Sociologists Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley recently made the case that “certain widespread masculine traits and behaviours are dangerous and costly to both individuals and society”. Masculine characteristics may be liable to positive change, the authors argue, yet for the time being, “the culture of masculinity can be, and should be, addressed as a policy issue”[1]. The statement is corroborated by an alarming inventory of statistics which looks like a collection of postcards from hell. Men commit 87% of all traffic offences and 81% of speeding offences; more than 90% of the first 466 defendants undergoing trials following the riots in UK cities in August 2011 were male. In 2009-10, according to the British Crime Survey and police crime figures, men perpetrated 91% of
all violent incidents in England and Wales, 81% of which for domestic violence, 86% for assault, 94% for wounding, 96% for mugging, 98% for robbery. If this were not enough, the Ministry of Justice figures for 2009 show that men are responsible for 98% of sexual offences, 92% of drug offences and 89% of
criminal damage. And to top it all up, 99% of child sex offenders are male. The “most masculine crimes are the most expensive” the authors argue: “a homicide, a sexual offence and a serious wounding cost £1.4m, £31,438, and £21,422 respectively. If men committed as little crime as women, the authors justifiably
conclude, it would be enough to pay for the current deficit. With its insidious penchant for violence and unpleasantness, they argue, masculinity ends up being a costly business. (1)

What is masculinity?

The Oxford dictionary defines masculine as “having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men”.[2] Unsurprisingly, it does not say anything about violence. That the term should effectively become synonymous with unacceptable behaviour is worrying, for this could mean that for a sizeable section of society masculinity per se is a bad thing. What Cockburn and Oakley describe might perhaps more accurately be termed as machismo, which is a caricature of masculinity, the sort of virility portrayed in the history of mainstream media by John Wayne, Rambo, Schwarzenegger, or more recently by Don Draper of Mad Men fame, the latter a cynical and debonair advertising executive who embodies the greed and the brazen allure of Madison Avenue in 1960. Draper also personifies the misogyny, emotional illiteracy and sheer unpleasantness of a world seen via the lens of a retro aesthetics - partly tongue in cheek, partly nostalgic, yet surprisingly well-timed in the light of the profligacy and swagger shown by bankers in recent years.

As documented by many therapists working with male clients, it is often difficult for a man to express his subjective experience of masculinity[3]. The image of masculinity portrayed in contemporary culture and the media confuses things further, and the routine headline-grabbing outbursts of men-celebs all too happy to confirm the stereotype does not help either.[4]

What masculinity is not

In trying to reply to the question ‘What is masculinity?’ it may be useful to think of what masculinity is not. It is surely not machismo, i.e. aggressive male pride born out of a sense of inferiority, nor is it the cult of virility concealing the terror of being perceived by others as vulnerable. Adler tackled the difficult topic of masculine pride in inspiring ways[5]:
instead of chastising it, he reformulated it first as ‘aggression
drive’, then as ‘striving for superiority’, and eventually as ‘striving for meaning’, resulting, in an individual who has undergone therapy successfully, in the awakening of ‘communal feeling’ and the aspiration to contribute to society. This is of course different from the manipulation of men’s energies for the purpose of war. 

Adler was not speaking of men only, but what matters here is that he emphasized the need to redirect aggression towards a force for the common good (5). The very word aggression, from the Latin aggredi, simply denotes the act of moving forward without hesitation[6], hence it is not directed at something or someone. Adler’s suggestion seems to be: explore, describe and, to a certain degree, understand what male aggression is; in other words, the very opposite attitude to demonization.

Rising above gender bias

Some men who have suffered the consequences of their overtly belligerent behaviour come to therapy in the hope to find a route towards positive change.  In some cases their hard exterior begins to show cracks from which the light may get in. Of course it takes time for both client and therapist to build some intimacy. It takes time for ‘hard men’ to feel more comfortable in showing vulnerability, to feel that they don’t need to wear body armour when entering the therapy room.

John, a colleague of mine, told me of his experience in working with Ian, a man in his thirties with a history of violence in his family. Regularly beaten up and belittled by his father as a boy, he had grown up with the dread that he might have somehow inherited his father’s violence. Ian had come to therapy mainly because he did notice signs in his behaviour which confirmed this greatest of fears. During an argument one day he had pushed his wife and was horrified by this. The therapy lasted a year, John went on to say; it went well, all things considered. A helpful factor had been John’s ability to stay with and help Ian explore his aggressiveness and frustration without judging. During one particularly difficult session, he recounted the argument with his ex over arranging child care rota.  Ian voiced the frustration he had felt over this by saying “I swear sometimes I feel I want to strangle her”. As he said this, John said, Ian looked unbelievably sad. “We sat in silence for a couple of minutes - John said – then I reflected back to him his anger, his frustration, as well as the fact that he looked so sad”. A minute later Ian smiled. John smiled back. Then Ian said, “It feels good to just be able to say that, to say what it really feels like at times for me. That really helps.” Precisely because John created a space where aggression could be voiced, Ian felt accepted and this enabled him in turn to look more closely at the nature and causes of his aggressiveness.

Proud of this particular piece of work, John decided to present it as a case study at his psychotherapy course. The case study was assessed by two women tutors, who deemed it inadequate: they both saw the interaction as problematic, as “two men smiling on the topic of strangling a woman”. They also criticized John for not taking prompt measures to ensure the safety of his client’s partner.  John was mortified, as well as baffled by a comment which in his view was a misinterpretation. Personally, I did not want to take sides but couldn’t help sympathize with his predicament and annoyance at what he saw as a stance marred by gender-bias – with the difference that this time the bias came from two women.

At times it takes a man listen to another man,[7]
for there is a specifically masculine space of healing, a place where aggressiveness and frustration, but also vulnerability, sadness and joy can be voiced and heard without judgment.  I am not suggesting that only a male therapist can work effectively with a male client, but rather that both female and male practitioners need to rise above gender biases if we want to be of service.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Lyndell Weaver, a counsellor who works as an advocate with survivors of domestic abuse in Glasgow, examined the effectiveness of programmes which have now become standard in probation services across the UK. These are “highly structured” and combine “a basic feminist analysis of men’s violence – as a tool for gaining power and control ... with the cognitive behavioural therapy of social learning”[8].

How truly effective this kind of approach is remains an open question. What Weaver at any rate emphasizes is the need to prioritize the quality of the therapeutic relationship in these circumstances, so as to allow clients “to fully explore all their thoughts and feelings without any need for defensiveness” (8). Dealing more specifically on working with men who have been perpetrators of domestic violence, she writes: “Rather than directly challenging men’s attitudes and beliefs about their wives ... practitioners would allow men to uncover and explore their sense of themselves, including their identity as men, their various social roles and masks, as well as the rationalizations they hold for their violent and controlling behaviour”. (8)

It is out of acceptance of his deepest feelings, of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in himself (8) that the violent male client can move
towards positive change.

Is political correctness the new super-ego?

Masculinity is also misrepresented by what Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade in their pioneering work with men in the 1990s called the stance of the ‘naive male’[9], the one who has identified with one-dimensional feminine characteristics and who is afraid of thinking, saying or doing anything that might in his view disappoint women. This is the type of man who “believes he can save women, hear them, take away their loneliness, make them happy and harmonious”(10) This is also the type of man who becomes a heroic over-achiever in order to (consciously or unconsciously) impress his mother. The problem with this stance is that it is often accompanied by inability to  acknowledge the dark side of women and, more generally, the ungainly aspects of reality itself.

Perhaps both machismo and naiveté may be seen as reactions to a new consensus with its own array of injunctions. These no longer depend on patriarchal values, as it might have been the case until a few decades ago, but increasingly originate within that intricate net of opinions commonly known as political correctness. Originally a commendable ethos of fairness and sensitivity towards gender inequality, as well as a  confrontational response to the idiocy and vulgarity of a male-dominated world, political correctness has now mutated into a set of introjected prohibitions and injunctions. We have probably reached the point where it is fair to ask: Is political correctness the new super-ego?(11) 

At the risk of oversimplifying, I will say that most men I work with oscillate somewhere between these two polarities of machismo and naiveté. Each individual is of course different, yet sometimes the leaning towards these general characteristics is particularly strong. What all of them share is a general sense of unease about being male.

Knights of good conscience

Mark, soft spoken and sensitive in appearance, is committed and hard working. He came to see me because he found it hard to cope with a ruthless environment and a demanding and narcissistic boss.  His entire life was dominated by what he called the “noble aspiration” of wanting to do the right thing: the honourable thing in relation to his wife, the ethical thing in relation to society in general, the correct thing in relation to a challenging work environment.  What made him most unhappy was the fact that he was unable to come to terms with a secret love affair in the past which had nevertheless put him in touch with a part of himself he didn’t know it existed. Paradoxically, the transgression gave him back his own self. It could well be that transgression is, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips argues, “a quest for solitude”(12).
In a life dominated by duty and obligations, transgression and the secretiveness it engenders may paradoxically help compose, particularly in men, the shattered fragments of an inner life

In the end Mark tried to resolve his dilemma by doing what he deemed to be the right thing: he told his wife about the affair. He did so because he hadn’t wanted to “act like a bloke”. But the result was so distressing as to make him question if he had done the right thing after all.  The question remained open, and he told me that having had a “heartfelt and bloke-ish”  conversation in therapy felt very helpful, for at times he seriously doubted whether he was going to spend the rest of his life “going around saying ‘sorry’ to women yet consistently failing to please them”.

Unlike the stereotypical aggressive males whose attitude is born out of defensiveness, naive males are usually gentle, sensitive, dedicated to their work and their partners, yet still profoundly unhappy. What seems to emerge in therapy is the sad feeling of having abdicated something vital, a feeling which at times is voiced as emasculation, a general loss of vitality and trust in oneself.

There is an echo of this in contemporary culture, particularly in the world of advertising, which has now, as Graham Allen argues “used the dumb fool man often paired with sassy, sexy, knowing women”(13).

This is a world where men are “reduced to lager drinking football crazies” whilst the women in film posters exude confidence and sassiness. She always knows what she wants, some media advertising seem to convey, while he is just a “dim witted clown”(13). The conclusions Allen draws from this are unsettling. There seems to be, he writes, a “diminishing visibility of men in a certain confident role [which] is bad for both sexes”.(13)

The nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (14, 15), who continues to have an influence on humanistic and existential psychotherapy, was a champion of subjective experience against the pressures of social conformity.

He wrote of the knight of faith, the person who in response to a higher calling needs to consider at times a suspension of the ethical. This is possible only once the ethical domain has been thoroughly absorbed and embodied. Then there comes a moment when, having ticked all the boxes, obeyed all rules and regulations, a person finds that he/she might be considered ‘ethical’ by society, yet failing to be ethical in a deeper sense. Perhaps a figure like the knight of faith is an anachronism in our day and age. Perhaps the only thing we can manage is to be a knight of good conscience. But that would be a pity, for it would mean that the only way to measure what is ethical is in relation to the general consensus. A man can do what is widely considered the right thing yet betray his internal locus of evaluation. A man can try and accommodate all his wife’s wishes yet lose himself in the process. A man may confess to his partner a past wrong doing only in order to unburden his guilt. A man can apologize to women for his entire life yet fail to be in touch with his very core and thus, in a sense, lose himself.

Is there a cure for prejudice against masculinity?

After reading Nick Duffell’s article in Therapy Today on ‘manifesting men’ (16) a male colleague commented “I am fed up with reading yet another article on deconstructing masculinity!” I was a little bit surprised on hearing this, as I had thought the Duffell’s piece had its merits. Yet I knew what my colleague meant. We have had several decades of  deconstruction of masculinity (17) and they seemed to have fostered, after the valuable feminist critique of the nineteen seventies, more prejudice and division than understanding.

Could it be that we need to reconstruct masculinity? Duffell
is right when he states that group work may well be the antidote for “extreme males”[10], but the question remains as to what kind of group work. A one-sided, overly apologetic stance is still, in my opinion, a denial of masculinity. Subdued, guilt-ridden males might be more manageable for society than aggressive ones in the short run, yet both attitudes equally fail to explore masculinity, and this failure impinges on the wellbeing of the community in the long run. The apologetic stance might also reinforce a puritanical view of therapy, one that is geared towards “evolution”, “greater consciousness”, and “cure” (16) rather than active acceptance of the nitty-gritty, the everyday, and of what Jung used to call the shadow
What is therapy about? Is it searching for the light or rather being more fully aware of the darkness?

Adam Jukes, quoted by Duffell, wrote a book titled Is there a cure for masculinity? (16). Personally, I would rather ask: Is there a way of approaching masculinity with the willingness to listen, feel, and understand?

Is there a way of bracketing our biased views and meet masculinity more directly?
Is there a cure for our current prejudice against masculinity? I sincerely hope the discussion will continue.

All names and circumstances described in the article are fictional


1 The culture of masculinity costs all too much to ignore, the Guardian, 25 November 2011

2 Concise Oxford dictionary, tenth edition New York: Oxford 2001

3 Holloway, The bloke in therapy: Addressing masculinity. In Adlerian Year Book 2007 Wiltshire:
ASIIP pp 65–90

4 Hyde, M., Jeremy Clarson is a rebel
with a cause. That cause is Jeremy. The Guardian 3 December 2011

5 Ansbacher HL, Ansbacher R. The
individual psychology of Alfred Adler. NY: Harper & Row; 1956/1964.

6 Bazzano, M. Cowboys, sailors, & men in drag: masculinity in
person-centred and Adlerian therapy. In Person-Centred Quarterly, May 2008 pp 4-7

7 Bazzano, M. Boy zone: notes on men and therapy, Therapy Today (18) 10 2007

8 Weaver, L. Facilitating change in men who are violent towards women: considering the ethics and efficacy

9 Bly, R. Hillman, J., Meade, M. The rag and bone shop of the
heart: poems for men. New York: Harper Collins, 1992

10 Bly, R. The naive male. In The rag and bone shop of the heart, op cit pp 261-63

11 Bazzano, M. Phenomenology of hospitality
Manuscript 2011

12 Phillips, A., Stag at bay. London review of books 25 August 2011, pp 26-29

13 Allen, G. The diminished visibility male is a problem for both genders

14 Kierkegaard, S., Fear and trembling. London: Penguin 1985

15 Ree, J. & Chamberlain, J. (Eds), Kierkegaard: a critical reader Oxford: Blackwell, 1989

16 Duffell, N. Manifesting men, Therapy today, November 2011 pp 17-20

17 Plant, S. ‘Deconstructing Masculinity

of a person-centred approach, PCEP Volume 7
Number 3 
2008 PCCS Books pp 173-85

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