‘Traditional masculinity’ officially deemed ‘harmful’ by American Psychological Association

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A new 36-page report from the American Psychological Association spotlights the organization's first official warning against what some call toxic masculinity.

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The document, titled "APA Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men" was featured in the January issue of its magazine, Monitor on Psychology. Its aim is to help providers with male patients "despite social forces that can harm mental health."

Developed by several experts between 2005-2018, the guidelines are aspirational “statements that suggest or recommend specific professional behavior, endeavor, or conduct for psychologists” and differ from standards, which are considered “mandatory and may be accompanied by an enforcement mechanism,” according to the report.

One of its primary guidelines warns against the “masculinity ideology.”

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Traditional masculinity, as the APA defines it, refers to masculinity cognitions “that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” These behaviors are often influenced by social, cultural and contextual norms, whether that’s socialization by friends, imitating parent behavior or adopting media portrayals.

Researchers say conforming to such traditional masculinity may limit males’ psychological development, negatively influence mental health and result in gender role conflict, all of which have been addressed in previous research. For example, studies have shown boys are disproportionately more likely to have learning difficulties and behavior problems in school — and men, overrepresented in prisons, are more likely than women to commit violent crimes or be a victim of violent crime.

The ideology has been linked to physical health problems as well, including cardiovascular issues, substance abuse and early mortality, not to mention general quality-of-life issues. A groundbreaking World Health Organization study in 2017 found exposure to rigid gender norms can be established in children by age 10 or 11 and increases boys’ chance of depression and suicide. Overall, males are four times more likely to die from suicide than females.

Still, many men do not seek help when they need it and if they do, they have a hard time finding gender-sensitive treatment.

“When trying to understand the complex role of masculinity in the lives of diverse boys and men, it is critical to acknowledge that gender is a non-binary construct that is distinct from, although interrelated to, sexual orientation,” researchers note. “Historically, traditional masculinity comes with a heteronormative assumption, which “may ostracize some gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals from an inherent sense of male identity (APA, 2015), leading to feeling pressured to adopt dominant masculine roles to reduce feelings of minority stress.”

Men from marginalized groups, including ethnic minorities, are also often targets of additional stereotypes and are commonly labeled “aggressive” by society even if they engage in positive behaviors.

Psychologists, the APA recommends, should seek to not only understand the intricacies of masculinity and its context, but also encourage community figures (teachers, religious leaders, sports figures, parents) to become educated as well. This may require psychologists to examine “their own assumptions of, and countertransference reactions toward, boys, men, and masculinity.”

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Here are the 10 guidelines included in the report, which will expire in 2028, according to APA policy:

  1. Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.
  2. Psychologists strive to recognize that boys and men integrate multiple aspects to their social identities across the lifespan.
  3. Psychologists understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men and on their relationships with others.
  4. Psychologists strive to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence the interpersonal relationships of boys and men.
  5. Psychologists strive to encourage positive father involvement and healthy family relationships.
  6. Psychologists strive to support educational efforts that are responsive to the needs of boys and men.
  7. Psychologists strive to reduce the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives such as aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide.
  8. Psychologists strive to help boys and men engage in health-related behaviors.
  9. Psychologists strive to build and promote gender-sensitive psychological services.
  10. Psychologists understand and strive to change institutional, cultural, and systemic problems that affect boys and men through advocacy, prevention and education.

Read the full report at apa.org.