Reimagining the Discussion and Expression of Masculinity

March 12, 2019
1 Comment

Only a couple of months into 2019, the year has already been a significant one regarding gender. The long-overdue reckoning represented by the #MeToo movement continues apace, as new cases of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men in sports, entertainment, media, and politics have been brought to light. Religious communities, including the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.), are also being forced to clean house, as victims tell their stories publicly and seek their day in court. Additionally, in the wake of a wave election, a record number of women have taken seats in Congress. And in the business sector, corporations weigh the risks (boycotts and parodies) and rewards (public approval of rebranding themselves as “woke”) of virtue signaling in commercials.

Some recent conversations have revolved around the American Psychological Association’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. Although this report was released in late 2018, more than decade after its parallel Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women, it received intense reactions in January through social media rants, commentary from conservative outlets, and even a lawsuit. Now that the initial furor has died down, a more measured response may be in order.

The APA report opens by acknowledging the widespread diversity present among boys and men, noting the aspirational intent of the recommendations that follow, defining the relevant terms, conceding the reality that males “have historically been the focus of psychological research and practice as a normative referent for behavior rather than as gendered human beings” (3), and delineating the interlocking complexities that necessitate the new guidelines. These include: the disproportionate frequency of learning disabilities and behavior problems among boys, the overrepresentation of men in prison and suicide statistics, the underrepresentation of both boys and men in seeking and receiving professional diagnosis and treatment, and the combination of “economic, biological, developmental, psychological, and sociological factors” (4) that relate to how males experience their masculinity and multiple identities.

Each of the ten guidelines is comprised of a succinct claim, an exposition of rationale, and a brief application. The guidelines cover overlapping subject matter, often dovetailing into one another. They begin with the need for psychologists to recognize the social construction of masculinity, which involves boys and men integrating multiple elements throughout their lives (Guidelines 1 and 2). Next comes the need for understanding how power, privilege, sexism, and other factors affect the development of male interpersonal relationships (Guidelines 3 and 4). The report then calls on psychologists to encourage the positive involvement of fathers in the lives of their children and families, and to support educational efforts that are responsive to male needs (Guidelines 5 and 6), as well as to reduce the particular problems that men and boys face at high rates, and to help them engage in health-related behaviors instead (Guidelines 7 and 8). Finally, psychologists are exhorted to strive to promote gender-sensitive services, and to change institutional, cultural, and systemic problems through advocacy, prevention, and education (Guidelines 9 and 10).

At first glance, these guidelines – as well as the APA continuing education article that serves as something of an executive summary – appear rather innocuous. But the descriptive analysis of the unique problems experienced and perpetuated by men and boys, and the attribution of aggression, sexism, and isolation to “traditional masculinity”, struck a nerve with many. David French, a senior writer for National Review, fumed that the APA “wrongly declares war on ‘traditional masculinity’” and lamented 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.” Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host, likewise bristled against the guidelines: “Traditional masculinity seems to be, in this report at least, conflated with being a pig, or a creep, or a Harvey Weinstein kind of person.”

Criticism of the guidelines was not limited to conservative media figures, however. Dissenting voices arose within higher education as well. Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology, panned the report as “blinkered by two dogmas. One is the doctrine of the blank slate … the possibility and men’s and women’s personalities differ for biological reasons is unsayable and unthinkable. is that repressing emotions is bad and expressing them is good.” Perhaps the most forceful reaction of all came from Kursat Pekgoz, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, who filed a Title IX complaint against Harvard (which is closely linked to the APA), alleging that the guidelines create a double standard that discriminates against men, and asserting, “No reasonable male person would seek counseling at a clinic where his sex is considered to be a form of mental illness, or a driving factor for mental illness.”

Most of these criticisms are misguided at best and disingenuous or outright false at worst. There may be some merit to the critique that the APA tends to flatten out the differences between the sexes (e.g., in the continuing education essay’s claim that “when researchers strip away stereotypes and expectations, there isn’t much difference in the basic behaviors of men and women”), but the charge of “dogma” here seems overblown. Additionally, the report neither promotes discrimination against males (quite the opposite, it seeks the long-term health and flourishing of boys and men), nor does it paint all men with the same toxic brush (indeed, the word “toxic” never even appears in the guidelines). Furthermore, many of the complaints against the report conflate (biologically based) sex with (culturally constructed) gender; this unhelpfully reifies “traditional masculinity” as a normative creational given, rather than a contingent historical artifact. In short, the critiques of several aspects of traditional masculinity – including stoicism, dominance, aggression, and violence – as harmful to men and boys themselves are not lobbed haphazardly, but stem from years of research involving males across the spectra of race, class, and sexual orientation. While these guidelines are not binding for all times and places (focusing specifically on the U.S. context, they expire as APA policy in ten years), they nevertheless provide an opportunity to take in a revealing vista, a big picture of the current state of American masculinity. In its analysis, evaluation, and recommendations, the APA report is worthy of careful contemplation.

This is especially the case for Christians and churches, as the features of traditional masculinity that are subjected to censure do not easily align with, and often directly contradict, the fruit of the Spirit, which is binding for all believers irrespective of sex and gender. Likewise, when traditional masculinity runs afoul of the dominical marks of discipleship, as conveyed by Jesus in the Beatitudes, so much the worse for traditional masculinity! Perhaps, in this fraught moment, in which so many cultural certainties are being called into question, so many social structures are being uprooted, and so many aspects of gender and sexuality themselves are being destabilized, this report represents both a gift and a task for American Christians. The guidelines are a gift in that they urge a hard look at the features of our social and cultural life together, and that they articulate painful truths that invite us to consider and repent from our own complicity in the brokenness. With this gift comes the task of discerning a way forward together that holds fast to the gospel of Christ and the goodness of being created male and female in God’s image, and of disentangling our communities, families, and relationships from unhealthy and unjust patterns. It may be tempting to cling to embattled tradition in the face of withering critique and confusing trends; but surely it is more profitable for the integrity of our gospel witness and the flourishing of our common culture to reimagine how masculinity can be expressed.

About the Author
  • Joshua Beckett is an adjunct instructor and doctoral candidate in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary. His research interests include justice and peace studies, political economy, social theory, and sexual ethics. He is a member of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and a regular preacher at Livingstone Alliance Church. Joshua likes the idea of writing more than the writing process itself, and his primary form of self-expression is song.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Joshua,

    I’ve genuinely struggled with whether or not to comment here, as I don’t want to seem less than grateful for your time and effort contributing to this conversation, but I do find myself a point of significant (not total) disagreement.

    Specifically, I think that embedding Pinker’s criticism in far more radical company fails to give a fair shake to the strength of his critique. I do think that the specific ideologies that he mentions are quite clearly stated in the document. For one, guideline one is entirely about the socially constructed (and pernicious) roots of masculinity, with little consideration for the roles that biological and genetic factors have on the expression of gender. The second criticism is born out in the concern with “gender role conflict” that animates the entire guidelines. Per the guidelines, masculinity (as defined) is bad, and feeling compelled to be masculine is similarly pernicious. To me, whether you consider them “blinkers” or not, Pinker is spot on regarding specific ideologies that undergird these guidelines.

    The upshot, to me, is this: Much of modern psychology looks to our dissatisfaction with ourselves and says that it is our dissatisfaction that is the problem, not that we might be right to want to “put to death what is earthly” in us. (Col. 3:5) At the same time, much of the world sees the patriarchy as the root of all evil, and while tyranny and domination have wrought great evils, men are still called by Scripture to serve (important to note that word choice) as heads of their households. The APA’s guidelines for psychological practice are shot through with this worldly ideology, and while there are some good things in them, I question the value of taking the time to disentangle the truth from the pervasive falsehoods in them.

    If you are saying that we should be preserving the good while discarding the bad, forgive me, as I wouldn’t have bothered to comment on you being more willing to engage in the task of discernment with these guidelines than I am, but it seems to me that you’re saying that the guidelines are largely correct and that we can join in their round condemnation of masculinity since it is anti-biblical. If it’s the latter, then I would object, for while we can share aims of disentangling manhood from things like promiscuity (which is hardly solely a Western emphasis) or domestic violence, I think Christians should be far more skeptical/careful about adopting the APA’s means of going about it (or definition of it), as their approach is pervasively driven by a worldview that discards Christian views on sexuality, headship, or sin and self-control.