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Masculinity Is Not Toxic, But It Might Be Diseased

Masculinity is a fluid concept. When it fails to evolve from traditional gender norms, though, researchers call this mascupathy — and they treat it like a disease.

Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963 because believed women were suffering and it needed a name. When psychotherapist Randy Flood founded the Men’s Resource Center in Grand Rapids Michigan in 2000, he realized the same was true for men. They are suffering because of an outdated idea of what it means to be a man that no longer works. A decade before the phrase “toxic masculinity” became ubiquitous in the broader culture, Flood and his colleagues came up with a more clinical term: Mascupathy. 

“I don’t care what we call it, some people call it toxic masculinity. We need to name it for what it is so that men are inspired to work on developing a more balanced form of masculinity,” Flood explains. “This is our way of talking about a pathological form of masculinity that’s not healthy, fit, or whole for the world we live in.” 

The notion that masculinity in some forms might be diseased unsurprisingly pissed a lot of men off, at least initially. Masculinity is an integral part of the male identity that boys learn to perform, protect, and defend at all costs at a young age. Flood’s attempts to pathologize (and to some, even police) masculinity were perceived as a threat. People initially thought he hated men and was trying to emasculate them.

“We think masculinity is a wonderful part of humanity,” Flood, who co-authored the book Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing The Malaise of American Manhood in 2014, says. “We just believe that there is a disease process that goes on when we raise boys to cut off half of their humanity in order to pursue the pinnacle of masculinity.”

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Like a growing amount of mental health professionals, academics, and thought leaders Flood is not trying to get rid of masculinity, but upgrade it in order to make it work better for men and everyone around them. Flood explains how increased emotional intelligence, community, and humility among men can help with that. 

There is something about the word masculinity that makes men instantly defensive. How do you get around this in your work with mascupathy?

Language is so triggering for people, and depending on where they’re at in terms of the whole process of understanding gender constructs and such, I may not even use the word we coined. Instead, we’ll talk about the statistics: Women are graduating from college at higher levels, the male suicide rate is four times that of women, men have a harder time moving out of their parents’ homes than women. There are so many statistics that are telling us that men are struggling. Ninety-eight percent of mass shooters are men, but when there is a shooting we don’t talk about men’s mental health. We talk about mental health in general, or we talk about gun control. If women were shooting at the rate men were, I guarantee we’d be asking about what’s going on with our girls. We’d have a public health strategy for addressing it, but we’re not doing that with men. 

Sometimes those statistics are used by groups like Proud Boys and Men’s Rights Activists to blame feminism or liberalism for men’s problems. Have you run into this? 

They are essentially trying to explain the statistics with a different construct or idea. They’re saying that those statistics tell us that feminist belief systems, immigration, and the more diversity we have in the world is marginalizing men, in particularly white males. But we’re seeing these statistics that societies are becoming sicker and sicker and men are suffering as a result of it. So it’s just a different framework for looking at the same statistics. 

“Ninety-eight percent of mass shooters are men, but when there is a shooting we don’t talk about men’s mental health. We talk about mental health in general, or we talk about gun control.”

So how do you convince men who feel marginalized that outdated masculine norms are responsible for this instead?

If we’re in a service economy, instead of a manufacturing-based economy, in order to be employable you have to have emotional and relational intelligence in order to be able to function in that economy, then you better be teaching boys how to have those skills. Otherwise, you’re going to see them failing to launch and learn the requisite skills to thrive. Then people will argue that we need to just create more manufacturing jobs, then we’ll have more jobs for men, but there will always be those kinds of jobs for men. There will always be different types of skilled labor. The skills trade sector is struggling to recruit people to do those types of specialized labor. So there’s a need for that, but it’s not a zero-sum game. A lot of people think it’s immigration that’s taking jobs, but we’re trending towards a lot of artificial intelligence and robotics taking jobs that men used to use their bodies for. That trend is saying men need to have more than brawn to function in society. Our society requires more human skills that robots cannot do. 

How does Mascupathy work?

With mascupathy there are four domains:

The first domain is a weak self-concept. Fundamentally, many men feel inadequate as men because the ideal man is not attainable. They may feel adequate today after winning the softball tournament, but tomorrow it all starts over. They might get recognized in their profession, but that doesn’t help you tomorrow because tomorrow you’re performing masculinity day-in and day-out. That’s why the first domain is a weak self-concept.

The second one is inadequate emotionality, or emotional literacy. We train boys to turn away from emotions and see emotions as weakness, so they don’t want anything to do with emotions. And any sadness, fear, loneliness, or anxiety gets transformed into anger because anger is a masculine emotions. You don’t talk about emotions because that’s what women do. 

The third domain of mascupathy is relational deficiencies. We have this idea that we’re rugged individualists and a mature man is someone who doesn’t need others. That’s not true. Everything we know about psychology, humanity, and social sciences is that we do need others, we do function better as a community, we are pack animals. 

Finally, the fourth domain is externalization. We train boys and men to act out their feelings. That which you don’t talk out you act out. That’s why you see more criminal behavior in men. You see more shootings in men. You see more bar fights and domestic violence in men because we train men not to talk about what is going on inside of them, but to pass their pain onto others.   

“We don’t assume someone who’s advocating for clean water or air is anti-water and air. That’s how people treat masculinity.”

Mascupathy seems to require therapy to treat it, and yet therapy avoidance seems like it would be a symptom of mascupathy. Is this accurate? 

It is true that women have been the primary consumers of mental health counseling and it’s not because women have more problems than men. It is because it’s not antithetical to being female to ask for help. It’s not unfeminine to know that we are better individuals when we live in a community and share our emotions and problems. For men, it’s just another form of failure and weakness to say they need help for a mental or emotional problem. At the Men’s Resource Center, we really help men revision masculinity and realize they ask for help on their golf swings and financial portfolios. It’s also an act of wisdom and courage to ask for help for other kinds of complex emotional problems. 

How do you get men to ask for help?

We try to expand their definition of what it means to ask for help. When they go to war, it’s very clear that they need the help of their platoon to keep everyone safe. They have this idea that they are not warriors in and of themselves, but when it comes to their own mental well-being men think they can make it alone and the ones who don’t are weak. So a lot of men secretly feel inadequate. 

I’ve read that men may respond group therapy may be more helpful for men than individual therapy. Is this true? 

Group therapy helps because men are socialized in what we call “the man pack” to believe that men are to make it on their own. Developmental psychologist Niobe Way talks about how in middle school, boys turn away from their male friends for intimacy and begin to pursue intimacy through sexuality. So if you get men in a therapy group and there are other men who are their peers who have been working at the process of personal growth longer, they’re the ones who are going to have the power and respect to talk to other men about the benefits of getting connected to their heart and other people’s hearts, and that doesn’t make them weak. I can connect with compassion and that doesn’t emasculate me, that humanizes me. Men get that more in a group process than when they have a therapist telling them what it means to be healthy. They don’t buy it, they don’t trust it, and they don’t make progress, so there’s a huge attrition rate for men in mental health services. 

Are there any areas where men are making more progress than others?

Look at the change in the role men are playing as dads. It used to be that being a father meant you were providing clothes on their backs, food on the table, and a roof over their head. But now men need to provide nurturing and other forms of support beyond economics. Being able to help men see how much fathering has evolved in such a significant way — my dad wasn’t even allowed in the delivery room. 

“For many men, their weakest part is emotional intelligence and relational intimacy, so why not spend time working on that?”

Where can progress be made? How can men keep working towards a healthier from of masculinity?

When we talk about toxic water and toxic air, we don’t assume someone who’s advocating for clean water or air is anti-water and air. That’s how people treat masculinity. You don’t go to a cardiologist who treats cardiomyopathy and say he hates hearts, that’s why he went into the business. It’s really hard to get people to understand what we’re trying to do. For myself, I played baseball in college, I grew up hunting and fishing, and I’ve competed in triathlons in my adult life. I do traditionally masculine things, but I also participate in a men’s group, see a therapist, attend retreats. All the things we’re trying to get men to work on I’ve worked on myself as a man.

And what have you learned from this that you want men to understand the most?

When you’re trying to help men cross-train, the way you would for a triathlon but with a different party of their humanity, you have to work on where you have the weakest performance. I hated swimming, so I had to spend more time in the pool. For many men, their weakest part is emotional intelligence and relational intimacy, so why not spend time working on that? It’s not going to make you bad at construction work.