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Braveheart? Men Open Up

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When I tell people I work in the area of men and distress, nervous laughter from colleagues is sometimes the response. Comments like "You mean the distress they cause women?" are also common. And when I uploaded a discussion paper on men and distress onto the Internet , one variant on the Google search terms used to find it included the phrase: "How to distress men".

Stories about men as toxic, as bad boys, are so much part of the cultural lexicon, that when I lecture, audiences are sometimes perplexed by the idea of providing specific services for vulnerable men. This is despite explaining that thousands of men commit suicide every year in the UK, 4552 in 2011, three times the rate of women. I also mention that two out of three alcohol-related deaths are male and yet, the same people don't question the need for services that might suit women's needs.

By focusing on men and their needs, I am not saying that women aren't still oppressed, or that violence and discrimination against women has been adequately addressed. Clearly this is not the case. However, in the media as well as university research, it is clear that men have come to be depicted one-dimensionally as 'damaged and damage doing', as some scholars have put it. We assume the relative power of men takes care of them. And so we are not particularly receptive to their stories. Many readers might be surprised to hear that in a recent Australian study, eight out of 10 of 198 service providers said they had to offer help to men reporting that they were the victims of intimate partner abuse. This figure is despite the stigma for men reporting victimization, as well as high levels of denial about the problem in our society.

Along with perpetrator stories about men, there is also a lack of narrative about men as emotionally vulnerable. And so their distress is often 'hidden'. Research shows how often health professionals are not comfortable with men in distress. But as author Philip Pullman says about narrative, "we human beings are connected to one another by invisible bands of sympathy and understanding and experience". And the striving and yearning for "authenticity" in our personal stories is no less true for men. Men are changing, opening up and telling their stories of distress and yearning, sometimes en masse.

Now, for example, online discussion forums are said to sometimes lead to emotional intimacy among men. As one man with prostate cancer said (in study conducted by my colleague, Professor Alex Broom in Australia): "One of the things you find is an amazing openness and frankness about these sort of matters that I'm sure men if they were meeting face to face would not talk about".

While some of us are saying "talk to the hand", others are moved.

There are some fascinating insights into the making of brutalised manhood emerging from these stories. For instance, men have talked about the ritual humiliation they faced as boys in school changing rooms and playgrounds. Dr Kevin Davidson in Ireland has said that school gang showers, which don't cross our minds as adults, "are a most vulnerable place for boys to be for many reasons. Boys may fear violence or bullying from other boys, they may fear either being exposed as gay, or thought of as gay, or they may be ashamed of their bodies if they do not 'measure up' to the ideal masculine body type".

Other sobering words from an older man reflecting back on his life in the University of Westminster instigated study 'Men and Successful Ageing' conducted by Natasha Gravill, further illustrate this point. He articulated it like this: "... the whole atmosphere of secondary school was, it was just imbued with violence and fear because there's no point in your entire life where you're subjected to as much real or potential physical violence... nobody speaks to you like they do when you're 11 to 16... I joke that... your teenage years are something from which you make a partial recovery".

We downplay the brutalising experiences of young boys, and then ask them to project an outer 'cool'. Even when they are literally dying inside. We are more comfortable with the lone man-of-action hero redeeming their masculinity, like Bruce Willis does in the movies by standing up to the system, and thus overcoming their alcoholism, or whatever issue might be affecting them. Not men exploring their emotions with a box of Kleenex.

We also seem to fear giving men a platform: Will it undermine the achievements of feminism? And don't we prefer our men strong and silent? Men are now finally opening up and exploring their own stories without our permission. But your support would be useful.

- This is an edited extract from the lecture, 'Dudeonomics: Inside the minds, hearts and bodies of men', given by Professor Damien Ridge at the University of Westminster in London, 27 February 2013.

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