Who are the Helots of Modern Masculinity?

The American Psychology Association’s (APA) recently published Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men. These recommendations have raised questions from conservative commentators in the United States about whether psychological practice is turning being male into a mental illness.

Worth noting at the start, there are Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women. So, fundamentally, these two guidelines are acknowledging that different genders, as socially-constructed identities, have different cultures and psychological elements, and they should be treated differently in order to reduce harm. Most conservatives probably agree with that point.

In the interests of gender parity, if gendered differences are enough to have girls and women have their own set of guidelines, then it only makes sense that boys and men should have guidelines as well. The treatment of women have had principles for treating women since 1976. One question is: why did it take the profession so long to come out with a set of guidelines for boys and men?

The fact that there are guidelines does not seem to be the controversial part. The part that conservatives are objecting to is the content that identifies systemic problems of patriarchy as psychologically shaping boys and men in negative ways. Conservatives focus on masculine virtues such as strength, bravery, stoicism and so forth, but they focus only on their positive attributes. These virtues have negative aspects. Bravery in one situation is foolishness in another.

For example, while there are advantages to “the stiff upper lip” of Sparta and the kind of discipline their way of life inculcated into their male population, there are also disadvantages. Sparta was a regimented, military state. They were focused on physical strength over other qualities. Most problematic, their way of life was predicated on slavery of the majority of their population, the helots. No helots, no Spartans.

More generally, a focus on physicality and on mastering emotions such as fear creates individuals that are training to sublimate their emotions and to respond to challenge with physical aggression. Sure, there are contexts where these are valuable virtues and useful skills to develop, but like everything, there is a price to be paid. It is not an unqualified good.

This is precisely what the APA’s guidelines are trying to address. Baked into male culture are not only virtues but also harms, many of which are psychological in nature. This is also true of female culture, although it is less systemic, and therefore, it involves less harm. Psychologists have an obligation to reduce or mitigate the harms of gendered enculturation to the best of their ability as part of their practice.

Acknowledging that there are elements of modern masculinity that are harmful is the first step in reducing that harm. But, we all have trouble acknowledging our faults and weaknesses. No one wishes to believe that they are a bad person. Although if we are honest with ourselves, we can each acknowledge that the seeds of evil and/or bad behavior are in our own heart as much as in anyone else’s. To deny that fundamental fact and that we are part of the problem is to entertain idealized notions of ourselves that not only harm us but others.

Who are the helots of modern masculinity? Wouldn’t it be just to set them free? Slavery harms everyone it touches, Masters live in fear and that fear harms society as a whole, transmogrifying it to a grotesquerie.