‘Blokes don’t need help’

Men are more likely to be criminal, violent, alcoholic and suicidal. That’s their own fault, right? Last weekend’s Being a Man festival revealed a world that has turned its back on men’s problems.

Niki Seth-Smith
10 February 2014

Perry's Map of an Englishman. Flickr/Marc Wathieu

Grayson Perry won the headlines after last weekend's Being a Man festival by delivering a "manifesto for men" while wearing a frilly frock. I have nothing against Grayson, who as a transvestite artist, Turner prize winner, husband and father has done much to push the boundaries of being a man in the twenty first century. In my opinion, however, he was exactly the wrong figurehead. The BAM festival, which ran for three days on London's Southbank, was a game-changer not because it made space for the different, excluded or marginalized, but because it gave a voice to the 'average bloke', while pointing out that this ‘type’ has never actually existed. Perry also created an artwork on maleness of a phallic-style column with an all-seeing eye, depicting the white, heterosexual male gaze looking down on women, queers, and people of colour. Again, all credit to him. As a feminist, I don't dispute the basic truth of this vision of patriarchy. But a growing crisis of male identity has shown us the need to look into that tower and discover that it's a scary, precarious world 'up there'.

Perry's manifesto asked that men be given "the right to be vulnerable, to be uncertain, to be wrong, to be intuitive, the right not to know, to be flexible and not to be ashamed." As an artist he is talking about the freedom to express oneself, to feel one's way in the world, to take risks and make mistakes. But look at our male celebs and public figures and you'll see there is no shortage of flamboyant, expressive and ‘metro’ men: Gok Wan, Brian Cox and Stephen Fry spring to mind. The view at the top, as with feminism, is very different from the bigger picture. In Britain, men retain the impression of unthreatened advantage over women - whether they sport a briefcase or a Gucci man-bag - as they still occupy the top positions in any given field. The lack of women at Davos this year shows that men still rule when it comes to global leadership, while the elite worlds in so-called ‘creative’ or sensitive’ fields like gastronomy, fashion or literature are also male-dominated.

As a society, we are far too obsessed with the upper echelons of power, wealth and status, without questioning these measures of success and how they might apply to gender. I find it particularly bizarre when feminists of a left or anti-capitalist persuasion focus on men's superior wages, titles and airtime to argue that men are still unquestionably privileged in Western society. I don't challenge Perry's vision of an all-seeing, powerful patriarchy. But do the majority of men, aside from those in charge of this system, really benefit?

Let's look at the data. Speakers at the Being a Man festival referenced two particular stats about male and female suffering: the primary cause of death for women aged 16-44 is at the hands of a man (which is, despite being widely quoted, a myth), while men under the age of 35 are most likely to die by suicide. The reality that men are hurting themselves as well as the women around them seems to cut to the heart of the male crisis. It also tells us why 'menism' has never got off the ground. While women are framed as victims of patriarchy, men - as the argument goes - have only themselves to blame.

Take male violence and crime. In Britain, a staggering 95% of the prison population is male. The more violent the crime, the more likely it is to have been committed by a man. It’s easy to take an essentialist view of these figures: as physically superior, men are willing to dominate through blood and pain if they have to, or simply because they can. At the festival, Michael Kauffman, founder of the White Ribbon campaign against male violence, felt he needed to begin his talk by assuring us that "men are not monsters". He went on to discuss anthropological studies that show the only non-violent societies on record were non-patriarchal, but the fact that they were mixed supports the view that the system is to blame, not men as individuals.

Cynthia Cockburn has been criticised for “man-hating” after writing here on openDemocracy about masculine crime, claiming that "anti-social acts that harm well-being… are overwhelmingly performed by men." Yet she too argued that the “Y chromosome has nothing to do with it”. The key is whether we apportion blame, or try to support men by confronting the societal pressure to dominate and the culture of the tough guy, if not the badass. Recent recommendations by the Women's Justice Taskforce that women should not be sent to prison but serve community sentences, highlight the different ways in which we blame and forgive men and women. Almost all the arguments for rehabilitation over punishment hold equally for men, yet such a recommendation for male prisoners would have caused an outcry.

No one at the festival denied that men are more likely to seek control through violence, and the festival brought to light a concern around how this image of maleness was effecting a new generation of boys. At one session, Constable Richard Unwin from the Met’s sex violence unit described how he nearly quit his job after being told that a victim would only talk to a female officer. While such a preference is common, in this case the victim had expressed none, but the officer making the call presumed she wouldn’t want to see a man. A woman from the audience introduced herself as "from the generation of radical feminists that imposed this definition of 'man' as 'baddy'" and confessed she was worried about her son growing up in this environment.

Men are used to being told to express other kinds of maleness than that of the physically dominant alpha, encompassing and moving beyond Perry’s vision of the vulnerable, intuitive, sensitive male. But for many white, heterosexual men this can be a difficult debate to enter. In fact, the first hurdle may be the ability to communicate on this register, and the belief they have “permission” to do so. This was a concept that cropped up at the festival during a session called “Crash and Burn” where we discussed the higher rates of suicide, alcoholism and school dropouts for men and boys in Britain. The rugby star Bobbie Goulding told us how he felt unable to reach out for help after he lost his glittering career due to drink. Born in Lancashire, he was brought up with the idea that "men don't talk about their feelings". It took a near-fatal car crash to get him to properly seek help. David Wilkins of Mens Health Forum described how this imperative to "man up" is preventing men from accessing the support and services they need. As with the Police Constable, institutional assumptions can aggravate the problem. While significantly fewer men are referred by GPs to counseling than women, Wilkins pointed out that GPs may not offer a 'talking cure' as they assume it will be refused.

After a day spent listening to men talk about their often silent struggles, the phrase "boys will be boys" took on a more sinister tone. It seems we have turned our back on ‘men’s problems’, citing various reasons why we don’t need to care. They're violent, so they deserve prison. They don't reach out, so how can we help them? If they told us what they want, we could provide it. But 'menism' is too embryonic to have formulated any demands. Perry's manifesto, which might be called 'the right not to be a bloke', fails to address the roots of the disadvantage. The BAM festival, by existing at all, was one small step towards building up voices in mainstream culture. But the obsession with voice, as many feminists have argued, is the domain of those with class privilege. A London festival will hardly help the many men who are in our jails, on our streets, or contemplating ending their lives.

We are beginning to identify some of the ways in which men today are disadvantaged by patriarchy. Perhaps before we go any further, we should question this language we are now applying to the other half of the species. What the debate doesn’t need is a ranking system of relative ‘advantage’, with men and women scrapping over scores, each claiming to be ‘worse off’. Talking to my friends, there was a weird reaction to the fact that Being a Man festival would feature men-only "think ins" for small groups. Men, who aren't necessarily part of minority groups, claiming safe spaces? How dare they! I don't see a problem with this, but I do think the presumption should be towards the genders deliberating and struggling together. The first major British festival on maleness was organised by a woman, and more than a third of the audience were female, with all-male panelists. I would love to see this mix of genders and will to engage evident across the broader movement against patriarchy. Okay, 'genderism' isn't exactly catchy. But let’s come up with something.

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