Revisiting Masculinity in the Age of #MeToo

40 Years After Therapy's Feminist Corrective, More Clinicians Are Talking About Gender. Are You?

Lauren Dockett

We live in a time when problems like sexual harassment, rape on college campuses, slut-shaming, and the seemingly unabating pressure on women to conform to a single and unrealistic body type have gained a new visibility under the banner of #MeToo. The movement, which seemed almost to have sprung up overnight a few years ago and gained immediate traction, provided an umbrella of solidarity for millions of people to come forward with their often painful stories. And though it’s certainly been influenced by the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s, the differences between the two social waves may be more illuminating than the similarities.

To start, the outrage has been less questioned by the public, the pushback minimal. But as with the early days of ’70s feminism, therapists have struggled with how to get beyond acknowledging the movement’s importance to the question of how to actually address the highly charged issues it can raise in the therapy room. Also, some men and women who feel allied with the feminist movement, both of the past and the present, find the term feminism now sticks in their craw. The word feels underpinned by assumptions of a gender binary, an exclusionary subtext that reads “for women only.”

In fact, as #MeToo has gained prominence, many people have come to believe that it’s not only given renewed relevance to questions of gender equality, but has afforded an opportunity to shift from the us-versus-them polarization of the early feminist movement. The goal this time is a more encompassing conversation about the way society genders and is gendered that has profound implications for both men and women.

As couples therapist Esther Perel, author of the bestselling books Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, has said, “The lives of women will not change until the lives of men come along.”

Feminist Therapy’s Movers and Shakers

It’s been 40-odd years since the therapy field got its first feminist corrective. The most influential figures in that initial challenge to the status quo were the four members of the Women’s Project in Family Therapy—the brainchild of the outspoken family therapists and trainers Marianne Walters, Betty Carter, Peggy Pap, and Olga Silverstein—who, with a lively spirit and a visceral conviction, took aim at the sexist underpinnings of many of the male-authored theories and practices that they insisted reinforced patriarchal gender roles.

Until then, therapists, the majority of whom were women, had been trained in approaches that rarely questioned men’s roles as emotionally self-sufficient providers and protectors, and women as the nurturers who were responsible for the intimate raising of children and loving support of men. Of course, since in this arrangement the women’s primary job was supposed to be taking care of the husband’s and children’s emotional needs, she bore a larger share of the blame for any slip-ups or family dysfunction. It was often she whom clinicians asked to do the changing in therapy, while the role of fathers was minimized or ignored. Nothing drew the ire of the Women’s Project more than the implicit message of mother blaming in many therapeutic approaches.

Four decades after the Women’s Project appeared on the scene, today’s families look very different from what they were back then. Both partners working has become the norm—70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are in the labor force, with 75 percent of those working full time. The number of stay-at-home dads has risen to double what it was 20 years ago. And the amount of time fathers spend on childcare and household chores has tripled and doubled, respectively, since the late ’60s (although it’s still just a little more than half of what mothers put in each week). According to Pew research, 7 in 10 adults think it’s equally important for new babies to bond with both mother and father, and more than half believe it doesn’t matter which parent stays home with a young child. And now, in a note that would’ve stunned the field 40 years ago, just as many fathers as mothers say parenting is “extremely important” to their identity.

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But just when it seemed like these new expansions of roles and definitions of family reflected a broad-based shift in the culture, 2016 happened. A president won office with what many in and out of the field saw as the hypermasculine embodiment of everything that was wrong with patriarchy. In the wake, male feminist therapist Terry Real warned readers of the Networker of the resurgence of patriarchal attitudes that were deeply damaging to intimate relationships, urging therapists to abandon neutrality in their work whenever they encountered “male aggression, narcissism, sexual assaultiveness, grandiosity, and contempt.” Then, in a kind of dam break, came the fracturing reality of today’s #MeToo movement, offering men and women a disturbing look at how rampant sexual harassment and assault continue to be, in and out of the home.

At one of the Women’s Project early conferences in the late ’70s, a man in the audience expressed concern that by supporting a disruption of traditional family roles, feminist therapists would be creating a bunch of practitioners who’d academically and intellectually distance themselves from the “heart” of the field and all the messy issues of emotional pain, intimacy, vulnerability, and compassion that needed a professional therapist’s staunchly apolitical attention. In response, the Women’s Project’s Olga Silverstein said, “If the women are all going to get terribly intellectual, I guess the men will have to get emotional.”

That retort is now echoing throughout the field as more and more therapists are focusing on gender identity as a key underlying issue in the conflicts and problems that clients bring to their offices. The #MeToo movement has brought a new urgency to the examination of whether men have had a true reckoning with the ideals of gender equality—including coming to terms with their own vulnerability and emotional complexity. This questioning has returned our field to many of the issues feminists raised several decades ago, but rather than being pointed and political, the emphasis has been on approaching both men and women with a capacious sense of empathy, marrying cultural awareness with the emotional sensitivity required in therapeutic exploration.

The view that both masculinity and femininity are ultimately social constructs containing many mixed messages and contradictions has become part of everyday therapeutic discourse. And a key element in this reexamination of gender identity as a therapeutic issue is the idea that while men may not express their vulnerability and desire for intimacy in the same way as women, they nevertheless possess an emotional depth that they’ve been raised not to plumb.

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Lauren Dockett is senior writer of Psychotherapy Networker.

This blog is excerpted from "The Masculinity Paradox," by Lauren Dockett. The full version is available in the January/February 2019 issue, Can't See the Forest? Maybe It's Time to Get Out of the Office.

Photo © Matthias Clamer

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | Families | Men

Tags: Cultural differences | Cultural identity | Cultural values | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | male | Men and Intimacy | men and therapy | Mens health | men's issues | Peggy Papp | Virginia Satir | women | Womens studies

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