Four years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece in the Guardian asking whether International Men’s Day could become the seeds of a new kind of movement for male gender politics. I described attending the National Conference on Men and Boys, where I found a diverse range of organisations and individuals with different specialities and interests but all committed to developing constructive and progressive solutions to problems affecting boys and men.
It seems like it has been a long, long four years, but I am proud and delighted to tell you that today the rarefied halls of the Houses of Parliament will be the venue for the launch of a brand new Men and Boys’ Coalition, representing over 50 of the UK’s leading charities, academics and campaigners in the field of men and boys’ welfare. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that this is the day when a new kind of men’s movement comes of age.
The past few years have seen a real and necessary awakening of interest and understanding about male-specific gender issues. The tragedy of male suicide rates has begun to be recognised as a serious public health concern. The crisis in boys’ educational attainment got a mention in Theresa May’s very first Prime Ministerial speech. Men’s health campaigns such as Movember and Men United have been prominently supported, particularly within the world of sport.
All this is progress. And yet when representatives of the men’s sector get together over a flipchart or a pint, we tend to find the same points coming up again and again. Firstly, we find that the issues we are dealing with are inseparable. How do we talk about suicide without talking about men’s mental health and under-utilisation of health services? How do we talk about those without considering men’s over-dependency and self-medication with drink and drugs? How do we talk about that without discussing cultures of violence, rough sleeping, the criminal justice system, imprisonment and youth incarceration? How do we talk about the institutionalisation of young men without considering structural racism or family breakdown? Once you start joining the dots, you quickly find you are not looking at a long list of separate problems but an interlinked join-the-dots picture. Moreover, we quickly find out that the guys at the shitty end of the stick of many of these ‘separate’ issues are often, in practice, the same individuals who are dealing with the fallout of multiple hardships.
Similarly, when those of us dealing with different dots on the puzzle stop and compare notes, we find the same obstacles are arising again and again. Some of these are a straightforward result of our shared client group – men and boys, as a generalisation, tend to have common traits and habits which present recurring challenges: a reluctance to seek help when in need, a lack of supportive social networks, the whole masculine ‘boys don’t cry’ culture of stoicism and emotional resilience and all the rest. Finding ways to permeate those suits of armour is something in which our member organisations have developed considerable expertise, whether that is CALM and their ‘Man your local’ campaign, the#1BlueString initiative which Survivors Manchester have just brought to the UK or the inspirational work of A Band of Brothers bringing mentoring to inner city London. All these activists and many more can learn a huge amount from each other and only gain from the sharing of experiences.
But perhaps most importantly, when we seek policy solutions and support from the powers that be, whether in local authorities or quangos, health service representatives or national governments, different wings of the men’s sector all find we run into the same obstacles and brick walls. Part of that may be nagging suspicions about the ideology underpinning male-specific gender politics. For that reason it was essential that we spell out explicitly that we will not represent those who advocate against the interests of women and girls. We will not engage with organisations that espouse misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia or any other form of interpersonal discrimination. We are not advocating gender-neutral policy, but gender-inclusive policy.
The experience of our members, again and again, has been of power-brokers listening to our concerns, agreeing that the issues are serious and pressing, furrowing their brows and asserting that of course we care about this issue and of course something must be done, but the systems, structures and policy frameworks were simply never designed with the gender-specific needs of men and boys in mind.
This is precisely how we end up with the situation that male victims of rape or domestic violence are formally categorised as victims of “violence against women and girls.”
This is why there are funding bodies which will support charities that support sexual violence survivors if they are women, if they are trans, or if they are gay men, but tell them that your client group includes straight, cis males and suddenly you are no longer eligible for funds.
This is why campaigns for reform of sex and relationships education in schools end up being focused purely on the needs and vulnerabilities of girls and young women and the problems caused by boys and young men, never the reverse.
This is why not one single political party at Westminster has adopted one single policy position that is aimed specifically at addressing the crisis in boys’ educational attainment.
In isolation, each of those situations could be considered an anomaly, an inadvertent omission, but taken together they begin to represent a pattern. It is a pattern that has emerged in large part because no one has been actively lobbying and campaigning with a coherent, holistic, responsible approach on behalf of men and boys
The Men and Boys Coalition does not have all the answers to all the problems arising here. But within our ranks we have some brilliant people with some brilliant ideas, and together we can amplify those ideas, help to get them heard, yell with one voice to help get them adopted.
We do not (yet) have financial resources or a team of professional lobbyists stalking the corridors of power. But we do have rock solid arguments, hard evidence and, I believe, the tide of history on our side. Will that be enough? No, probably not. But it is a very good place to begin.