Crisis of masculinity? Time for psychologists to study men
February 16, 2011
For two years clinical psychologist Martin Seager has tried without success to get the British Psychological Society (BPS) to approve setting up a specialist men’s section to promote the study of male gender issues.
He outlines why, in a post-feminist society and where almost all prisoners are male, psychologists and the BPS should focus more on men's psychology.
Introduction and background:
An examination of the academic research and literature on the subject of gender within the field of psychology and social science reveals a highly significant statistical difference between the attentions dedicated to studies of the female gender as compared to the male.
In particular, there are less than 10 social science journals (e.g. “Men & Masculinities – Sage) that deal exclusively with issues that affect men, whereas there are over 40 such journals dealing exclusively with issues that affect women.
Given that the male and female genders have clearly evolved together in inter-relationship over aeons of time and given that the whole concept of gender is by definition based on a dyadic system of female and male, this imbalance in research activities is in itself of great scientific interest.
A true “psychology of people” (1) would require that any imbalance is addressed in the interest of promoting the scientific understanding of all sectors of our society.
This gender imbalance in the scientific community is matched by equally striking gender imbalances elsewhere in our society. For example, in the UK there is a minister for women but no minister for men, despite urgent calls for one.
The suicide rate (2) for men has for several decades been at least three times higher than that for women. To this day, national statistics show that men die significantly younger (3) than women. Men are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol (4) than women. Men make up the vast majority of single homeless persons (5). Nearly all prisoners in the UK are male (6) and the majority of these prisoners have mental health problems which means in effect that our prisons are highly populated with males who need help with their mental health.
In our schools girls are now regularly outperforming boys academically. Men and women still to this day have different employment conditions and parental rights. There are very few gender-specific health services for men in the UK but a great many for women.
There is in post-feminist Britain as elsewhere an inevitable tension between the need to honour the principle of sexual equality and the need to recognise genuine gender differences.
Even the make-up of our own profession reflects significant gender differences without any deliberate intent. There is a great disparity between the numbers of males and females coming into the fields of applied clinical, counselling and health psychology, women outnumbering men significantly.
These striking statistical gender differences are indisputable empirically because they are based on simple and consistent quantitative measurement. Such figures are consistently reported across a whole array of data sources, including scientific journals, books, broadcast media, magazines and mental health websites.
It is not hard to explain some of these differences in general terms. Most obviously, in a “male dominated” society women have long been disempowered politically and socially. From the age of the enlightenment (latter 18th Century) onwards there was a growing awareness amongst more enlightened women of their disadvantaged position in society. This has led to the birth and development of feminist thinking and feminist activism which has rightly pressured society to change.
Society has rightly responded to this pressure but this has not so far resulted in a balanced examination of the genders.
Even to this day, the study of gender is largely synonymous with the study of women’s issues in the same way that the study of ethnicity is largely synonymous with the study of ethnic minority issues.
It can be argued, therefore, that being in the “dominant” group or in the majority carries with it its own risk of invisibility, quite different from that of being in a disadvantaged group but no less real.
There are two genders and they cannot properly be understood except in the context of each other. In our post-feminist society, where “male domination” has arguably now been properly addressed both politically and socially, there is now even more need than ever to examine the psychology of the male.
Some authors, even including feminists such as Camille Puglia (7) and Kathleen Parker (8), are now arguing that there is a “crisis of masculinity”. Researching into this and other important questions must be a primary responsibility of psychological science.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) clearly, therefore, as the leading body for psychological science in the UK is well placed to take a lead on this.
What would be the purpose and functions of a BPS section on “The Psychology of the Male Gender”?
The sections of the BPS have been developed to promote research into and awareness of important areas of psychology that may otherwise be neglected.
A “men’s section” of the BPS would clearly serve the following purposes:
- To promote the scientific study and understanding of the psychology of the male gender and to disseminate this knowledge more widely in society
- To raise awareness of the gender-specific pressures affecting the psychological health, education, development and well-being of men and boys in our society
- To study and understand the impact of fathering on our society and to address factors that may influence and develop better fathering
- To develop a robust and accessible body of knowledge around male psychology that can help to illuminate and demystify the subject for the rest of society
- To become a focus for improved and more rounded teaching programmes for students and trainee psychologists (and others) across the UK on male gender issues
- To provide a more complete evidence-base on areas of significant gender difference (for example suicide rates, addictions, crime rates)to help educators, policy makers, the media and other opinion-formers make more informed decisions in relation to male citizens
- To promote conferences, seminars, broadcasts, publications and other educational events that will help to promote healthy attitude change across society in relation to the male gender
What would the research topics be for a section on the psychology of the male gender?
Obvious important research topics would include:
Why the need for a “Men’s Section” of the BPS?
- Fathering – the role of the father in the development of male and female children
- Gender and role expectations for males in a post-feminist world
- Health – gender differences in patterns of physical and mental disorder; male-specific responses to stress; male attitudes to illness; male help-seeking behaviour; the development of male-oriented services and methods of treatment for health problems
- Suicide – understanding why males are more extreme in their suicidal behaviour and developing gender-specific methods for helping males to become less vulnerable
- Addictions – exploring gender differences in the use of drugs to deal with emotional distress
- Eating disorders in men - exploring the differences and commonalities with female sufferers
- Male victims of sexual abuse – looking at how the experience of abuse in childhood might impact differently upon males and implications for their support and treatment
- Male victims of domestic violence – how being a victim of physical abuse within a couple relationship might impact differently on males and implications for intervention
- Aggression and violence – exploring the relationship between emotional distress, male gender “scripts” and aggressive acts
- Male culture and socialisation – exploring masculinities as a range of male identities beyond an essentialist single notion of masculinity
- Gender differences in school performance; understanding and improving how boys learn so as to inform the development of improved gender-specific educational methods
- If the society wishes to advance our understanding of gender issues then the same arguments for a men’s section must apply as were successful in leading to the formation of a women’s section
- There are obvious and important gender differences in the UK (see above) as in other societies that require urgent research and investigation. In one obvious sense of course, gender differences are to be expected and valued. Men and women may be equal but they are certainly not the same nor would this be desirable. For example, the whole basis of gender is sex. By definition, sex requires gender differentiation in biological and evolutionary terms. The psychology of sexual attraction can only continue to be based upon the age-old allure and excitement of difference in gender image and identity. Even homosexual couples differentiate themselves according to more “masculine” and “feminine” types. However, many observed gender differences (including the suicide rate, addiction rate and the crime rate) are not so acceptable. Why should one gender be apparently so much more extreme or desperate in its behaviours than the other?
Explanations for these and other important questions will not so easily be forthcoming without an active impetus from the body responsible for leading on psychological science, teaching and research in the UK, the BPS. A section could help to provide a much needed impetus and profile to the study of gender issues from the male perspective.
- Given that the whole academic culture surrounding the study of gender has derived so much impetus from feminist thinking and activism, there has been an understandable lack of research into gender from the male perspective. This imbalance also (ironically) has been further reinforced by a real difference in the genders in their capacity to expose vulnerabilities, reflect on feelings and express personal needs. Men do not like to dwell too much on “what it feels like to be a man” as this in itself could be said to threaten a sense of masculine identity. This has undoubtedly also led to the relative lack of male-on-male research and writing. Of course, there are notable publications (mostly in the USA) on the subject of male psychology (9) but there is as yet no comprehensive mainstream body of knowledge on male gender issues that can compare to feminist scholarship.
- There is already widespread support across the BPS for such a section
Psychological science at its best should fulfill the role of investigating, studying and illuminating the full spectrum and diversity of the human condition.
The psychology of the male gender remains to this day a significantly less charted area of academic study than the psychology of the female gender. This is partly because as a “dominant” group, men have not appeared either to themselves or to women to be an urgent subject of study.
Also, it is arguably a characteristic of the male gender to be less reflective and psychologically minded and this may also partly account for the fact that there has so far been no great body of male scholarship on the subject of male psychology.
If anything, the initiative in closing this gap has so far been taken more by a certain subsection of feminist thinkers and writers than by male authors.
The formation of a new men’s section within the British Psychological Society would help to close this gap further within the UK at least and would help to advance our knowledge of male psychology.
This would in turn give a lead to other groups within society and would contribute to a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of both genders and their inter-relationship for the betterment of all.
- Bronstein, P. and Quina, K. (Eds.) (1988) “Teaching a psychology of people: Resources for Gender and Sociocultural Awareness” – Washington DC, American Psychological Association
- According to the Office for National Statistics (2007, Mortality Statistics, Series DH2, No. 32) in 2005 the suicide rate for men (averaged across all age groups) was 12.3 per 100,000, exactly 3 times higher than that for women (4.1 per 100,000).
- The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (October 2009) show that in England the average life expectancy for men is 77.7 years and for women 81.9 years, a gender gap of more than 4 years
- Tobacco, Alcohol & Drug Use & Mental Health: Report based on ONS Survey, Coulthard et al (2000)
- Single Homelessness: An Overview of Research in Britain. Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Peter Kemp and Susanne Klinker (2000) The Policy Press and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
- In 2003 males made up 94% of the total prison population in the UK (Office for National Statistics)
- Vamps & Tramps (1994), Vintage Books
- Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care (2008), Random House Books (New York)
- See under “further references” below
Ashmore, R.D. & Del Bosa, F.K. (Eds.) (1985) Social Psychology of Male-Female Relations: A Critical Analysis of Central Concepts, Elsevier Books
Biddulph, S. (1995) Manhood, an Action Plan for Changing Men’s Lives (2nd Edition),
Finch, SydneyBly, R. (1990) Iron John: A Book about Men, Addison-Wesley, New York
Clare, A. (2000) On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, Chatto & Windus
Connell, R.W (1995) Masculinities, University of California Press
Farrell, W. (1974) The Liberated Man, New York, Berkley Books
Farrell, W. (1988) Why Men are the Way they Are: the Male-Female Dynamic, New York, Berkley Books
Farrell, W. (2001) The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex, New York, Berkley Books
Gray, J. (1992) Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Harper Collins
Jukes, A. E. (1999) Men who Batter Women, Routledge
Kimmel, M, Hearn, J.R & Connell, R.W (2005) Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, Sage
Pollack, W. (2003) A New Psychology of Men, Basic Books
Samuels, A. (ed.) (1985) The Father: Contemporary Jungian Perspectives, London, Free Association Books
Schoenberg, B. Mark (1993) Growing Up Male: The Psychology of Masculinity, Bergin & Garvey
Shamir, M. & Travis, J. (2002) Boys Don’t Cry? Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity & Emotion in the US, Columbia University Press
Trowell, J. & Etchegoyen, A. (2001) The Importance of Fathers: A Psychoanalytic Re-evaluation (Series -The New Library of Psychoanalysis, 42), Taylor & Francis
* Martin Seager is a consultant clinical psychologist and head of psychology at North East London Mental Health Trust
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