Medical Tuesday Blog

Conversion Therapy Isn’t the Cure for ‘Toxic Masculinity’

Jul 7

Written by: Del Meyer
07/07/2018 7:40 AM 

Doctors once regarded homosexuality and ‘female problems’ as diseases. The reverse is no better.

By Crispin Sartwell | WSJ | June 1, 2018

Doctors and psychiatrists considered homosexuality an illness, and for decades it was listed as such in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychological Association. Some still try to treat homosexuality as a curable condition. Gender nonconformists have been relentlessly pathologized, stereotyped, and even criminalized wherever they wandered into public view.

Yet these traditions are being inverted. Macho men are now taking what we’ve dished out, and “toxic masculinity” is being blamed for school shootings, wars, sexual harassment, and even—God forbid— Donald Trump, who is held up as its very embodiment. Since people who regard themselves as masculine have spent centuries diagnosing other people’s identities, this turnabout might be considered fair play.

There is a certain poetic justice in the reversal. But that doesn’t make it a sensible, effective or morally decent approach to any particular societal problem. I can only say what members of these marginalized groups have said for years: Get your hands off my . . . gender. 

“Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others,” the comedian Michael Ian Black lamented in February. “They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.” Inspired by Mr. Black’s essay, two New York Times writers offered conversion therapy in the form of a lesson plan. It’s supposed to prevent mass shootings.

We guys, evidently, find ourselves caged in a world without emotion or even language. We are accounted for as evolutionary throwbacks. Adapted to hunting mammoths, our services are no longer required in a world of yoga studios, chai lattes and universal love. This too—the gentle hint that men are baboons as much as humans—is quite a traditional way of devaluing very large groups.

This trend has transcended think-pieces and entered real life. The “Boys to Men” program in the Maine public schools retrains middle- and high-school boys away from pathological machismo. The program begins with a “gender box” exercise. “The group leader draws a big box on the chalkboard, and the boys brainstorm stereotypes of masculinity. All of those go inside the box. Then they discuss what happens if a guy tries to behave in a way that’s not described in the box,” according to the Guardian. “Empathy is the glue that holds together all of the ideas in the course.” After that, curing masculinity is as easy as thinking outside the box.

These interventions use a hyper-general idea about a whole population—call it a stereotype—as an explanation for specific phenomena. It isn’t much more insightful than blaming mass shootings on “society” or “social media.” Seldom can anyone explain how masculinity specifically affected the shooters or put them in motion. Unless they can make that connection directly, the critics of masculinity haven’t explained anything. And I would caution against sheer stereotyping or bigotry as a plausible style of inference. Taking a few problematic people and tainting whole groups as inherently flawed, inferior or pathological—it’s never ended well.

Nor should boys be trained in femininity. There isn’t any reason to believe it will ameliorate the problems, and it isn’t anyone’s job. We ought to leave each person’s gender to himself or herself. That the conversion therapy is directed in this case at a “dominant” group does not make the thinking clear, the ethics decent or the treatment effective.

No doubt masculinity—like femininity, for that matter—has bad as well as good effects. But the results of trying to box it up are incalculable. Start with the following principle, a hard-won insight from a century of bad diagnosis of people’s sexual identities as dysfunctions or crimes: No one is called upon to be the gender police.

Mr. Sartwell, an associate professor of philosophy at Dickinson College, is author of “Entanglements: A System of Philosophy” (State University of New York, 2017).

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