Clarifying the American Psychological Association's Guidelines for Boys and Men | Opinion

To address the ongoing controversy about American Psychological Association's Practice Guidelines for Boys and Men, we want to clarify what these guidelines are, and what they are not.

The American Psychological Association (APA) is the nation's largest organization of psychologists. It consists of clinicians who treat patients with psychological disorders like depression and anxiety and academics who teach and do psychological research, among other types of psychologists. This fortunate combination of practitioners and scholars has enabled an evidence-based approach to clinical practice. APA has a long history of developing guidelines for psychological practice through collaboration between scientists and practitioners. Practice Guidelines have been developed both for specific groups such as girls and women, older adults, racial and ethnic minority groups, transgender and gender non-conforming people, and sexual minority persons, and for specialized practice areas such as telepsychology or forensic psychology.

The "Guidance for Developers and Users of Professional Practice Guidelines" published by APA defines these guidelines as "designed to guide psychologists in practice with regards to particular roles, populations, or settings and provide them with the current scholarly literature. These guidelines reflect consensus within the field since the very process of guideline development helps to resolve areas of disagreement."

We were both centrally involved in the development of the boys and men practice guidelines over a 13-year period. Furthermore, Dr. Levant was the cofounder of the APA division that produced them and as APA president in 2005 he created the task force to write the guidelines, and Dr. McDermott is the current president of that division.

The development of the boys and men practice guidelines was undertaken by a large group of scholars and clinicians who have devoted their lives to the psychological study of men and masculinity and/or to clinical practice with boys and men. This group effort followed all of the APA rules and procedures for professional practice guideline development, and met all of the criteria for acceptance, as specified in the formal APA procedure documents.

The guidelines have recently been criticized on grounds of scientific methodology, which would be much more appropriate for a critical review of the scientific literature than for a set of guidelines for professional practice. Furthermore, such a methodological critique would be equally applicable to any other set of professional practice guidelines adopted by APA.

But setting these academic squabbles aside, the big picture is that the critics confuse "men" with "masculinity." The term men, like women, or intersex, usually refers to biological sex. However, when applied to transgender persons that term can also refer to gender identity. On the other hand, masculinity refers to a set of gender norms—that is, societal expectations for behavior appropriate to one's sex. Gender norms vary with culture and historical era. For example, one current masculine norm is to restrict the expression of affection between men, yet in Abraham Lincoln's time the norm was the exact opposite. Back then, men were expected to be verbally and physically affectionate with their close male friends, even going so far as to sleep in the same bed when they visited each other. Furthermore, masculinity norms can be adhered to by women and non-binary persons as well as men. And they can be rejected by people of any gender identity.

The masculine norms in the U. S. today include both prescriptions and prohibitions: avoid all things feminine, disdain men whom they consider feminine (sexual minority men), restrict the expression of emotions (except anger), be self-reliant, dominant, and tough, and be very interested in sex. Masculine norms have been found over four decades of research to be associated with a long list of harmful outcomes. These harms can come to the men, women, and non-binary people who conform to masculine norms, and to those around them.

Two walking figures silhouetted as they stroll
Two walking figures silhouetted as they stroll along the horizon. Michael Phillips/Contributor/Getty Images

For the sake of illustration, let's take the problem of gun violence—one of heightened concern in the U. S. today. The vast majority of mass gun violence perpetrators (greater than 90 percent) are boys and men, yet the vast majority of boys and men (greater than 90 percent) are not violent. The question then becomes: What predisposes a small minority of males to commit these heinous acts? Recent research has found that part of the answer is believing that one has not lived to one's masculine ideals or that one's masculinity has been compromised or threatened.

Boys and men in the U. S. are not faring very well these days, according to a large number of indicators in educational and vocational attainment, health, mental health, and creating social problems such as gun violence. Psychological research strongly suggests that a big part of all of these problems is that young boys, in elementary school and even earlier, are made to feel that conforming to masculine norms is obligatory, and that they should feel ashamed of themselves if they violate these norms This gender role socialization process has been well-documented, and the long-lasting effects show up when adult men are asked to reveal their "top secret"—the thing they have never told anyone and never would. It turns out that many of these shameful secrets reflect their own violation of masculine norms when they were boys. The APA Practice Guidelines for Men and Boys provides guidance to psychologists to help them understand the gender role socialization of boys and its consequences and provides tools to help boys and men who want to overcome the lingering effects of their socialization to do so.

Many of the guidelines' critics offer no solutions to help men and boys manage the social pressures and consequences of gender role socialization. Instead, they attack our methodology and our message. To be clear, psychologists did not create restrictive masculine norms, we simply observed and described them using psychological science over many decades to help men and boys live happier, healthier lives.

In other words, the guidelines relayed a message that is clearly reflected in the data—the way we socialize young boys into men can lead to problems when men are not able to be flexible in what they believe it means to be a man. Rather than providing solutions to these issues, however, the critics would much rather wage war on the messengers.

Ronald F. Levant is noted for his leading role in creating the field of the psychology of men and masculinities. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Ryon McDermott is the president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinities, a division of the American Psychological Association.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.