Boys Will Be Boys?
Recently a men’s shaving company started running an advertisement admonishing men to “shave their toxic masculinity.” As I watched it, my initial thought was that yes, we should speak out against bullying and sexual harassment. But as I thought about it more, I found myself increasingly disturbed by it.
One of the scenes is at a large gathering of men and boys at a barbeque, and two boys were on the ground wrestling with each other. The men at the event all say, “boys will be boys.” Here is my problem, rough housing and wrestling was something my boys enjoyed when they were younger, and when we get together in the pool some of it still happens. Yet the ad conflates this behavior with bullying and other immoral behavior. I have never heard the expression, “boys will be boys” used to excuse really bad behavior, such as rape or sexual harassment. We say this when a boy face plants off the couch or starts a snow ball fight with his friends.
Then I thought about some of the other images in the advertisement. What exactly does this company mean by the undertone of “toxic masculinity.” The way I have heard the term used it seems to be denigrating all men. We would never do this to women, we would never say “these women are behaving badly, so all women, or all feminity is bad. Yes there are men who behave badly, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to name two who have been in the headlines. And they should be held accountable for their actions. But these are a small minority of men, and it seems odd to me that those in the entertainment industry and other associates stayed silent for so long about what was taking place.
In case you think I am overstating my concerns, we now have the American Psychological Association defining “traditional masculinity” as harmful, or to put it in their terms, a “pathological state.” In a press release, the APA asserts flatly that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” The APA claims that masculinity is to blame for the oppression and abuse of women. So three cheers to the APA for demonizing masculinity as a whole as opposed to providing a balanced perspective that embraces its positive aspects while calling out the negative aspects which are sometimes seen in some men.
Commenting on this in the Wall Street Journal, psychologist Erica Komisar says, “The report encourages clinicians to evaluate masculinity as an evil to be tamed, rather than a force to be integrated. “Although the majority of young men may not identify with explicit sexist beliefs,” it states, “for some men, sexism may become deeply engrained in their construction of masculinity.” The association urges therapists to help men “identify how they have been harmed by discrimination against those who are gender nonconforming”—an ideological claim transformed into a clinical treatment recommendation.”
She goes on to note that masculine traits, including aggression, competitiveness, and protective vigilance can be positive and have a basis in biology. Males produce far more testosterone, and this is connected biologically and behaviorally with increased aggression and competitiveness. Males also produce more of a hormone called vasopressin. This hormone makes men aggressively protective of their loved ones. In contrast to men, women have more feminine traits such as nurture and emotional sensitivity. Women produce more oxytocin which makes them more sensitive and empathetic. Men also have oxytocin which makes men more playful, tactually stimulating with their children, encouraging resilience. These differences result in the mother and father complementing each other as they nurture raise their children.
Dr. Komisar concludes with some important observations. She states, “What’s unhealthy isn’t masculinity or femininity but the demeaning of masculine men and feminine women. The first of the new APA guidelines urges psychologists “to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms,” as if biology had nothing to do with it. Another guideline explicitly scoffs at “binary notions of gender identity as tied to biology.” From a mental-health perspective, it can be beneficial for women to embrace masculine traits and for men to express feminine ones. Every person will have some mix of the two. But that doesn’t change the reality that women tend to be feminine and men tend to be masculine. Why can’t the APA acknowledge biology while seeing femininity and masculinity on a spectrum? To be sure, the cult of manhood can be harmful when taken to extremes. Teaching boys—or girls, for that matter—that they should always be stoic, keep their feelings inside and never allow themselves to be vulnerable is a recipe for mental illness. But so is telling boys that aggression, competitiveness and protectiveness is a sign of sickness. The same is true of telling girls that their desire to nurture children is shameful.
We don’t need a shaving company to tell us to raise my sons not to be bullies, or to mistreat women. And the APA is simply wrong to condemn what it calls “traditional masculinity.” Obviously there are some changes happening in the US that are good, to work to stop bullying and sexual harassment, but we don’t need the media to tell us what they should be in light of their track record. The vast majority of men are men that treat women equally and with respect. And it is long overdue that men get the same respectful treatment that we give to all other demographics. Let’s encourage men to be the best that they can be, without denigrating masculinity in the process.