The last great masculine delusion: What even Grayson Perry doesn’t get

In many respects the first episode of Grayson Perry’s All Man was one of the finest pieces of television I have seen this year. As a straight-up slice of documentary-making it was compelling, insightful and deeply moving. Even the doubts I felt about the initial structural conceit – Perry sets himself a challenge of creating works of art to represent his journey of discovery – was swept away by the reactions of his contributors, particularly the mother of a young suicide victim, to the two pieces he made.

The intellectual content was also unusually rich. The linkage of the rise of hypermasculine mixed martial arts cage fighting in the North East with the collapse of coal and other heavy industries is pertinent and important, so too was his characterisation of masculinity as a protective shell, a suit of armour that men use to protect ourselves while simultaneously weighing us down and restricting us, preventing change. These are points that I and many others of like mind have been making for a long time, but beautifully expressed here.

“I am beginning to frame masculinity as a callous, if you like, on men, to protect them from the hardships of working in very heavy industries so when they need to change, to be flexible in the modern workplace, to be emotionally resilient, they struggle because that carapace that they’ve built around them shatters or snaps or folds. It doesn’t bounce.”

With all deserved praise duly paid, there was a crucial point missing from the programme and it was this: Masculinity is a political construction. The nuance of this was revealed in the closing remarks, when Grayson Perry talked about men needing to relent, needing to let go, needing to change, as if the only force that was preventing that happening, or which could cause it to happen, was men’s own stubbornness, men’s own choices, men’s own shortcomings.

To illustrate this in practice, imagine for a moment a documentary made in the same tone about ideals of femininity, one which examined serious issues such as the gender pay gap or the lack of women in politics, boardrooms or in science and technology, and did so by going to meet ultra-feminine working class subcultures in the nail salons of Essex or Liverpool or amongst the trophy wife yummy mummies of Cheshire or Buckinghamshire. Imagine this documentary concluded that what women really need to do is to learn to let go of their gender roles, learn to change, learn to relent, basically just pull their socks up and behave a bit more like men do.

I’d imagine such a documentary would be roundly castigated for being naïve and simplistic, and the film-maker, rather than being applauded for sensitivity and insight, would be (at least metaphorically) soundly beaten around the head with copies of Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Is the situation here so very different? I don’t think so.

There is no doubt that men, or paradigms of masculinity, need to change. Tragic suicide rates are the most salient and inescapable illustration of this, but see also patterns of male violence and criminality, rates of alcoholism and addiction, untreated depression, social isolation and all the other topics that crop up on this blog, just for starters.

But for men to change, first of all society has to change, not the other way around and that is not a personal project but a political one. This is a key lesson that men can learn from feminism (and you don’t need to be a feminist yourself to agree.)  This is not to deny individual agency or personal responsibility for one’s choices, but the bottom line is that the circumstances of a single man are a lifestyle choice. The circumstances of ten million men are a political outcome.

Part of this is the basic sociology of hegemonic culture. What that means in essence is that the collated trends of human behaviour that we call a culture is not a random mutation. It has been shaped in specific ways to provide value to the powers that be. Traditional working class masculine gender roles  (risk-taking, violence, stoicism, protecting and providing) were obviously desirable to a society that primarily needed working class men to spend their lives risking life and limb on the fields of battle or agriculture, hauling steel over furnaces or ripping up coal from the depths of hell and playing their designated role in preserving the nuclear family (read yer Engels). If society continues to produce men with those values it is because at some level society still wants men with those values.

Of course none of this is a deliberate, conscious choice. David Cameron’s cabinet does not sit around planning how to best produce the next generation of compliant, long-suffering cannon fodder. Instead these processes are woven into the nap of society, permeating everything from education to entertainment and is as evident in the policies that are neglected as those which are adopted.

This week the Guardian carried an interview with Grayson Perry. At the bottom of the piece was a list of twelve suggestions for how men can change themselves to survive the modern world. I found this striking. Nowhere amid this was a single suggestion for ways in which public policy could change, society could change, culture could change. (I’d happily churn out a list of suggestions myself, everything from parental/fatherhood structures to educational policies to a strategy on violence against men and boys, but that is not the point here. The point is that we have not even started to ask the question.)

The bitter irony here, of course, is that this notion that men have the power to change themselves is the ultimate patriarchal delusion, one that even Grayson Perry seems to be buying into. At the same time as identifying and bemoaning men’s inability to admit vulnerability, weakness or needs, this atomized, individualised recipe for transformation merely recycles the same disease as a prescription. In other words, programmes like this condemn men for imagining they can solve their own problems by just pulling their socks up while at the same time suggesting that everything would be better if they just pulled their socks up.

As a society we find it really easy to understand that women are products of the culture that moulds them – consider all the concerns about Disney princesses, pinkification, gendered toys etc. We find It really easy to agree that women need help and support to be liberated and fulfilled, to have full opportunities in their life, education and careers. We find this easy because we are steeped in patriarchal values. For the exact same reasons we (as a society and individually) tend to fail dismally in recognising that the exact same is true of men. Men are not masters of their own destiny. We cherish the delusion that men are in control of their own destinies, when by and large they are anything but.

I welcome Grayson Perry’s careful consideration of modern masculinity. It is helpful that what he says can be heard. However we must recognise that what he is doing is identifying problems. Developing solutions is not a matter of art or psychotherapy, but of politics.

Defining gender-inclusive politics

A few of my more recent posts have used the phrase ‘gender-inclusive’ to describe the type of policy and political approach I advocate here. It’s led to a few interesting exchanges, and I think a few misapprehensions, among the comments, so I thought it would be worth spelling out what I mean by the term. I should stress that this is very much an idea in development, and I very much hope readers will contribute thoughts to the conversation down below.

A few months ago I was putting the world to rights with my pal Duncan from Survivors Manchester, when there was a mention of gender-neutral approaches to sexual violence support services. “No,” Duncan interjected. “We don’t need a gender-neutral approach. We need a gender-inclusive approach.”

That proved to be something of a lightbulb moment for me. The more I thought about it, the more appropriately it described the types of policies I’d like to see in all sorts of areas, not just around intimate violence but every topic from educational underachievement to men’s mental health to prison reform.

So, what do I mean by gender-inclusive?

Since we live in a fiercely gendered society, many areas of public policy have a gendered dynamic or require an element of gender analysis. (That is not a feminist or partisan statement by the way – if you believe male suicide rates are a problem requiring action, then you are already on board with gender politics.)

As I see it, only three approaches to gender-based policy are possible.  These are: 1/ Gender-neutral policy. 2/ Gender-exclusive policy, and 3/ Gender-inclusive policy.  If anyone can think of a fourth, I will be all ears, but until then allow me to spell them out as I understand each.

Gender-neutral policy

This is a superficially attractive approach, but in many respects profoundly inappropriate. Gender-neutral policies treat everyone as ‘people’ without gender. The problem is we do not live as people without gender, we live in a society that expects us to behave and live according to gender scripts.

One of the more abhorrently ignorant liberal political trends of the past year or so has been the ‘All Lives Matter’ meme, that emerged rapidly in the wake of Black Lives Matter. It was a profoundly reactionary slogan, because the original BLM hashtag accurately situated the deaths of young African-American (mostly) men at the hands of police into the context of structural and institutional racism. ‘Black Lives Matter’ was a desperate cry of response to a society that appeared to insist that black lives don’t matter. Appropriating that slogan to insist that ALL lives matter instantly depoliticised those deaths, removed their political context, served to deny the very existence of a racial dynamic, and in the process helping to sustain that institutional and structural racism.

In many respects, calls for gender-neutral policies and services are the All Lives Matter of gender-politics. Gender-neutrality strips away the politics, the social processes, the structures of a gendered society. I don’t think it matters much what your politics are, whether you are feminist or masculinist, radical or liberal or post-Marxist social theorist, gender-neutrality blocks your analysis and input and freezes gender issues in aspic as if we lived in some post-gender utopia.

There is also a practical issue, in many areas of policy. To return to the example above, The people and organisations who are best placed to work with female survivors of sexual and intimate violence are those with proper understanding of female-specific gender issues. The same is true for men, and the same is true in a long list of gender-related policy issues, from educational underachievement to mental health to international development.

Gender-exclusive policy

The direct opposite of gender-inclusive policy is not gender-neutral, it is gender-exclusive policy. What is that? Well, if your social policy is designed with one and only one gender dynamic in mind, then you’re gender-exclusive. A pure Duluth Model approach to domestic violence, for example, is one example of an explicitly gender-exclusive policy.

Gender-exclusiveness, however, takes considerable mental gymnastics to sustain. A classic example is the categorisation of all sexual and intimate crimes as “violence against women and girls.” When Martin Daubney was on BBC Daily Politics last week talking (very effectively, I must add) about male DV victims, Tory minister Brandon Lewis pointed out that the £80m of funding just awarded to prevent violence against women could also be used to fund activities for male victims. I wish Martin or someone had pointed out that we really shouldn’t be funding male-specific services in this way, for two reasons. The first is that every penny of that £80m (and then some) is needed for women’s organisations, and service providers should not be dipping into it to help men here and there, which immediately has the effect of pitting male and female victims against each other in competition for resources.

The second reason is that it is not desirable, or constructive for male victims and survivors to be told that what they have experienced is “violence against women.”  Issues around demasculation and male pride amongst survivors are complex enough without the government telling them that they are being categorized as women and girls in the funding of their services.

It is this type of effort to squeeze diverse and multifarious gender dynamics (and I very much include issues such as violence in same-sex relationships or the exclusion of trans people from services in all of this) which leads advocates to desperate, counterfactual denialism over rates of violence or the numbers of male survivors, or the attitude that male survivors and their advocates are somehow a threat to women and their needs.

Gender-inclusive policy

If I may offer one example of how gender-based policy can differ, let’s look at education.

A gender-neutral approach assumes all children are identical (at least across gender lines) and would, for instance, preclude policy measures to encourage girls or boys into areas where they were underperforming or under-represented.

A gender-exclusive approach would educate girls and boys alike but then look for areas where girls are underperforming, notably STEM subjects, and make efforts to engage and inspire them, while entirely ignoring those areas where boys underperform. I would argue that in practise this is more or less what has been happening in the UK and many other countries in recent years.

A gender-inclusive policy would look for where girls are underperforming and seek to address those, while ALSO looking for areas where boys are underperforming (a long list) and devise strategies and policies to address those too. Everyone benefits.

Gender-inclusive politics is about recognising that girls and boys, women and men, have different gender-based experiences of society, different needs, different obstacles, different opportunities. It neither assumes nor requires any particular approach to gender politics (I would hope the principle could be accepted by feminists and non-feminists alike, for starters.) It is not really about demanding that everyone stays in their lane so much as asking for recognition that the lanes are there in the first place.

 

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I believe there are three strong reasons for advocate gender-inclusive politics.

The first that it is an accurate reflection of society as it is. We do not live in a gender-neutral society and there are few elements to modern life that are genuinely gender exclusive. This is a political approach that reflects the real world.

The second is political and ethical: it is the right thing to do. You will look far and wide to find someone who would argue that a male rape survivor should not have access to services, and yet millions of men in this country live without a gender-appropriate service within a hundred miles of their home, purely because of their gender. That cannot be right.

The third reason is tactical and political. Debates around male-specific gender issues are often pitched as an argument between gender-exclusive and gender-neutral policies. For those who would actively obstruct and oppose providing help to men (whether for ideological or stingy fiscal reasons), that is a comparatively easy win. Arguing against gender-inclusive politics would be a much more tricky challenge. I’m not suggesting that advocates of gender-exclusive approaches will simply roll over, but I reckon this would at least help move the debate forward.

On that note, I will state again that this is very much a think-piece and I’ve put it here in the hope that readers will chew it up and spit it out and we’ll see how it looks when you are through.

Over to you.

 

We know domestic abuse of men is a problem. The real question is, what do we do about it?

This week at Manchester Crown Court, Sharon Edwards was convicted of the murder of her husband David. His death was the end of a short but horribly violent relationship. Pathologists found sixty different wounds at the post mortem, including older stabbing injuries all over his body. Friends and colleagues told the trial how he had regularly used make up and a litany of lies and excuses to cover up his injuries. After the jury’s verdict, it emerged that the murderer had a series of previous arrests and convictions for domestic violence against her ex-partners.

The verdict sparked a flurry of media commentary and discussion of varying levels of accuracy and insight. The most depressing exchange of the week came on BBC Woman’s Hour which invited Mark Brooks from the Mankind Initiative to explain that men being murdered by their female partners was a bad thing, and radical feminist violence researcher Marianne Hester, apparently to argue the opposite.  Hester responded to questions about female-perpetrated domestic homicide by saying it happens because women need to use weapons because they aren’t as big and strong as men, and suggesting repeatedly (and without a hint of a shred of evidence), that women who perpetrate deadly violence against male partners are usually doing so out of self-defence – in effect slandering the victims of domestic homicide and blaming them for their own deaths. (For the record, the only UK research to have investigated women’s motives in intimate partner homicides found that a fewer of a quarter of offenders cited self-defence as their motive. Most killed out of anger or jealousy.)   [Read more…]

A case of marital rape and the limits of legal protection

A horrible sexual violence case has collapsed in Exeter, in the south west England. Last year a woman reported to police that her husband had repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted her. After he spent four months on remand, the wife has now decided that she wants to move on with her life and is now unwilling to testify in court.

Because it is a case of marital rape allegations, the accused cannot be named as that would identify the alleged victim. [Read more…]

The left must speak uncomfortable truths about migration and sexual violence

I have mostly spent January eye-rolling so hard I’ve practically detached my retinas. It began when news first crept out from Cologne after New Year’s Eve, as across the media and the internet vast swathes  of anti-immigrant right-wingers and racists who had never in their lives uttered a word of concern or complaint about sexual violence suddenly  reinvented themselves as the bestest feminists in town, for whom nothing was more important than ensuring that never again would an innocent (ie white) woman be mauled by a disgusting, patriarchal (ie brown) man.

Well, racists gonna racist. But I was eye-rolling too at my peers on the broad left, the manner in which they continue to squirm and tiptoe around the extraordinary, horrific accounts from Cologne. I thought this had peaked last week with the remarks of Jess Phillips MP on Question Time that equated those events with any Saturday night on Birmingham’s Broad Street. The criticism she has since received has mostly focussed on outraged residents, coppers and civic leaders from the city saying “how dare you malign our city?” while simultaneously denying, downplaying or disbelieving women’s experiences of the extent of sexual harassment and assault on a typical British night out. I saw it the other way around. I was stunned that Phillips could so easily deny or downplay the statements from nearly seven hundred women that they had been sexually assaulted and/or robbed within a few city blocks in just a couple of hours, and so blithely dismiss the unique severity of that. I’m sure Phillips did not intend to suggest Cologne was really no big deal, but that was the precise effect of her words. [Read more…]

People will listen: A guest post

AF: Shortly before Christmas a reader of this blog contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in hosting a guest post about the day he tried to take his own life. 

On the week when ‘Stranger on a Bridge’ survivor-turned campaigner Jonny Benjamin launches the #ThinkWell initiative to get better mental health teaching in schools, this seems an appropriate time to share the post with you. 

I’ve tried to ensure this post stays within the Samaritans media guidelines, but obvious content notes apply. 

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Medway, male violence and invisibilisation

There were a couple of words missing from Panorama‘s shockingly brutal exposé of violent malpractice within the G4S-run Medway Secure Training Centre. The same words were missing from pretty much all the newspaper and broadcast media reports that have picked up on the story since last Friday.

Towards the beginning of the documentary, the BBC’s undercover reporter explained that the residents of the children’s prison (by any other name) were officially referred to as “trainees,” but his script did not stick to that designation. At various points throughout  the 30 minute film he referred to the victims of violent assault, bullying and sadism as “teenagers”, “inmates”, “youngsters”, “young people” and  – most frequently – “children.” [Read more…]

Ask me anything, tell me anything, ignore me if you like. Friday open thread

The moderators of the Men’s Lib sub on Reddit asked me if I’d be willing to do an Ask Me Anything thread for them, and I was happy to agree.

I’m assuming I’ll be fielding questions about my thoughts on gender politics, activism & theory and I’ll be disappointed if there’s not at least one about fighting a hundred duck-sized horses.

The Men’s Lib Reddit, in case you’re confused, is not the same as the notorious Men’s Rights Reddit It describes itself as follow: [Read more…]

The Children’s Commissioner & the BBC take on child sexual abuse

I am never slow to blog when mainstream political bodies and media let us down with sloppy reports or journalism. It seems only fair to pay credit when things are done well.

Late last night, BBC2 broadcast The Truth About Child Sex Abuse, hosted by Professor Tanya Byron. The programme incorporated a lot of the findings of the new report from the office of the Children’s Commissioner, Protecting Children From Harm [pdf].

[Read more…]

Why I am done arguing about International Men’s Day

There is a lot of confusion around International Men’s Day, starting with what it is. Nobody seems quite sure. Is it an event? A celebration? An awareness day? An occasion? I can clear that one up straight away. In practice it is none of those things. International Men’s Day is an argument. [Read more…]