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Psychotherapy Emasculated: APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men I.

The Ides of March

My father once told me he didn’t know how a boy became a man without the experience of combat. I’m sure he never wished that for me and, indeed, spent time as a campus minister speaking out in opposition to the Vietnam War. But while today’s 19-year old boys seek “safe spaces” on college campuses, there were plenty of 19-year old men putting themselves in harm’s way in armed combat in the Second World War. Initially classified as 4-F for a spinal curvature, my father waited impatiently, in shame and embarrassment, until recruiting offices started taking any able-bodied man. He fought at The Bulge, in the winter of 1944-1945, the coldest winter in Belgium in decades. His lieutenant told he and the radioman to go into a farmhouse for a cup of coffee. During that time the lieutenant had his head blown off by a sniper. My father’s platoon was eventually pulled off the line with yellow jaundice, as their livers were shutting down. But he saw Paris. And went to college on the GI Bill. Then to seminary.As a campus minister at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he took his family to a civil rights protest on the capitol steps on a cold day in February 1965. When they asked for volunteers to march with Martin Luther King in Selma, and that they especially needed clergy, I knew he would go. That night he sat us all down on the living-room floor, read from the Bible, and explained why it was important to go. I think fathers set moral examples few men ever think they meet. I also know that, after two protestant ministers were beaten to death with axe handles, and nonviolent protestors were clubbed and teargassed coming over the Pettis Bridge in Selma, he was more scared than I had ever seen. By age 30, I’d been to every State in the lower 48 except Alabama. I didn’t make my pilgrimage to Selma until I was 54.

Surely what it means to “be a man,” can vary a great deal historically and culturally, and I have no doubt but that the masculine ideologies to which we are socialized can exacerbate or mitigate biological sex differences. But please, let’s not pretend that there aren’t powerful biological components upon which and with which such ideologies may operate. The last thing we want to see would be a generation of males metaphorically if not literally emasculated by ideologies intended to mitigate some of the negative effects of more traditional masculinities. I am also aware that my position as a privileged white male may leave me blind both to the degree to which my heterosexual cisgender identity is determined by the masculine ideology to which I have been socialized, and to some of its dysfunctional aspects. To say otherwise would be like saying, as some of my more oblivious students once did: “I’m not aware of having any unconscious motivations.”

Having recently retired from a career spanning four decades as an academic psychologist, having taught and published in most of its specialties, including the neuroscientific, the cognitive, the emotional, and social psychological, as well as the philosophical and historical, I may be in a position to do some useful reflection on the psychology of masculinity, particularly on the disappointing and embarrassing 2018 “APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” As I hope I have already made clear on this website, particularly in blogs from this last winter and spring, entitled “Full Frontal,” “Intimacy and Habituation,” and “Forbidden Knowledge,” I think there are some rather straightforward consequences of uncontroversial biological differences between the sexes. These are differences related to biological sex, which may be constructed in quite different and rather more fluid and nonbinary variations in gender, some of which may magnify, and some of which may reduce the biological differences. While it is rare that gender identity reverses biological differences, let’s also not forget that brains are remarkably malleable, and, in many ways, require extensive shaping over our extended childhood, longer and more socially interdependent that any other higher primate. Which again means that male and female differences are likely to be small and hugely overlapping. But there are also physical differences, particularly secondary sexual characteristics, that are likely to have large effects, which also isn’t to mean, again, that they won’t be exacerbated or mitigated by socialization.

I find myself troubled by the recent publication of the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, because it seems to be as much a victim of ideology as any of its clients might be. Many of the “guidelines” (not “standards”), while commendable, seem to be analyzed and justified almost entirely in terms of the effects of masculinity ideologies, particularly the constellation which is referred to as “traditional,” on “gender role conflict,” defined as “rigid, restrictive gender roles, learned during socialization, that result in personal restriction, devaluation, or violations of self or other.” How could one argue with this? Men do, certainly, “experience conflict” related to success, power, and competition, particularly when they do not fare well, but certainly in some cases where they do, but it is not clear how one is to assess when the emphasis on achievement, control, or power is “disproportionate.” Disproportionate to what, and how was that ideal determined?