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How ‘traditional masculinity’ hurts the men who believe in it most

New American Psychological Association guidelines suggest that certain masculine behaviors can harm everyone — including men. (Illustration by Kathleen Brooks/The Washington Post/iStock)

My grandfather is traditionally masculine in most senses of the word: He was a soldier, then a bait-shop owner, then a garbage collector; he rose before dawn most days of his life and I never heard him complain about it. He raised six good kids, he tells funny one-liners, he’s an expert fisherman. He once refused over-the-counter pain meds even while at death’s door.

I’ve been thinking about him lately, for reasons I’ll get to in a bit.

More than a decade ago, the American Psychological Association released a set of guidelines for treating women and girls: a document that addressed sexual violence and pay inequality, discussed how women disproportionately suffer from eating disorders and anxiety, and advised clinicians with female clients on how to be more sensitive and more effective. The APA has also, over the years, released guidelines for treating older folks, and racial and ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBT community.

What the largest psychological organization in the United States had never done was release guidelines for treating men.

Men were already perceived as the default, unneeding of individuated study. “Unless you’re in a men’s group, you’re probably not regularly reflecting on what it means to be male,” says Matt Englar-Carlson, who directs the Center for Boys and Men at California State University at Fullerton. “You’re probably just enacting it.”

Psychologists want to change that, though, and last week marked the release of the APA’s inaugural Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men — developed over 13 years and using four decades of research. Men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women, for example. They have more academic challenges and receive harsher punishments in school settings. They’re the victims of 77 percent of homicides (and they commit 90 percent of them).

One cause for this consortium of maladies, the guidelines suggested? “Traditional masculinity” itself — the term refers to a Western concept of manliness that relies — and sometimes over-relies — on stoicism, dominance, aggression and competitiveness.

He thought white men were vanishing from TV. I disagreed. So we conducted an experiment.

“Everybody has beliefs about how men should behave,” says Ronald Levant, who was the APA president when the guidelines were initially conceived, and who has worked on them ever since. “We found incredible evidence that the extent to which men strongly endorse those beliefs, it’s strongly associated with negative outcomes.” The more men cling to rigid views of masculinity, the more likely they are to be depressed, or disdainful, or lonely.

The guidelines are saying some men are sick, in other words. But are they saying some men are sick, like, we need to gently care for them with aspirin and a thermometer? Or are they saying some men are sick, like, we need to put them in Hannibal Lecter masks and keep them away from everyone else?

Levant was shocked this past week by how many people responded as if the guidelines were suggesting the latter — people who read the 30-page document as an indictment not of rigid, traditional masculinity but of all masculinity, and of men themselves.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham accused the APA of conflating masculinity with “Harvey Weinstein”-like behaviors.

In the conservative National Review magazine, writer David French also critiqued the study: “It is interesting that in a world that otherwise teaches boys and girls to ‘be yourself,’ that rule often applies to everyone but the ‘traditional’ male who has traditional male impulses and characteristics. Then, they’re a problem. Then, they’re often deemed toxic.”

Take your sons to see the new Ruth Bader Ginsburg Movie — to show them how a powerful man can be a partner.

I covered a men’s rights activist conference a few years ago: Several dozen men — white men, mostly — had flown to a Detroit suburb to talk about how they felt men were under attack. Worse, they said, nobody was paying attention to their suffering.

Some of the men were, as we’d say, “toxic,” (one kept telling me to make him a sandwich, then saying he was joking, then telling me again — ham and cheese on wheat, b----). But a lot of them were just sad. They talked about male suicide rates, male depression, male isolation. They talked, in other words, about a lot of the information included in the new APA guidelines. They were desperate, begging, for someone to pay attention and find a solution.

Most of them, however, were sure the correct solution would have something to do with fixing women. As soon as women would stop taking their jobs, they wouldn’t be depressed anymore. As soon as women would stop categorizing sexual attention as harassment, they wouldn’t be lonely anymore.

These able-bodied straight white men were, as a group, the most privileged class in America — the Founding Fathers demographic — but they were convinced they were oppressed.

While reading the APA guidelines this week, I thought a lot about those men in Detroit. I thought about how it’s possible to be crushed by something you built, how it’s possible to invent a game that exhausts you to play.

What’s difficult about the APA’s guidelines is that they ask us to wrestle with a complicated idea: that in a society in which gender roles have historically been rigid — and that rigidity has placed the lion’s share of power in the hands of one of the genders — it’s possible for the rulers to be harmed right along with the ruled. But that’s what bad systems do. They mess up everyone.

I thought about how hard it would be to accept that healing yourself might mean letting go of the very things you believed defined who you were.

Englar-Carlson, the California professor, worked on the APA guidelines for several years. When I talked to him, he kept repeating this point: He didn’t believe that men were bad, or even that many forms of masculinity were.

“A lot of men have the expectation that they need to be stoic, and independent, and take care of things on their own — and those can all be quite helpful tools,” Englar-Carlson says.

The trouble comes, though, when those are the only tools men believe they have: when they need help and are afraid to ask for it, when they’re experiencing emotions they can’t even name, much less express. And when they blame themselves for being unable to make those insufficient tools work, and the result is to lash out — or lash in — in violence.

“The guidelines are about, how do we help men live healthier lives?” he says. “How do we help men live lives that aren’t trapped in straitjackets of gender expectations?”

All week long, he said, he’d been getting emails accusing him of “not liking” traditional men. He told me he wanted to write back, “I do like them! That’s why I don’t want them to suffer!”

I told him about my grandfather. How much I loved and respected him. How most everyone who met him respected him. How our family stories centered on him being a good provider and a good man. But also — how I couldn’t remember anyone asking my grandfather how he felt about that. Whether he would have preferred a different life. Whether he had ever felt trapped in the one he had.

I told Englar-Carlson that I wanted everyone in the world to be like my grandfather. But I also wanted everyone to know they have the option not to be.

Actor Josh Brolin reflects on how masculinity, emotions and sobriety have shaped his life and his portrayal of a firefighter in the new film, "Only the Brave." (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Malcolm Cook/The Washington Post)

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit