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Masculinity Crisis? What Masculinity Crisis?

28/11/2014 12:54 GMT | Updated 27/01/2015 10:59 GMT

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Male suicide is now the biggest killer of men worldwide, and it is the biggest killer of young men in Britain.

Conversely, the biggest killer of women in Britain is dementia. Dementia is something that the sufferer has no control over, it is something that happens to a person without any one action thought (or known) to encourage it. Why then, are so many men suffering so much that the only route out they can see is to take their own lives?

Before I go any further, I should tell you that I am NOT somebody who thinks that suicide is selfish. A person who feels they can no longer cope with their lives as they are, and can see no other route but to take their own lives; is not a selfish person. I believe that suicide is a sad, but preventable reality. Men are now three times more likely to commit suicide than women in the UK.

I'm stating the crushingly obvious here, but this is not right, and action needs to be taken.

As a woman, and a feminist, I believe in equality. As a result of that, I think that a massive failing has happened in some way towards men. This was my thought process when contemplating the staggering rates of male suicide:

That is an action taken by a person who is at rock bottom, someone who feels they have no other choice.

What is it that would cause a person to feel that?

Why is this affecting men more?

What IS a man?

And at that point, I was stumped. As someone who feels comfortable in my own definition of my sex, I find it mind-boggling to try and define what a man is. There is the obvious biology; a man has a penis. But what about those who are transgender and do not have a penis, but identify as a man? Does that mean that to be a man is more of a spiritual thing? To have the spirit of a man? Then, without being able to stop myself, I slip into stereotypical definition of a man; the 1950s version. This version, which obviously my brain sees as the last clear ideals on what a man should be, tell me that a man is:

1) Heterosexual

2) The breadwinner

3) Strong

4) Mysterious/unemotional

5) Silent

And at this point I'm thoroughly annoyed with myself. I am an enlightened and liberal human being, WHY AM I THINKING OF A MAN IN THIS WAY? I couldn't help it, it was my natural thought process. One which I am completely ashamed of (don't write me off just yet).

I know only too well that men have many sexual identities. I know that men are by no means the breadwinner of any given house. I know that I personally find a beefcake man who values muscles over brainpower deeply unattractive. I know that I like to engage in deep and thought provoking conversations with men and women alike, I know that the important men in my life are loud and unafraid to voice their opinions. I know all of this, but why is my brain's default a two-dimensional and stereotypical man? Clearly the basics of what I see a man as are confused. I know what I value in a man, but that is not the same as what I imagine a man to be. Taking my large amount of confusion into account, how on earth must men be feeling?

The action I took as a result of this, was to ask thirteen (unlucky for some) men, and ask them this question:

To you, what is it 'to be a man'?

As vague and irritating as that question is, it had some unexpected, sad, and interesting answers. I asked men of different ages, different professions, different ethnicities, and different sexualities. I've not identified the men, as many of them asked me not to. I find this somewhat telling in itself, probably best articulated by this response from a man that I asked:

"It's so worrying, as soon as you asked if you could name me, my reaction is why male suicide is so high; my thoughts were 'Don't name me, what if someone I know reads it? I'll be seen as some sort of weasel.' That is the problem."

And so it has begun before we've even really got into the bones of it.

From the answers I received, I can gather four main reasons as to why men are finding things difficult:

Men don't feel encouraged to talk about their problems.

Of the men I spoke to, it is those who reject the idea of 'the role of the man' that seem happiest, as they feel at ease talking about issues:

"I'm not very manly, I cry a lot, I'm not particularly strong or athletic. I talk about emotions with emotional people. The proportions of those are evenly distributed. I talk about emotions whenever I need."

"I suppose in my life because I'm surrounded by primarily women I'm biased because my opinions are given thought and discussed."

In these instances, the man feels the need to assert that he is not what the traditional view of a man is. Many of the men I spoke to also mention a culture amongst them of being cruel or competitive to one another, but using humour to mask it; causing them not to feel in a position that will allow open and unjudged discussion:

"There can be a tremendous pressure to compete, to impress, to never show emotion, to always establish oneself as superior to others and to be able to 'take a joke' (where the 'joke' is nearly always something quite insulting or hurtful involving others laughing at you)."

"I do believe it takes a real man to talk about his emotions, especially to other men. Like, especially with your mates and cousins, it's very difficult, as you feel you are being 'unmanly'. Male ' banter' can make it feel impossible to confide in close male friends, although if your mates are really close, and you know they won't judge you, then it is possible. Male banter; the foundation of it I suppose, is all about manliness; if you're weak, you are therefore less of a man. If you're strong, you're THE man. If you can pull lots of girls, you're a man. Although I think attitudes (hopefully) become slightly more refined with age."

"Going way back in my early teens, when I suffered with depression and teen hormone hell I found it incredibly hard to speak my mind in case I was ridiculed and humiliated. The fear of being wrong made me not really say anything at all unless I was at home."

"I am only starting to talk about my emotions in the past year, for me personally I have had a lot of issues with emotions and problems as I have always been drunk, I never learnt to. It was easier to act childish and just get drunk. I was able to take care of my physical and financial needs but didn't really look at my emotional needs as I didn't, and still don't, like my emotions."

As sad as it is, it seems to me that much like a woman's version of 'slut-shaming', men are giving one another an equally hard time when it comes to 'emotion-shaming'. Something that I did not see as a reality in this day and age.

Men are seen to be simple/Neanderthal.

Another thing that I didn't think would be prevalent in how men see what a man is, but there you have it. The 'simplicity 'of a man, seems to be a very widespread idea:

"I believe emotional distance or unintelligence in men is a fallacy, there is not a person alive who does not disguise or overflow with emotion, the only difference is in expression and interpretation, which differs from person to person - not gender to gender."

"To me, 'being a man' means bullshitting in one way or another. Just pretending to be stronger, tougher, less caring, and dumber than you really are. I don't really see the point."

"Men are seen as simple Neanderthal type people, whereas women are seen as complex; it's a shame that it's completely switched, but is not equal. Women were once simple and gentle and men were complex."

"The one thing that gets on my nerves actually, which I think is a HUGE problem, is that there is this perception that women are complicated, and men are just simple Neanderthals, with no feelings. That kind of attitude is why I think male suicide rates are so high."

"In my head men are considered by society to be antiquated cavemen, unsupportive, and 'brutish'. But then in my life with the men I'm surrounded by men are intellectual, considerate and somewhat passive given the amount of strong feminist women we're surrounded by. I think some gay men love being subservient to a dominant man. In my life as a gay man you need to shout to be heard and noticed and to be taken seriously."

Men are seen as the breadwinner.

A person's first experience of men is that of their father; I remember very clearly my father talking about the moment he realised that if he was going to keep my mother and we children fed and clothed, he was going to need to go full-pelt into trying to earn money to support the family. That was what he saw his role as, and felt the pressure to do. With so few jobs available in this current climate, men are finding this a confusing and confidence-battering time:

"I think that a high suicide rate is to do with neo-liberal structures, like the collapse of any sense of security. In short, men are traditionally define their worth through work, but there is no more work; no more reason to exist. That's maybe just one factor that puts people's sense of self in crisis. Probably also this idea that mental health is for weak people."

"While there have been a lot of positive changes in the way all genders are viewed over the last century, I still feel that I am sometimes sucked into an old paradigm which, consciously or not, is informed by a primal set of values. By this I mean that men are still seen as hunter/gatherers, the 21st century version being a good job, driving licence, strength etc. If one doesn't possess any of these then their masculinity is questioned."

"Strength, chivalry, confidence, the ability to somehow be at once threatening and safe, a provider and a hunter, fearless in the face of danger and stony in response to turmoil. - I don't really believe in all that bullshit, designed to sell greeting cards and make writing Disney movies easier."

The men I spoke to seem to know that seeing the man as the hunter gatherer is an outdated perception, but the need to speak about it clearly underlines the notion that this has affected them in some way. Just as I feel under pressure to be subservient and at points to appear innocent and unintelligent, men also feel the pressure to appear as though they can 'provide'.

Gender is losing its relevance, but we are still under pressure to conform to it.

It seems I am not alone in failing to understand the absurdity of a person's life being influenced tremendously by the genitalia they possess; men are seemingly more confused than ever about why defining the idea of a man matters at all:

"Rather than asking what a man's role in society is, we should ask what a person's role is -- what does it mean to be a human? Although these are broader questions, they are actually more workable. You avoid having to define what a man is opposed to a woman or boy (exact distinctions that are changeable and often rather arbitrary) and instead look to the importance of how very similar we all are, and how that should inform our behaviour."

"There's a cultural idea of manliness which I've never felt like I have to live up to."

"I remember when I was growing up thinking that there wasn't really any readymade model of who to be that I felt I could inhabit. I now realise that this is a space of incredible freedom: I've responded to this freedom by becoming something akin to a mild transvestite, wearing nail varnish and the occasional blouse. Whilst I'm aware of the (positive) political statement these slight transgressions make it really just about dressing the way I want to. For me being a man is just as weird as being a woman or being human: I think there's a lot of guilt attached to it and a lot of idiocy but as long as you can play with it and make it something positive, then gender can become pleasurable. I do acknowledge that I live in a country and amongst communities where this play is permitted and I'm eternally grateful for this."

"To me being a man does not mean much."

"To be strong of conviction but never cruel. To be mindful of oneself but considerate of others. To be adventurous and free, but loyal to one's friends. To be capable and responsible, but able to ask for help. That these happily apply to both genders equally is not a coincidence. Call me an idealist, but honestly, I believe the only thing that makes a man is to be born with a Y chromosome, and the distinctions stop there."

"To me, a man is strong but sensitive, human but animal, masculine but feminine though also gender defiant."

After speaking to all of these men about what it is to be a man, the sheer complexity of my trying to understand it has given me an inkling as to how lonely it can feel at times to 'be a man'. It's refreshing, though, that men were able to speak so readily to me about issues surrounding gender. If nothing else, I hope that this article has opened some people's eyes to attitudes that need to change. As artist in residence at CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably- male suicide prevention charity), Chris Sav, states:

"Notions of what it means to be a man place too much emphasis on the body, rather than the spirit. The fact that I possess a certain set of genitals shouldn't really impact on how I should act in the world, nor should it affect people's expectations of me, but it does."

How very true.