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Being a man: lost for words

Yiannis Baboulias went along to the Being a Man conference, hoping to explore how men who don’t want to partake in the oppressive status-quo of patriarchy, could proudly declare “not in our name", but he came away asking how men may uproot it if they are unable to articulate it.

Yiannis Baboulias
10 February 2014

I booked a ticket to the "Being a Man" conference in London as soon as I saw the festivals page, proudly declaring “Over this groundbreaking weekend, men of all ages and from many walks of life lead conversations and Q&As on what it means to be a man today. I often ask myself this question and do so from a privileged position: that of a 26 year old, able-bodied, white, heterosexual male, who couldn’t possibly be more lost as to where he stands in the 21st century.

We often hear the arguments made against my kind, who have rightly come to symbolise everything that is wrong with patriarchy, and who are the main beneficiary of capitalism. Feminist theory has successfully broken down, analysed and provided millions of women everywhere with the tools to fight against patriarchy. I was hoping to see the same happen for “average” men, people who like me feel that the few thousand men who reign supreme in every industry, are doing so at the expense of everyone else.

I was hoping to explore how we men who don’t want to partake in this oppressive status-quo, could proudly declare “not in our name”. I was hoping we could identify the roots of the problem, of the system that instils sexism and macho-ness as the default position/starting point for young men, a position from which we have to truly struggle to break free from (if at all possible). So I booked a ticket, and went down to the Southbank to have myself a time. Did I find what I was looking for there? Yes and no.

During some of the talks, it felt like we were getting somewhere. We heard the stories of gay men, priests, fathers, ex-addicts, people who battled depression and abuse in their lives, people who demanded the right to be vulnerable, to be human. Real people, real men. They showed us the side of men’s lives that often remains hidden. Frank discussions were had on the multitude of issues men are dealing with today, from homelessness (nearly 90% of rough-sleepers are men), to addiction, self-harm and suicide. In all these areas, men also reign supreme.

Many of the reasons this is so, surfaced during the talks. But every time we were getting somewhere, a lot of the valid points raised - such as the differences between early education in girls and boys - would disappear. A simple explanation as to why this happens, is language. The issue when we’re discussing male identity amongst men, is the serious lack of verbal tools. These tools, feminism has provided aplenty, but most men are unaware of them. I also came to envy how clear the goals of feminist talks are, whereas here I felt we were testing the water without fully knowing what was waiting for us.

 In the session on Sex & Porn for instance, chaired by ex-Loaded editor Martin Daubney, the influence that capitalism has on our consumption habits was correctly identified, the addiction that is built-in, in the way of algorithms that draw you in, deeper and deeper. But we need an intersectionality for male issues, a language which we lack, in order to understand how these behaviours are being force-fed to men, and to further mount a proper critique of capitalism from a male perspective that is not limited to jobs and wages.

One of the sessions, titled “Crash and Burn”, with Tim Mellors, global creative head of Grey Group, David Wilkins of Men's Health Forum, and British rugby star Bobbie Goulding, valiantly touched upon the issue of education, and how the current system creates men who are unwilling to engage, share and ask for help until the very last minute, if ever. Collectively, as a society, we have conveniently fallen back on the old “boys will be boys” excuse. In this way we absolve ourselves when men grow up to be emotional islands. The reasons men grow up to be more violent than women, even if they come from the same background, can be traced back to this excuse. We further excuse ourselves when these men end up in jail, where assault and rape are the norm, and the term “rape culture” takes on a way more sinister face, becoming systemic and accepted as part of the punishment.

Researching this piece, I came upon a shocking statistic from the US, the country with the biggest prison population in the world. In 2008, more than 90.000 people (95% of them women) were victims of sexual assault. However, the American Ministry of Justice conducted a survey about rape inside the prison system ( where prison rape goes largely unreported), and found that 216.000 people had been victims of sexual assault. That is individual victims, not cases. 

It’s almost as if our societies have turned into machines that produce young, isolated men, and then send them off to fall into addiction, depression and suicide, potentially causing harm to others in the process, and then on to an inhumane jail system to be assaulted and raped with our approval. The joke “I’m sure jail will love your white ass” is still heard after a man’s sentencing. The US might well be the only country in the world were male rape is more prevalent in absolute numbers, but I suspect the picture would be similar across the pond, if we take an honest look in our prisons. Experts say it is likely that incidents of rape in British prisons are heavily under-reported. There are no clear statistics available, but from what we do know, there were 119 allegations of sexual assault in prison in 2008, but only 33 were ever investigated. As the saying goes “you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners”.

This extends outside the prison system, but not with sexual violence. Just as prisoners in the UK are treated as subhuman and without the right to their own bodies anymore, so are men who are not “top dogs” treated as losers. Manhood is a “winner takes all” game, and for every man at the top, millions are looked down upon. As a man myself, I understand that violence happens mainly amongst men. An example: In the “Violent Crime and Sexual Offences, 2011/12” report by the UK Office for National Statistics we read “The CSEW showed that young men were most likely to be the victims of violence. The profile of victims of violent and sexual violence varied according to the type of offence. In 2011/12, as in previous years, more than two-thirds of homicide victims (68%) were male”.

 I’ve been in three fist-fights in the past year alone, and while I can handle myself, I have never started one. All my male friends get caught into fights, all with other men, all the time. It’s dramatically worse for my gay and queer friends. This is a part of our lives, and yet we only deal with it via law enforcement, forgetting that the root cause is in the fact that we, as men, can’t connect. Boys are more likely than girls drop-out of school, less enter higher education, get worse grades, and are ultimately while raised in a way that will push them not to seek help. These are the men who will grow to be unsociable, unemployed, violent - and who will go on to produce another generation of men in their image. And we continue to put this down to “boys are like that”.

This is but one small portion of the cycle of the physical, sexual and financial violence that men experience, that then spills out on women and children. It is rarely talked about before the outcome becomes obvious outside this circle. How can we uproot it if we are unable to articulate it? We need language, and we need a specific goal, a point of intervention which my instinct tells me can be found somewhere in pre-school care and education in early teenage years. Luckily, a young male teacher from the audience made this point. In general, the great mix of men and women (more than a third of all attending) in the audience made up for a lot of what the various panels lacked.

“Being a bloke” was the session that stood out with big names Billy Bragg and Nick Hornby on the panel, and the question “what it means being a bloke”. This was for me the greatest disappointment of all, and a sign that we’re not even close to where we should be in the mainstream discourse. While I’m happy with Billy’s support of Stand Up for Women, a lot of clichés were offered by this panel on porn, video-games and pubic hair, recycled, evidence and care-free, lifted word for word from opinion articles in the same vein.

Here, traits passed down from previous generations were used to cast young men as porn-addicts with unrealistic expectations. Before that, Michael Kaufman of the White Ribbon campaign gave a CEO-like presentation that cast all men as potential woman-bashers. Even in the most benign examples, like the “suddenly all pubic hair is bad” cliché that Billy Bragg repeated, we see how badly depicted young men are. A standard obsessively promoted by the beauty industry since the 80’s is blamed on porn consumption (widespread online use is little more than 10 years old), and it fails to strike anyone as a peculiar or at least half-baked argument to make again and again, as the panel did.

This is exactly where the discourse fails men. As a younger generation we are  largely less violent, less prone to crime and less likely to be sexist or racist.  We are also less well-off, with fewer prospects, and taught to go about our very existence in a way that is simply not compatible with the world around us. I won’t comment on the demands made in the press for committees and bureaucrats to regulate our desires, or the failure of some to recognise that they are perpetuating taboos and clichés. I will stand with the festival’s organiser, Jude Kelly, in that this was “a day to talk about men, to celebrate them, and love them, because they are lovable”. Her purpose was to remind us this, and to inaugurate this “new man”. The majority of men I know are earnestly trying to be better people, but we’re all carrying a lot of conditioning around. We need to help ourselves and the next generation early on, and help them start from a better position, by educating young men in the language of feminism. This will help enable men to articulate their own problems, and improve the chances of them seeking out help, but also to understand how they may be doing an injustice to others. If we can’t be bothered, we are just perpetuating the situation. So next time you justify something with “boys being boys”, I urge you to reconsider.

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