We Need To Talk About Men
Nat Jester dissects masculinity and tries to get us talking about the problems men face today.
Content note: this article discusses suicide and sexual assault.
Being a feminist, I care a lot about the damage society does to men. Men face lots of specific problems but it’s pretty hard to discuss them. Let’s give it a go, shall we?
Let’s consider some of the problems men face.
If theory isn’t your thing, look away now. Raewyn Connell argues that, while men almost always have power over women, there is a ranking of men/masculinities, which gives some men more power than others. We can use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality (the point at which the different parts of your identity meet) to unpick this. For example, two men will have different life experiences if one has a disability and the other doesn’t, although they both share sex in common. So, despite the fact that men are almost always the dominant ones, they still face some specific problems, especially those from groups that are disadvantaged such as ethnic minorities (BME men are more likely to be stopped and searched) or working class people (working class boys usually underachieve at school).
Ok, I’m done with the theory now (mostly), you can start paying attention again.
Let’s consider some of the problems men face. According to Crisis, 74% of homelessness people are men. This problem is getting worse; in Bristol there was a 137% increase in rough sleepers between 2014 and 2015 alone. Working class boys under-achieve at school, as mentioned above, and men feel a huge amount of pressure to be the main breadwinners and provide for their family. As Joe Ehrmann puts it in an excellent TEDx talk, ‘We live in a society where all kinds of men associate their self-worth with their net worth’.
Are you having a good day?
Are you having a good day? Well, I’m about to really ruin it for you (sorry). Every year, 4,625 men will take their own lives. Men comprise ¾ of UK suicide victims, and suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50. I really wish that was an exaggeration, but it’s not. When you add all of this together, you can see why people are saying there is a crisis of masculinity
Society tells men that they must be unemotional breadwinners with chiselled bodies. This, my friends, is the fault of patriarchy, which is basically male domination of women. When society values a particular way of being (masculinity) over another (femininity) anyone who doesn’t perform the ‘correct’ way for their sex is punished. What this basically means is that patriarchy sucks for a lot of men, too, because they can never live up to the male idea. bell hooks says feminism is for everybody and as Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, keeps saying that means men, too.
Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Men’s Issues?
One reason it’s hard to talk about men’s problems is that we’re taught to see most things as ‘neutral’ – usually this benefits men. For example, it’s often seen as an accident that there are so many men in parliament. They happen to be ‘better’ at getting in, right? Not exactly. This idea of neutrality hides a gendered idea of merit because ‘good politician’ is defined in a way that favours men and disadvantages women. As in the case of homelessness, this neutrality hides a rather male problem.
Mark Brooks, chairman of the ManKind Initiative to prevent domestic violence against men, is wrong to say that domestic violence is not a ‘gendered crime’. It is gendered in two important ways: firstly, the perpetrators are actually mostly men, there is no getting away from that. Secondly men face different challenges in coping, coming forward and securing convictions. Men may feel that their masculinity has been challenged, or that people will laugh at them, for example.
To solve difficult problems, we must understand who is affected, how and why.
To solve difficult problems, we must understand who is affected, how and why.
Secondly, language creates boundaries, telling us how things exist. As Jutta Weldes puts it, articulation is the ‘process through which meaning is produced out of extant cultural materials or linguistic resources’ (p.284). Articulation is basically the way that one idea gets connected to another. If our culture and language tells us that ‘boys don’t cry’ and to ‘man up’ then we will form a particular idea of what it means to be a man based on these things. This excellent Huffington Post video provides more of these damaging examples.
Thirdly, a small minority of men seem intent on making all discussions about them, reacting badly when challenged about this behaviour. Last time this happened I was called a feminazi (ding ding, Godwin’s law), while someone else suggested that I wanted to kill all men (and even kittens). Amazingly enough, I do not in fact want to kill all men (let alone all kittens). All I wanted was to have a discussion about women’s issues without someone (always a man) trying to change the subject back to men. This attempt to move the conversation away from the original point of discussion (in this case, women) is called derailing
It is unfortunate and hugely insulting to the men suffering from any of the problems mentioned above to be reduced to a single bullet point on the list of someone whose only aim is to stop discussion of issues affecting women. Not only does it prevent us talking properly about what impacts upon women’s lives, it also affords shamefully inadequate time to unpicking the problems facing men specifically, making it harder to solve them.
What Can We Do About This?
So far, this article is pretty depressing. Don’t lose hope though, dear readers, because there is something YOU can do about it.
1) Mind Your Language
Telling kids that ‘boys don’t cry’ will turn them into men that don’t cry. If our language shapes our ideas of the world and we don’t like what we see, then we can start by changing our language. It can be hard to unlearn this stuff, but try to pick yourself up on it if you catch yourself telling someone to ‘be a man’. If you feel comfortable doing it, call your friends out, too.
2) Talk to your mates
This is probably both one of the easiest and hardest things on this list. Girls are stereotyped as being chatty and surrounded by friends at all times, but according to my male friends, men don’t really share much with each other. Perhaps because they don’t want to be seen as weak, they don’t talk about relationship troubles or when they’re feeling sad – they need to know that it’s ok to do this. If you think your friend is having a tough time, talk to them about it.
3) Be a good male role model
Last year I saw an excellent TEDx talk by Bristol-born Daniel Edmund at the Colston Hall. Apart from his excellent suit, what struck me about Daniel is that he seems like such a good role model for young men and boys. He delivered a heartfelt talk about the challenges facing modern men in a way that did not seek to bring women down. Not content to sit by and do nothing, he set up the website milkfortea.com to bring men together to talk about the issues that affect them.
Men, especially young men, need role models like Daniel. I asked some male friends who they considered to be good male role models and they eventually came up with David Beckham and Andy Murray (my list featured Tony Porter, co-founder of A Call to Men which promotes healthy attitudes to masculinity, and the hilarious Terry Crews, an actor who often talks about masculinity)
You’re probably wondering what this got to do with you. Well, it’s pretty simple: if you’re a man, be a good role model. The Good Men Project has some tips here for being a good role model for boys (Global Post has some good ones, too). Raymond Nelson is a great example of an ordinary man making a difference. A teacher in South Carolina, he has set up a Gentleman’s Club to teach young boys how to be a good man (honestly, if you need some cheering up, have a look at these boys in their little suits, they are so cute).
Young boys aren’t the only ones who need male role models, though. You can also be a good role model for other men, whether that means demonstrating to a classmate that you respect the women in the room, or showing your male friends that it’s ok to have emotions. We pay attention to the people around us, and that means that someone is probably looking to you, even if you don’t know it.
Fun fact: ‘good male dog names’ is the first of Google’s four autocomplete suggestions. ‘Good male role models’ doesn’t make the list.
4) Make space to discuss men’s issues
We need to open up space to talk about men’s issues specifically (as opposed to invading discussions about women’s problems in the same area). There are already lots of websites set up by men who hate women and blame us for all of their problems. We need alternatives for these, whether in person or online, to stop disaffected young men looking up to people like the guy who suggested preventing rape by making it legal (no, I can’t quite believe it either).
Last year I was on a Young People’s Festival of Ideas panel about men/masculinity which was attended by over 100 young people. While we didn’t all agree about everything, discussion was both civilised and thoughtful, and a good example of what these spaces could look like.
The University of Bristol Student Union is also working on men’s mental health, recognising that more needs to be done. Their excellent Mind Your Head campaign will run events specifically on Men and Mental Health, in connection with CALM. The current student living officer, Sarah Redrup, even had a manifesto commitment to this which is a brilliant step in the right direction.
There is evidence that the strategy of targeting men produces good results. For example, Scotland launched a men’s mental health initiative in 2000 and over the next ten years or so, male suicides fell by 21% (compared to a heart-breaking increase of 39% in Northern Ireland). These things take not just money but time and effort, and many of us can probably donate at least one of these things.
Men face lots of specific problems, which are hard to talk about for a whole variety of reasons. Although some of the solutions are harder than others, there are simple things that YOU can do in your day to day life to make the world a better place. I’m in – are you?
Huge thanks to A, C, G, M, N, S and T for their useful suggestions for this piece.