On men and international men's day

International men's day risks being used as an argument against women's rights and feminism. But can it become a reminder of how dangerous masculinity can be for men as well as women? Or is even saying that problematic?

Robert Shepherd
19 November 2013

Today, it’s Tuesday in Britain. We have woken to a country and a planet that are overwhelmingly ruled by men, where men dominate the boardroom and the airwaves, where the number of possibilities described in culture to men is vastly richer and deeper than those given to others. We have woken in a place where men dominate, and for my own part I find it difficult to think of this as anything other than a fact.

And so it’s not surprising that the fact today is also International Men’s Day has brought about the response that it has. The general thrust on social media seems to be that in a real sense every day is International Men’s Day, that if you wanted to find a world that glorified and celebrated men you would not have to do any work at all to discover it.

And here I am in a position where I agree but feel very uncomfortable at the same time, because there is more to the story of men than this. The dominance of men is often not one that allows transgression, and those of us who transgress -and we are many- often find ourselves in very awkward positions. To me as a man, maleness has often felt like something that exists beneath you, in a way that defines what you should be in a manner that is totally indifferent to what you are. As a teenager, I frequently felt like society was telling me I should be going out and having sex with as many women as possible - to hell with the consequences! - and that my desire to do more or less anything else instead was socially abhorrent, and probably biologically abhorrent as well. Indeed, to a large extent the major life decision I made at that point -to go and study evolution for four years- was made to attempt to understand on an internal level that science didn’t mind if I was monogamous. Looking back, this seems like an astonishingly stupid thing to have done, but it does illustrate the level of influence internalised concepts of maleness and gender both had on me. I would never argue I wasn’t on the better side of rape culture, but it did leave its scars on me. I imagine it does on many men.

The obvious counterpoint to this is that it doesn’t matter how maleness feels - economic and social advantages come from being a man in structural ways, regardless of how a man as an individual feels about the whole thing. But there is, I feel, a point where the personal becomes structural. When enough men feel bound by maleness in this way it seems reasonable to assume the problem is a problem of society, and when their maleness compels them not to report being raped or assaulted the problem suddenly seems urgent. In this light, mocking International Men’s Day no longer seems comfortable, but actively dangerous.

I am not, for my part, very good at talking about these issues. The existence of the Male Rights’ Activist movement -which frequently seems to come from a position of implied or outright hostility to the gains of feminism- is always at the back of my mind, and I am wary of accidentally advancing their cause. In being so guarded, though, I worry that I may end up adopting positions that are blind to obvious social justice issues where these exist. Ask me about physical and sexual violence against women, and I will be able to confidently tell you what I believe: that both are still accepted to some degree by alarming levels of society, that the long-term effects of both are not often discussed in healthy ways and that each happens to a degree that is -to a man- unimaginably and unforgivably high. Ask me the same question about men, however, and I will go through mental gymnastics to avoid saying that they are areas that are both underfunded and underdiscussed, while all the time thinking it would be very difficult to argue otherwise.

And so in the end I am a man who doesn’t know how to talk about issues that concern being a a man, trying to talk coherently in an area whose main problem is probably that it currently lacks a coherent discourse. All I know for sure is that today, it’s Tuesday in Britain, and today there will be men who are beaten and are raped, who will struggle with mental illnesses that our ideas of maleness will reinforce rather than break down. And this will happen because today is a day like any other day, like Monday and Thursday and Friday and Sunday, and today is not a day where we’re likely to work out how to change that. It’s just Tuesday the 19th of November. It’s International Men’s Day.

This post first appeared at Pan Bloglodytes P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }

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