In 1973 an experiment was conducted by David Rosenhan, a professor at Stanford University in which he and several colleagues had themselves admitted to psychiatric hospitals. He entitled his findings “On Being Sane in Insane Places.” This experiment, involving Rosenhan and his colleagues involved faking symptoms of auditory hallucinations (hearing words such as “thud, empty, and hollow”) to gain access into these settings. Once in the hospital, the participants of the experiment were instructed to alter their behavior to their norm, and to relay that their symptoms had dissipated. Then the unthinkable occurred. Mental health staff began using this shift in behavior as evidence for mental illness in our pseudo patients. Thus, even behaviors like writing in their personal journal, which was being used to track the experience of being in a psychiatric hospital, was regarded as pathological. It was actually referred to in nursing staff notes as “writing behavior.”
Prior to Rosenhan’s breakthrough experiment, there existed another example of over-pathologization. As far back as Ancient Egypt, women were diagnosed with symptoms of “female hysteria.” This diagnosis carries with it cemented prejudices held by the time period that claimed that the “spontaneous movement” of the uterus in the female body led to symptoms, that by today’s standards, are reminiscent of depression, anxiety, and somatization. Fast forward to Freud more than 4000 years later and we find ourselves at the birth of psychoanalysis, and therefore, psychology. In Freud’s view, hysteria was linked to unresolved sexual desires. He posited that women and men could fall victim to hysteria, but it was in women that these sexual urges provided a secondary gain that allowed her to manipulate her environment. These notions, in the 21st century, are largely regarded as ludicrous.
As a male psychotherapist it feels like shaky bedrock, indeed, to speak about mistreatment perpetrated towards males. But it shouldn’t. I feel as one who identifies as a male, and who has been on the receiving end of mistreatment from being one, it is my duty to warn against the harm the field is doing to male clinicians, and male clients. The prevailing depiction in psychology of male clinicians, and men generally, is that they are somehow insufficient, “non-empathic,” biased, and irrelevant. This stemming from a deficit-correction perspective on males. The mere mention of men’s struggles from the male viewpoint is addressed with a sincere insouciance if they are even addressed at all. These depictions are not just legitimized but supported outright. As a result, prejudices toward males in the field of psychology have become common-place and are the seedbed of loneliness in this helping profession.
When I first entered the field, I worked as a resident counselor. This is one of those rare positions in mental health where you can help people without your master’s or doctorate. While working there I had the great privilege of working with some of the finest clinicians I’ve ever met. They were diligent, thoughtful, and caring. I loved working as a resident counselor. Though, at times, I did occasionally hear comments from those who were working towards higher degrees, that I couldn’t shake. One moment sticks with me. A moment that, to me, simply felt like locker room talk.
“I can’t work with him,” stated my exasperated colleague. “He’s just your typical white, privileged, male,” she said as she sat down without a second thought as to the nature of her venting. “What do you mean,” I inquired. “He’s just sexist, and homophobic. I can’t work with men like him,” she replied. “Men like him,” I asked. “Men who come from privilege,” she said. “I come from privilege, are you able to work with me,” I replied. “Oh, you’re different, you’re not like him,” she noted. We were talking about one of our clients.
A few years later while earning my doctorate:
“Do you enjoy being a male in this field,” a clinician asked me. Wary, unsure of how to respond, I said, “Yeah it depends on my coworkers of course, but I’m pretty used to it.” “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but nine times out of ten when a man is in this field, he’s pretty good. You know because there aren’t a lot of you,” said this clinician. “Yeah, I could see that,” I stated feeling awkward.
Though at some level I felt proud to be in the “pretty good” minority, the conversation felt more like a backhanded compliment as the current cultural environment in the field has made this type of dialogue feel loaded. I had come to this therapist for her thoughts regarding a case and somehow, we had ended up in a conversation about my gender. Suddenly, it struck me. I did not feel like a therapist. I was a male therapist. And for the record, she was a female. Not that that should matter.
As the weeks, and months went on following this conversation, I wasn’t sure if I was safe to speak my mind at work. The sinister presence of social anxiety trickled down my back with every passing moment. What if I said the wrong thing? On one occasion, during a group supervision where I was the only male amongst 7 female supervisors, and 8 female trainees, a colleague suggested I take on her male client after they had their first conversation. She told us that this client had asked her for her views on feminism during a 15-minute phone intake and that this displayed boundary crossing tendencies during their session. This question made her uncomfortable by her account and provided sufficient evidence after a single session that he was a “narcissistic or misogynist.” After one session.
After facing the prompting of my supervisor, also a woman, nodding in approval and giving me the sense that this was not a choice, but a wonderful learning opportunity… I exclaimed in a frenzy, “No, wait, I disagree with all of you. How do you know he wouldn’t get the most benefit out of having a safe relationship with a woman?” If I had continued, I would have also liked to ask, “What is it you think I can provide him that you can’t?”
The room fell tense and silent for a moment (If there was a cover to be blown, I had certainly destroyed mine). The felt sense regarding the matter was that there wasn’t much consideration as to what I could provide this client, other than my gender. My colleague appeared to be asking if I could help her get out of her own discomfort with this male client. There appeared to be no desire to hear his core pain, the reason for his behavior.
A few years back I noticed a trend in the field of mental health. My colleagues were virtually all women. In fact, I have never had a primary male supervisor as a professional. However, I never felt like it was unsafe to express myself, and I didn’t have to rely on any sort of male bravado to make myself heard. I’d experienced this gender gap my entire academic career starting in my college days studying psychology. Back then the groups were bigger, so just looking around a lecture hall, it didn’t appear like we were non-existent in the field. I was usually one of only a handful of men, but we were there. Years later, returning to school for my doctorate and being in classes of no more than 20 people, the difference was staggering. In graduate school I have never been in a class with more than 2 other male psychology trainees at a time. This is part of a larger issue.
The Larger Issue
The reason for the lack of male participation in psychology has often been cited as being linked to income, professional interest or academic participation. However, I find these explanations helpful in the most unproductive way, as they are certainly variables to consider, but seem to ignore important factors. It seems to me that the lack of representation can be found in the greatest failing of the field of psychology. Their promotion of an off-brand feminism, or anti-patriarchy feminism, that is rejecting of masculinity (a trait most characteristic in males), leading to a sense of rejection, pathologization and loneliness.
Men, especially straight white men, are not encouraged to share their opinions on any issue pertaining to women, BIPOC, ethnic relations, or the LGBTQIA+ communities. In fact, it has been my experience that they are quite often told that their privilege blinds them from the needs of these groups, and that they are unable to provide useful insights due to their innate prejudices. And I am not alone.
This doctrine is damaging to a sense of self held by male clinicians and male clients as it is nothing short of brain washing in its structure. A major tool of this wave of popular feminist narratives is found in the construct of “hegemonic masculinity”, more commonly referred to as “toxic masculinity.” A construct that shows weakness in its verifiability from an empirical standpoint and that has been a source of great pain for many modern men. Studies have shown that up to 88% of men find the term “toxic masculinity” insulting and potentially harmful to men and boys, and a whopping 92% of male respondents feel that toxic masculinity changes our view of men. These days, the term is often lobbed as a casual catch-all diagnostic criteria for patterns of behavior exhibited by some men (to manipulate his environment).
Now I know what the reader must be thinking. “Feminism? The equality movement?”
Well, this isn’t your grandmother’s feminism. There exist difference waves, and variation in thought on an individual basis, to be sure. However, the modern-day incarnate proposes that men are power-hungry, that they hold positions bordering on delusions of grandeur, and that they can instantiate themselves into every facet of society with little oversight. The tag line is “men have power and control. And they misuse it.” And with that narrative in mind, men have been characterized as an adversary to deplete by many modern feminists.
This brand of feminism in psychology focuses on inequity, and mistreatment perpetrated towards minorities, but fails to recognize its own hegemony in that “76 percent of new psychology doctorates, 74 percent of early career psychologists and 53 percent of the psychology work force” are female. This, of course, is according to the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2011, the governing body of psychology’s activities in the United States. Staggering numbers are also reported in the UK approximating that 80% of the field is female, while only 20% are male.
While one may think that these overwhelming statistics are nothing to be concerned about, it is important to understand what happens to groups, their values, and norms when they become lopsided. On the professional front, such as was in the Rosenhan experiment, behaviors may become heavily scrutinized to meet the narrative of mental illness. However, on the level of an organization fear of being in the minority and the perceptions of others rejecting you from the group has been linked to a phenomenon known as the Spiral of Silence.
Within the spiral, silencing pressures censor dissenting opinions through several forms of coercion. Once acceptable viewpoints are made known to the group it can be extremely costly and challenging to change them from within. As such, misandry in psychology often goes under the radar, remains ignored completely, and is often praised for its expression. However, all hope is not lost. A cure to this dilemma is for those outside of the field to get wind of the undesirable practices taking place outside of public view. So here we are.
The cost of hiding one’s views or identity is a largely explored area in psychology. Though it is common for people to become silent to increase their sense of group acceptance, the data indicates that it usually has the opposite effect. Meaning, people feel more isolated, and worse about themselves over time as they live lives divorce from what they truly believe. These isolated conditions lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and I’d argue, a loss of a sense of lived meaning.
This represents a major challenge to men as men are far more likely to complete attempts at suicide but are less likely to seek therapeutic care when needed (preferring to alleviate their suffering on their own). What’s more, negative experiences in therapy have been shown to have an increased effect on men’s reluctance to engage in therapy, or to express distressing feelings with professionals. These self-censorial behaviors are linked to unfavorable outcomes for men.
This is a Movement
This new movement presents a massive insistence on being for the universal benefit of all, and aimed at remediating the past inequality of male-dominated spaces. The catch being that everyone must fall in line behind the movement’s claims or risk rejection. Modern-wave feminism’s greatest failing, moreover, is that it majorly fails in recognizing that it’s obsession with power, in principle, is played out as nothing more than an attempt to gain it. While this does not sound inherently problematic, the narrative shift supports a need for concern.
Where feminism has classically aimed to empower all peoples equally, many proponents have shifted their focus to who is “in power.” Thus, the focus has been a calculated identity politic targeting positions for female inclusion, while claiming that men who do not wish to be replaced in such a fashion are somehow misogynistic, or patriarchal. While these aims may be rooted in a desire to decrease structural imbalances, the motivations seem to miss all practicality. For instance, men may simply wish to keep their jobs, their livelihood, and fear the loss of both.
Anti-patriarchy claims are used to underpin an argument that relies on circular reasoning, or reasoning that reports immediate causal explanations, as plausible alternatives remain unexcavated. It appears to blend ideas such as 1) There are systems of oppression that were created by men; 2) That men hold most positions of authority across domains; 3) And that those men are inherently excluding those in minority positions to maintain their status (regardless of any evidence to the contrary). To the first, I would say, “Of course.” However, to the second a resounding, “It depends.” As to the third I would ask, “Psychologists have you looked around the room recently?”
To engage in a comprehensive dialogue with people who think in this manner is a painstaking process that even the most thoughtful individual would struggle to wade through. To make matters worse, any expressed concern regarding the accepted narrative is typically treated as descent. Thus, compounding those silencing pressures we discussed earlier.
There exists an endless pit of those who enter psychology, not to exclusively heal others, but to heal themselves. This is no secret in the field. However, those who believe that patriarchy and power are their adversaries, I feel, simply damage those they meet due to no obvious outlet to contend with. This coupled with a narrative that demands hair-trigger responses to perceived threats and hyper-competitiveness from women to always scale these walls of oppression, is plainly asking that toxically masculine traits be exercised by women themselves.
This pattern of adoption of behavior appears similar to a well-established psychological phenomenon known as “identification with the aggressor.” Those who have experienced abuses (or perhaps who have been convinced of an abusive narrative) often adopt the characteristics of their abuser as a survival strategy. It’s the classic bully on the playground who comes to school after leaving an abusive home.
The problem is patriarchy and power are low resolution ideas, meaning there’s nothing to hit, yell at, or strike against. This means that anywhere those two ideas appear to exist must be held in high scrutiny, particularly if the power is held by villains of the narrative, men. In professional settings this has the power to lead to a pathologization of commonplace male behavior, conflating it with truly troubling conduct.
Further, even when “unacceptable gendered behaviors” have been identified, the existence of problematic intentions is perpetuated by continuing to prescribe ever-growing lists of unacceptable behaviors. In other words, the goal post is continually moved as “problematic” behavior is addressed, real or imagined. Thus, behavior is controlled by relying on concept creep. Concept creep is the process of altering the definition of words to capture “new manifestations” of a set of behaviors. This is very common and may occur until there is no behavior that is deemed acceptable. Leading to awkward and confusing interactions (particularly for anxious men and women), to say the least.
In academic settings this current attitude is incentivized by fear leading to remaining silent, or proselytizing of this doctrine with little attention paid to appropriately managing the negative impact of these ideas. The impact this has on men in the field is powerful, while the overall impact on male clients has been reported as negligible, or under researched. However, that notion seems convenient in a field that is predominantly female. As it wouldn’t be “good business” for the field to report the idea that female clinicians with certain ideological leanings may harm male clients. Recent research conducted with women who identified strongly with being feminists showed that when faced with moral decision-making tasks, those who identified highly with being feminists, were more likely to sacrifice men to subvert gender-based narratives. What would this mean for therapy?
This form of group-identification, unfortunately, is not only held by modern feminist belief-systems. It appears across social-justice inclined counselors from every ideological walk of life, as group identification often leads to desires to protect a group’s beliefs. With specific regard to current anti-patriarchy feminist therapists… to my mind these are not individuals with healthy relationships with men, whether they be self-identified male feminist-therapists or female feminist-therapists. They are those who hold deeply damaged relationships with men (and themselves) for a myriad of reasons, I’m sure. Many appear to simply recite rhetoric and imbue it with a confirmatory bias from experience that perpetuates popular, on-screen, narratives.
The answer to this issue, for the anti-patriarchy feminist therapist or psychologist, is to dictate what others believe to meet the needs of the narrative. The answer then is to target the masculine tendencies of men, without any thought as to the positive aspects of masculine traits. The absence of recognition of the benefits of masculinity seem to be tied to a narrative that men are wielders of unearned, eras-long, privilege. The prevailing wisdom, if one could even regard it as such, states white males are corrupt as they are inherent beneficiaries of a euro-centric, patriarchy.
This is the cardinal sin of bigotry, to see features first. To never see beyond the lens as it’s been constructed, and to rely on stories that provide a basis for mistreatment to avoid one’s own discomfort. Feminism’s road to perdition is to be a long one from my perspective. A perspective that modern-wave proponents will undoubtedly denigrate as being from the mind of a man, their chosen adversary. This current movement within feminism is an anachronism. While it sounds forward thinking, it borrows notions of power and privilege from the past and imposes their messages on a new generation without historical context.
What appears plain here is a willingness to internalize criticized aspects of patriarchy by utilizing many ideas derived by men to solve women’s issues, and to rely on methods of exclusion that are associated with “toxic masculinity,” such as bullying. What’s that saying? People who live in glass houses should not throw stones. The borrowing of methods of exclusion that are claimed to be used by men only to pretend that they are your ally in intellectual spirit, is literally a joke that could kill.
It has not been uncommon to hear individuals in field of mental health regard these male counterparts, which make up roughly half of the planet, such as brothers, fathers, or partners as exceptions, examples, or victims of the rules they’ve engrossed society in. To self-described feminist-therapists who have positive relationships with men and maleness I must say this:
Hope is NOT Lost
The practice of othering men is no better than the eras-long practice of othering women. Think of your male family members, and friends. Do you really want to marginalize, or other these people in a manner that disregards character, and potentially does them harm? I ask that all mental health professionals stop this current course in its tracks and begin focusing on the individual as they exist in their context. The gender conversation is becoming a stale one as it resembles a gender war, not a dialogue. In a field of mediators, such as psychology, one can only hope that the generalization, stigmatization, and labeling can stop. That male therapists and clients are not assailed with cultural theories or silenced as recompence for their predecessors.
All viewpoints in psychology ought to be considered sacred in the treatment and issues that human beings face. By treatment I do not mean in a medical sense, but a personal one. As the cornerstone of mental health is empathy. Empathy is to put yourself in another’s shoes and to walk in them. Not literally, but in one’s heart. Male psychotherapists are just as capable of this as their counterparts and should be treated as such. Male clients are just as capable of the transformative benefits of therapy as well but are not benefitted by this current climate. A more balanced view of men only benefits all of us as it stabilizes thousands of years of gender-based misunderstandings, anger, and mistreatment.
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By Michael Olan, M.A., a clinical psychology doctoral student in Chicago, Illinois, working on matters of moral psychology and professional ethics in the field of mental health.
(In all clinical examples, the identifying information of patients and providers have been changed to protect patient/provider confidentiality).