“Not one of us has a clue what he’s doing. I think it’s one reason many men are finding this moment so hard: we are perceived to have the power, yet most of us feel powerless in relation to our own lives, emotions, relations.” — Richard Godwin, journalist for The Guardian
Let me be clear: I’m an unequivocal believer in equal rights and opportunity. Like too many women, I know from various personal experiences of invasive powerlessness how necessary the #MeToo movement is. The easiest way to trigger me is to infer women are less capable than men or joke about us belonging in the kitchen (not just because I’m an average-at-best cook), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s evisceration of the ‘structure of power that supports violent language against women’ is one of my favourite moments from the shitshow that is 2020.
*Smiles politely* — nice to meet you.
But recently I’ve been exposed to a voice in the gender issues conversation that, for a number of complicated, sensitive and understandably inflammatory reasons doesn’t get as much airtime.
It’s the voice of men. The good ones, the young upcoming ones and the lost ones who want to be better but don’t have the tools or the confidence to say so. But it’s the voice with the same pitch as Ted Yoho, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, the vast majority of sexual assault and violence perpetrators and holders of leadership positions in both the government and private sector.
In the West, it’s shaped by its own archaic gender mould that seeps from our subconscious through our jokes, expectations and labels. It’s fraught with blanket ‘toxic’ branding, stereotypes, vilification, and a significantly higher suicide rate (suicide is reportedly more common in men than women in all countries — in the US and the UK men are over three times more likely to die by suicide than women and in Australia, men account for 75% of suicides).
Right now, we’re muddling through first-in-our-lifetime health and economic threats, attempting long overdue corrections to systemic racial injustice and trying to sustain healthy relationships in isolation — yet women are still enduring a ‘culture of violent language’ and the re-election of a man who boasts about sexually assaulting women to the most prominent political position in the Western world is somehow an actual possibility.
What if we re-examined our structures, perceptions and biases around power and masculinity, from the inside out — from the ground up?
Welcome to my rabbit hole.
It started with a book from the shelf of my current Airbnb, called ‘Manhood: An Action Plan for Changing Men’s Lives’, in which renowned family psychologist and author Steve Biddulph says the ‘enemies, the prisons from which men must escape’ are loneliness, compulsive competition and lifelong emotional timidity:
“(We need to) acknowledge the pain and grief that men feel, because this has been skimmed over for so long by men themselves. Men’s difficulties are with isolation… our enemies are largely on the inside — in the walls we put up around our own hearts. Coming out from behind these walls (slowly, carefully) will mean that men can change and grow — to our own benefit and to the great benefit of women and children.”
Of course — the difficulties faced by men of different races, sexualities, socioeconomic backgrounds and personal life experiences are vast and cannot be generalised. And as a 30-year-old cisgender female my understanding of the pain and grief men of any identity feel is strictly limited, as may be the case for you. But when we think of our fathers, grandfathers, sons, brothers, partners, friends — acknowledging any isolating ‘enemies-on-the-inside’ feels pretty urgent. For everyone’s sake.
But that book is almost as old as me (published in 1994) and reportedly the male:female suicide ratio has increased, male loneliness has been named a silent epidemic and ‘growing global concern’, among heterosexual couples significantly more females initiate divorce and suffer less afterward, and in Australia, one in three men believe there is no-one to help them out if they’re in need.
In Biddulph’s words: “Our marriages fail, our kids hate us, we die from stress and on the way we destroy the world. Men and women are co-victims in a pattern of living and relating that is in drastic need of revision. Simply blaming men doesn’t change a thing. We need help to change ourselves.”
Naturally, on thinking of individuals like Yoho, Weinstein and some men I’ve personally encountered — not laying blame is impossible. But — our pattern of relating could definitely use some revision, and if we paint all men with the same blanket-blaming brush, won’t it just alienate and worsen their isolation? Will it aggravate the most vulnerable — to emotionally withhold and jeopardise relationships, to abuse women and children, use power to overcompensate for fear and inadequacy, and perpetuate the victim/oppressor cycle?
Of course, it can’t be that simplistic — and it absolutely cannot take the responsibility off men themselves (as journalist Richard Godwin noted in his experience at a men’s group: “Women shouldn’t have to perform the emotional labour of teaching men how not to harass them — just as it shouldn’t be down to people of colour to call out racism”).
Still, it’s food for thought.
Here’s some more. Growing international research claims that huge numbers of men are victims of domestic violence (in Australia, men reportedly account for 43% of all victims of Family and Domestic Violence-related Murders) but many don’t report it because they’re too ashamed or ‘think they won’t be believed’. This social experiment conducted by a charity in Britain in 2014 (which reported 40% of domestic violence victims were men at that time) shows onlookers laughing at a man being physically assaulted by his female partner in public, rather than offering to help.
When it comes to education, boys fall significantly behind in the classroom, are more likely to develop behavioural problems and less likely to go to university. In the US, the lesser educated keep Trump in power.
Despite the much-needed spotlight on the gender pay gap, research indicates the expectation of men to be the providers remains entrenched in Western culture and many countries are a long way from equal parental leave rights for fathers. There’s also a lag in our cultural narrative around the emotional capacity of working dads. Leading political commentator Annabel Crabb says it sends a strong message when we don’t ask family men how they ‘balance it all’ — a question working mums have to answer all the time.
“It says, ‘No one expects you to care about this.’ It says, ‘Whatever efforts you do make, or whatever private griefs your big job cloaks, are not of interest to anyone.’ And for an increasing number of young fathers who do want to live their lives differently from the way their own fathers did, that’s an insult. It’s an antiquated view of what fatherhood is.”
Dave Pickering, who surveyed over 1,000 men for Mansplaining Masculinity, told The Guardian: “The main breadwinner is not a pleasant place to be. The person who is expected to use violence to defend people is not a healthy place to be. More men are in the army, men are more likely to hurt other men, and it’s often because they’re policing masculinity… Hating ourselves is part of social conditioning.”
While none of this can — or should — detract from feminism’s fight for political, social and financial equity, it begs the question — is it always such a privilege to be a male? If the gender structures ingrained in our patriarchal system are also harming men — how can we acknowledge and address their issues for the greater, equality-seeking good?
For men themselves, men’s groups offer a safe space and healthy forum to talk, connect and share experiences. Some offer regular sessions as well as one-off workshops and weekends away — while some are all digital.
Psychotherapist and author of ‘Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege’ Nick Duffell told The Guardian: “Men are very unskilled when it comes to relationships and dealing with their emotions. We need to train them to be better at vulnerability, better at relating — and when they begin to do that, the power they develop is more authentic.”
The same article quotes David Fuller, founder of a UK-based men’s group that runs workshops and courses themed around ‘clarity & connection’. He contends that a man must ‘do the work to develop his own independence and grow into a relaxed masculine confidence that is not threatened by the feminine’. He also said the election of Trump ‘spoke to a deep dysfunction around our ideas of healthy masculinity’ and highlighted the danger of a social narrative that ‘there’s something about masculinity that is fundamentally toxic.’
Fuller concludes that we, as a society, need to redefine ‘healthy masculinity’; one that is ‘no better or worse than femininity, but stands as its opposite, equal pole’.
The notion that men’s issues intersect with feminism’s plight for a more balanced society is supported by Biddulph — who believes addressing masculinity is the ‘the women’s movement’s missing half’. He says it starts with ‘7 steps to manhood’: “‘Fixing it’ with your fathers, finding sacredness in your sexuality, meeting your partner on equal terms, engaging actively with your kids, learning to have real male friends, finding heart in your work, and freeing your wild spirit”.
Detangling the frayed thread of masculinity without threatening to unravel the much-needed and still-in-progress of feminism is delicate to say the least. The knots are wound even tighter by the radicals on either side of the spectrum — whose fear-driven extremism drowns out the valid, rational voices in the middle.
Ironically, it seems a lot of those voices in the middle are calling out for similar things: an end to the reign of toxic narcissists who give many men a bad name, equity in the workplace and balanced expectations at home, better relationships, quality time with the kids — and at the risk of oversimplifying, perhaps just a little understanding from each other.
It’s extremely complex territory and there’s certainly no easy fix, but perhaps fostering open conversations is a good place to start.