From Typical Dudes to Sensitive Men: Gender Dilemmas in a Therapeutic Boarding School

By Jessica Pfaffendorf

Nearly twenty years ago, a special report appeared in The New York Times focusing on a surge in specialized residential schools and therapeutic programs that exist within a new, multi-billion dollar industry for America’s troubled youth. These programs – commonly called therapeutic boarding schools or “emotional growth” schools – target a variety of issues among teens today: substance abuse, depression, anxiety, anorexia, and other behavioral and psychological problems. Through intensive counseling, rigorous structure, and even wilderness or animal-assisted therapy, the programs promise support for out-of-control teens. Though the schools vary in terms of the issues they treat, what they typically have in common is cost. The New York Times special report called these programs a “desperate measure” for parents because they are prohibitively expensive: thousands of dollars per month and hundreds of thousands for the full (usually year-long) duration. At these costs, treatment in one of these programs is only available to a few very wealthy families. As Bloomsberg Businessweek states, it is “rehab for the young and rich.” Despite provocative media coverage and their rapid rise over the past few decades (from only a handful in the 1990s to almost 300 today), there has been virtually no sociological research on therapeutic boarding schools or young men and women within them.

Drawing on in-depth interviews and ethnographic fieldwork inside a Western, all-male therapeutic boarding school for substance abuse, this article explores how privileged young men navigate the unique therapeutic environment, particularly with respect to conflicting notions of masculinity. Young men in the program participate in a variety of intensive therapies, but the 12-step program and equine therapy involving horseback riding and horse care are the most central. Other scholars have noted that these therapies that rely on acceptance of powerlessness, open expression of emotion, humility, and relationship building are more consistent with the emotional and relational nature of well-being among women. Indeed, one equine therapist writes that “the experience allows one to move from the masculine postmodern world of logic, control, and outcome production to the feminine stance of intuition, experience, and process” (Porter-Wenzlaff 2007, 531). Put this way, these therapies actually operate to strip away masculine characteristics replacing them with qualities more commonly associated with femininities and subordinate masculinities.

JessicaFor the young, mostly white, upper-class men I observed, this presents a significant “gender dilemma.” In other words, the behavioral and expressive qualities emphasized in the therapeutic environment clash with dominant notions of masculinity – particularly privileged masculinities associated with control, competition, and toughness that students embodied prior to enrollment in the program. My study outlines the ways that privileged young men navigate this dilemma by constructing “hybrid masculinities.” The term “hybrid masculinity” refers to a masculine gender form that incorporates identity elements associated with femininities or subordinate masculinities. However, these “unmasculine” elements tend to be incorporated strategically in ways that reproduce and obscure privilege and gender inequality. Outwardly, young men in later stages of the program seemed to have fully embraced the humble, sensitive, and service-oriented dispositions promoted in the program (despite extreme resistance in earlier stages). In my interviews and informal conversations with students, they spoke at length about their feelings, expressed their emotions openly, and freely admitted past wrongdoings and feelings of guilt.

However, they also mobilized these new emotional dispositions to subtly (re)assert dominance vis-à-vis various “others.” Most frequently, they compared themselves to “other guys” who they deemed, by contrast, immature, entitled, and selfish. By communicating emotion and responding maturely in difficult situations, students made claims of being “better” by distancing themselves from some of the negative cultural perceptions associated with young men (Kimmel, 2008). In several cases, young men in the program gave examples of how their “sensitive” masculine styles marked them as unique and more desirable, particularly in fields like dating. They also mobilized their transformations to assert leadership positions in families and in more typical therapeutic contexts (off-site support groups, for instance).

This article uses a previously unexamined case to explore how privileged young men navigate ruptures in hegemonic masculinity by constructing hybrid masculinities. In doing so, it extends the burgeoning line of research showing that masculine styles that appear out of sync with hegemonic masculinity may still reproduce systems of power and inequality in new, “softer” ways (Bridges and Pascoe 2014). Although young men in therapeutic boarding schools adopt “feminized” dispositions, these dispositions are mobilized in ways that help them to maintain privileges associated with being young, white, upper-class, and male.

Jessica Pfaffendorf is a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology at the University of Arizona. Her research interests include culture, social psychology, inequality and stratification, and gender. Her most recent article “Sensitive Cowboys: Privileged Young Men and the Mobilization of Hybrid Masculinities” can be found in the April 31 (2) 2017 issue of Gender & Society.

Gender & Society: Table Of Contents, Volume 31, No. 2

GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 31 No. 2
Read this issue on SAGE: http://gas.sagepub.com/content/current.

Even though the work to put out each issue happens far inCropped_APRIL_ 2017 advance, often the articles align with the news of the day. Starting with this issue’s cover from the Women’s March in Boston earlier this year to the lead article on the influence policies have on gendered identities. April’s Gender & Society offers analyses of transgender admittance polices at women’s colleges, the longitudinal decision-making process of heterosexual couples, as well as how masculinity and sexual identities are constructed in three different contexts from a therapeutic boarding school to a Christian Hardcore punk concert to an urban public square in Senegal. Continue reading “Gender & Society: Table Of Contents, Volume 31, No. 2”

“Massive” Masculinity and the Mainstreaming of the Alt-Right in the West

By Kristen Myers and Kirk Miller

In July, 2016, we collected data about the impact of mass immigration of Syrian refugees on perceptions of safety in Western Europe.  We interviewed five people in Kaiserslautern, Germany, who had been instrumental in integrating Syrians into their community: providing housing, German classes, and family services.  These subjects hoped the refugees would reside permanently, would become Germans.  Our research assistant and interpreter, Sebastian Dodt, thought we should also hear opposing viewpoints.  He arranged for us to meet two members of the right-wing party, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).  We met a party candidate and a party member at a remote restaurant.  The table where they sat was covered with pamphlets, stacks of books, and miniature table-top German flags.  A ledge running around the room was filled with taxidermied animals—eagles, foxes, badgers—all poised for attack, teeth bared and claws out.  The men were eager to begin.  The candidate began to speak loudly, reading from prepared comments, gesticulating furiously, pounding on the table.  Although we do not speak German, we understood key words repeated throughout the conversation: “Kriminellen;” “Immigrant;” “Terrorismus;” “Angst;” “Muslim.”  The entire experience was disturbing.  Feeling déjà vu, we asked each other, who do they remind us of? The answer: Donald Trump.

Since then, we have been analyzing the similarities between the Trump campaign and the AfD.  They have many rhetorical parallels.  For example, in commenting about asylum-seekers and refugees in Germany, the party candidate said this:

All in all there has been a lot of changes in Germany. Our democracy is saying goodbye.  The will of the people is being ignored.  Critics are being criminalized.  Criminals are being spared and praised.  Our rights are being limited. Laws are flouted. Women are becoming victims. Continue reading ““Massive” Masculinity and the Mainstreaming of the Alt-Right in the West”

Religious Women in the Transnational Era

By Gowoon Jung

How do individuals adapt to a changing multicultural society and negotiate the tensions and contradictions of macro-social transition? I pose this question within the context of South Korea (hereafter Korea) and focus attention on emerging, transnationally mobile and religiously conservative young women. The two religious organizations that have allowed me to have an insight into the way women adapt are the World Vision Church (an evangelical Protestant Church) and the Unification Church. Being in the field and talking to people in these churches for seven months meant I could experience how Asian societies are becoming ethnically and culturally more plural.GNS_GowoonJung

After an official preaching at 12:30 pm at World Vision Church in Seoul, ten new visitors gathered to introduce themselves in a large hall. One Korean woman, Sunhee Yang, had lived in New Jersey for five years and came to the church upon her arrival in Seoul. She had heard about the Vision vice-pastor Kim’s leadership from her church friends in New Jersey. Another woman, Nari, who had worked on Wall Street for more than six years, also visited the church. The stories of Sunhee and Nari exemplify those of many Korean Evangelical Protestant women who have travelled overseas for advanced education or careers. Continue reading “Religious Women in the Transnational Era”

Masculinity and Fidelity in Pop Music

By Tristan Bridges

Two songs that seemed like they were on the radio every time I tuned into a pop station last summer were Omi’s single, “Cheerleader” (originally released in 2015) and Andy Grammar’s song, “Honey, I’m good” (originally released in 2014). They’re both songs written for mass consumption. Between 2014 and 2015, “Cheerleader” topped the charts in over 20 countries around the world. And, while “Honey, I’m Good” had less mass appeal, it similarly found its way onto top hit lists around the world.

They’re different genres of music. But they both fall under the increasingly meaningless category of “pop.”  Pop musicAnd, because they both gained popularity around the same time, it was possible to hear them back to back on radio stations across the U.S.  Both songs are about the same issue: each are ballads sung by men celebrating themselves for being faithful in their heterosexual relationships.  Below is Omi’s “Cheerleader.” The video is here. Here is the chorus:

“All these other girls are tempting / But I’m empty when you’re gone / And they say / Do you need me? / Do you think I’m pretty? / Do I make you feel like cheating? / And I’m like no, not really cause / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her”

In Omi’s song, he situates himself as uninterested in cheating because he’s found a woman who believes in him more than he does. And this, he suggests, is worth his fidelity. Though, he does admit to being tempted, which also works to situate him as laudable because he “has options.”

Andy Grammar’s song is a different genre. And like Omi’s song, it’s catchy (though, apparently less catchy if pop charts are a good measure). Grammar’s video is dramatically different as well. It’s full of couples lip syncing his song while claiming amounts of time they’ve been faithful to one another. Again, and for comparison, the video is here; below is the chorus:

“Nah nah, honey I’m good / I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone / No, honey I’m good, I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve gotta bid you adieu and to another I will stay true” Continue reading “Masculinity and Fidelity in Pop Music”

Perfectly Normal Mothers?

By Angela Frederick

Gender scholars have been critical of the expectations placed upon women to accomplish a perfect version of motherhood. Yet, as I argue in my recent Gender & Society article, what we have often understood to be a “perfection project” is in fact a “normalcy project.” Exemplified by our celebration of infants born with all ten fingers and all ten toes, we desire, not perfect babies, but normal babies. Under the guidance of medical and scientific experts, mothers are expected to devote ample amounts of their energy and resources to the project of preventing disability and other unwelcome differences in their children.

Women themselves are also expected to possess “normal” bodies as they carry out the demands of modern motherhood. Yet, how do mothers who do not have typical bodies – those with disabilities – experience these ideals? I explore this question through interviews and focus groups with mothers who have physical and sensory disabilities. I find these Deaf women and disabled women experience a profound paradox of visibility as they mother. Continue reading “Perfectly Normal Mothers?”

The woman behind the man: unemployed men, their wives, and the emotional labor of job-searching

 

ByAliya Hamid Rao

“How’re you going to find a job when you have no confidence and are very emotional?”

Emily Bader, an office administrator asked me this rhetorical question when I interviewed her about her husband’s unemployment. Emily was worried about her husband, Brian, currently unemployed, who used to work as a project manager. She was concerned about the personality he projected when he went on job interviews. She thought he needed to be confident and upbeat. In his interview with me, Brian agreed with this.

But, after half a year of being unemployed and job-searching, Brian was down in the dumps. Projecting cheer was difficult for him. Emily worried about Brian, but she also worried about when and whether he would find a job. She worried for their future.unemployment

Being unemployed is difficult. There is a lot on the line: money, your relationship with your spouse (especially if you’re a man), and feelings of shame and stigma are just some of the negative impacts of unemployment.

But if you’re a white-collar worker, job-searching means showing your best side even you feel your worst. It means convincing potential employers that you not only have the right skills, but, as on a date, you also have “chemistry” with the employers. As sociological research has shown, job-searching and going on job interviews requires tremendous amounts of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild called emotional labor – “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display.” Continue reading “The woman behind the man: unemployed men, their wives, and the emotional labor of job-searching”