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?
One of the interesting things about homo sapiens is that males and females are far more alike than they are in any other mammalian species, forming longer-term partnerships than more common mammalian free-for-all mating in estrus (when the female is in heat). Human females (like Bonobos) have “concealed ovulation” and are sexually active throughout the menstrual cycle. Like other mammals the female still bears the children, resulting in more parental investment through parturition, but unlike in most other mammals there is a male contribution to childrearing, and childhood is substantially longer than in other species. Hence women tend to use male access to and willingness to share resources as a sign of mate value far more than men do for women. So, women may contribute to the historically greater social and economic power of men though, as I think Hebrew wisdom holds, a man may be the head of the household, but a woman is the neck.
Sexual selection also may have much to do with more obvious and aggressive male dominance hierarchies. As my older son liked to point out in explaining male-on-male aggression in most species, “they are fighting for the favors of the female.” It is the female whose choices determine how her biological capacities for bearing children are made available to men. Obviously, characteristics that have any biological basis, and which increase the likelihood of successful reproduction (and child-rearing), are going to be more likely in subsequent generations, and will be naturally and sexually selected. Large brained offspring also required a wider female pelvis, and historically produced the substantial danger of death during childbirth which is likely to have made women far more cautious than men in their reproductive availability. Epigamic differentiation, long-term mating, and the social interdependencies which extended childhood made necessary also meant the face-to-face mating that, combined with concealed ovulation and sexual availability outside estrus, entail the greater importance of secondary sexual characteristics, and of characteristics like breasts, available in face-to-face intercourse. All mammals have mammary glands, but only in humans are they accompanied by the fatty deposits which give them such a role in sexual selection.
There are biologically rooted reasons for the relatively greater difficulty of men to choose a role like “househusband” over occupational and career success, especially given the greater importance to successful reproduction and childrearing of (however unfairly) better paying male occupations. We must always caution that sex-differences, often the products of numerous components, produce hugely overlapping distribution curves, and that overall statistical differences may be small. Still, less cautious male behavior, and greater arousal speeds, may also give male distribution curves greater spread, their greater platykurtosis showing more extended asymptotes on both ends of the distribution. This is the lesson of the quincunx I discussed at length in my “Full Frontal” blog of 1.24.2018, where marbles dropped through a matrix of posts will be distributed normally, more heavily at the mean than at the extremes, but that “bouncier” balls” (Y-chromosomal patterns of greater testosterone), will have the wider distribution. The lesson, again and again, is that the very characteristics than can lead to the “glass ceiling” of greater male power and privilege may be in large part produced by the same characteristics that also lead to greater failure, health risks, violence, incarceration, and mortality. The greater risks associated therein – male arousal speed and risk-taking leading to more platykurtic distribution (flatter and wider curves, for reasons of relatively greater female emphasis on safety and risk-aversion where reproduction is concerned) leads to many of the male-female differences which can then be exacerbated or mitigated by socialization, not likely to be eliminated, but hopefully, in their more dysfunctional extremes, addressed therapeutically.
The Guidelines acknowledge, early on, that despite men and boys tending to hold more privilege and power “based on gender,” they receive harsher discipline, greater academic challenges, have more completed suicides, more cardiovascular problems, and are more likely to be victims of violence, substance abuse, incarceration, and early mortality, as well as other quality-of-life issues. Might the privilege and power “based on gender” be the other side of the coin of all these negatives? “Gender bias” involves stereotyped or preconceived ideas about male/female differences that contain “significant distortion and inaccuracies.” From what ideal? How have these “distortions and inaccuracies” been assessed empirically? Or have they? Think about that quincunx again. More rapid and frequent arousal, and greater risk-taking might be precisely what leads to men both breaching women’s “glass ceiling,” but at the cost of greater strain, and greater probability of loss, associated with the risk-taking associated with only the minority winning greater gains (by virtue of “disproportionate emphasis on power and achievement”?). Or are these just due to a false ideology, inculcated during socialization, that might be corrected with psychological intervention?
What about “restrictive affectionate behavior” between men. If I am competing with someone for resources, or for female attention, might “restrictive affectionate behavior” be quite adaptive? If I am sitting in my foxhole in the Ardennes, freezing my ass off, how much affectionate behavior might be appropriate even with my beloved comrades under the circumstances (I may shoot the enemy, or even put myself in harm’s way for a comrade, but that’s hardly “affectionate behavior,” is it?). Even when I am getting ready to take my wife dancing at an unfamiliar venue, I need to be ready to evaluate dangers and put myself in harm’s way, if necessary, to protect her, at some cost to the resources I have available for “affectionate behavior.” I’ll certainly agree that when these restrictions are not differentially employed, say, under circumstances of friendship, intimacy, or familial care, it might not be so adaptive.
While giving lip service to the role of biological differences, the Guidelines almost invariably treat problems more common in boys and men to gender role socialization, including learning disabilities, incarceration, and a greater likelihood than women to be both perpetrators and victims of violent crime. Despite their privilege and power, they are not only at greater risk for a range of health problems, but have a greater mortality rate, and a shorter life span. My better half suggests that the reason more men than women are CEOs is that it requires excessively long hours, and vanishingly small leisure or family time, so far fewer intelligent and self-respecting women would choose to take on such a role. It appears that the “power and privilege” come at no small cost, and are far from being distributed evenly across socio-economic, ethnic, and gender identity variations
Let’s take a closer look at the biological sex differences. I hope it is not remotely controversial to point out, for example, that men tend to be taller and have greater upper-body strength than women, and that men tend to be older than their spouses for reasons that, I would hope, have little to do with sexual abuse or harassment, and as much with female choice. Women bear children and men do not, and the historical and evolutionary fact is that for most of history, childbirth was the cause of about 50% of adult female deaths, and even when the result is a happy one, it is a woman’s body, not a man’s, that is most directly involved, and must provide most of the immediate resources to the fetus. Hence, it might stand to reason that women might be more cautious than men, not only around pregnancy, but also around the decisions and behaviors that lead to it and quite likely also more sensitive to risk in childrearing, as they have a greater “parental investment.”
The wider pelvis and hips which made childbirth possible during most of history, might also be accompanied by differences in gait (men, with greater upper body strength and wider shoulders, need to move their shoulder more to center their weight over foot placement while walking, whereas women will need to swing their hips a bit more, viva la difference). Would it surprise anyone to be told that men tend to arouse more rapidly than women, and that arousal tends to dissipate more rapidly. Yeah, this is also true during sexual intercourse (again, on average); as for who has the better deal here, can anyone say “multiple orgasm?” Let’s not forget that there may be rather straightforward consequences to some basic differences in anatomy.
There is the difference in how publicly available are the anatomical signs of arousal, a cause of no small shame among maturing males, and likely to produce the male armor of a whole range of strategies and tactics for avoiding this embarrassment, and therefore keeping one’s sexual arousal in check, among which might well, yes, also inhibit entertaining and discussing a range of “more vulnerable and expressive emotions.” Of course, so might sex-based maturational differences in the emergence of language. My son is a bright and agile 3-year old, outgoing, curious, and intelligent, but his “speech delay” is important because he passes the cognitive tasks expected of most 4-year-olds. Friends have bright daughters who have been talking in sentences since they were one-year-olds. I’m not worried. He’s a boy, after all, but it is surely the case that a several year head start may mean that girls will always have a facility with chatting that he does not. This may be part of the reason that for college students, one of the best predictors of adapting to college life is having a close female friend (regardless of gender), who might well help manage those chats about vulnerable and expressive emotions.
Faster arousal in men is also likely to mean more rapid responses to threats, greater quickness to anger, shorter decision times and, yes, also riskier behavior. As I also pointed out in “Full Frontal” (1.24.2018), we understand that most characteristics of both men and women, being composed of multiple components, tend to fall on a normal curve. Like with a Quincunx (or Galton board), where balls are dropped down through a matrix of pegs, there are more ways to land in the middle (like there are more ways to get a 7 when rolling dice). But if we allow that the male balls are a bit bouncier (call it testosterone, call it risk-taking, call it quicker or poorer decision making) the male curve is going to be a bit flatter (more platykurtic) than the female curve, which also means that the asymptote of the male curve will reach a bit further than the female curve on both ends. This means that the other side of the coin of male privilege and power are also greater chances of violent death, accomplished suicide, incarceration, and the health difficulties that are reflected in shorter life-spans. Is this likely to be largely due to gender role socialization, by virtue of constructed masculine ideologies, or to male biology? Isn’t the ideological construction a posteriori to the biology?
Now, as I said, the Guidelines do give lip service to “a complex interplay between biology and environment.” But after a passing mention of biology in the Introduction, biology isn’t mentioned again until the discussion of Guideline 5 on page 11, and here only as a warning that we might “benefit from examination of the client’s and clinician’s own binary notions of gender identity as tied to biology, as well as developing insight into how to avoid pathologizing clinical language.” Now, I’m not asserting that gender identity is anything but a nonbinary continuum. What I am asserting is that some of the differences between different ends of that continuum, though certainly produced by “a complex interplay of biology and environment” might be rather more direct and straightforward results of the obvious differences in biological sex which undergird the ability of our species to sexually reproduce and, indeed, may play no small role in producing the “constructed masculine ideologies” by which our gender socialization may be accomplished.
There is an inkling of “the likely involvement of genetic factors in the development of gender identity,” but we find its understanding restricted to helping reduce trans-phobia in men, especially for “individuals with religious affiliation and conservative social and political views, who may equate masculinity with heterosexuality.” Biology isn’t mentioned again untiI the rationale for Guideline 8, which, after all, is about health-related behaviors, but then only to acknowledge, “a complex interplay between biology and environment,” the same phrase used repeatedly. So, what are they? Do the authors know anything about genetics, about phenotypic expression, about epigenesis or, really, even any neuroscience? I think all ten of the Guidelines are commendable, but they routinely fail to unpack the “complex interplay,” and seem to continually assert that the characteristics of men and boys are the product of this potentially dangerous and defective “traditional masculine ideology.” When I asked one of my old students what he thought of the Guidelines, he just said “do roosters learn to grow their feathers?”
Perhaps the problem is the narrowing of what constitutes the range of “normal behavior” in the classroom being more restrictive for boys than for girls. Yes, the “combination of biological, social, and economic factors may have unique consequences for men’s physical health and well-being.” Since “the age-adjusted death rate is at least 40% higher for men than women,” this might be one of those things suggesting that power and privilege aren’t all they are cracked up to be since, well, you are likely to die sooner. The Guidelines admit that while social identity statuses might exacerbate the problem, sex (not gender) differences in risk-taking might be largely responsible for this discrepancy. Maybe it is a problem that can only be mitigated by reducing the testosterone poisoning of boys, which (and yes, I am being sarcastic), happily, might also reduce the “problem” of the other asymptote of the more platykurtic male curve, their greater power and privilege (which is largely obtained by those men who do not have the “social identity statuses such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class”). So, if they were just a bit less sexually male, perhaps we wouldn’t have these problems. Problems relative to what ideal and decided by whom?
By and large, I think the APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Men and Boys are appropriate, and even commendable encouragements. Nevertheless, I think they are an embarrassing and abject failure when it comes to recognizing that the biology of sex-differences has a substantially larger role in the psychology of gender than we might ever glean from the Guidelines or their rationales, regardless of how nonbinary the gender continuum might be.
Under current technology, you simply cannot have reproduction without the contribution of both sperm and egg, however much it may currently be possible to swap those around. The male sex generates a lot of sperm, and only a finite number of eggs are produced by each member of the female sex, regardless of whatever gender or sexual orientation they might have. I don’t think it is a big stretch to suggest that such basic differences have consequences, sexually, emotionally, experientially, and behaviorally. Yet one learns little or nothing about these from the guidelines, from which one might guess that differences are almost solely attributable to our socialization to gender ideologies.
Given the distinction between sex and gender, one might almost take it to be analytic that there are ideological roots to the socialization of gender identity. Nevertheless, ideologies are not constructed out of thin air, but operate on the bodies, development, and behavior of intelligent organisms with biological differentiations of sex. And while it may be true that the western cultural image has moved from an upper-class aristocratic image to a more rugged and self-sufficient ideal, it may well be that sexual differences may provide some constraints on the likely or even possible range of cultural images.
The authors acknowledge that one can view the “traditional masculinity ideology” as dominant or hegemonic, and normative. Does this not also imply an acknowledgement that it is statistically more common? If this is the case, one is going to have to be very careful about teasing out dysfunctional or pathological effects of such an ideology on any kind of empirical basis, without also specifying the sources of the ideal to which any effects are being compared. Any standard scientific criticism is bound to ask “In comparison to what?” One need not heteronormatively “falsely conflate” sexual and masculine identity for men, nor “disregard sexual attraction nor gender role adherence for those who identify as a sexual minority, transgender, or gender nonconforming” to recognize huge biological contributions to the results in whatever case. Quite varied masculinity ideologies are still likely to operate upon or include real, empirically driven biological facts that have clear and divergent behavioral sequelae. From the rationale given in the Guidelines it is unclear how one would begin to map these out, as they are rarely addressed or recognized.
There are real, biological differences between boys and girls both genetically and developmentally. These includes not only anatomical differences, but differences in brain development, like in language development, and certainly in physiological, behavioral, and experiential differences magnified by differences in maturation rates, like differences in the onset of puberty. There are a host of factors which are neither overwhelmed by nor can be entirely subsumed under socialization and enculturation. Surely there may be sources of some of the putatively problematic issues with “non-normative gender expressions” which are not themselves purely products of ideology and socialization, to say nothing of wide (and widely overlapping) ranges to the normal expression of biological sex.
The Guidelines are also commendably astute in mapping out some of the difficulties and variations produced by racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, ageism, albleism, and other forms of discrimination, and attending to some of the background skills for coping with them. This includes being educated to the cultural practices of diverse identities and integrating this understanding into meaningful therapeutic practices, as well as in recognizing their own biases and any value conflicts they might have with the recipients of their services. One Guideline (2) includes the need to understand “the likely involvement of genetic factors in the development of gender identity,” but primarily for the value of this understanding in helping reduce transphobia. One wonders why so little attention is given to the whole range of genetic, epigenetic, and maturational factors including “the complex interplay of biology and environment” also likely to be involved in the development of gender identity, and how these might also have more to contribute to shaping the Guidelines.
I understand that in a patriarchal society, males may experience more economic and social power than girls and women, and that adherence to sexist ideologies may serve to maintain that power at a cost to adaptive functioning. Sexism may well exist as a “byproduct, reinforcer, and justification of male privilege,” but one can ask whether, as byproduct, or even as reinforcer or justification, its origins reside entirely within sexist ideology. What if, for example, there were differences in sexual selection, that is, in how men and women choose reproductive mates, such that there was even a small difference in how much signs of “power and privilege” were used assess mate value. Over a long period of evolutionary time, wouldn’t this mean that the gender being selected more on this basis might well come to exhibit more power and privilege?
What makes more sense, that at some time in evolutionary history males unfairly took power, and continue to sustain it by sexist practices and ideology, or that sexual selection of males by females had something to do with it? The evidence suggests the latter. Women show greater preferences for men with more access to resources and power than do men. Social constructivists regularly point out that in more egalitarian societies many of the standard differences emphasized by evolutionary psychology are lessened. This is true. But they are rarely reversed. The “structural inequality hypothesis” suggests that these differences have little to do with biological evolution, and everything to do with patriarchy and sexism. The problem is that the data also show that women who themselves have greater access to resources and power (who would therefore have less of a need to select a mate for these purposes), still tend to prefer men with even greater such access, and men at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder (who would therefore have greater reason to select mates on this basis) have no greater preference for women with such access. Now, it could be that in the context of societies with a long history of sexism and patriarchy, the socialization to sexist ideologies is just so pervasive that individual preferences are unaffected by circumstances that would otherwise alter them, but one is still left with the question of how they got that way in the first place.
We can understand that men and women may exert power differently, and from even young ages boys tend to assert power by exhibiting strength, pressing for gain, and generally sticking their noses, or their fingers, in places they otherwise should not have been, whereas girls tend to exhibit power by guarding boundaries, and controlling group or individual access. Male power is therefore more exerted by intrusion, and female power by exclusion, and tends to be more indirect. Male conflicts, like their arousal, tend to be quicker and more aggressive, but also dissipate more rapidly. Women’s conflicts tend to be accompanied by less overt aggression, but are longer lasting, and involve much longer strategies of group formation and boundary maintenance. Stereotypically, I suppose, a male conflict might show two guys duking it out, then going out for a beer afterwards, where female conflicts may involve longer periods of passive aggression, resentment, and greater strategic and tactical complexity.
Is it merely ideology that “that emphasizes promiscuity and other aspects of risky sexual behavior,” or might there be evolutionary advantages, and therefore biologically rooted tendencies to men regularly preferring more sexual partners, earlier intercourse, and riskier behavior than women, because they ultimately have relatively lower parental investment (though relative to mammals, human males have far greater parental investment in childrearing) and, historically, far lower risk to life and limb than do women in pursuing such strategies? But in the first mention of “biology” in the Guidelines, it is only as a warning that clients and clinicians might benefit by examining their own “binary notions of gender identity as tied to biology.” Is the presumption that there aren’t any influences on gender identity, binary or otherwise, that are tied to biology, and their entire causal origination is ideological? Are you serious? This is embarrassing to anyone whose scientific understanding is less tied to ideology than to reproductive biological realities, including the developmental and neurological. I thought that the value of psychology in being able to draw multi-leveled and causal connections between biology, development, socialization, and ideology, rather than to assume that the latter two are merely cut loose from the former. Is this no longer the case in psychological practice? If so, I think psychological practice is in more trouble than it thinks, and might quite justifiably be less appealing, both to boys and men, but also to girls and women not steeped in the ideology of the Guidelines themselves.
Yes, I expect it would be valuable to promote the development of male-to-male relationships, and to challenge socialization pressures for boys and men to be hyper-competitive and hyper aggressive. But this does not require a denial that adaptive levels of competition, and even aggression (which need not entail violence, as Gandhi taught us to understand) might be valuable characteristics, and even more adaptively characteristic for males than females. I am sure that it might be valuable to help boys and men to understand how traditional masculine ideologies might deter forming close relationships, both with male and female peers. But I would also want them to understand that appropriate demonstrations of stoicism, self-reliance, and competitiveness are likely to be adaptive components of a masculine behavioral repertoire. I do think that homophobia is more characteristic of males who are insecure about their own sexuality, and that a capacity to show one’s vulnerabilities is actually characteristic of better adapted, emotionally stronger, and socially successful males. I think that there are characteristics of many masculinities which are not only commendable, but need to be encouraged as part of healthy socialization.
I neither think it maladaptive nor unhealthy to understand that there are plenty of public events and circumstances that come with a certain degree of danger and risk, and that it may be relatively more incumbent upon a man to be prepared to put himself in harm’s way where such dangers are made manifest, and that, indeed, defense of intimate partners, as well as developmental innocents, is a relatively greater prerogative for men. Under any threat, particularly physical ones, masculinity may require being prepared to defensively intervene.
Having said that, I also understand why a fully evolved, healthy, and loving man, accompanying his wife and daughters to a book signing by Brene Brown, an expert on the expression of vulnerability and the sources and dangers of shame, approach her to say: “You should talk more about men’s difficulties with these issues. You see my wife and daughters over there, the loves of my life? However much I know and trust their deep love for me, I think they would rather see me die than fall off my white horse.” As much as I do believe it should be a woman’s choice whether to work outside the home or choose the life of a homemaker and “stay-at-home mom,” I do understand all too well that a man’s choices in this regard are far more limited and dependent. As an early retiree, I have a certain freedom to be a stay-at-home dad for a toddler, and a househusband to a young woman developing her career, but this was not always a choice I could easily have made (though I know and love several male friends who made this choice), and kept the same sense of my masculinity.
Spending more time with children, and assuming more childcare tasks, including primary caregiver, has become more common, and the Guidelines both happily point out that greater father involvement is correlated with a range of positive outcomes, even for non-resident fathers, including literacy, academic competence and achievement, cognitive functioning, lower behavioral problems and higher emotion regulation, to say nothing of simple health benefits, eating behavior, self-esteem and lower depression, violence, and substance abuse. Being a good father is also an increasingly a factor in definitions of success, as well as being correlated with generativity, a concern for future generations, which might also be involved in community, educational, and political involvement. Research also shows correlative benefits of fatherhood to men, including health, reductions of criminal behavior, tobacco and alcohol use, better social relationships with spouse, family and friends, and transformative effects of “settling down,” like lower risk-taking and more self-care activities. These characteristics may also produce men who are more likely to be chosen as mates, and to become fathers in the first place.
I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that fatherhood itself need not be biological, though it has biological benefits to both fathers and children. Motherhood also need not be biological, though a capacity for motherhood surely accounts for a wide range of biological differences between the sexes. While I do not want to dwell on the evolution of human sexuality and its relationship to a wide range of differences (and similarities) between men and women, like the effects of face-to-face sexuality, concealed ovulation, or paternity uncertainty, it is certainly the case that a woman bearing a child has a quite different biological relationship to that child than does a father and a greater “parental investment” in biological terms. Hence, even in an era where social roles have much wider variability, the biological connection between a woman and a child she has borne will have implications for her relationship with the child that the father does not have. The differentiation between a mother and her child is likely to take longer, and her self-boundaries tend to be less rigidly defended and more permeable in the first place (women’s sense of self being more relational and interdependent than men’s for a host of reasons, as detailed in The Reproduction of Mothering and elsewhere). Hence mothers not only tend to be the “nurturer” and fathers the “energizer,” but even across the wide range of familial and mother-child relationships varying between human cultures, even when she is not the primary caregiver, the mother remains to one most likely to be sought for comfort at times of stress, as Konner points out in The Evolution of Childhood.
Even the Guidelines point out that the “active play” to which fathers are more likely to contribute, is associated with competitiveness (“without aggression”), anxiety-buffering cooperation, healthy experimentation, social competence, peer acceptance, and autonomy. So the greater (and earlier) motoric engagement of fathers may have an important role in child development, though the linguistic abilities and social resources for child-care may be lower for fathers. It is also the case that paternal financial contributions (being a “provider” or “breadwinner”) have “remained a salient aspect of men’s parenting role identity.” As I tried to indicate previously, and talked more extensively about in earlier blogs, female criteria for sexual selection are likely to include greater attention to things like a man’s ambition, competence, and ability to provide resources. Hence this may be a characteristic which is also rooted in biological evolution.
Are the “problems posed by boys in schools,” like classroom disruption, poor organization, or discourtesy (seriously?) due to “traditional masculinity ideologies,” or due to increasingly restrictive expectations about the range of what might constitute normative and expected behavior while being forced to sit immobile in little desks for extensive periods of time? I have no doubt that constricted notions of masculinity could well exacerbate normal male/female differences produced by their biological sex, just as healthier notions might mitigate them. The Guidelines, however, provide so little attention to the “interplay between biology and environment” that it is impossible to arbitrate which of the problems might be produced by which factors or interactions, or what the solutions might be beyond alternate ideologies mediated via psychological practice. Might some “consciousness raising” help see that problems which are normative and worrisome in boys and men might be better resolved by social activism and educational reform than by psychological practice.
How much do current institutional expectations take biological sex differences in activity levels, linguistic and motoric agility, arousal levels and risk-taking into account? How much are biological contributions not only underappreciated, but restricted by systematic narrowing of institutional expectations about what constitutes “appropriate behavior,” and by whose standards? Is acting out in the face of severe classroom boredom “inappropriate,” or is it a perfectly healthy way to signal a problem with classroom engagement? I remember one commentator on boys’ behavior say: “What every boy on the playground comes to understand, and his mother wishes were not true, is that there are some problems which can only be resolved with violence.” Face off a bully once, and you may take some punishment, but he’ll be less likely to bother you again, and you’ll gain the respect of everyone. Daniel Craig said: “When your kid is repeatedly told by my kid to cease and desist, and he fails to do so, I will tell my kid to punch your kid in the face.”
The Who sang: “I’m a boy, I’m a boy, though my mom won’t admit it. I wanna come home all covered in mud, cut myself just to see my blood.” I do not think one needs put oneself in harms way in combat to become a man, but I do think there are challenges one must overcome, or try to, to earn a healthy sense of one’s manhood, though they may differ widely. Choosing a greater good over one’s own safety and welfare, taking risks for the sake of defending those who cannot defend themselves, and standing up to be counted for what is right even when the position is unpopular, are certainly among them. Such virtues are not restricted to men.