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Men Are Being Asked to Open Up, But Are We Prepared to Listen When They Do?

02/12/2015 12:13 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

The cultural conversation around men and masculinity often feels less like a public discussion and more like a rhetorical battleground.

But if it's a chaotic and hard-fought debate during most of the year, this November, during the month highlighting men's health issues and International Men's Day, the thrusts and parries were enough to make your head spin.

In Parliament, we saw Jess Phillips MP's derision at the idea of a debate about men's issues on International Men's Day, lead to that exact thing taking place for the very first time; at the University of York, a veto on marking the day by 193 feminist academics and students, prompted a feminist-led petition in support of the day signed by thousands; and most recently, student George Lawlor, who was attacked across the national press for refusing to attend a sexual consent course, was offered a compassionate hearing on about as mainstream a TV show as there is - ITV's This Morning.

On International Men's Day itself, there were a slew of articles mocking the day, but it also felt as if more national news outlets than ever gave a platform to powerful and informed defenses of why there needs to be public recognition of the gendered issues men face.

At the heart of each of these stories is the same conflict - our society's deep ambivalence and discomfort about men speaking out about the issues they face.

Men given mixed messages

On the one hand, men are being told more than ever that they must open up, that their refusal to overcome traditional masculine ideals of strength and stoicism is the source of a multitude of their own and society's problems - the need to help men express their anxieties in order to stem the tide of male suicides, became the unofficial central theme for this year's International Men's Day.

But on the other hand, men are also repeatedly told their voices are too dominant, that speaking about the issues that affect them amounts to giving a special platform to the already privileged, and as a result of this perceived privilege, the only gender issues they should really be speaking out on are those that affect women.

At times, men even appear to be asked to do both at once: called on to open up about the experience of being a man, but then told which parts of that experience are acceptable to discuss.

November's fraught public discussion about men and masculinity was book-ended by last weekend's Being A Man festival at London's Southbank Centre. Now in its second year, I attended the event with no small degree of trepidation, because the first BAM in 2014 was very much driven by the belief that when it comes to exploring men's issues, there are only certain issues that are acceptable to discuss - the ones sanctioned by feminism.

An evolving conversation?

For example, there were talks about why men should be feminists, but none on why they shouldn't be; there were discussions about why male violence against women is a problem, but none on the problem of female perpetrators and male victims; while another panel explained why porn is bad for you, but offered no perspectives on how men can explore, express and celebrate their sexuality.

But on attending the Saturday session of this year's three-day event, despite my heart initially sinking when the first talk I heard was a keynote speech about male sexual violence against women, it seemed to me the range of issues tackled during the rest of the day and how they were addressed, was yet another indicator of how rapidly the conversation about men and masculinity is evolving.

At a talk about depictions of men in TV and film, both the audience and panellists warmly accepted the idea that society is far too tolerant of violence against men in the media and that this is a reflection of our greater tolerance of violence against men and boys in real life; at this year's panel debate about porn, there was none of the demonising of male sexuality that had gone on in the previous year; and most powerful of all, there was an extraordinary panel discussion about the need to raise awareness and support for male victims of rape.

Breaking into the mainstream

I think it's fantastic that this discussion is now breaking into the mainstream, from Parliament to the Southbank Centre, because I believe it's imperative that men are encouraged to speak about what it means to be a man. But I also believe it's essential that people truly listen when they do. That doesn't mean you have to agree with everything these men say, but it does mean listening in a way that allows them to be heard.

It's this guiding principle that inspired insideMAN's new book of forty writers about men and masculinity - three of whom also spoke at BAM this year. What came shining through as soon as we called out for contributors, was the richness and vibrancy with which men spoke about their experiences.

From the story of a father who lost a child through his wife's miscarriage, to a gay Methodist minister explaining how he reconciles his sexuality with his religion, to the views of a campaigner against male circumcision, every single voice is inspiring and unexpected in equal measure.

It was telling that during this November's high-profile skirmishes about men and masculinity, the core issue under discussion was the crisis in male suicide. What everyone appeared to agree on, was that a central plank in tackling this public health emergency is finding ways to encourage men to talk more openly about their fears and anxieties. But what is still very much up for grabs, is whether we're really prepared to hear them when they do.

Dan Bell is an award-winning journalist, Features Editor of insideMAN magazine and co-editor of the book insideMAN: Pioneering stories about men and boys