend to their children’s needs.

The authors of the guidelines seem almost willfully blind to the central importance of responsibility in the lives of men and fathers, the forced removal of fathers from children’s lives in situations of parental alienation, and the devastating effects of father absence in children’s lives. Fathers’ duties and responsibilities are being arbitrarily curtailed by many judges in North America and around the globe. This punishes fathers who want to be part of their children’s lives and are loving, not abusive, parents, and more so the children who are robbed of their fathers’ love and protection. As fathers are removed from their children’s lives, so are paternal responsibilities to children’s needs. These can be emotionally scarring experiences for both fathers and their children.

There is good reason to be deeply concerned about boys and men. There is a serious mental health crisis facing boys and men: lower academic success, higher suicide and depression rates, and exposure to violence. The high rate of suicide of non-resident and alienated fathers, poor health outcomes of men, and lack of social service and therapeutic support, as well as harmful family laws and policies, are well-documented.

As Debra Soh emphasizes, professional best practices are not ideological in social work, psychology, or other human services fields. Thus, it is not prescribing male “conversion therapy” that is the answer; rather, best practices should be based on the actual lived experiences and needs of boys and men facing these mental health challenges. This includes being allies in alienated fathers’ efforts to restore their relationships with their children.

In sum, the "APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Boys and Men" contain many useful directions for practice but should be treated with much caution, from a theoretical, ethical, and professional practice perspective.

References

Harman, J., Kruk, E. & Hines, D. (2018). “Parental Alienating Behaviors: An Unacknowledged Form of Family Violence,” Psychological Bulletin, 144 (12), 1275-1299.

Soh, D. “Professional Best Practices are not Ideological,” Quillette, February 4, 2019.

Paresky, P. “What’s the Problem with ‘Traditional Masculinity’?,” Psychology Today, March 10, 2019.