The psychological factors behind such a flight from manhood are various and complex, but all my clients have been driven to some degree by shame about being a man. While an abusive or emotionally violent father occasionally figures in their backstories, they all lack heroes or positive male role models.
Originally published by Genspect
I’m a psychotherapist who works with biological males considering transition, and also with men who have resumed living as their biological sex after having inhabited a female identity, often for years. Some are homosexual men who struggle to accept themselves as gay; others are heterosexual males on the autism spectrum, bullied as boys because they were misfits. Others have a rare condition known as autogynephilia – a straight man’s sexual arousal at the vision of himself as female.
The psychological factors behind such a flight from manhood are various and complex, but all my clients have been driven to some degree by shame about being a man. While an abusive or emotionally violent father occasionally figures in their backstories, they all lack heroes or positive male role models. When I ask them for a positive vision of masculinity, they can’t articulate one; at the same time, they feel vaguely ashamed for falling short of it. They may have come to accept the fact of being a biological man, but they often hold the male sex in contempt.
The large number of young girls suddenly showing up at gender clinics has received much media coverage of late, but an increasing number of adolescent boys are identifying as female. I see them as reflections of a crisis of masculinity in the West, along with the boys falling behind in school and in the labor market, the fathers losing touch with their children in increasing numbers, and the disaffected young men addicted to drugs, video games and porn who seem never to grow up – all of them in flight from manhood.
In his recent book Of Boys and Men (2022), Richard V. Reeves describes how our culture tends to “pathologize naturally occurring aspects of masculine identity, usually under the banner of toxic masculinity.” For young men coming of age, “the message, implicit or explicit, is all too often, there is something wrong with you.” The APA’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men (2018) has endorsed that message, essentially pathologizing masculinity in nearly all its forms.
In one poignant passage, Reeves describes how researcher Peggy Orenstein asked dozens of young males what they liked about being a boy; as did my own clients, they almost always drew a blank. Given that they’ve lived through #MeToo, critiques of the oppressive Patriarchy, and widespread discussions of campus “rape culture,” is it any wonder many young men feel deep shame rather than pride in being male? The tenets of systemic racism can easily convince sensitive boys that white men are to blame for nearly everything wrong in our world.
Who wants to grow up to be the bad guy?
The culturally dominant blank slate conception of human nature views gender identity as a social construct and holds that growing boys can be molded via societal messaging and expectations into whatever we think they ought to be. As exemplified by the APA’s Guidelines, that means they should be less aggressive, less concerned with appearing strong and stoic, and more empathic toward others: in short, men should try to emulate women. And according to the blank slate view, there’s no reason why men and women should differ in significant ways.
In her recent book T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us (2021), evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven explains how and why the sexes inevitably do differ in important ways, due to our evolutionary past and the endocrine system it bequeathed to us. She describes bimodal distributions of character traits, where men overall tend to be more competitive, more aggressive and violent, more preoccupied by status, and more focused on sex than women, largely due to the male endocrine system. She explains how testosterone shapes each male during three different critical periods, first when he’s a fetus in utero, then right after birth, and once again at puberty – all in ways that will increase his odds of prevailing in the competition for genetic survival known as sexual selection.
Socialization can shape and direct those tendencies, but it cannot erase our genetic inheritance. A society that denies the innate, biological aspects of masculinity, or excoriates men for being the way our evolutionary past has shaped them to be, can’t help but instill feelings of shame and worthlessness. Reeves offers complex and multi-faceted reasons for why many men are falling behind; no single theory can account for my patients and why they want to escape their biological sex. But shame about being men afflicts all of them.
Despite what the APA Guidelines tell us, there’s a lot to be said for masculine men who can be aggressive, even violent in the service of protecting others; competitive in a way that promotes innovation; and able to suppress strong feeling during crises when a cool head is needed. Until our society finds a way to make young men feel good about themselves for being men, as evolution in part has shaped them to be, we’re doomed to see too many of them take flight from manhood in increasingly dysfunctional ways.