Why Does The APA Call "Traditional Masculinity" Harmful To Men And Boys?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated August 2, 2022

Note: We use “men” to refer to people who identify as men for this article.

Content warning: The following article mentions topics relating to domestic abuse, substance overuse, and suicide. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these, please reach out for help immediately. The following hotlines can be reached 24/7:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

The SAMHSA National Helpline (Substance Use) can be reached at 1-800-662-4357.

According to the American Psychological Association,for many years, psychological study focused mostly on men (white men, in particular). Now research has shown that traditional masculinity can be psychologically harmful and socializing boys to suppress their emotions can cause inward and outward harm.

In an effort to address these problems, in August of 2018, the American Psychological Association (APA), its president, and leadership released the first official “APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men” (numbers in parenthesis throughout this article refer to the pages in this document). The introduction section to these guidelines claims many significant downsides to the perpetuation of traditional masculinity. The guidelines themselves offer an outline for addressing toxic masculinity. They come at a time when the conviction of powerful Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault underscores the dangers of toxic masculinity. (Theterm refers to potentially dangerous societal standards for men.)

The harmful aspects of traditional masculinity ideology, as outlined by the APA’s guidelines, include the following:

  • Limiting males’ psychological development
  • Constraining males’ behavior
  • Gender role strain and conflict
  • Attachment insecurities
  • Violence to gender and sexually diverse people
  • Strained intimate relationship well-being
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Repression of emotion

Breaking down each issue on this eye-opening list from the guidelines forms a crucial part of APA’s argument that traditional masculinity harms men and boys.

This article will take a closer look at why the APA reached this judgment before providing an overview of their proposed guidelines and, lastly, addressing frequently asked questions (FAQ).

Harmful Aspects Of Traditional Masculinity Ideology

Are Masculine Standards Starting To Affect Your Mental Well Being?

In short, traditional masculinity ideology is the dominant form of masculinity, i.e., it “strongly influences what members of a culture take to be normative” (6). (In many cases, “normative” may be derived from the traditional dominance and stereotypes of white men in the US.) This dominant, or hegemonic, form consists of various “descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive cognitions about boys and men” (2).

These standards include “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” (3). The way that society perpetuates these male standards are diverse, from socialization (i.e., the way children are taught to behave in a way that society deems acceptable) to cultural and media representations.

Now, let’s break down harmful aspects of traditional masculinity ideology as discussed by the APA’s guidelines.

Limiting Males’ Psychological Development

Although there are no known substantial cognitive differences between men and women, boys and men experience a much greater likelihood of learning difficulties, such as lower standardized test scores, and behavior problems like bullying, aggression, and school suspensions (3).

Similarly, there are far more men than women in prison, as men are statistically more likely to commit violent crimes and be on the receiving end of them. It would thus appear that boys and men are being socialized in unhealthy ways in terms of traditional masculinity and aggression. Men of some ethnic minorities may also receive harsher punishments.

Regarding substance abuse and misuse, a national review shows that men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs. Illicit drug use is also more likely to result in emergency department visits for male patients as well as death due to overdose. The new guidelines of American Psychological Association may help promote healthier behaviors. 

Constraining Males’ Behavior

Traditional masculinity ideology both prescribes and condemns certain behaviors. As such, boys and men may feel like they cannot do what they want to do.

For example, a boy or young man may want to try ballet dancing rather than play football. Still, traditional masculinity ideology would consider the former “effeminate” and the latter “manly.”

The range of behaviors that men may deem appropriate or inappropriate based on traditional masculine ideals is immense. Boys and men may reject domestic labor such as cooking, doing laundry, or washing dishes, while feeling pressure to be the primary “breadwinner” in the family. All this limits what boys and men feel like they can do in the eyes of society.

Gender Role Strain And Conflict

Gender role conflict, or GRC, arises when people adhere to unhealthy gender roles. Masculine gender role strain involves four key areas: success, power, and competition; restrictive emotionality; restrictive affectionate behavior between men; and conflict between work and family relations (3). Some males may feel these four areas are stereotypically “more for women.”

Respectively, this means that males may: place an unhealthy emphasis on personal achievement or wielding power in general; experience discomfort when expressing emotional vulnerability; have difficulty caring for or affectionately touching other men, even just hugging; and experience distress in attaining a work-life balance and raising a family (3).

Attachment Insecurities

While there is a great diversity in parenting approaches dependent on location, culture, affluence, education, and more, many boys worldwide are socialized to reject intimacy and deep attachments with others.

Traditional masculinity ideology develops and exacerbates this by perpetuating the idea that boys and men need to be strong, independent individuals who can thrive on their own and don’t need help from anyone else.

Coupled with the difficulty of opening up emotionally, it’s no surprise that many boys develop an insecure attachment style and carry it well into adulthood.

Violence To Gender And Sexually Diverse People

In addition to showing greater tendencies toward violent behaviors in general, boys and men are also substantially more likely to carry out violence toward gender and sexually-diverse people. Traditional masculinity ideology teaches boys and men that anything beyond the “norm,” i.e., being cisgender and heterosexual, is deviant and deserving of disdain.

Sadly, some boys and men are socialized to cultivate such hatred for gender and sexually diverse people that they will commit violence against these people. In its report, the APA observes that “several controlled experiments have found that adult men who endorse sexist male role norms are likely to aggress against male and female participants who violate those norms” (9-10).

Strained Intimate Relationship Well-Being

In addition to a greater likelihood of committing violence against people who don’t adhere to the rigid gender roles accepted by traditional masculinity ideology, men who subscribe to this form of masculinity are also more likely to condone and commit partner and sexual violence toward women (10).

Men are also more likely than women to seek to control relationships through sexual behavior. Researchers speculate that men with attachment insecurities may justify their intimate partner violence by adhering to sexist gender role ideology regarding women (10).

Promiscuity And Other Risky Sexual Behaviors

A key part of traditional masculinity ideology involves the idea that it is masculine to take on risks. This permeates male behaviors across the board, from risky driving to a significantly lower likelihood of engaging in safe sex with strangers.In another example, “young male syndrome” refers to the propensity of males in their teens and early twenties to engage in violent altercations, according to the APA.

One study has shown that, overall, men participate “in fewer health-promoting behaviors [and] more risk-taking behaviors” (16).

Intimacy Problems

Men who abide by the dominant gender roles established by society tend to have greater difficulty establishing meaningful connections with other adults. Overall, traditional masculinity ideology drives fear of both intimacy and emotional vulnerability in men, which may be psychologically harmful.

According to one study, the gender role conflict faced by husbands is positively correlated with their wives’ depression. In general, intimate relationship well-being tends to suffer when the male partner subscribes to traditional, sexist ideas of masculinity (10).

Repression Of Emotion

Are Masculine Standards Starting To Affect Your Mental Well Being?

From a very early age, many boys and men are taught to reject feminine-associated traits and accept masculine-associated ones. A quick rundown of some common phrases said both to and by boys shows why this is the case: “boys don’t cry”; “throw like a girl”; “long hair is for girls”; “pink is for girls”; “boys will be boys”; etc.

A part of this rigid delineation between boys and girls is an insistence that boys and men should generally reject the show of emotion or vulnerability. As such, many boys begin repressing their emotions from an early age and continue this well into adulthood, which helps explain why far fewer men seek out therapy than women. Some men may not believe that therapy is an acceptable “male” practice.

The APA Guidelines For Psychological Practice With Boys And Men

While designed for psychologists, the APA’s guidelines can also be helpful for males in general so they know what guidelines their psychologists should adhere to. Here’s a quick overview of the guidelines:

  • Guideline 1 – Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms (6).
  • Guideline 2 – Psychologists strive to recognize that boys and men integrate multiple aspects to their social identities across the lifespan (7).
  • Guideline 3 – Psychologists understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men in their relationships with others (9).
  • Guideline 4 – Psychologists strive to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence the interpersonal relationships of boys and men (10).
  • Guideline 5 – Psychologists strive to encourage positive father involvement in the lives of children and healthy family relationships (12).
  • Guideline 6 – Psychologists strive to support educational efforts that are responsive to the needs of boys and men (13).
  • Guideline 7 – Psychologists strive to reduce the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives, such as aggression, violence, substance overuse, and suicide* (15).
  • Guideline 8 – Psychologists strive to help boys and men engage in health-related behaviors (16).
  • Guideline 9 – Psychologists strive to build and promote gender-sensitive psychological services (17).
  • Guideline 10 – Psychologists understand and strive to change institutional, cultural, and systemic problems that affect boys and men through advocacy, prevention, and education (19).

*If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and is available 24/7.

With psychologists keeping these guidelines in mind, boys and men should experience more comprehensive and beneficial therapy.

Inclusive Mental Healthcare Through BetterHelp

Through BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist who will be a good fit for you. Therapists on BetterHelp have experience working with people of different genders, racial and ethnic minorities, culture, sexual orientation, geographic location, and more. By following thoughtful APA guidelines, therapists can offer services that are inclusive and respect individuality. A therapist can help examine traditional norms and offer support to build healthy behaviors and emotions to promote positive traits and curb negative outcomes. The mental health and lives of men and boys can be strengthened through therapy.

Therapy through BetterHelp can be a comfortable, convenient way to connect with a licensed mental health professional. For example, you can have a therapy session by phone, video, or live chat from your own home or any place where you have a reliable internet or phone connection.

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists, from men facing different challenges.

“As a young man who has been trying to do things the “strong man” way, I was reluctant even to consider help. Then my father began to wither in front of me, and I knew I was in trouble. There are some things that no one should attempt to do on their own. Ray, I hope you understand that you reaching out to me is something I can’t thank you enough for.”

Summing Up 

We can see that traditional masculinity ideology creates a heavy burden on society. Boys and men experience struggle and pain from the consequences of this dominant ideology and, in turn, are trained to perpetuate it, causing a chain reaction that keeps this ideology intact from one generation to the next. New guidelines that address toxic masculinity can help society as a whole. Part of helping to overturn this toxic masculinity is accepting that men can be vulnerable and get help for their problems. If you could use help, it’s never been easier to get affordable, convenient counseling with BetterHelp.

Some commonly asked questions on this topic can be found below:

What is traditional toxic masculinity?
What are the four types of masculinity?
What is traditional masculinity and femininity?
What are the 7 parts of traditional masculinity ideology?
What are traditional masculine norms?
Is there a healthy masculinity?
What are examples of masculinity?
What is modern masculinity?
What is true masculinity?
What are examples of traditional gender roles?

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