Toxic acts, not toxic masculinity

Martin Seager and John Barry write.

Carol Murphy’s letter in the April issue (‘Murder-Suicide: are we up to the challenge?’) raises some interesting questions about the male gender. We applaud this, particularly as she kept an open mind to the possibility that maleness is now becoming pathologised by the academic community. Such stigmatisation of masculinity has most recently been shown by the 2018 American Psychological Association guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys [discussed in the March edition].  

As committee members of the newly formed Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society we are concerned at the poor level of scientific evidence on offer in relation to the male gender, and we wish to spearhead more and better research and practice in this area. In particular, we note the tendency across the academic spectrum to generalise from small samples of damaged men to the whole male population. Murder-suicide is a case in point. There can be no doubt that the vast majority of those who perform these tragic and destructive acts are male. However, the real scientific question is what differentiates these men from the vast majority of men who do not perform these or other destructive acts? Clearly, gender is a factor but not the main causal factor. Murphy is correct, in our view, to suggest that such men are highly damaged emotionally and are not typical of their gender. To help such men therefore would mean addressing the emotional damage in a way that takes account of gender, but not focusing on the gender itself as the pathology.

The tragic irony is that if masculinity is about anything it is about taking risks and offering protection to women, children, families and communities both in times of war and peace. For every destructive act by damaged males there are countless more protective acts. Sadly, only toxic acts tend to be publicised and this reinforces the prejudice that masculinity is somehow inherently toxic in itself. Psychologists should be leading the way in challenging all prejudices, biases and distortions with good science and empathic humanity. The male gender is no less deserving of these high standards and we invite you to join us and help us in this endeavour.

Martin Seager
Chair, Male Psychology Section

John Barry
Secretary, Male Psychology Section

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