Gender Equality and the New Psychology of Men: Comment on "The Politics of Gender in Family Therapy"
Levant, Ronald F., Journal of Marital and Family Therapy
Knudson-Martin (1997) presents a very thoughtful, balanced, and penetrating discussion of the politics of gender in family therapy. I find myself in fundamental agreement with the author, particularly in her assertions that: (1) all social interaction has a political component, whether recognized or not; (2) gender is such a central organizing schema in family and social life that one "cannot not do gender"; but (3) most people are, in fact, unaware of the role that gender ideologies have played in the development of their personalities and continue to play in the structuring of their adult lives; and, as a consequence, (4) both therapists and clients misinterpret the meaning of gendered behavior and/or fail to recognize its underlying political implications.
Knudson-Martin also delineates three points on the continuum of marital and family therapy practice with respect to gender (the "cultural differences" approach, the "power differences" approach, and the "gender as process" approach), highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. I have to point out that I had trouble placing myself in one of these three categories (actually finding elements of all three in my work), and thus I wonder whether gender-aware therapeutic approaches are more complex than this schema allows.
Finally, Knudson-Martin discusses the ethical dilemmas that arise from intervening in the politics of gender. Since gender is so ubiquitous that therapists and clients alike are constantly constructing gender, and since the gendered nature of family problems is "usually invisible to clients and [therefore] not likely to be raised by them," therapists face ethical dilemmas in deciding how to respond (or not respond) to the hidden gender implications of family interaction and conflict. Knudson-Martin places these dilemmas in the larger context of the therapist's use of self and power, therapist neutrality, and the moral consequences of therapy, and she offers a consistent set of suggestions for practice based on her understanding of gender as process and of the therapist's role as making the invisible visible.
After reading the paper I found myself mulling over how very difficult it is to achieve gender equality in any context, therapeutic or otherwise. I have just written up a case study of a couple who had a truly "postmodern" marriage, both being fast-paced professionals who pledged equality at the beginning of their relationship, but who experienced a nearly complete reversion to stereotyped roles after the birth of their first child. Fifteen months later, they managed to move closer to their professed goal of equality, but not without tremendous struggle and sacrifice (Levant & Silverstein, 1997). The gains that this couple achieved were facilitated by a deep understanding of gender, particularly the male gender, and how certain aspects of masculinity make change difficult.
It is my view that unexamined aspects of masculinity may account for much of the variance in failures to achieve gender equality, both in therapy and in the larger social context. These unexamined aspects can be expressed as two themes, which at first blush may sound as if they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but in reality interact in complex ways: (1) the greater power and privilege accorded to men in a patriarchal society (Kaufman, 1994); and (2) the vulnerabilities and severe limitations that accrue to most men by virtue of their gender role socialization under traditional masculinity ideology (Levant & Kopecky, 1995). Hence, in the spirit of making the invisible (or at least less visible) visible, I have decided to make a few comments about the newer perspectives on the psychology of men. Of necessity, these comments will be brief. For more information, the reader is directed to some of the newer writings in this area (Andronico,1996; Betcher & Pollack,1993; Brooks, 1995; Eisler, 1995; Krugman, 1995; Lazur & Majors, 1995; Levant & Brooks, 1997; Levant & Pollack, 1995; Morris, 1997; O'Neil, Good, & Holmes, 1995; Pasick, 1992; Pleck, 1995; Silverstein, 1996). …