The Masculinity Trap: A Science-Based Response to the APA Guidelines By Michael Gurian on 2/27/19 - 12:45 PM

Andrew was a 13-year-old boy who walked into my counseling office with a lot of issues. He had been diagnosed with a learning disorder and ADD, and his parents felt he might be depressed. Like many male clients, he would quickly decide if I as his potential counselor knew how to work with him as a male. If I did not, he would start trying to leave therapy in a few weeks or less.

After normal intake, the first thing we did together was walk outside, talking shoulder-to-shoulder. Because the male brain is often cerebellum-dependent (it often needs physical movement) in order to connect words to feelings and memories, we sat down only after our walk was finished. By then, a great deal had happened emotionally for Andrew.

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Once in our chairs, we talked with a ball in hand, tossing it back and forth, like fathers often do with children. This cerebellum and spatial involvement help the male brain move neuro-transmission between the limbic system and frontal lobe, where word centers are. We also used visual images, including video games, to trigger emotion centers, and we discussed manhood and masculinity a great deal, since Andrew, like every boy, yearns for mentoring in the human ontology of how to be a man.

I’ve seen hundreds of girls and women in my therapy practice. Few of them needed walking, physical movement and visual-spatial stimulation to help access memories, emotions, and feelings because most girls are better able to access words-for-feelings than boys and men are while sitting still. Girls and women have language centers on both sides of the brain connected to memory, emotion, and sensorial data, while the male brain mainly has word centers and word-feeling connectivity on the left side.

Without our realizing it over the last fifty years, we’ve set up counseling and psychological services for girls and women. “Come into my office,” we say kindly. “Sit down. Tell me how you feel/felt.” Boys and men fail out of counseling and therapy because we have not taught our psychologists and therapists about the male and female brain. Only 15% of new counselors are male. Clients in therapy skew almost 80% female–males are dragged in by moms or spouses, but generally find an environment unequipped for the nature of males.

Male nature, the male brain, and the need to contextualize boyhood into an important masculine journey to manhood are missing from the American Psychological Association’s new “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” While the document calls attention to male developmental needs and crises in our culture, which I celebrate as a researcher and practitioner in the field, it then falls into an ideological swamp.

Males, we are told, are born with dominion created by their inherent privilege; females (and males) are victims of this male privilege. The authors go further to discuss what they see as the main problem facing males—too much masculinity. They call it the root of all or most male issues including suicide, early death, depression, substance abuse, family breakups, school failure, and violence. They claim that fewer males than females seek out therapy or stay in therapy and health services because of “masculinity.” Never is the skewed female-friendly mental health environment discussed. The assumption that all systems skew in favor of males, not females, is so deeply entrenched in our culture today, the APA never has to prove it.

Perhaps most worrisome, the APA should be a science-based organization, but its guidelines lack hard science. Daniel Amen, Ruben and Raquel Gur, Tracey Shors, Louanne Brizendine, Sandra Witelson, Richard Haier, Laurie Allen, and the hundreds of scientists worldwide who use brain scan technology to understand male/female brain difference do not appear in the new Guidelines. Practitioners like myself and Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, who have conducted multiple studies in the practical application of neuroscience to male nurturance in schools, homes, and communities are not included.

Included are mainly socio-psychologists who push the idea that boys and men are socialized into “masculinities” that destroy male development. Stephanie Pappas on the APA website sums up the APA’s enemy; “Traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” Our job as therapists, the authors teach, should be to remove all but the ideologically sound “masculinities” from boys and men, and specifically remove masculinities that involve competition, aggression, strength, and power.

How much longer can our society and its professionals pretend we are developing a saner society by condemning the very parts of males that help them succeed, heal, and grow? In the same way that it is misogynistic to claim femininity is inherently flawed, it is misandrist to claim that masculinity is also thus.

And it is just plain wrong. Stoicism, aggression, self-reliance, and strength are helpful to human growth, healing, and self-development. Steven Pinker recently made this point when he asked the APA to revise its Guidelines, and put to rest “the folk theory that masculine stoicism is harmful.” And, a new study published in January 2019 in Psychology of Men and Masculinities, echoes Pinker, showing that boys and men who adhere to masculine training do better in life, are happier, and become better husbands, fathers, and partners.

I am an example: I was a sexual abuse victim in my boyhood, and a very sensitive boy. My ten years of healing from the abuse came as much from tapping into masculine strength as it did from expanding my sense of self in the 1970s toward the feminine. Both are good; neither is zero-sum, but I could not have healed without the very masculinity Pappas finds suspect.

Part of the problem with the APA guidelines is that, from a neuroscience point of view, masculinity is not as limited as Pappas’ assessment would have us believe. Masculinity is a social construct made of biological material, an amalgam of nature, nurture, and culture that forms an ontology in which a male of any race, creed, or ethnicity commits to developing and exercising strength, perseverance, work, love, honor, compassion, responsibility, character, service, and self-sacrifice.

What professional in the psychology field would not want to embolden these characteristics? Most fathers and mothers would want counselors to embolden them because, as the APA authors themselves point out (somewhat unaware, I think, of their self-contradiction), fathering and mentoring boys in masculine development has been proven among the most important determinants of child safety, school success, and emotional and physical health.

Not the erasure of masculinity but the accomplishment of it is required if we are to save our sons from the crises outlined in the APA guidelines. Without counselors and parents understanding how to raise and protect brain-based masculine development, boys like Andrew drift in and out of video games, depression, substances, half-love, and, often, violence.

As all of us in our profession know, the most dangerous males in the world are not those who feel powerful but, rather, those who feel powerless. “Toxic masculinity” is a convenient academic avenue for condemning males who search for strength, healing, and love by conflating things bad men do with an ontology that is necessary for human survival and thriving.

The masculine journey is not perfect and expanding what “masculine,” “male power,” and “man” mean to a given family and person is a point well made by the APA authors, but trying to hook mental health professionals into this ideological trinity of false ideas—

*masculinity is the problem, always on the verge of toxicity
*males do not need nurturing in male-specific ways because men have it all in society anyway; and
*masculinity is not an ontology, a way of healthy being, but a form of oppression,

—ignores one of the primary reasons for the existence of our psychology profession: not just to help girls, women, and everyone on the gender spectrum be empowered and find themselves, but also to help boys and men find their strength, their purpose, and their success in what will be, for them, a complex male and masculine journey through an increasingly difficult lifespan.


Amen, D.G.,, “Women Have More Active Brains Than Men." August 7, 2017 Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease

Halpern, D.F.,, “The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest. August 8, 2007

Burman, D.,, "Sex Differences in Neural Processing of Language Among Children." March 2007. Neuropsychologia

Benedict Carey, “Need Therapy: A Good Man Is Hard to Find.New York Times. May 21,2011

APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men

Stephanie Pappas, “APA issues first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys.APA Monitor. January 2019

Steven Pinker. Male Psychology: What is Wrong with APA’s Masculinity Guidelines.

Psychology of Men and Masculinities

Coalition to Create a White House Council on Boys and Men’s meta-study

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Child & Adolescent Therapy