You can’t help men by attacking masculinity

by Dr John Barry

You might not have noticed it, but in many countries November 19th was International Men’s Day.  The UN has four international days for women, but for the UN November 19th is World Toilet Day.

It seems to be the fashion today to attribute many of the world’s ills to men. Although some people directly attack men, often the attack is presented as a way of helping men by rescuing them from masculinity.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ is often seen in the media, but the evidence that toxic masculinity explains men’s bad behaviour is based on the circular argument that 1/ violence and sexism are part of the definition of masculinity, and 2/ violent and sexist men are proof that masculinity is toxic. However the reality is that 1/ masculinity does not need to be defined by violence or sexism and 2/ psychologists know that violence and sexism are usually rooted in trauma, not masculinity. In fact, some of the very worst examples of violent sex offending are caused by men having been sexually abuse in childhood, often by female caregivers.

It is surely difficult to empathise with violent and sexist men, but we know that there are evidence-based ways of dealing with them. Professional psychologists have an ethical obligation to use treatments that are evidence-based, not faddish programmes offering to help men overcome their burdonsome masculine traits.

The forerunner of such programmes is the Duluth Model, a psychoeducational perpetrator program based on the notion that all domestic violence is caused by patriarchy, which causes men to exert control over women through violence. A meta-analysis found that Duluth, and interventions using similar ideas, showed only about half the benefit of other programmes, such as relationship enhancement. This, and the failure of the Duluth model to even recognise that at least a third of victims of domestic violence are male, should persuade us against using models based on flawed ideas about men and masculinity. Unfortunately this lesson has not been learned, as demonstrated in pages 124-8 of the Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF). Attempts to change masculinity have been compared with conversion therapy to ‘cure’ gay people of their sexuality. Conversion therapy has recently been condemned by the BPS, yet attacks on masculinity go unquestioned.

Some people might say they want to change masculinity rather than change men, but this is based on the mistaken belief that masculinity is merely learned, and independent of biology. However there are obviously biological aspects to masculinity. Using Martin Seager’s dimensions of masculinity to demonstrate this, being a Fighter & Winner is supported by men’s physiology, such as greater muscle power and upper body strength. Having Mastery & Control of one’s feelings is supported by the tendency of testosterone to reduce fear and increase stress resilience, and being a Provider & Protector is seen in the fact that for men wellbeing is strongly linked to job satisfaction. The tremendous value of these attributes should not be forgotten, especially in 2018, the centenary of the end of World War I, a time when so many men were the protectors of civilisation.

There are undoubtedly many positive things about masculinity, and stigmatising masculinity is likely to make men feel ashamed and alienated. If negative views are internalised they could even become a self-fulfilling prophesy, putting boys on a mission to live up to the toxic label imposed on them.

Psychologists need to lead the way in offering evidence-based solutions to men’s mental health problems, and should not stand idle when 50% of the world’s population is being stigmatised in the media and elsewhere.


About the author

John is one of the founders of the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. After completing his PhD in psychological aspects of polycystic ovary syndrome, he joined University College London’s Institutefor Women’s Health at the UCL Medical School in 2011. Since then he has published over 60 papers in various peer-reviewed journals, including in international-standard journals in gynaecology, cardiology and ophthalmology. Prompted by the considerable suicide rates among men and the establishment’s inertia in dealing with men’s mental health problems, in 2011 John led an independent research programme investigating the mental health needs of men and boys. John specialises in research methods (especially surveys and questionnaire development) and statistical analysis (e.g. meta-analysis, meta-regression), currently practices clinical hypnosis on a part-time basis and is an honorary lecturer with the Dept of Psychology, University College London.  John is an advisor to the Royal Foundation for issues around men’s mental health.






4 thoughts on “You can’t help men by attacking masculinity

  1. Reply
    Brian Moloney - November 27, 2018

    It’s an indictment of our age that anything here needs airing John. You’d hope the overwhelming majority would read the above with a healthy dose of: well D’er, obviously. Thanks for the work you’re involved with. In 2070 people will look back on our ilk and recognise the invaluable foundation laid for the future of men’s health.

  2. John Barry
    John Barry - December 13, 2018

    Thanks Brian. I hope it comes much sooner than 2070, but yes I look forward to us all, as a culture, regaining some sanity on the subject.

  3. Reply
    Phoebe - May 1, 2019

    Hi Dr Barry,
    Your comment ‘stigmatising masculinity is likely to make men feel ashamed and alienated’ is a key point I think. Isn’t that called attribution? The easy kind of thinking that allows that person to believe their problems are caused by someone or something other than themselves? Reflective thinking by males and females can, let’s be hopeful here, open them to the concept of personal responsibility of who we are in the world. People who know themselves and what they stand for aren’t damaged by criticisms. Stung yes. Damaged no. Self-knowledge is a strength. Strong people know who they are and what they stand for. Self-reflection can contribute to that development. Reflection on personal values, who they are, what they see as their contribution to society, not just the group of people they surround themselves with. What do they want to be known for? You should be thinking of how to help men (your topic) free themselves to know themselves. Not freeze them, or anyone, into believing they have to accept the views of others. If they feel ‘ashamed and alienated’, work with it to find out whether the insults are true, or not. It takes courage, honesty, and sometimes a helping hand.

  4. John Barry
    John Barry - May 1, 2019

    Thanks for some great comments Phoebe. I agree with what you say.

    Regarding your point “You should be thinking of how to help men (your topic) free themselves to know themselves”. Yes, and in fact your statement sums up most types of successful therapy.

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