Something has happened to our academic culture–the culture that teaches educators how to teach, therapists how to counsel, and parents how to parent–and it is both very satisfying and somewhat frightening. Satisfying is that our academic culture is waking up to the fact that boys and men in America need our love and support.
Child advocates like myself who are parents of daughters have been saying for years, “We can’t do much more for our daughters if we don’t help their future husbands–our nation’s sons–too.” Many people like you have been asking representatives of national organizations such as the National Education Association, American Psychological Association, and American Medical Association to see what is going on with boys and men.
As I pointed out in Saving Our Sons (2017), despite that there are many powerful men at the top of society, there is also no American demographic group in which males in that group are doing better than females in the aggregate. While subsections of females are doing worse than males, there are equal or more subsections of males doing worse than females. Even the World Health Organization made this point in 2015.
White females, for instance, have better health than white males and more access to health resources; they have better aggregate grades, test scores, college graduation rates, post-secondary education; they are safer at home and in school than white males. The list is very long, and the same holds true for comparisons of African American, Native American, Latino American, and Asian American males and females.
When the American Psychological Association put out its Guidelines for Practice with Boys and Men in January 2019, I was delighted to see its clarity in pointing out male privation–from high suicide rates to depression, anxiety, addiction, and violence. These are diseases that need treatment, and the APA acknowledged it. But from the first sentences of the Guidelines, the APA did what so many other organizations do: fall back on the soft science of “masculinity is the cause of men’s problems” and “removing masculinity is the solution.”
This last couple weeks, I’ve been asked to publicly respond to the APA report. What follows here is introductory analysis and then one of my responses. My basic point is this: even by the APA’s definition, “masculinity,” which they suggest therapists help us remove from males, is actually a good thing.
Masculinity is characterized, according to the APA, by strength, stoicism, aggression, and power. Like our academic institutions in general today, the APA presents these aspects of masculinity as our nation’s largest male problem. In reality, however, if boys are to survive and thrive in a complex world, they must work to be strong (resilient, empowered, able to perform, and at appropriate times, stoic in the face of enemies and hardship), aggressive (assertive, motivated, and able to battle against bullies, as well as help us fight our wars both abroad and at home), powerful (successful in work, in life, in leadership, and, when needed, in follower-ship to leaders who are morally sound).
These qualities are intertwined with tenderness, kindness, compassion, spiritual vitality, empathy, fortitude, character, and fatherhood. We are able to have compassion because we are strong; we are able to live from a position of kindness because we have the power to do so.
As profiles of school shooters have shown us, the most dangerous male is not one who is strong, aggressive, and successful; the most dangerous male is one who is depressed, unable to partner or raise children successfully, unable to earn a living, unable to care for his children.
The most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless. Our culture has focused its media on the million or so males who have a lot of power at the top but, for the most part, forgotten the millions who don’t; these millions live in inner cities and rural farms, gentrified suburbs and city lofts, corner bars and cardboard boxes, gang crash pads and parents’ basements. They are in constant fight or flight mode in a culture that has abandoned them, and every decade we see their withdrawal from and violence against society, and themselves, increase.
In The Wonder of Boys (1996), I argued that masculinity is, at its heart, a “husbanding” vision of strength, purpose, honor, power, and compassion that culminates in the art of building a strong enough male self to be able to give that self to others in love and marriage, in parenting and mentoring, in work and life. Few people were more masculine than Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall–you name it, the men who help us most are each in their own way quite masculine.
If we are going to solve issues faced by everyone today–boys, girls, women, men, and everyone on the gender spectrum–we must challenge academic culture to go deeper into who boys are, and what most people in America see very clearly: boys need more masculinity, not less; more fathering, not less; more healthy manhood, not less.
And we must respond when people exploit narrow definitions of masculinity for their own ends. Gillette did this recently in their now famous 2 minute add (check on You Tube for “The Best a Man Can Get”). The ad presented men and masculinity in a basically negative light, and presented normal masculine rough housing as part of toxic masculinity when, in fact, rough housing is a crucial tool in brain development.
Interestingly, when Dove and similar companies have created commercials that approach girls’ and women’s lives from a clearly political lens, they have done so by seeking to find the beauty in girls and women, rather than leading with and ending with basically negative portrayals of girls and women. In taking the opposite course, Gillette asked men to be accountable for bad behavior: that part of the ad is admirable, and useful; but, like the APA, Gillette does not understand how important masculine development is to human development and survival.
They especially do not understand that above all else, males who seek to be masculine will not countenance violence against women or children. Masculinity is a protective force against violence, not an invitation to commit violence.