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Toxic masculinity is under attack. That’s fine.

New guidelines for therapists who treat men, the Gillette ad, and backlash.

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Gillette

If you Google “masculinity” right now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that men are engaged in an epic battle over our very right to exist. “Masculinity isn’t a sickness,” the Wall Street Journal intones.

Who is behind this “dubious attack” on masculinity? It was a bit of a one-two punch, actually: Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released new guidelines for working with men that highlighted a substantial body of research pointing to some of the harmful effects that the constricted enculturation of “traditional masculinity” have on men and the people around us. “Traits of so-called ‘traditional masculinity,’ like suppressing emotions & masking distress, often start early in life & have been linked to less willingness by boys & men to seek help, more risk-taking & aggression — possibly harming themselves & those with whom they interact,” the APA tweeted as part of the guideline announcement.

The new APA guidelines, which are designed for therapists working with men, suggest that clinicians be aware of their own gender bias so as to avoid misdiagnosis of male clients; be aware of the way racism, homophobia, and transphobia shape male identity, as well as stereotypes about marginalized men; and get out the message to men that “they’re adaptable, emotional and capable of engaging fully outside of rigid norms.” In short, the APA suggests that treating male clients will be more impactful if therapists factor in the documented risk factors associated with “traditional” masculinity (not seeking help, struggling with vulnerability) in their treatment, and broadly remember to factor in masculinity as a gender identity when assessing the needs of their male clients.

The guidelines, which complement a similar set of APA guidelines for working with women and girls released in 2007, have been in the works since 2005, reports the New York Times. But conservative voices, in particular, were quick to dismiss the guidelines as a “frontal attack” born of the post-#MeToo political climate.

Those flames were further fanned a week later, when Gillette released an ad actually inspired by #MeToo that asked men to reexamine the phrase “boys will be boys,” work to end sexual harassment, support boys emotionally, and intervene if they see bullying. “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best,” the narrator tells us.

The APA guidelines, the Gillette ad: These small cultural milestones seemed like reasonable, healthy steps toward questioning and highlighting tired, troubling ideas about what makes a man. But I’m a trans man who spent years reporting a book on masculinity, so I knew exactly what would happen next: an angry outcry. If you’re a man for whom the Gillette ad felt like an attack on “your masculinity,” maybe it’s worth questioning how you learned to twin dominance, harm, and violence with your gender identity.

When masculinity is threatened

Because most men are taught to believe that socialized masculinity is somehow entirely “innate” (it’s not) and simultaneously precarious and in need of defending, any messaging that challenges the dominant definition of masculinity can lead to what sociologists call “identity threat.”

The theory, according to UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Tristan Bridges, suggests that if an identity you feel passionately about is threatened, your first response is to overperform that identity. In this political climate, men who have been taught since boyhood that being a “real man” means defending “traditional” masculinity and using dominance to police its lack in others, respond to the suggestion that they reimagine the more toxic aspects of masculinity by emphasizing exactly those toxic elements.

Bridges points to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Sociology that found that men whose masculinity was “threatened” (by being told that they tested as more “feminine” on a made-up gender identity survey) were more likely to support war, as well as show both homophobic beliefs and beliefs in male superiority. (Women whose femininity was similarly threatened showed no significant changes.) Even more distressing, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Violence Against Women found that men whose masculinity was threatened before reading vignettes about sexual assault responded to the stories by “blaming the victim and exonerating the perpetrator more” than men whose gender identity was not threatened first.

So it was no surprise that after the commercial aired, Piers Morgan tweeted that Gillette wanted men to “take one of their razors and cut off their testicles.” In the meantime, many, many triggered men vowed to throw out their razors and boycott Gillette. Just as the reaction to the APA guidelines included stories with headlines like “We Need to Retoxify Masculinity,” the Gillette ad drew ire and the promise of a boycott from men who felt “attacked” by the suggestion that sexual harassment and bullying was not key to their gender identity. In both cases, agitated men conflated cultural conditioning with identity —and then leaned into that identity, just as identity threat research predicted that they would.

“Men are not used to having masculinity defined for them, and sometimes they don’t realize the little ways these really problematic stereotypes of masculinity can crop up in their own lives,” says Bridges. Though the commercial and the guidelines never suggest that men should “stop being men,” Bridges says they force a privileged population to look at how the conditioning they received in childhood could be harming their mental and emotional well-being.

How masculinity evolves

If this conversation is ever going to result in widespread change, Bridges thinks we have to look at another aspect of how masculinity is constructed: lack of resilience around “failure.”

“We’re not very good at talking with men about how to be challenged and not feel like your gender is threatened,” he says. We now talk to boys about consent, he says, but not how to “retain their dignity” in the face of rejection. Instead, boys are socialized to be dominant at all costs, and to manage “failure” by “proving” their masculinity — resulting in aggressive, identity-threat behaviors.

When I transitioned, I was thrilled to feel aligned with my body. But I was also shocked by the scope of privilege my white, male body suddenly received and by the many messages I got about how I was expected to behave to “prove” my masculinity. I could walk alone late at night without fear, and I also went months without a single person touching me. I accelerated through the ranks at work, and a female friend told me that if I ever wanted a girlfriend again, I needed to not show vulnerability.

This troubled me and, eventually, I began to ask questions: What does testosterone actually do? Why do men fight? What is a “real man”? As I reported out the answers, I came across much of the research cited by the APA and arrived at a similar conclusion. I found my way back to myself by questioning the same toxic behaviors and mentality the Gillette ad highlights. By making sure our values line up with our behavior, men can create a model of masculinity grounded in integrity. The short-term reward is a longer, healthier life. The long-term effect could be ending the needless suffering of future generations of boys.

There’s a lot on the line, and we all need to stand up for what we believe in. We are all culpable for the culture we’re creating. We’re all responsible for the person we see in the mirror, too.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly cited a Washington Post article.

Thomas Page McBee is a journalist and the author, most recently, of Amateur: A True Story of What Makes a Man.


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