Is there something in the air about men? Perhaps a counter-intuitive question to ask on International Women’s Day. Then again, perhaps not. In a sense what better day for a bit of male self-reflection. And just to make it clear I’m not about to call for International Men’s Day (November 19th), though I’d wager my house that a bloke somewhere is doing that right now.
In response to the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, there is definitely quite a bit in the air about men taking responsibility. White Ribbon, for example, provides a platform for men to speak out about male violence against women and the negative gender stereotypes underpinning abuse. And there’s A Call to Men UK, committed to ending male violence against women and girls by promoting a healthier, happier more complex concept of being a man.
Both organisations are about men thinking and behaving differently for our benefit as well as that of women. Both have been around for some time but have had a higher profile lately. That can, surely, only be a good thing. Male violence has always been there and few would argue that the moment for organisations like this has well and truly arrived.
But there’s also something in the air about men’s ‘inequality’. The story of what’s happened to the aspirations and achievements of working-class boys is not new. It was alive and well when I was a councillor in the east end of London two decades ago. But it’s reemerged recently. Earlier this week, the academic, Stuart Waiton, wrote an article in The Times about the underachievement of boys relative to girls and the fact that boys are less likely to apply go to university.
But there are trends, and there are the explanations and meanings you ascribe to them. For Waiton, in sharp contrast to the idea of men taking responsibility, the argument of choice is the blame and conspiracy game. ‘There is’, he says, ‘an extreme form of feminist ideology at work here.’ Blimey. If that’s really true feminists must be cracking open champagne the length and breadth of the land. ‘Job done’, they must be saying. ‘We’ve liberated women and men are getting their just desserts.’
Well, I’m sorry but pretty much every woman I know is a feminist and that sort of conspiracy theory is just fanciful. Apart from anything else, all the available evidence about male violence and sexual harassment tells us that not educating men is hardly likely to advance the cause of women’s safety.
And there’s a further strand of thinking too in the air. That perhaps the current debate is out of kilter, even that women and feminism have gone too far. In another article in The Times on the same day as Waiton’s, Clare Foges argued that we need to face up to the fact that ‘sexual exploitation cuts both ways.’ Her argument, that it is ‘patronising’ to suggest that women are always the victims and men the predators, is not new.
But even if the idea that some women exploit their femininity with men for advantage is true, the question must be how does that stack this up against overwhelming evidence worldwide about sexual exploitation of women by men? The World Health Organisation reported in 2016 that around 1 in 3 women has experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. The news this week that the number of child brides worldwide is down 15% in a decade is welcome, but the figure still sits at 12 million. The continuum of women’s experiences remains starkly different to those of men.
In response to Mhari Black MP’s revelations this week about the abuse she has received, Ella Whelan, author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism, challenged the notion that misogyny remains widespread or that we live in a misogynistic society. That’s her prerogative, of course, but the graphic horror of Ms Black’s evidence has become all too familiar. For some men, the sexual objectification and rape of women are seen as legitimate weapons in the war of words about male abuse and much more. Whatever men have to contend with, such abuse is not routinely our experience.
On the other hand, not everything in the garden is rosy for men. The underlying issues about boy’s academic aspirations and performance highlighted by Waiton’s piece are real. We have changed expectations around men’s involvement in bringing up children and the rules around paternity leave. But we have a long way to go before this is borne out in practice. Women still bear the burden of childcare and that’s to the detriment of men too.
But nowhere is the challenge for men and masculinity more pronounced than in mental health. Self- harm amongst young men is on the rise. Men are three times more likely to take their own lives. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 50 and a significant and growing problem amongst middle-aged men. This should concern us all and men in particular. I don’t know a woman who would argue with that.
All these issues, and others involving the experiences of boys and men deserve the attention of policymakers. But that doesn’t have to be at the exclusion of, or in opposition to, seeking equality for women and girls. And it mustn’t. At a moment when whole system thinking is all the rage, we might just want to join up the gender dots better rather than spend time arguing about competing priorities, let alone conspiracies.
International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate the progress women have made. At home, that progress is palpable and measurable. And we are all — women and men — the better for it. But we know it’s not job done. Globally the picture remains even more concerning. None of this denies the experiences of men nor blames them all indiscriminately.
The well-being and health of men and the safety and freedom of women are not mutually exclusive but two sides of the same coin. Feminism does not seek to subvert men per se, but rather unchecked male power and the inequality which derives from it. As one woman said to me this week, addressing a still prevalent toxic masculinity in our society that dictates how men should be is in the interests of both women and men. And that’s something we have to do together. We will all be the beneficiaries.