THE BLOG

2014: The Year of the Male

17/02/2014 14:24 GMT | Updated 19/04/2014 10:59 BST

Every generation declares some kind of crisis in masculinity (1). Journalist Ally Fogg rightly notes that overwhelmingly, the voices declaring the masculine emergency today are women (2). For instance, the book, 'The End of Men,' written by Hanna Rosin, exhausts this crisis narrative by claiming that we are virtually living in a matriarchy already. While it currently seems acceptable for women to talk about men in this way, what do men have to say?

The few male-on-male voices in the media like Ally Fogg and now Jon Snow (3), agree that for whatever reason, male voices around issues facing men are relatively rare. Unlike women, men are not particularly known for talking about their feelings, or engaging in effective political campaigning aimed at correcting perceived injustices. Witness the misfires, like the Fathers4Justice campaign targeting Kate Winslet for her shared parenting arrangements, which apparently turned out to be a non-issue for her family (4).

But along came the 'Being a Man' Festival at Southbank in early February. Finally, men talking about what it is like to be a man. However, the talks that I went to were mostly about men as a kind of "pathology". For instance, there was the familiar moral panic about young men and how online pornography was warping their values and causing them to treat girls badly. Yet, there is no evidence to make this conclusion (5), and some research has shown how skilled boys and girls are at coping with online pornography (6). In another talk, a presenter highlighted the "weird" communication that results when men use mobile dating apps to communicate with others. Another talked about how bad men are at getting help. A colleague reported similar experiences at the 'Being a Man' Festival to the ones that I experienced. A presentation he reported on was about how female circumcision (usually performed by women) should be an issue for men, yet there was no discussion of the forced circumcision that men face (7). You get the idea.

It is really important to have feminist critiques of men. And to be fair, this line of discussion was also promoted by men at the festival. But should positive and life affirming messages about men at a men's festival be so hard to locate? Could a bias towards negative coverage of men be an example of a subtle misandry operating? Despite the controversy, at least the 'Being a Man' Festival got the conversation going. So I do applaud the organisers for all their hard work in putting the programme together.

However, working with male students and men in psychotherapy and in research, it's hard to reconcile the "men as pathologies" narrative above, with all the sensitive young men who walk through my door. The recent death of acting legend Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent drug overdose provides a counter narrative. His death caused an outpouring of public grief. Here was an exquisitely sensitive man who channeled his tortured existence into his astonishing art, obviously touching the hearts of so many people. Underneath whatever public performance men are doing, they are real human beings who experience actual pain. And men - like women - will open up insightfully and constructively when safe to do so.

This is why the 'Year of the Male' campaign by the CALM charity is so important. It promises to be about men and their issues, while being life affirming. We need to start talking about the issues that really matter to men and not hide them. Like the 3784 male suicides in England and Wales in 2012 - an astonishing 77% of all suicides. Or the 94% of people incarcerated who are men, most of whom also have mental health issues. Or that 90% of rough sleepers are men. Or even more, that two out of three alcohol related deaths are among men. The 'Year of the Male' is needed to begin to break the deafening silence on issues that matter most to men.

How did we get into this situation? Mischievous feminist Camille Paglia concludes, "...the way gender is being taught in the universities - in a very anti-male way, it's all about neutralisation of maleness" (8). Whatever the truth, scholars too easily fall into the simplistic trap of depicting men as "damaged and damage doing" (9). Far from a male emergency, men and their masculinity are masterful adapters. Even self proclaimed "knuckleheads" (i.e. men "knowingly acting in ways that are harmful or risky") reveal insightfulness and appeal to a narrative arc of redemption, if only we take time to listen (10).

By insisting we must always define masculinity narrowly in terms of male powerfulness (11), we become blind to other considerations. Like the relative confidence and power young women enjoy over men in terms of negotiating emotional relationships (12). Or the annual two percent of men who experience domestic violence (compared to four percent of women) (13). Men are also shaped by forces not directly linked to gender (14). For example, unemployment and relationship breakdowns are known to hit men particularly hard, and are clearly linked to suicide (15). So while feminist analysis is important, other perspectives are clearly needed.

Men do need to develop their own voice and ideas separate to feminism. Boys and men know instinctively that their own banter, and the social forces they face (e.g. peer groups, sophisticated feminist discussion), can make it tricky for them to express themselves. The 'Year of the Male' will involve men themselves developing fresh narratives about the issues they face. I put my own hand up and admit to my own automatic negative thoughts about men that I have had to contend with. Can we put this kind of internalised misandry aside enough in 2014 to begin the necessary conversations?

1. Allen JA. Men Interminably in Crisis? Historians on Masculinity, Sexual Boundaries, and Manhood. Radical History Review. 2002;2002(82):191-207.

2. Fogg A. 'Traditional masculine values' are evolving, not dying London: Guardian; 2014 [updated 31st December 2013; cited 2014 19th January 2014].

3. Snow J. Jon Snow: 'I am in touch with my feminine side' London: Guardian; 2014 [updated 17th of January 2014; cited 2014 17th January].

4. Ellen B. Fathers 4 Justice needs a much less crummy strategy London: Guardian; 2013 [updated 29th December 2013; cited 2014 17th January].

5. Fogg A. Don't treat young men like sex-crazed monsters London: Guardian; 2014 [updated 29th January 2014; cited 2014 7th February].

6. Löfgren-Mårtenson L, Månsson S-A. Lust, Love, and Life: A Qualitative Study of Swedish Adolescents' Perceptions and Experiences with Pornography. Journal of Sex Research. 2009;47(6):568-79.

7. Poole G. Being a man isn't a problem that needs fixing London: CALM; 2014 [updated 3rd February; cited 2014 4th February].

8. Paglia C. A Feminist Defense of Masculine Virtues Washington2013 [updated 28th December 2013; cited 2014 19th January 2013].

9. Mac an Ghaill M, Haywood C. Understanding boys': Thinking through boys, masculinity and suicide. Social Science & Medicine. 2012;74(4):482-9.

10. Muñoz-Laboy M, Perry A, Bobet I, Bobet S, Ramos H, Quiñones F, et al. The "knucklehead" approach and what matters in terms of health for formerly incarcerated Latino men. Social Science & Medicine. 2012;74(11):1765-73.

11. Schrock D, Schwalbe M. Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts. Annual Review of Sociology. 2009;35(1):277-95.

12. Giordano PC, Longmore MA, Manning WD. Gender and the Meanings of Adolescent Romantic Relationships: A Focus on Boys. American Sociological Review. 2006;71(2):260-87.

13. Walby S, Allen J. Domestic vilence, sexual assault and stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey London: Home Office 2004 [cited 2014 10th February 2014]. Available from: http://www.avaproject.org.uk/media/28384/hors276.pdf.

14. Springer KW, Hankivsky O, Bates LM. Gender and health: Relational, intersectional, and biosocial approaches. Social Science & Medicine. 2012;74(11):1661-6.

15. Thornton J. Men and Suicide: Why it's a social issue. Surrey: Samaritans, 2013.