When we talk about sexism, we almost always automatically think of the victims as women. Tackling discriminating language, sexual harassment and domestic violence seems to be exclusively discussed as ‘women’s issues’. Much in the same way that these problems are not only ‘women’s issues’, sexism itself is not a ‘women’s issue’. There are other types of sexism which are equally pervasive in our society and potentially more corrosive due to the fact that they constantly go undiscussed or completely undetected.
‘Man up’, ‘be a man’, ‘men don’t cry’, ‘Lad culture’; these are all commonplace maxims in our daily lives. Our understanding of manhood and masculinity is that of men as tough, unemotional individuals who will not shy away from a fight and who have a duty to protect and provide. They can never be the vulnerable ones.
This image is everywhere for our young boys to aspire to. Popular culture feeds us the ultimate ‘men’s men’ such as Sylvester Stallone, Vin Diesel, 50 Cent, and even the fictional comic heroes, like Batman and Superman, are physically strong and violent individuals.
Manhood is so synonymous with violence that we never stop to ask ourselves what we are fed by the media. How often is the climatic, heroic moment in a film, the part in which one man fights and defeats another? And from being violently superior, that man consequently wins the affection of women and the admiration of his peers. We celebrate these moments rather than condemn the violence.
We have begun to openly acknowledge the damage that our narrow view of manhood has done to young men struggling with their sexuality. As a Social Worker I have worked with a young man whose greatest hurdle to admitting his homosexuality was how it would affect his identity as a male. “But I don’t like girly things” was his stock response for denying his feelings. Ignorant preconceptions state that in order to be a man, you must like women and in order to be gay, you must be camp. However the problem runs much deeper than this.
The conversation we are not having is why the majority of the world’s prison population is male or why the majority of all violent crimes, rapes and assaults are committed by men. We accept this as normal; as if this is what nature intended and there is no cure. Similarly, throughout the world, the number of men successfully committing suicide is dramatically higher than the number of women. In addition to this, a report from 2012 from the Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom discovered that men were most likely to be homeless or suffer from substance misuse issues. There is something terrible plaguing our men and I do not believe we should simply stand by and claim ‘it is what it is’.
Some people are finally beginning the conversation about the crisis in masculinity. Jackson Katz, creator of Tough Guise, is a leading anti-violence educator in America. In the United Kingdom, the theatre production of Result, is using football to discuss mental health problems amongst young males. UK MP, Diane Abbot, also launched a campaign to tackle what she describes as the ‘Fight Club’ generation.
We need to stop allowing masculinity and feminity to be defined so rigidly. Siobhan Bligh succinctly stated: ‘What we must aim for is a healthy masculinity, in much the same way feminists would want women to have a healthy femininity. Whilst these ideals may be social constructions, they still guide people in the way they see themselves and others, and therefore it is imperative to promote a healthy gender culture for both men and women.’ )
If we as Social Workers are to claim to be defenders of social justice and equality then we cannot ignore this problem any longer. We must lobby nationally and internationally to tackle the media glorification of male violence, but also on an individual level, we should never allow boys to feel that power, aggression and stoicism are necessary parts of their development into manhood.