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Reactions to contemporary narratives about masculinity

A research paper by John Barry, Rob Walker, Louise Liddon, & Martin Seager, of the Male Psychology Network, UK.

Published in the Psychreg Journal of Psychology, June 2020

Abstract

Background

Masculinity is frequently talked about in contemporary Western media as being in crisis, needing reform or even being ‘toxic’. However, no research to date has assessed the impact that this pervasive narrative might be having on people, particularly men themselves.

Methods

This cross-sectional online pilot survey asked 203 men and 52 women (mean + SD age 46 + 13) their opinions about the terms toxic masculinity, traditional masculinity, and positive masculinity, and how they would feel if their gender was seen as the cause of their relationship or job problems.

Results

Most participants thought the term toxic masculinity insulting, probably harmful to boys, and unlikely to help men’s behaviour. Having feminist views, especially being anti-patriarchy, were correlated with more tolerance of the term toxic masculinity. Most participants said they would be unhappy if their masculinity or femininity were blamed for their work or relationship problems. Further analysis using multiple linear regression found that men’s self-esteem was significantly predicted by older age, more education, and a greater acceptance of traditional masculinity. Men’s mental positivity – which is known to be negatively correlated with suicidality – was significantly predicted by older age, a greater acceptance of traditional masculinity, and more education.

Conclusions

Implications for the mental health of men and boys are discussed in relation to the narrative around masculinity in the media, social sciences, and in clinical psychology.

See the full text of the paper here

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When did Psychology start adopting a negative view of masculinity?

by Tom Golden.

The popular discourse on men and masculinity has become toxic in the past few decades, and it looks like the profession of psychology has not been immune.

There are many places where one can easily observe this, but none quite as blatant as in the ways that psychologists have labeled the “norms” for men and women.  I ran into the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI; Mahalik, 2003) and was shocked to see this misandry starkly presented. I wrote an article criticizing this inventory and a part of the criticism was looking at the history of labels psychologists had used in describing men and their norms.  I was shocked to see that the CMNI labels used for men were things such as violence, power over women, disdain for homosexuality, and being a playboy.  As I noted in my article, these four “norms” seemed to pass harsh judgment on men and boys. Moreover, they seemed much more like cartoonish stereotypes than norms, and begged the question: do they even belong in a science of human behaviour?

My doubts about the validity of the description nudged me to pull together examples of terms that had been used as norms for men previously in psychology.  and the CMNI.  The chart below offers examples of the terms that have been used to describe masculine norms during the period of 1974 to 1986, and Mahalik’s (2003) CMNI for comparison:

Notice that the norms that were used prior to the 1990s seem to be neutral. Examples included competency, level headed, independence, aggressive, forceful, suppressing emotion, willing to take a stand, assertive, and self-contained.  All of these could be seen as being close to neutral with some like “level headed” or “self-confident” seeming even a bit complimentary.  Someone could have some of any of these qualities, like some aggressiveness, some forcefulness or some assertiveness and depending on the situation would be considered okay.  Now think of having some violence.  Nope, you can’t even have a little bit of that before you are judged harshly.  Same thing with power over women, playboy or disdain for homosexuals.  A little bit of any of those and you are sunk.  These four categories from the CMNI seem quite different from all of those from 1970-1986.

It seemed obvious to me that anti-male ideas were leaking into psychological journals.  Those four “norms” had no clear research showing that they were common among men.  They simply seemed to appear.  I contacted the researcher and asked about his reasons for including those four norms and he didn’t have much of an explanation. Very odd and what I thought at the time was this was simply a psychological version of male bashing.

Still I wondered if maybe I was a bit too critical.  I found that the same researcher had done an inventory for women, the CFNI or Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory.  I thought that maybe the harsh treatment of men in the CMNI might be a shift in the times and that a similar harshness would be played out in the female version of the inventory. Would they talk about relational aggression?  Queen bee? Hypergamy? Gossip? I found the CFNI and the feminine norms.  The chart below will show you those norms and list the CMNI along with the CFNI.

Needless to say, that earlier wondering was put to rest.  The female norms were sweet and nice while the male norms were harsh and unforgiving.

At the time I was looking into this I was a member of the APA Division 51 (the study of men and masculinity) mailing list.  I brought this idea up to the list and it was immediately dismissed as ridiculous.  Among the hundreds on that list, not one would admit that the norms for men were anti-male and not one would admit that the female norms were very different from the males.  They either couldn’t see it or they couldn’t admit it.

The redefinition of masculinity is one small indication of the confused state of our psychological world today, but here is a novel idea for you to think about:

Men are good!

 

Further information on this topic

Read the full article which is part 5 in a five part series on bias against boys and men in psychological research. It goes into much greater detail. Or have a look at a short video on this topic.

 

About the author

Tom Golden is a counsellor and author of several acclaimed books. He gained note for his first book  Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing which is seminal in the psychology of men’s grief.  It was acclaimed by notable psychologists and psychotherapists such as Kubler-Ross, Hope Edelman, Robert Bly and others. Tom has also written The Way Men Heal and recently a book for mothers called Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons: Understanding the Unique World of Boys. Tom conducts workshops in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia, having been named the “1999 International Grief Educator” by the Australian Centre for Grief Education.  His work and his web site webhealing.com (which was the first interactive site (1995) on the internet to serve grieving people) have been featured in the NY Times, Washington Post, as well as on CNN, CBS Evening News, ESPN and the NFL Channel. He served as the Vice Chair of the Maryland Commission for Men’s Health and maintains a private practice in Gatihersburg Md.

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Is there an alternative to the new APA guidelines for working with men and boys?

by Dr John Barry

The APA’s Division 51 (Men and Masculinities) recently released their guidelines for working with men and boys. While guidelines on this topic are much needed, the APA’s contribution leaves room for improvement. In this article I will outline issues with two of their 10 guidelines:

Guideline 1 of the APA guidelines suggests that “masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural and contextual norms”. However although it is true that masculinity is, in part, constructed, it is also partly innate.

What is the evidence that masculinity is, in part, innate? Well, sex differences in cognition and behaviour  are found worldwide, and their universality suggests something that transcends culture. Moreover, most of these clearly map onto masculinity. For example, the tendency to being more competitive, aggressive (physically), and interested in sports than women maps onto the male gender script of being a fighter and winner. The tendency to working longer hours, working in male-typical occupations, exploring the environment, more willing to take risks, maps onto the male gender script of being provider and protector.The tendency to show less fear, less crying, more inclined to substance abuse (self-medication) maps onto the male gender script of having mastery & control of one’s emotions.

The crucial point for therapy is that because some aspects of masculinity are innate, changing them is not a simple case of cognitive restructuring or behaviour change, any more than changing other deeply-held aspects of gender identity or sexual identity is straightforward or even desirable.

However we live in a culture steeped in the ‘gender similarities hypothesis’, telling us that there are ‘more similarities than differences’ between men and women. Of course this idea is not wholly untrue, but it typically deflects our attention away from the fact that it is the differences between men and women that ‘make all the difference’. Thus in many ways we are not encouraged to notice sex differences, and we might even experience cognitive dissonance if we are asked to focus on sex differences and consider the implications for, to take one example, treatment approaches in psychology.

Guideline 3 states that “in the aggregate, males experience a greater degree of social and economic power than girls and women in a patriarchal society”. This statement is an example of what we have identified as gamma bias in psychology, a type of cognitive distortion in which examples of male privilege are magnified and female privilege is ignored or explained away. Examples of male disadvantage are boys’ educational achievement and the high rates of male suicide. Examples of female advantage lighter prison sentences and gender quotas in science jobs. In fact recent evidence has found that men are disadvantaged in many countries worldwide, especially those with medium to high levels of development.

Therapists who believe that guideline 3 is true of their male clients might understandably struggle to find much empathy for them, and a male client might struggle to believe they will find much empathy from such therapists too.

As an alternative to guidelines 1 and 3, I would suggest that we recognise that masculinity is to some degree innate and potentially positive for mental health, and the vulnerabilities of male clients are more important to us, as therapists, than any hypothesised patriarchal power. We shouldn’t presume that the bad behaviour of the minority of men are representative of some underlying aspect of men in general, and we should recognise that negative views of men are a barrier to an appropriate level of therapeutic empathy.

I would encourage Division 51 to revise their guidelines to bring them in line with research evidence and common sense. I would also urge authors of any other guidelines relating to male mental health to make similar revisions. After all, men seek therapy less than women do even when suicidal, so we need to do what we can to make therapy more male-friendly.

Is there an alternative to the new APA guidelines for working with men and boys? Well the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health offers practical advice to therapists and a more positive theoretical perspective on men’s mental health and male psychology in general. Guidelines based on this handbook will be issued soon, and I hope the 32 chapters offer therapists and academics a realistic and useful way of understanding and working with men.

 

About the author

Dr John Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is one of the editors of, and contributors to, The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health

 

The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health will be released in April 2019.

From the back cover:

“This handbook brings together experts from across the world to discuss men’s mental health, from prenatal development, through childhood, adolescence, and fatherhood. Men and masculinity are explored from multiple perspectives including evolutionary, cross-cultural, cognitive, biological, developmental, and existential viewpoints, with a focus on practical suggestions and demonstrations of successful clinical work with men”.

https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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