The APA Is Wrong about Toxic Masculinity, but Not for the Reason You Think

The American Psychological Association is taking it on the chin, and rightly so.  It recently issued guidelines describing "traditional masculinity" as "harmful."  Pushback was swift.  Publications like the Wall Street JournalNew York TimesDaily WireNational Review, and American Thinker ran articles defending traits associated with masculinity.

I'm all for defending masculinity (as I did here).  But the #MeToo movement has revealed that many men are behaving worse – coarser, more sexually entitled – than in the past.  Why is that?  

Social expectations of men have declined over the course of American history, and a genuine solution requires that we grasp that historical context.

Concepts of masculinity began to change with the Industrial Revolution.  In colonial America, men worked alongside their wives and children.  Most people lived on family farms or in peasant villages.  Productive work was done in the home and its outbuildings.  Work was not the father's job; it was the family industry.  With few exceptions (soldiers and sailors), fathers were a visible daily presence in the home.  They trained their children in the skills needed as adults.  Parenting literature of the day – sermons, pamphlets, child-rearing manuals – typically addressed not mothers, but fathers.

Because men worked within a family network, they were held to a moral standard of self-denial and self-sacrifice for the good of the whole.  Masculine virtue was understood, says historian Anthony Rotundo, as "duty for God and man."

How did we lose these high moral expectations?  When the Industrial Revolution took work out of the home, family industries collapsed.  Men had little choice but to follow their work out of the household and into factories and offices.  Fathers no longer spent enough time with their children to train them in adult skills and trades.  The most striking feature of child-rearing manuals is the disappearance of references to fathers.

In the new industrial workplace, men worked not as an integral member of a family, but as an isolated individual – in competition with other individuals.  Workers were treated as interchangeable units plugged into the production process, each struggling to advance himself at the expense of others.  In this context, it seemed necessary to act under the impulse of raw self-interest and personal ambition.

People began to say morality had no place in the public realm of politics, business, and industry – that this realm should be "value-free."  And because it was men who worked in the amoral, dog-eat-dog world of early industrialization, the male character was redefined in terms suitable for that environment: callous, utilitarian, morally insensitive.  

Self-sacrifice gave way to self-assertion.  Rotundo writes, "The ideal of manhood changed dramatically at the turn of the nineteenth century.  The key word now was 'self'" – self-interest, self-advancement, the self-made man.

By the nineteenth century, reform movements such as the temperance and anti-slavery movements were already casting men as villains.  Historian Mary Ryan writes, "Almost all the female reform associations were implicit condemnations of males; there was little doubt as to the sex of slave masters, tavern-keepers, drunkards and ­seducers."

Robert W. Smuts writes that the early feminists "contended that the affairs of government and business had been too long dominated by the crude, warlike, acquisitive, hardheaded, amoral qualities of men," and they "should no longer be deprived of the tempering influence of women's compassion, spirituality, and moral sensitivity."

Virtue became something imposed on men by women.

What about children?  For the first time, they were being raised almost exclusively by mothers and female teachers.  As a result, boys grew up experiencing order and discipline as rules enforced by women.  Not surprisingly, boys often resented the imposition of what they saw as female standards.

There developed what historians call "boy culture" – the idea that being a real boy means being rebellious, wild, rule-breaking.  So-called "bad boy" books became a popular genre, the best known being Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.  At the end of the book, Huck takes off for lands unknown "because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it."  Notice that "sivilizing" is something done by old maid aunts.

Adult books likewise began to sound a note of male rebellion against what were seen as feminine standards.  Two family historians write, "The new genres of cowboy and adventure fiction, written by such authors as Owen Wister [author of the first western] and Jack London, celebrated the man who had escaped the confines of domesticity."

Jump ahead to the twentieth century: in the 1950s, Playboy made its appearance, warning that marriage is a trap that will "crush man's adventurous, freedom-loving spirit."  As Kay Hymowitz notes, "[i]t was an all-out rebellion against the requirements of marital duty. ... Playboy sneered at marriage as the enslavement of men."

Today's hard porn is far more degrading.  The Washington Post reports, "In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression."  And those who watched mainstream pornography "were more likely to say they would commit rape or sexual assault (if they knew they wouldn't be caught)."

Then we're surprised that the #MeToo movement revealed so many men to be sexual predators?

Social expectations of male behavior began to decline when economic structures alienated men from their families.  Any weakening of the bond that ties men to wives and children leads to stunted, truncated, impoverished definitions of masculinity.

What is the solution?  A sociologist at the University of Virginia, W. Bradford Wilcox, conducted several studies and was surprised to find that the most reliable indicator of whether a married man is a committed, compassionate husband and father is whether he attends church regularly.  Wilcox surveyed men with no religious affiliation, men who attend theologically liberal churches, and men who attend theologically conservative churches.  The last group tested out as significantly more likely to be affectionate with their children – playing with them, reading to them, taking them to soccer practice.  They are also more involved in disciplining their children – supervising homework, enforcing bedtime, setting limits on screen time.

In addition, their wives (who were surveyed separately) are more likely to report that their husbands express affection and understanding – to say they feel loved and appreciated.  Significantly, Wilcox also found that religiously conservative couples "have the lowest rates of domestic violence of any group in the United States."

America's secular elites typically portray conservative churches as bastions of patriarchy – seedbeds of toxic masculinity.  But based on his research, Wilcox concludes that churches are one of the few institutions in American life that foster male engagement with their wives and children.  Ironically, men who are theologically conservative fit the progressive ideal of caring, attentive, emotionally engaged husbands and fathers more than any other men.

Given the data from social science, it's time to reassert the positive role that religion plays in overcoming toxic masculinity.  It civilizes men and turns their hearts toward home.

The colonists had it right: masculine virtue starts with "duty for God and man."

Nancy Pearcey is professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and editor-at-large of the Pearcey Report.  Her books include Total Truth and Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality.  Follow her on Twitter at @NancyRPearcey and on Facebook at