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.

“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”

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”

How do we know a toxic masculinity when we see it?

By CJ Pascoe

It seems that toxic masculinity – men’s problematic gender practices entailing violence, sexual aggression, emotional repression and dominance – is everywhere. I recently keynoted a conference at Oregon State University entitled “Moving Upstream: Examining the Sources of Toxic Masculinity to Create Healthier Communities.” Thanks to the internet we know that Wolverine is an example of it. The GOP is full of it. Both (former) Bernie and (current) Trump supporters embody it in their contempt for women. People are debating examples of it on the internet. Books are being written about it.

Men are blogging about freeing themselves from toxic masculinity and its deadly effects. They are simultaneously drowning in it and deeply invested in distancing themselves from it. Even men who arguably exemplify toxic masculinity seek to avoid the label.  Take for example Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman. Even though two eyewitnesses watched him sexually assault the woman, he insists “in no way was I trying to rape anyone.

This is “good guy” syndrome. Good guys aren’t sexist, they aren’t racist, and they think gays are okay and they definitely do not condone sexual assault. Brock Turner’s “good guy” syndrome is not unique. An article I wrote with Jocelyn Hollander, “Good Guys Don’t Rape,” documents how young men distance themselves from identities as rapists even as they describe behaviors that look an awful lot like sexual assault—and, indeed, certainly meets the legal definition. Take Chad, a popular high school football player:

When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the 8th grade…The majority of the girls in 8th and 9th grade were just stupid. We already knew what we were doing. They didn’t know what they were doing you know?… Like say, comin’ over to our house like past 12. What else do you do past 12? Say we had a bottle of alcohol or something. I’m not saying we forced it upon them.  I’m sayin’… Continue reading “How do we know a toxic masculinity when we see it?”

Getting Real About Men and Household Labor

By Kristen Myers

Fox News in Chicago recently invited me to do a Father’s Day segment during the noon news hour explaining how “Dads today are better than ever!” Aiming for a feel-good piece celebrating dads, they prompted me to talk about how “real men” cuddle with their children. On the one hand, I cringed at the use of the term, “real men.” What is a “real man?” Although sociologists have shown that there is no one right way to be a man, the notion of “real” manhood remains salient in the popular imagination. The expression, “real men do x,” is typically used to call men out, to shame those who don’t do x into “manning up.” The popularity of language like “real men man up” reminds us that the rules we’ve made for men haven’t actually relaxed all that much, even though some dads are able to interact with their children in ways that their own dads never could have.

Myers_1On the other hand, Fox News was using the expression “real men cuddle” ironically, to encourage traditional men to do something non-traditional, like show emotion. This gave me an opportunity to focus on ways that men can do things differently than they have in the past, how they’re “undoing gender,” as Francine Deutsch would say. More men today are able to physically and emotionally bond with their children without risking a blow to their manhood. The Pew Research Center has documented trends in the work world and the household that are permitting dads to be more involved than ever in childrearing and housework. The time is ripe for men, no matter how traditional, to take advantage of these shifts. Sometimes these men must be pushed out of their comfort zones in order to take the first steps. Continue reading “Getting Real About Men and Household Labor”

Even the Thought of Earning Less than Their Wives Changes How Men Behave

By Dan Cassino * 

Masculinity is a fragile thing. Volumes of research in sociology and political science over the past 20 years have shown that men often react in surprisingly strong ways to what they see as threats to their masculine identities. These reactions are most visible in the political world, but they can take place at home and in the office as well, and can potentially contribute to a toxic work environment.

A notable recent example of how men react to a threat to their masculinity comes from a survey experiment that I carried out with my colleagues at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll. The experiment was embedded in a standard political survey with one unusual question, which asked married or cohabitating respondents if they earned more, less, or about the same as their spouses. Half of the respondents were randomly assigned to get this question early on in the survey, and half were assigned to get it only at the end of the survey.

Now, this question wasn’t there because we cared about the actual answers. We know that about 15% of U.S. men make less than their spouses do — a figure that’s highly dependent on age, with younger men being much more likely than older men to earn the same or less than their spouses. The reason we asked the question was to push men to think about potential threats to their gender roles. Being the breadwinner has been a linchpin of U.S. men’s masculinity for decades, so even the potential of making less than one’s spouse threatens accepted gender roles. Continue reading “Even the Thought of Earning Less than Their Wives Changes How Men Behave”

“Cloudy Visibility”: Men’s inner emotional lives are more complicated than you might think

By Joseph R. Schwab, Michael E. Addis, Christopher S. Reigeluth, and Joshua L. Berger

Stereotypes of men tell us that they are stoic, unemotional, and in general not very interested in talking about their feelings. This is what women do, so the stereotype goes, and men are often assumed to be uninterested in engaging with the “feminine” side of life. And as stereotypes go, many of us are guilty of perpetuating this assumption about men’s inner emotional lives. We may not ask men about difficulties they may have recently experienced, or about “softer” emotions like sadness, grief, loneliness, or anxiety. Men themselves also perpetuate this stereotype by not talking to other people about the struggles they may be experiencing in order to appear strong and appropriately masculine.

Man walking

But if you talk to men about their emotional struggles––really sit down with them and ask the tough, introspective questions about what’s going on emotionally for them––you might be surprised by what they say. We recently did this in a study interviewing white adult men in the Northeast United States who were relatively educated and affluent. All of the men we interviewed had recently gone through a difficult life event, such as divorce, job loss, or severe illness, and we asked them questions about what that experience was like and who they talked to about it. What we found was a complicated picture of men both fulfilling the stereotype we have of them by not dealing with and talking about their feelings, while at the same time also counteracting that stereotype by openly expressing emotions about the difficulties they recently faced. What was most interesting about our findings is that every man we spoke with displayed both expression and concealment of emotion within the same interview. Continue reading ““Cloudy Visibility”: Men’s inner emotional lives are more complicated than you might think”