If there's one thing I'll bet your sex life isn't, it's a cheeky vintage seaside postcard. Or a sexy futurama of cosmic tantric freedom. There are many things about human sexuality that are fantasy, far far removed from the reality of our social challenges on Earth as sexual societies today – but our escapes can say much about our longings. So long after the supposed sexual revolution made at the same time as lots of once normal seeming bawdy British comedies or silver booted sexy scifi, my own lifetime since then is still all that spans the time that homosexuality has been not a criminal act in my own liberal country – something that today still is in 72 nations worldwide. How much have we moved on? Across the media, in our public storytelling, and floating alone in our homes?
How do you consider your own sexuality? Is it political or private? Funny, or fearful? Pleasure, or pain? Or, y’know – both. Is it your identity you think of first, or your body? Your desires or your whole personality? Titilation or empowerment? And what do you think it should, be?
Who do we imagine we are in our spectrum of sexual identities? And where do our sexual habits lead us? Amid rising campaigns for sexual equalities and justice, is there one broad ideal for the sexual human life, and what might the future of it look like? And do you and your mis-shapen physique fit into it? However hot right now you feel, in your best bib and tucker and Jimmy Choos or tucked up in your jim-jams with a hotty botty, if encouraging the the future of our species means anything, it means encouraging… life. And what it likes to do. Yet, who of us might turn out to be the champions of a healthier human sexual life? And hell, whose business is it anyway?
Whether sexuality is, for you, fun or taboo, magnificent, or disappointing, rich or barren, winking at yourself casually in shop windows or micro-managing your every interaction with others, something that fills your imagination or something you wish you didn’t have to think about, we could all really do with a healthy way of looking at it, and how it fits into the web of our collective life on Earth – because it does rather sit at the very core of who we are and how we were made.
It may be the most complex aspect of being human, our sexuality. And much as we see it as a distraction, or relief, from the real business of managing things, it may turn out to be the most fundamental aspect of ourselves driving our collective problems, fears and abuses. Because most of the time it’s really about something else. Power.
Well, if there’s something about bookish daliances in the psychology section that does it for you, whip off your glasses because this is going to get steamy. Personally, I’m going to pop the kettle on. To get the most out of this one, we’re going to get tantric and go for a long session.
It’s a huge part. Of who we think we are – our sexuality. We may all know that with great hotness comes great responsibility, but most of us likely feel insufficient saucy confidence to even have the option of being wantonly irresponsible. If only the story of our sexuality as humans on Earth were just about recreation, or love. If love is anything, love is a battlefield. Millions of us know only too well the equation between a fight for identity and our sexuality, with, for example, eight countries around the world today still carrying the death penalty for being gay and dozens more threatening imprisonment for it, according to an ILGA report.
But it’s not simply about the dramatic oppressions unchallenged, it’s the thousand little ones every day around the world that challenge who you are. The biggest social platform on Earth, Weibo, just announced a ‘clean up’ of the site to remove any gay content, to create a more ‘harmonious’ environment. If I am what I am, as I think Jesus put it, what do I do when just being is a crime? Or if not a crime, simply discriminated against or given more social obstacles to navigate daily. Doesn’t put you in the mood for the business of life, does it. And while others of us look like we don’t have to think twice about our sex and the shape of it or the value of it, it’s hard to imagine any single one of us not carrying around a conscious sex rating of ourselves. An almost numeric value, always affected it seems by the market context of who we’re standing next to.
There is nothing in the human planet that’s not about connection. There’s just no escaping it.
Stepping back from the heats of all kinds surrounding our fleshly interrelations, it’s interesting to consider how differently we all experience that most fundamental of biological human traits – right up there with the need for water and food, there is another appetite – for the dance of love. And it’s so very much more complicated than slaking simple thirst or grabbing a dirty take-out on the way home. Our sexual expectations, pressures, private lusts and public shames are a writhing mass of diversities entangling us all together. In some moments comforting, in others choking.
How much does what we do in secret shape our public life? How much should we consciously connect them or not? Should we be able to foster private escapes in our mind, and keep them in their place, or does this even work? Does it for some of us and not others? Does it matter being an object in some moments and a friend in others? Are there always benefits? Does talking about the meaning and connection and emotion and consequences rather miss the whole, er, point? Of the moment.
And if the point of that moment is really just escape, then do we simply continue trying to build replicant sex slaves and fully immersive VR experiences – IE: the sort that will need wiping down afterwards – or will such a predictable Business As Usual approach of plugging the gaps with technology and pretend do anything to address the things currently doing more than just making us dissatisfied, but degrading us?
And don’t snigger at the word plugging. We’re not going to get anywhere at this rate, are we.
How do we encourage healthy sexuality in our cultures? What might it even look like? Behind the language of double entendres, is the culture of our binary sexuality, in fact, the real ghost in the world machine?
Well, in the pantheon of sex gods and fleshy powers and totemic beliefs, I am no schollar. I’m the bloke cleaning the library steps, so this whirlwind tour of the most traded upon human X factor won’t win a research prize. It’s just me, gazing out at it all, wondering how to unsee one or two things. But to make a start I firstly think we’ve given ourselves a lot of headaches trying to escape one oddly central thing in the human sexual psyche.
Guilt. It’s evidently intoxicating. Because for humans across centuries, we seem to love going back to it – it being the chief end result of all our furtive sexual fumblings, it seems. In almost all the ways that feel good, we are not supposed to be doing sex. Apparently. Certainly thanks to all the major religeo-political powers over the last two millennia in the West. Enjoying it will be the ruin of us, they have long said. Especially if we’ve been unlucky enough to be overtly female down all those ages. Which seems especially unfair given how much more richly interesting we seem built to enjoy sex as female humans. Interesting then how many men have seemed so keen to help women find ruin. Usually managing in the process to offload more than 10ccs of guilt along with anything else; those of us carrying the uteruses and reproductive hormone matrixes seem to be excellent natural repositories in every way, don’t we, as stuff really seems to stick to us. ..Ew.
And it’s not like the fading of influence religion has had over many modern societies has lessened our hangups exactly; along with new freedoms have come some new fears and comparisons and unattainable supposed and imagined ‘norms’ of everyone’s sex lives and relationships. Daily culture may always have been the real driver of influence in human sexpectations, but it all seems rather more complicated now that our roles are not so simply preached to us but merely implied brain-washingly, saturating our every waking moment across a 24hour kaleidoscope of advertising and storytelling.
But, of course, our human sexuality is much more complicated than any one story, or set of commandments. Amid the fights and ruin, it sometimes still manages to be play, apparently – going far beyond the one essential physical act of bumping opposite genitals for reproduction. When we’re allowed to tell them, our sexual stories can be wildly more interesting than that, under the bonnet. Or on it. Or behind closed doors. Or up against them. But even within fairly acceptible social norms of consentual relations, we do seem wired to a tendency to feel bad about sex as much as we want it. However we want it. So surely this age-old conflict is just nature pitting us against each other in body, mind and heart, whether gay, straight, bi or just browsing. Some natural process of almost Satrian misery in our stolen, fleeting moments of relief.
Funny how un-natural so much of our sexual history can feel then, hmm.
Is there a normal? A normal way to relate to our sexuality, in the mix with our other centres of being – feelings, thoughts, bodies. Or is everything of us taking place in a deeper social context that sounds stupendously bookish and unsexy at best, and downright fearful when you scratch the surface.
I’m tempted to say – because I can resist anything but temptation – that if we are to bring it all back to a simpler, less intense starting point for the human sexual condition, then one thing to combat the general guilt response to sex baked into so many of our global cultures may be the simplest anti-furtive there is. Removing all our clothes.
Yep, I’m already uncomfortable too. And chilly. But that’s why I’ve left my socks and sandals on, and have lit my pipe.
Naturism. If you’re already considering going the Full Hippy this far into Unsee The Future, then this will challenge your commitment fast, I fancy. And yes, my own. Because the idea of standing proudly, hands on hips, nodding a healthily confident hello to strangers all sauntering around in the buff, or playing table tennis, or discussing Proust, is a little beyond my ability to keep a straight face. Or face the idea this side of a catatonic state.
But. It’s healthy. Not the potential for frostbite, but the potential to be comfortable with the human body. Yours and anyone’s. ..Well, I mean almost anyone’s.
“When you shed your clothes you also shed just a few of the burdens of everyday life.” says British Naturism. “The feeling of liberation, discovery and freedom is something that you cannot describe” they add. Well, I mean you can: “It feels like taking all your clothes off. Like the recurring naked nightmare. But in a good way. Presumably.”
You’ve got to admire the commitement to this that is represented in a British naturism organisation – we all know what the weather tends to be like in my home country. Not always encouraging to male body confidence, shall we say. But that just shows that you should probably get your kit of with strangers all the sooner and deal with your hang-ups. While, y’know. Hanging out. Because boffins suggest evidence to prove it’s a seriously good thing for you.
As the Daily Mail reported, a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies: “came to the conclusion that taking off your clothes around strangers is probably good for you.”
The study itself, from Department of Psychology Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “Body image dissatisfaction is a serious, global problem that negatively affects life satisfaction.” Which is, of course, putting it mildly. But, it says: “It was found that more participation in naturist activities predicted greater life satisfaction — more positive body image, and higher self-esteem”.
And this is an outlook that British Naturism says should start young. “Children in Naturism are happy, well-adjusted and safe” they say – “Children don’t care if they are wearing clothes or not, it’s adults who make them get dressed.”
What would your kids say to this bold assertion? Would would you at quite a young age? And, honestly, are you squirming at the idea of mentioning kids and nudity? If so, well, that’s interesting. Because I am involuntarily too. And this says that our respective cultures have possibly been doing something very wrong indeed that we can no longer easily equate nautral family nudity and health. Well, I mean maybe not your family – we all know everyone’s always telling your dad to put his clothes back on, the comfortable blighter. But generally? Hmm. When you seriously consider all of us growing up in Western-influenced cultures, just how body conscious are we? How torn up about it are our children from sometimes alarmingly young ages. An awful lot of our thinking about our bodies and how they relate to our sexuality seems dismorphic to say the least.
Now, the urge to protect those we love, especially our younglings, should be powerful. Perhaps as primal as other fundamental urges – it is enough to say just once here that the modern world seems a predatory place in the shadows. But it’s interesting to really consider how we do or don’t try to protect our children in modern society. Because while we squirm at the idea of a-sexual skin freedom and the ordinarying of human bodies, we seem powerless to consider what our children are exposed to in the kaleidoscope of daily culture’s stories blizzarding across devices. Do we even notice some of the things that may be psychologically very damaging indeed? How can we hope to see anything straight in the middle of it all?
Something in our embarrassment at our own bodies seems obviously broken, doesn’t it? It’s not like we haven’t heard this said before in modern life. I simply think that the overwhelming connection between the way we want to be seen – have eyes scan us – and how attractive we feel is a thing to take note of.
In one sense, you might say it’s as old as the birds and the bees – we can catch each other’s eye across any room and want to say hellOH without knowing a thing about the person. It’s sort of how it works, you might think. But it’s hardly complete, either, is it? For one thing, some bees use a finely curated scent to attract mates, as well as the ageless language of dance. But when you’ve pulled off your tango shoes and soaked your feet, you are reminded that no relationship stays together on looks alone. And arranged marriages for some couples, it is said, turn out to be the most stress-free way of finding love. Because someone else has done it for you and basically commissioned you to make it work. A helpfully single-minded brief can get things done, no? Sometimes. I think the point is that love does have to be in the air somewhere in that process.
Yet the emphasis we put on visual attraction over emotional wholeness, general sexy confidence… crikey, it’s almost total in the way we tell stories across – guess what – screens all over the world. And that visual slavery plays into a particular pattern, you could say. The overtly male brain.
The male gaze. It may be, I am beginning to think, a problem lurking behind many more societal… symptoms, than I’m used to thinking about. As a man. Ugly clues of the real state of our outlooks in everyday ‘ordinary’ life. Because if only we could all see it, we might recognise that the unmanaged male gaze dehumanises all of us.
But honestly, billions of us don’t know how to turn it away.
The UN’s Global Goal for Gender Equality wants to: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
Interesting way of putting that introductory statement to this issue, isn’t it.
“Gender bias is undermining our social fabric and devalues all of us. It is not just a human rights issue; it is a tremendous waste of the world’s human potential. By denying women equal rights, we deny half the population a chance to live life at its fullest. Political, economic and social equality for women will benefit all the world’s citizens. Together we can eradicate prejudice and work for equal rights and respect for all.”
I can see why they put it like this. As we saw in Unsee The Future‘s first episode on Education, girls can be married off when young in many parts of the world, and miss out on vitally empowering formal learning. But the UN puts this forced practice together with the huge symbolic physical disfigurement of FGM – female genital mutilation – as a girls-degrading culture of coersion it wants to eliminate. It’s chief target is broader still – as broad as this: “End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.” An almost unassailably worthy sounding headline aim for this whole Goal. And… almost upsettingly vague. Just how overwhelming is the problem for women around the world?
There are the co-aims of ending violence against and exploitation of women – almost industrialised trafficking right alongside domestic daily indifference to women’s humanity. And then there are the more benign oppressions of lacking economic valuation for the traditionally female roles of care and nurture that essentially make any society possible – how is it our economic system has had so casually missing a currency for such life affirming work? And why has such life affirming work been so culturally dominated by humans born with a uteris? A question that seems to have answered itself for millions of men for generations, unprompted culturally to ask more questions.
The disempowerment of women crosses political, technological, corporate, legal… SO many boundaries and fields of work, study, living and administering society it is almost dizzying. To such engrained global degree today that the UN’s entire goal for gender equality doesn’t once mention men. Never mind those transitioning between tidy binary ends of the human gender spectrum.
But in such times of unrest – a good word, because I think everyone is feeling kind of restless, uncomfortable, sensing change – could we see some actual social shifts?
If there’s one thing that seems sure about now, it is that we’re in a time of many concurrent opposites, socially. I think for those of us who’ve muddled along with the status quo okay, the last two years have felt like a barrage of reactionary, well, horriblness often. Message boards the world over have become unspeakable places all too easily. But in many ways it is simply a time of people saying what they have really wanted to say but felt they couldn’t. And that’s not just bear-bating male brains, it’s the true female experience too.
Me Too. While it seems to me you have to have cast iron pants to be a woman in public at the moment, with the inexplicable blizzard of violent hate directed at any female human daring to share a public opinion on social media, female voices are not growing quieter. Many women are finally finding their voices about what’s really been going on for them in the same room as many men. Completely different experiences of the same thing, is what.
When actor Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag #MeToo in the wake of a string of alegations emerging about the film producer Harvey Weintein, she ignited a flood of responses from other women. And more alegations and fearful stories of abusive conduct by men in all manner of professional settings towards the women alongside them. One actor whose face became one of the defining faces of the 80s was Molly Ringwald, and she recently wrote for the New Yorker, sharing for the first time some incidents that happened to her when in her early teens in the movie business. She said simply: “I never talked about these things publically because, as a woman, it always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather.”
‘No one’ would listen. The men all running the movie studios and big businesses wouldn’t listen, in other words. The sea of experiences shared with this and other hashtags is just overwhelming. It’s like a lid has come off a sesspit everyone ignored the stench of.
Tarana Burke coined the phrase originally Me Too years before, but as it broke across the Weinstein story, it unlocked: “an extraordinary outpouring of pain,” as Emma Brockes puts it in an article for the Guardian. But as a grassroots worker for female justice, Burke is a pragmatist about the sheer scale of the cultural problem coming to light. “Sexual violence happens on a spectrum so accountability has to happen on a spectrum,” she says. “I don’t think that every single case of sexual harassment has to result in someone being fired; the consequences should vary. But we need a shift in culture so that every single instance of sexual harassment is investigated and dealt with. That’s just basic common sense.”
The point, it is dawning on me about many things, is that the men feeling so ‘attacked’ and who are, let’s say, reacting assertively to women speaking up for their bullied experiences, simply don’t sound like they know what it’s like to be in the same room as such women and have such different experiences of it.
Broadcaster and creative Laura Whitmore is just one typical story of this movement. She could be anyone as she shares her own testimony, opening with the words: “I’ve wanted to write this for a while but I’ve been scared. I feel ashamed to say I was scared but I was. I still am. Scared of what people might say, drawing attention to things that upset me.”
What she describes first is a simple assault in a club. A man in a club simply treating her as free merchandise to handle without any words at all. An experience that, unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t appreciate what it takes from you. Right there, out of the blue, in public. An experience that seems to fit with a whole matrix of culture Whitmore found in day to day life in the city.
“First time I moved to London, someone smacked my ass before I got on to a bus. I’ve had lewd remarks shouted at me. Every time I pass a group of guys alone, my stomach knots and I keep my head down as I worry they’ll shout something and embarrass me. I am by no means a weak woman. I consider myself a strong person. Ask anyone who knows me, I’ll fight for what I believe in and I will always stand up for myself. But sometimes I feel I have to choose my battles and other times I feel… what’s the point?”
There is a culture of course around celebrity. So as a woman working in front of the camera a fair bit, she felt herself being seen as ‘fair game’ by certain publications. She was trailed by one photographer for weeks, trying to get an ‘upskirt’ shot and he eventually succeeded, she says. “To say that there are more important things going on in the world than the colour of my pants would be funny if all of this weren’t so invasive, so horrible, so cheap and nasty. On top of all that, the paper blurred my knickers, so it basically looked like I was wearing NO PANTS! The whole thing felt dirty and grossly, needlessly sexualised.”
Her account of general life in her semi public position is, well, kind of heavy to read. And she makes clear she is not attempting to compare her general experiences of harrassment with the experiences of rape victims. “What has really hit me is how women are portrayed in general. All this shaming and degrading. In a sense, the #MeToo movement is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Now pause for a moment to notice your own reaction to this.
What were you thinking as you heard these moments of account from one young woman working in the media?
Was it: “Sounds rotten… but she kind of made a deal going into public life.”
Or was it: “Yep. Me too.”
Either way, our instinctive, ingrained cultural responses to the stories of women say far too much about the state of our times.
As the law to demand the publication of gender pay differences in UK business passed its deadline and figures were released this week as I write, we learned that eight out of ten companies in this country pay men more than women. And this seems to be a principle across the western economic world – the ‘developed’ world that wants to help women and girls in ‘developing’ countries find the empowerment of equal education. The baffling disparity is simply global.
“If we believe that equality is good for business, why are we still having this conversation?” writes Shelley Zallis for Forbes in the US. “The 20% gap adds up. According to the National Women’s Law Center, a 20-year old woman working full time will lose more than $418,000 over a 40-year career compared to a male worker. If we do not close the gap, women will have less overall wealth, less money for retirement and will continue to be the ones opting out of their careers for caregiving responsibilities. This shouldn’t be so complicated. Let’s start with the premise of equal pay for equal work.”
Culturally, in some of the most ‘developed’, supposedly modern nations on Earth, there is a culture apparently in the air that it’s all too easy to walk into as a woman. Like an invisible minefield of tiny morality singularities, hanging in the atmosphere that you never have any idea if you will suddenly walk into it and be tipped over a personal event horizon, spaggettified into a parallel universe where you are no longer a person, but meat. A planetary cobweb net that can suddenly cling to you, manifesting in coersion, intimidation, objectification, devaluation, resentment or any manner of disrespect.
And with the current onslaught of message board abuse towards women, I wonder how any woman in the middle of real public debate cope with the extra tons of social pressure on them and their families if they dare question a status quo. Because it does look like this is exactly what is happening – women being villified, mocked, shamed, assaulted for wanting to overturn the dark ages still at the heart of modern life.
Does it all stem from – or is it at least all fed and normalised and pumped into the atmostphere by – the dominance of the male gaze in our storytelling? Predominantly hetero male gaze; that flattening of the shape of women into imagery, on every street, in every window, around every board room. Why is telly ad couple so often rather attractive, glammed telly ad woman with bit-goofy, funny telly ad man? Not the other way around. And basically never two telly ad men or telly ad women buying a washing machine together.
Here’s something though, before we get lost in the wasteland of advertising demographics. When I asked you what your reaction privately was to Laura Whitmore’s testimony, you may have had another response too. One I didn’t refer to there.
“What about the prejudice and abuse and dehumanisation inflicted on men?”
As you’re taking in all this, I’m sure you’re checking your crypto values while shaking your head and posting something on a Slack channel about encouraging us all to become global citizens. Renounce the borders, slide meta to the systems. Something like that. But it turns out that nowhere progressive is safe from being essentially something or other to do with colonial patriarchy. Because are you sure you are not a digital bromad yourself?
If you are nomadic, in the modern sense, you may well know this term. Kit Whelan and Viv Egan’s podcast Nomad + Spice had quite a few extra listens it seems when they looked at the idea one episode. A podcast exploring the experiences of women moving around the world with laptops to combine work and travel into a less shackled global view, it’s co-founder Whelan said this of the term digital bromad: “It describes someone who is a digital nomad primarily to make money, live in cheap places, and often makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome with their lack of respect for women and local cultures. Also may sometimes do push-ups in public.”
In my less lengthy spells of travel, I’d not come across the type or term exactly. The travel bore is not at all gender specific, let me say in my own experience. But the idea of econo-cultural gender privilege turning up a lot on the nomad trails is something Adam Rowe explores for Tech.Co.
“Contrary to any expectations set by Instagram’s #digitalnomad hashtag, freedom and flexibility don’t mean endless stress-free vacation days” he says. “It can mean tight budgeting, adjusting to local culture, and constant efforts to ensure your next contract is lined up. Unless, that is, you’re a bromad, and therefore far more able to benefit from a few key systemic privileges.”
“Western countries with attractive passports and good visa options are more likely to turn out digital nomads, for one thing. Plus, the male-dominated tech and digital industries mean young men are more likely to have an established enough career and contacts-list to risk it all on a one-way ticket to Thailand. And, if the nomad life doesn’t work out, the middle-class fallback of the Bank of Mom and Dad takes away the worst of the risk.”
Dear me. These lunkheads get everywhere, right?
And they sound like everything that women are finding increasing courage to publically stand against with Me Too – the entitled white male privilege. A condition that often seems to render the host oblivious to their condition. But boiled down, someone still acting like a bit of a d*** because he hasn’t grown up yet. Someone who knows the dollar price of everything and the value of nothing, right? You know. Boys.
Boys. Smelly, aggressive, ridiculous, emotional grunts. Right? Well… why? What of this sort of oafish disempathy is really firmware to the male brain and what is just a bunch of favoured apps?
Another phrase lurking around our social sexual debates today is toxic masculinity. A much-used phrase that seems apt when you flip the lid of the patriarchy bin, as most of the end product of this supposed form of mandom reeks badly – from the stubborn dominance of oil & gas to the unempathic beligerance of economic corporate expedience to the disconnected laziness of consumer waste to the willful health ignorance of industrial food industry ingredients to the denial of alcoholism, the brutal bullying of people trafficking, the peer braggadiaccio of gang enlistment, the blazingly violent self-obsession of terrorism, the bullish lust for war, the just angry resentment of women, as unobtainable objects to posess. It’s enough to make you want to paint yourself in camo and go run off into the woods to escape such a toxic burden of responsibility for basically everything. As a man.
And I thought my nephews and godsons were each rather fun little chaps in their own ways.
Author and surfer Tim Winton wonders if it’s time men figured out for themselves just how damaged they are by some traditionally-pushed ideas of masculinity. And he describes younger boys so sweetly, it brought me up short.
“What a mystery a boy is. Even to a grown man. Perhaps especially to a grown man. And how easy it is to forget what beautiful creatures they are. There’s so much about them and in them that’s lovely. Graceful. Dreamy. Vulnerable. Qualities we either don’t notice, or simply blind ourselves to. You see, there’s great native tenderness in children. In boys, as much as in girls. But so often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them.”
His view is that somehow, the culture of manhood has had many bits of it chipped away, burned away, shamed away – and from many pressing social challenges – but it’s not been replaced with anything substantial. Just a sense of, well, disempowerment. Of awkward silence, or tacit complicity to some unpleasant echo of old ways that privately still feels truthful. But unable to be said.
“Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean” he says. But as the boys rehearse this form of masculinity, the men around them don’t seem ready with correction. With alternative example. And he sees it, he says, there in the recreational surf every day.
“The blokes around me in the water are there, like me, for respite, to escape complexity and responsibility for an hour or two, to save themselves from going mad in their working lives, but their dignified silence in response to misogynistic trash talk allows other messages, other poisonous postures to flourish. ..Sadly, modernity has failed to replace traditional codes with anything explicit, or coherent or benign. We’re left with values that are residual, fuzzy, accidental or sniggeringly conspiratorial. We’ve scraped our culture bare of ritual pathways to adulthood.”
Why is this? What the hell happened to men? Or what hasn’t happened yet?
Writer Richard Godwin says that in modern life, still: “It’s often hard to discern any positive role for men, beyond apologetic retweeters of feminist memes. And there’s a wider defensiveness around masculinity. The comedian Robert Webb titled his memoir How not to be a boy.”
Writing about attending a sort of man therapy group, says how weird it was to be in a room full of men. Metro blokes do live in a sort of bubble, you might think from this. But his first observation as they stood in a circle and were awkwardly made to, you guessed it, say how they feel, was this: “One by one, the men – mostly in their mid-30s, mostly straight, mostly white – said they were afraid. One guy, a straight-talking youth worker, reckoned that if the estate kids he worked with could see him now, they’d rip the piss and would probably be right to.”
Researching the man problem as it seems to be, he took himself to other meetings, illustrating a fair amount of activity around the idea of men trying to work themselves out – and there seems to be a fair bit of it going on just quietly. Something is wrangling around in men at a deeper level than a spot of cultural ennui over the Guardian Saturday suppliment. Something that feels somehow tied to the big political shifts around us that we’ve long described as a pull between Left and Right. Is it a pull between masculine and feminine too? It seems as though, for a lot of men, the two are equated somehow. Bodies like Rebel Wisdom seem to have attracted the sympathies of some who would also identify somewhere with the AltRight, which sounds vaguely blood chilling to me as a good liberal. But at one particular masculinity meeting, one of the founders, David Fuller, illustrated the times that he feels all this man hand-wringing is going on in.
“Around the election of” (I’m just going to say FortyFive here) “it felt really significant that a lot of issues around masculinity were being reflected in the culture,” Godwin reports Fuller as saying to the group. “How is it possible that a man who boasts of sexual assault can be elected to the most significant public role in the world? It spoke to a deep dysfunction around our ideas of healthy masculinity. But, at the same time, there’s a narrative that there’s something about masculinity that’s fundamentally toxic.”
“One of the themes that has come to the fore,” Godwin comments, “is that women shouldn’t have to perform the emotional labour of teaching men how not to harass and assault them – just as it shouldn’t be down to people of colour to call out and explain racism.”
Some voices emerging into this phase of the cultural sexual debate seem to me to be only amplifying the divisions around gender, somehow, with a figure like Jordan Peterson rallying many men who just don’t get why feminist oponents don’t get his withering engineered logic, while peeing off many women who just don’t get why male fans of his seem blind to how condescending and kind of passive aggressive he can come across as. The language and tone thing here can be teeth grinding to watch on both ‘sides’. Everyone’s pain is valid, you idiots.
But some of the deep philosophies of recent male champion groups are drawing on the idea that the prevailing status quo of the media (the fake media) champions female issues at the expense of male. And it’s just resonnating with a lot of ordinary guys out there, and the very engineering geekery of it is partly why, I think – “x + y = z, so now defy the logic of my pain!” A sense boiling under all this gender talk that taps into a much bigger zeitgeist of change – the now of fearsome realities. That all the institutions that rule the world today, that feel to so many people like they’re failing them, have effectively neutered the ability for men to speak honestly about their ambitions and their feelings.
I just wonder how far the recognition of some of this pain is going to get us if it doesn’t ring with sympathy across the spectrum of our human experiences. If you are describing some women as ‘crazy sisters’ and spelling out the assumption that underneath the language of men worth respecting by other men is always the implication of violence, and that the co-implication is that we are socially never ‘allowed’ to apply this to women which is unbalanced, essentially unfair – that’s sending a signal outside the dense logic language of thesis. Damn straight it is. That’s playing to an audience, not universally-minded understanding. Especially if you’re not quick to condemn as ‘crazy brothers’ the fans who hound the critics of your thesis.
But if your sense of oppression connects your feelings to a conspiracy “that there is a secret cabal of postmodern neo-Marxists hellbent on destroying western civilisation and that their campus LGBTQ group is part of it” as reasonably withering Macleans columnist Tabatha Southey puts it to Dorian Lyndskey, then you’re not so much hitching your emotional wagon to a star of hope as circling the wagons and reloading. Aren’t you? I know you’re sensible and feel this might be reaching for an uncognisized narrative here, but it’s the fascination with conspiracy that’s fueling this deep mental maze with intense scholarly language that is a bit otherworldly. You can slip into a sort of psychobabble trance to much of it, if you stop focussing for a minute.
All of which is like a religious experience to some – and how do you neatly make sense of that to your nearest and dearest, or in everyday life pottering around the Co-op. It’s a bit unreal.
Who is all this really helping? I think that’s my question. Who is it really bringing together? What problem is it really solving and to what actions will it lead you, as a man taking in all this? Just as I’d ask, who is it helping to ignore the thousands of men who are feeling recognised and empowered by such politically-linked ideology? Because these guys are feeling that something is fundamentally wrong somewhere, and are empowered by the idea of trying to wake up to it.
If a vaguely left of centre liberal in a wood talks about inclusion and diversity but excludes the libertarian with her among the bluebells who disagrees with this, do they both go pop in a causality glitch and disappear? And does anyone not in the wood care?
Here’s the real question: What philosophies, debates, movements and champions have woken us up to each other? In so many women’s and men’s minds, the word Masculinity, we are told, is synonimous with the un-dadsy word Toxic. Or the downright oppressive word Patriarchy. It’s no wonder we’re all miserable.
One of the problems of pain is that no one is interested in anyone else’s.
Richard Godwin concedes: “There are moments – say when I’m happily cooking with my son –” (Blimey, Rich, you don’t have to overcook your right-on creds to me, man) “when the dominant narrative of masculinity as toxic, entitled, corrupt, dysfunctional and so on seems a little limiting. If you’ve always found men such as Weinstein despicable and pathetic, it’s disorienting to find yourself in the same category as him by virtue of also having a penis.”
Dave Pickering, author of Mansplaining Masculinity, suggests that blokes might find themselves getting defensive when people talk about the patriarchy because implicit in this is that all penis owners are benefitting from this, when it really doesn’t feel like it to many of them. “The main breadwinner is not a pleasant place to be” he says. “The person who is expected to use violence to defend people is not a healthy place to be. More men are in prison, more men are in the army, men are more likely to hurt other men, and it’s usually because they’re policing masculinity. My mum told me that men are wrong and men are sick. That’s something I internalised. And that’s part of patriarchy. Hating ourselves is social conditioning, this idea that there’s only one way to be, and if we don’t feel that way, we should be ashamed.”
Whatever is deeply brooding in millions of men in our times is getting to them. Something seems very wrong – a pattern of wrong. Because for all the many ways women’s bodies seem to be the battle ground of possetion and objectification, and however angry so many women are increasingly coming out as feeling, it is young and middle years men’s mental health that seems to be statistically losing the most.
The 2013 Samaritans report, Men and suicide: Why it’s a social issue, highlighted the imbalance at the extreme end of mental health in modern Britain. Four years on, the Office of National Statistics were able to reiterate the “social inequality” of the issue, with men still three times more likely to end their own lives than women.
As the report says, young men are still too high a statistic in this, but reducing slowly in overall numbers. But it’s especially a middle years thing, and an economic thing.
“For men in their mid-years there has been an increase. This is also a social inequality issue; those in the lowest social class, living in the most deprived areas, are up to ten times more at risk of suicide then those in the highest social class.”
Project Eighty Four illustrated the problem graphically recently. “Every two hours a man in the UK takes his own life” they say. “It’s unacceptable that so many men are dying from suicide on a daily basis, yet so few people are talking about it.” The project went on to partner with the artist, Mark Jenkins, and his collaborator Sandra Fernandez, to create 84 individual sculptures of figures representing actual men with profiles and back stories who’d taken their own lives, and placed them around the parapet of a tower block on the South Bank in London. The effect is a little disturbing. Helpfully so.
That loss of personal belief. Energy. There’s a place we go to try to respark it, and it’s a comfort that’s oddly isolatory. One that can be fed from a distance, using just our eyes. How are the visual habits of many men helping the rest of their brain centres? Are there patterns under the chaos of our conversations, our shoutings and whistlings and unsolicited Tinder junk shots?
Why is it evidentially so that so many men won’t open up to women?
Read the testimony of one young woman working in London.
Explore the Positive News article suggesting the idea.
Discover the project to encourage new stories of masculinity for boys
Hear about the story that encouraged the internet between one public woman and a troll.
Hear from ten teens sharing with The Cut what it’s like to be gay and say today.
Learn more about the artistic work to drive awareness of male suicide.
Read the Samaritans report.