New APA Guidelines Stir Debate Over What It Means To Be a Man in America

Feb 4, 2019

The American Psychological Association has issued new guidelines for understanding and treating the unique problems faced by men.

The project took more than a decade to complete and was launched by a researcher at the University of Akron.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair examines the evolving definition of what it means to be a man in America.

I’m sitting down with University of Akron professor emeritus Ron Levant…to watch a commercial.

It’s an ad by Gillette that nowhere shows a razor blade. 

Instead, the ad takes on traditional masculinity, and responds to the MeToo movement with messages against bullying, cat-calling, and shaming women.

The ad challenges men to do better, “because the boys watching today, will be the men of tomorrow.”

“This went into the epicenter of the culture wars,” says Levant, a psychologist who focuses on treating men’s issues.

He says the ad garnered criticism from conservative commentators, including Heather Zumarraga on Fox News, complaining it was bashing men.

“Liberalism is so potent right now," says Zumarraga, "that a company is willing to alienate 50 percent of their client base.”

Procter and Gamble, by the way, decided not to run the ad during the Super Bowl.

But Levant believes the Gillette ad reveals changing attitudes about what it means to be a man. 

What it means to be a man 
“There’s a cultural definition of masculinity in this country that hasn’t really changed  much since the World War II era," says Levant.

Ron Levant is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and the author of 10 books on treating men's issues. His latest book, "Freeing Men from the Prison of Masculinity to Counter Sexual and Gun Violence" is due out later this year.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

"It involves standards such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, avoiding anything that’s feminine, putting a great deal of emphasis on sexuality, having disdain for gay and bi-sexual men, and aggression.”

Levant developed a survey that measures where a man falls on the spectrum from macho on one end to metrosexual on the other.

The Male Role Norms Inventory gauges your opinions on everything from sexual orientation to car repair skills.

You can take the test HERE.

Levant says while popular culture holds models for masculine behavior, from John Wayne to James Bond, his research paints another picture.

“Most men don’t endorse most of the norms," says Levant, "they find a way to live with themselves. We have to.”

He says problems arise when some men cling too tightly to imposed masculine ideals.

“I would not say that men are harmful. I would not say that masculinity on the whole is harmful. I would say that men who strongly endorse traditional masculine norms are likely to experience harmful outcomes to themselves and their family.”

And this is where the new American Psychological Association guidelines come into play.

Toward a better understanding
Levant was president of the APA in 2005 when he realized that too many assumptions were being made about what ‘normal’ male behavior was.

He launched an effort to help psychologists work with men and boys across the entire masculinity spectrum and deal with the very real problems that traditional masculine ideals like stoicism, dominance, and aggression create in men’s lives.

Fredric Rabinowitz, psychology professor at the University of Redlands in California oversaw the 13 year project.

“So when the prison population is 90 percent male, when men are dying five to seven years before women, when men have four times the suicide rate of women, when most violence is committed by men, and most victims of violence are men, there’s some question as to maybe we need to look at how men problem solve.”

Fredric Rabinowitz is a psychologist and professor at the University of Redlands. His most recent research publication resulted from 13 years of work as a key architect and author of the American Psychological Association's first-ever "Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men."
Credit UNIVERSITY OF REDLANDS

Rabinowitz says men are taught at an early age not to express emotions, not to show vulnerability, and not given language to share feelings.

“It’s not that we don’t have emotions, it’s not that we don’t feel things," says Rabinowitz.  "It’s just that we haven’t learned a way to talk about them with ourselves and others.”

He says, the new APA guidelines published late last year, reflect the cultural shifts we’ve seen in the past decade where gay marriage is the law, women are in positions of power, and gender norms are shifting.

“Men, to survive in this era, need to adapt their skill set to be more in line with the reality around them.”

The University of Akron’s Ron Levant says men need to find the words to free themselves from what he calls “the prison of masculinity.”

And when words fail, he says, “learn to cry.”

The APA says it’s publishing a less-jargony, public-friendly version of its guidelines for men and boys later this year.