A tra­di­tion’s toll

Why mas­culin­ity may be fail­ing the men who be­lieve in it most

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - Mon­ica Hesse

Mon­ica Hesse on the re­ac­tion to the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion find­ings that tra­di­tional mas­culin­ity takes a toll on men, too.

My grand­fa­ther is tra­di­tion­ally mas­cu­line in most senses of the word: He was a soldier, then a bait­shop owner, then a garbage col­lec­tor; he rose be­fore dawn most days of his life and I never heard him com­plain about it. He raised six good kids, he tells funny one-lin­ers, he’s an ex­pert fish­er­man. He once re­fused over-the-counter pain meds even while at death’s door.

I’ve been think­ing about him lately, for rea­sons I’ll get to in a bit.

More than a decade ago, the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion re­leased a set of guide­lines for treat­ing women and girls: a doc­u­ment that ad­dressed sex­ual vi­o­lence and pay in­equal­ity, dis­cussed how women dis­pro­por­tion­ately suf­fer from eat­ing dis­or­ders and anx­i­ety, and ad­vised clin­i­cians with fe­male clients on how to be more sen­si­tive and more ef­fec­tive. The APA has also, over the years, re­leased guide­lines for treat­ing older folks, and ra­cial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties, and mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity.

What the largest psy­cho­log­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion in

the United States had never done was re­lease guide­lines for treat­ing men.

Men were al­ready per­ceived as the de­fault, un­need­ing of in­di­vid­u­ated study. “Un­less you’re in a men’s group, you’re prob­a­bly not reg­u­larly re­flect­ing on what it means to be male,” says Matt Englar-Carl­son, who di­rects the Cen­ter for Boys and Men at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity at Fuller­ton. “You’re prob­a­bly just en­act­ing it.”

Psy­chol­o­gists want to change that, though, and last week marked the re­lease of the APA’s in­au­gu­ral Guide­lines for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Prac­tice With Boys and Men — de­vel­oped over 13 years and us­ing four decades of re­search. Men are 3.5 times more likely to die by sui­cide than women, for ex­am­ple. They have more aca­demic chal­lenges and re­ceive harsher pun­ish­ments in school set­tings. They’re the vic­tims of 77 per­cent of homi­cides (and they com­mit 90 per­cent of them).

One cause for this con­sor­tium of mal­adies, the guide­lines sug­gested? “Tra­di­tional mas­culin­ity” it­self — the term refers to a Western con­cept of man­li­ness that re­lies — and some­times over-re­lies — on sto­icism, dom­i­nance, ag­gres­sion and com­pet­i­tive­ness.

“Ev­ery­body has be­liefs about how men should be­have,” says Ron­ald Le­vant, who was the APA pres­i­dent when the guide­lines were ini­tially con­ceived, and who has worked on them ever since. “We found in­cred­i­ble ev­i­dence that the ex­tent to which men strongly en­dorse those be­liefs, it’s strongly as­so­ci­ated with neg­a­tive out­comes.” The more men cling to rigid views of mas­culin­ity, the more likely they are to be de­pressed, or dis­dain­ful, or lonely.

The guide­lines are say­ing some men are sick, in other words. But are they say­ing some men are sick, like, we need to gen­tly care for them with aspirin and a ther­mome­ter? Or are they say­ing some men are sick, like, we need to put them in Han­ni­bal Lecter masks and keep them away from ev­ery­one else?

Le­vant was shocked this past week by how many peo­ple re­sponded as if the guide­lines were sug­gest­ing the lat­ter — peo­ple who read the 30-page doc­u­ment as an in­dict­ment not of rigid, tra­di­tional mas­culin­ity but of all mas­culin­ity, and of men them­selves.

Fox News host Laura In­gra­ham ac­cused the APA of con­flat­ing mas­culin­ity with “Har­vey We­in­stein”-like be­hav­iors.

In the con­ser­va­tive Na­tional Re­view mag­a­zine, writer David French also cri­tiqued the study: “It is in­ter­est­ing that in a world that oth­er­wise teaches boys and girls to ‘ be your­self,’ that rule of­ten ap­plies to ev­ery­one but the ‘ tra­di­tional’ male who has tra­di­tional male im­pulses and char­ac­ter­is­tics. Then, they’re a prob­lem. Then, they’re of­ten deemed toxic.”

I cov­ered a men’s rights ac­tivist con­fer­ence a few years ago: Sev­eral dozen men — white men, mostly — had flown to a De­troit sub­urb to talk about how they felt men were un­der at­tack. Worse, they said, no­body was pay­ing at­ten­tion to their suf­fer­ing.

Some of the men were, as we’d say, “toxic,” (one kept telling me to make him a sand­wich, then say­ing he was jok­ing, then telling me again — ham and cheese on wheat, b----). But a lot of them were just sad. They talked about male sui­cide rates, male de­pres­sion, male iso­la­tion. They talked, in other words, about a lot of the in­for­ma­tion in­cluded in the new APA guide­lines. They were des­per­ate, beg­ging, for some­one to pay at­ten­tion and find a so­lu­tion.

Most of them, how­ever, were sure the cor­rect so­lu­tion would have some­thing to do with fix­ing women. As soon as women would stop tak­ing their jobs, they wouldn’t be de­pressed any­more. As soon as women would stop cat­e­go­riz­ing sex­ual at­ten­tion as harass­ment, they wouldn’t be lonely any­more.

These able-bod­ied straight white men were, as a group, the most priv­i­leged class in Amer­ica — the Found­ing Fa­thers de­mo­graphic — but they were con­vinced they were op­pressed.

While read­ing the APA guide­lines this week, I thought a lot about those men in De­troit. I thought about how it’s pos­si­ble to be crushed by some­thing you built, how it’s pos­si­ble to in­vent a game that ex­hausts you to play.

What’s dif­fi­cult about the APA’s guide­lines is that they ask us to wres­tle with a com­pli­cated idea: that in a so­ci­ety in which gen­der roles have his­tor­i­cally been rigid — and that rigid­ity has placed the lion’s share of power in the hands of one of the gen­ders — it’s pos­si­ble for the rulers to be harmed right along with the ruled. But that’s what bad sys­tems do. They mess up ev­ery­one.

I thought about how hard it would be to ac­cept that heal­ing your­self might mean let­ting go of the very things you be­lieved de­fined who you were.

Englar-Carl­son, the Cal­i­for­nia pro­fes­sor, worked on the APA guide­lines for sev­eral years. When I talked to him, he kept re­peat­ing this point: He didn’t be­lieve that men were bad, or even that many forms of mas­culin­ity were.

“A lot of men have the ex­pec­ta­tion that they need to be stoic, and in­de­pen­dent, and take care of things on their own — and those can all be quite help­ful tools,” Englar-Carl­son says.

The trou­ble comes, though, when those are the only tools men be­lieve they have: when they need help and are afraid to ask for it, when they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing emo­tions they can’t even name, much less ex­press. And when they blame them­selves for be­ing un­able to make those in­suf­fi­cient tools work, and the re­sult is to lash out — or lash in — in vi­o­lence.

“The guide­lines are about, how do we help men live health­ier lives?” he says. “How do we help men live lives that aren’t trapped in strait­jack­ets of gen­der ex­pec­ta­tions?”

All week long, he said, he’d been get­ting emails ac­cus­ing him of “not lik­ing” tra­di­tional men. He told me he wanted to write back, “I do like them! That’s why I don’t want them to suf­fer!”

I told him about my grand­fa­ther. How much I loved and re­spected him. How most ev­ery­one who met him re­spected him. How our fam­ily sto­ries cen­tered on him be­ing a good provider and a good man. But also — how I couldn’t re­mem­ber any­one ask­ing my grand­fa­ther how he felt about that. Whether he would have pre­ferred a dif­fer­ent life. Whether he had ever felt trapped in the one he had.

I told Englar-Carl­son that I wanted ev­ery­one in the world to be like my grand­fa­ther. But I also wanted ev­ery­one to know they have the op­tion not to be.

“How do we help men live lives that aren’t trapped in strait­jack­ets of gen­der ex­pec­ta­tions?” Matt Englar-Carl­son, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Boys and Men at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity at Fuller­ton

Mon­ica Hesse is a colum­nist writ­ing about gen­der and its im­pact on so­ci­ety. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY KATH­LEEN BROOKS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST/ISTOCK

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