The Study of Men and Masculinity: An Interview With Ronald F. Levant

Dudefluencer: Ronald Levant Interview

Dr. Ronald F. Levant is one of the most authoritative figures when it comes to studying men and masculinity. The former president of the American Psychological Association has spent most of his professional career researching how masculinity affects men and society. He was editor of the APA Journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity, and “conducts research on men’s gender role strain, emotional expressivity, alexithymia, mental and physical health, fathering, and masculinity ideology in a multicultural perspective.”

Levant is also the author of Masculinity Reconstructed: Changing the Rules of Manhood-at Work, in Relationships, and in Family Life and the soon to be released The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths About Masculinity and Violence.

A few months ago, Levant was kind of enough to sit down with Dudefluencer to speak a little about his work and understanding of masculinity.

Dudefluencer: Hello Dr. Levant, how would you define positive masculinity?

Dr. Ronald Levant: So basically, this idea of positive masculinity has been around for a long time, and it stems from kind of a confusion of sex from gender. And when people throw out the term masculinity, there’s a group of people that equates it with biology.

But psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, social scientists, in general, don’t do it that way. They view gender as something that is kind of socially constructed. That is historically changeable. That the rules for masculinity, for example, were very different from the 19th century. Rules today restrict the sexual behavior between men. That’s one of the norms of masculinity. 

In the latter half of the 19th century, men were very open to each other; in fact, even often slept in the same bed, would kiss each other. The norms of masculinity changed.

That couldn’t be due to the Y chromosome, and plus, they are [masculine norms] different in different parts of the world. 

So as a psychologist, I take the point of view that masculinity is something that’s based on an ideology in the culture. That ideology is patriarchy, histrionic masculinity is basically, you know, puts men as dominant over women and white, heterosexual, cis-gendered men has dominance over men of color, and gender and sexual minorities. 

So, you know, masculinity is, in that sense, can never be positive because it’s oppressive. 

What we sometimes call positive masculinity is what psychologists would call benevolent sexism. You know, there are two kinds of distinctions about sexism, there is hostile sexism, pretty much self-explanatory. 

The benevolent sexism is, you know, we’re, it’s kind of a paternalistic attitude toward women in mansplaining. Yeah, it’s, you know, women are wonderful. But it basically robs women of their autonomy and independence. So I see positive, what I see coming out of positive masculinity, with only one real good empirical study by Ryon McDermott and colleagues where he and his students asked men and women about a set of traits and asked them to ask them to tell them, which they saw as positive which was negative, which they saw is more applicable to men, and which was more applicable for women. And they came up with a set of traits that most of us that are here are human, rather than masculine. 

You know, like empathy. You know, that’s never been defined as a masculine norm in any scale or study I’ve looked at. Or compassion.

Dudefluencer: So if not positive masculinity, what would you advocate for?

Dr. Ronald Levant: Rather than advocate for positive masculinity, I think we should advocate that we should stop forcing boys to be masculine. You know, most boys if not all, it’s hard to say all, but most boys in their early childhood are made to know that masculinity is obligatory. There’s a wonderful study done on boy’s facial expressivity.

One of the natural norms is restricting the expression of emotions. And boys and men are not allowed to express sadness or fear or even tender emotions like caring and refreshing empathy and compassion. And these norms can get reinforced in elementary school by other bullies who act as gender police. 

So this particular study had four to six-year-old boys and girls and showed them emotionally stimulating slides. And the mother of that child sat in another room, watching her child through a monitor. And her task, which was the dependent variable, the study was because she gets a slide showing her child. 

The results were that at four years of age, mothers were equally accurate, reflecting daughters and sons, but as the children got older, the mothers got less accurate with their sons. So that by the age of six, mothers were very inaccurate in detecting their son’s emotions. 

What is it saying? It’s saying that between the ages of four and six, boys learn to man up and not show emotion. This is one of the major reasons why I think masculinity is problematic because boys are made to feel it’s obligatory.

Dudefluencer: Could you talk a little bit about what happened with the American Psychological Association and some of the controversy created over the guidelines for the psychological practice of boys and men?

Dr. Ronald Levant: The American Psychological Association, they have a large organization that has scientists like me and practitioners, like I used to be, practitioners, work in private practices or hospitals. Half are major psychotherapists, and academics like me work in universities, and we do research and teach students, and the APA periodically calls on its membership to develop guidelines for practice. 

We’ve had this for girls and women, for ethnic minority members, for gay, lesbian, transgender for older adults. And I was president of the APA in 2005. And I set up a task force for boys and men. 

APA has so many levels of review before they approve anything. In August of 2018, the guidelines for the psychological practice of boys and men were then approved in January of 2019. 

In January 2019, the APA magazine did a story on the guidelines that were in the works for a while, and like larger organizations, they tend to be slow. And the Public Affairs Office put out a tweet. The tweet said APA guidelines say that traditional masculinity is, on the whole, harmful. Well, that isn’t what the guidelines said. That led to Fox News putting one of my colleagues’ pictures up on their website for a week to the point that a bunch of us got doxxed and harassed.

Note: Dr. Ronald Levant shared an email he had received after being doxxed with Dudefluencer. The email contained harmful and hateful language towards Levant and his family that is inappropriate for publication.

Dudefluencer: I remember a lot of noise on the internet when the Gillette commercial came out.

Dr. Ronald Levant: The Gillette commercial came right out of that. But when Gillette saw all of the attention going to masculinity and they like to use the term toxic masculinity, which I do not like, they released their ad early. You kind of saw the tremendous, ballooning interest in masculinity which was that reflected the intensity of the fight.

This whole discussion of masculinity became a big issue at the beginning of 2019. And it really hasn’t stopped. A lot of articles use that term toxic masculinity, which I don’t like. As a psychologist, I mean, we don’t like to refer to any human behavior toxic. However, it also implies that there’s a version of masculinity that isn’t toxic and that I disagree with. 

For the reasons I just mentioned, one is obligatory, and the other one is oppressive to groups of people. But here’s the really interesting thing about masculinity and so, people get all upset about it, critiquing masculinity, because they think you’re critiquing men and we are not. 

We want to provide the best for them, and we want boys and men to have a good life. And one of the ways we can do that is we can try to educate parents and people to not force boys to conform to traditional masculine roles. 

I’ll tell you about this meme going around. It was a picture of an eight-year-old boy slumped in a stairwell. And the caption wrote, it reads “If someone had offered empathy and compassion to this boy, rather than shame. There’d be one less angry man in the world 20 years from now.” 

And that kind of connects all the dots. That, you know, forcing boys to conform to masculinity is an incredibly cruel act. Because, first of all, all of these traits that are kind of incorporated into masculine norms. Humans possess them to varying degrees. A big part of psychology is what we call the psychology of individual differences. As you probably know, we develop scales to measure attitudes, personality traits, and behavior work as a psychologist. And when we administer those scales through a large group of people, we typically get a curve. 

It might be a perfect bell curve; it might be skewed to the left or the right. But what it shows you is that the population carries this trait. 

So let’s say you know, stoicism or restrictive emotionality, you find boys that are very high and boys that are very low and you find some girls that are very high and very low. 

As a matter of fact, when you compare boys and girls or men and women on any psychological variable, what you will find is overlapping and very small meaning differences. So when we say all boys have to not cry, even though our boy our son might be a very kindred sensitive person, what are we doing to his personality? 

Our message, psychology’s message is that it’s not positive masculinity, it’s really getting rid of the connection that people have to be masculine or feminine and allow them to be the human beings they are.

First, a little background, most men do not strongly endorse, believe, or actually conform behaviorally to traditional masculine norms. I have an instrument that has gone through multiple versions. 

I did three studies over a 17 year period, each using a different version of the scale. It kept getting revised and made better and all this stuff. And I took a look at kind of the mean scores, which basically measures seven traditional methods of the arts, which restricted emotionality, avoid all things feminine. Because of the dominant details, reliance or mechanical skills, have disdain for gay men and be very interested in sex. 

Those are kind of the norms, and I now also use another scale which actually measures behavioral conformity. 

There’ll be a statement like the president should always be a man: “At what extent you agree or disagree and go from, you know, strongly agree to strongly disagree.” There are seven-point scales. And four is the neutral point where I neither agree nor disagree. If you’re learning on average, on average, you disagree with the norm. 

And over 17 years, I think, most if not all, details were below the norm. So here’s I interpreted that said, “Look, you don’t realize that masculinity is a tough standard.” The title of my new book is called the Tough Standard, The Hard Truth About Masculinity and Violence, which is being published by Oxford, but most of them realize, you know, most adults don’t realize a lot of downsides to trying to be masculine all the time. It doesn’t always work. You know, it doesn’t always work in the workplace; they kind of forgive themselves. 

When they say, Well, I’m not the most masculine guy, but I’m okay. And I think that that’s kind of how a lot of humanity are. They, you know, they don’t push us to the masculine. They just are who they truly are. You know, maybe they didn’t have very severe socialization experiences, maybe they went to psychotherapy. They, you know, had really good nurturing relationships for all of the above. But there is a subset of those men and I’ve encountered them who feel deeply ashamed of themselves for violating norms. 

Back in the 90s, Robert Bly, have you ever heard the term mythopoetic movement? 

Robert Bly, he wrote a book called iron shot. He used to give workshops. And like, there was that time label the masculinity press was going on. So Bly was doing all these workshops, I had a book out in 95 titled Masculinity Reconstructed, and I was doing rough groups to promote the book to different students. And what that would mean is that the publicist would get guys in the room for a couple of hours, and we talk about being men, and I do this one task, which is very revealing. I’d pass out three by five cards for them to write down their top secret, that is the thing that they have never told anybody and never would have collected cards and then make a big show of shuffling them to turn them over and gasp.

And these are men like 30s 40s 50s, our violations of masculine norms, it was tarnishing to read a card from a man in his group saying his top secret was that he had a crush on another a boy in high school or that he backed down on a fight. Or he felt too close to his mother.

This is a research paradigm. Some colleagues in Florida, and basically what they do, one of the few psychologists that actually do experimental research in the area, most people do survey research. And what they do is they get in and they threaten their masculinity. How do they do that? Well, they either give them bogus tasks and tell them they scored the way a typical woman would. Or they have them do a feminine task like braiding the hair of a mannequin And then putting pink ribbons on it. Okay, what they do is to tinker to them and then randomly assign them to a mental condition which is threatening masculinity condition. And the others are control groups and they either do a nonfeminine task, or they get, you know, they don’t give good feedback that they’re like a woman, then they measure their aggression afterward. They put them in a room, sitting quietly or punching a punching bag. And men who were his masculinity were threatened, you know, much more often shows the punching bag quietly and punched harder than the control group. 

So what this is saying is that if you kind of artificially created a situation where you made the man feel that his masculinity has been threatened, you will need to be assertive, aggressive way. And, you know, and focus in this research and show how brittle masculinity, the sense of being masculine. And these would be the men that would feel ashamed of themselves. They would feel ashamed of themselves for backing down from a fight. 

Dudefluencer: What trends have you seen in boys under the age of 14 that support or negate these phenomena?

Dr. Ronald Levant: I have seen some big changes since I looked at masculinity in two areas. 

One is fatherhood. I think that you know, millennial men who are fathers are very different from leaders like myself when I was a father, or certainly my father.

So I see younger men kind of having pretty much an undifferentiated parent role. They’re interchangeable with their wives, you know they get up with the children, they get them dressed. They get them ready for school and then pick them up off after afterwards and bring them home. Fathers are making dinner, get their children settled in their homework. 

I see big changes in fatherhood. And also, and this really doesn’t have much to do with masculinity, except society as a whole. It’s changed in terms of attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities. And whereas my generation, the generation before me, even up to the generation X. Those are two areas. 

I also see leadership in emotional expressivity. Like the most recent example, I can think of is when Obama presented Biden The Presidential Medal of Freedom Award. He cried openly on TV. 

You may never have heard of this, but there was a presidential candidate. His presidency was destroyed. He received some bad news on the campaign trail and cried. Emotionality is normally a crime. This campaign was destroyed, not losing. I’m seeing high profile people like athletes, actors and musicians talking about their mental health issues.

Dudefluencer: Thank you so much for your time Dr. Levant.

Dr. Ronald Levant: You’re very welcome, thank you.

Dr. Ronald Levant’s latest book, The Tough Standard releases on May 20 (for Kindle) and July 1 in hardcover.

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If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer:

Everything You Need To Know About Positive Masculinity
15 Critical Facts About Male Vulnerability
5 Ted Talks About Masculinity You Need To See

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