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Conservatives rage over report that finds toxic masculinity is bad for men’s health

New psychological guidelines for improving the health and safety of boys and men have conservatives outraged.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

The American Psychological Association has issued new guidelines designed to improve both the safety and mental health of men and boys. Many of the recommendations involve dismantling aspects of masculinity that inhibit wellness, which has conservatives up in arms that men are under attack.

In the ensuing debate this week, conservative pundits, columnists, and religious figures have indicated that they believe masculinity is biological and fundamental, leading them to conclude that the report is purely political. But what the APA actually highlights is that men themselves are harmed by the way society conditions them to conform to traditional stereotypes of masculinity. Not only are those stereotypes not inherent, but there are ways men can be men without conforming to them.

Being socialized to these stereotypes, the report explains, “has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental health, and physical health.” This pressure to conform helps explain why boys are more likely to have learning difficulties and behavioral problems, as well as why men are more likely to commit (and be victim to) violent crimes and why they’re over-represented in prisons. Most importantly, these behaviors and attitudes often create barriers to receiving the mental health support men need to avoid such negative outcomes.

For example, because boys are taught “to be self-reliant, strong, and to minimize and manage their problems on their own,” adult men are then less willing to seek mental health treatment. The report also cites several studies that have shown that adult men who endorse sexist male role norms are likely to be aggressive against both men and women who violate those norms. Men are also four times more likely than women to die of suicide. The new guidelines connect the dots to make sure men can receive the care they need instead of following through to the subsequent stereotype of responding with violence.

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Mass shootings in recent years have repeatedly demonstrated this escalation, as not only have the shooters almost universally been men, they’ve also fairly consistently committed intimate partner violence in their pasts. As sociologist Angela Stroud previously explained to ThinkProgress, society teaches men to demonstrate strength, control, and protection, so when some men feel the need to exert control over their circumstances with physical aggression, having access to a gun can make the situation much more dangerous.

It’s also important to highlight that the APA guidelines address how male stereotypes might interfere with the way psychologists themselves diagnose and treat men who do seek care. For example, boys and men are far more likely to be diagnosed with what the guidelines refer to as “externalizing disorders” that address their behaviors, like ADHD or substance abuse disorder, than “internalizing disorders” like depression. Studies show that this diagnostic bias reflects stereotypes about how men can, should, and do express their emotions.

The APA took similar steps to address the negative impact of female stereotypes in a set of guidelines for girls and women most recently updated in 2007. That document outlines in parallel fashion the way women may have been conditioned by social expectations and how that conditioning might negatively impact how best to serve their mental health. In other words, the APA isn’t coming after men or masculinity; it’s simply recognizing that the gender expectations set forth by a patriarchal society can have negative consequences for both men and women.

But conservatives believe men are under attack. This is a drum embattled Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been beating for some time, in fact. Just last week, for example, he warned that because women are making more than men in some industries, this means they won’t want to marry men who make less than them. Drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, and fewer families will result, he claimed — without citation.

Carlson was unsurprisingly flummoxed by the APA’s new report. During his show Wednesday night, he and masculinity-defender Christina Hoff Sommers bantered about how harmful they think the guidelines are to men. “I wonder if this dogma isn’t causing depression actually since its everywhere,” Tucker expounded without evidence. “What would happen if you told girls the qualities that make you feel female are poison and you must suppress them. What would that do for their mental health?” Carlson was apparently unfamiliar with the APA’s previous guidelines for women.

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After Sommers mocked the idea that masculinity is socially constructed, Carlson quipped, “Only crazy people believe that because it ignores biological reality.”

Washington Examiner contributor Nicole Russell was even more adamant that masculinity is inherently biological. “They’re innately wired that way,” she claimed without evidence. “These are positive traits, which enable men to do things that satiate their natural desires to protect and provide.” Ignoring all the consequences that unchecked masculinity has for society and for men’s own lives, she proclaimed, “The cure for masculinity isn’t less, but more.”

Conservatives have not only been asserting that masculinity is essentially biological, but also that it’s also essentially Biblical. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, assailed the APA guidance on his daily podcast Wednesday. “Humanity depends on there being a difference between men and women,” he insisted, citing God’s creation of Adam and Eve to make his point.

The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher dismissed the guidelines’ findings by instead trying to blame race for certain distinctions among men’s mental health. But it’s unlikely that Dreher read the report, which has repeated references to the complex interplay of different dimensions of identity, including race, as well as many explanations about how masculinity plays out differently in various ethnic communities.

None of the conservatives who objected to the guidelines actually addressed any of its findings about the barriers to men’s mental health. They simply doubled down on their belief that “men will be men,” that it’s “natural,” and that it should even be encouraged.

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But they’re shaking their fist at a straw man. The APA isn’t trying to erase all masculinity. As science writer Sarah Pappas explains for the organization, the goal is to help men understand “that they’re adaptable, emotional, and capable of engaging fully outside of rigid norms.” Studies have found that — counter to conservatives’ insistence — men and women aren’t as inherently different as stereotypes suggest. If men are simply given license and opportunity to break free of gender rules that aren’t actually improving their lives, it could improve both their mental health and the welfare of society.