The masculinity debate: no wonder men stay out of it

Jack O'Sullivan“A consequence of boys and men living in private matriarchies is that even the most senior male chief executive often lacks confidence in areas that might be defined as personal, private or family.”

The past week has again highlighted the inexplicable absence of an intelligent discussion conducted by men about ourselves. It’s followed a familiar pattern: a leading female commentator – Diane Abbott on this occasion – diagnoses male ailments and prescribes her cures. What comes back from the patient? Silence. Can there be any group that is subject to so much debate and accusation, and is so apparently powerful – yet remains so utterly speechless?

It reminds me of a stereotypical scene: a woman challenging a man on some personal or domestic issue; him sitting before her silently, absorbing, stonewalling and eventually walking away. It’s a dissatisfying experience for both. She complains to her friends. He has no one to talk to. Somewhere here are clues to this bewildering male silence on the public stage about our own condition.

Men’s absence from the debate has dramatic consequences, making it overwhelmingly negative. In recent weeks the focus has been on abuse of teenage girls, porn, male unemployment and misogyny. But next month it could be “deadbeat dads”, domestic violence and harassment in the workplace.

A debate about men defined by women inevitably dwells on what’s wrong with men – on a continuing “crisis”. That’s understandable. There are many worrying issues that a male discussion of masculinity would and should confront. We are, after all, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, lovers, colleagues and friends of women. But which man wants to join a debate loaded with negativity, littered with slogans like “all men are rapists”?

A debate with genuine male participation and leadership would include the above issues, but within a broader, aspirational and authentically male agenda. The centrepiece would be today’s extraordinary transformation of masculinity. A huge transition is taking place in all our lives, as we redefine our relationships with women, with our children, with work, with our sexuality. History may judge it to be a faster and more profound change even than the developments in women’s lives.

Men, like women, are belatedly escaping what we now recognise to be the confines of our gender. Many of us are enjoying a massively increased engagement with children. There is a stunning growth in male capacity to hold down successful jobs and play an integral role in our homes and personal lives. We are changing our relationships with women and with each other. Male homosexuality is widely expressed and affirmed. And men play a vital role in supporting, personally and politically, the advancement of women’s rights.

But all this fails to generate male leadership or collective discussion. Each of us is operating in our personal world of change, with little sense of what it’s like for the other guys. The women’s movement produced articulate women to narrate their agenda. Where are the men?

An important factor is that otherwise powerful, educated men – the ones you might expect to speak up – tend to have been raised in, and live in, households where they defer to female decision-making and narrative. The reasons are complicated. Women’s centrality in the private arena is a complex expression of both male power and male impotence, of patriarchy and infantilisation. But a consequence of boys and men living in private matriarchies is that even the most senior male chief executive often lacks confidence in areas that might be defined as personal, private or family.

This may always have been the case. But feminism* has reinforced rather than challenged – or even acknowledged – matriarchy. It is an environment in which male spokesmen for change are unlikely to be nurtured. When they do articulate their views or concerns, they are often ridiculed or ignored by women. Misandry can be as nasty as misogyny and is as widespread (just check the internet). Smart men play safe and stay out of it. We’re so conditioned, we don’t even talk to each other.

However, as long as these men – who typically support the women’s movement – remain passive, the only male voices we hear are those of reactionary patriarchs, who reinforce the idea that men are dinosaurs.

Why are we ridiculed when we talk about ourselves? Perhaps because men are assumed to be inherently powerful, with nothing to complain about. It’s a mistake. We urgently require an updated theory of gender that acknowledges there are, and always have been, discrete areas of female power and male powerlessness, not simply female powerlessness. Patriarchy did not rule alone. There was also matriarchy – and there still is.

A revolution is taking place in masculinity, but much of it is below the radar and denied, even when well-documented. This transformation is about much more than “helping” women and addressing their complaints. If we want to hear about it, then we need democratic personal, private and domestic spaces where men feel comfortable to speak. That might generate a more open, less condemning public space. Until then, women will continue to find themselves shouting into the silence about issues that we need to confront together.


*It is not “feminism” that reinforces but the ideological feminists who underneath are little more than sexists (both female and male). See the Male Matters commentary “For Feminist Writers: Distinguish Between Feminism and Feminists!”


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3 Responses to The masculinity debate: no wonder men stay out of it

  1. You didn’t mention the very obvious fact that there is something wrong with women. You subtly re-enforced the gross misconception that women are perfect and do not have any flaws. If I am allowed to generalize, it is a common tactic of the immature to re-direct the focus away from ones own flaws and emphasize the flaws of another. This minimizes/hides the actual problem. Women need to focus in on themselves and why they have not done their job to build men. This is the reason society is collapsing. The Feminazi movement has abandoned that aspect of the female role leaving men to fend for themselves. Now, women are wondering why their men aren’t faithful, better more loving husbands, etc. Women and men inherently rely on each other. Feminazi’s have emasculated men so as to grasp more “power” at the expense of appropriate gender roles, leading to both women and men living emotionally un-fulfilled lives. I good write a long paper on this with several examples, but its just not worth it.


    • Alessandra Martellacco says:

      Just stop. It is not women’s job to build men. It’s everyone’s job to build men, and women too. The reason society is collapsing is because we currently live under an oligarchy with very scary ways of entertaining itself.

      Stop trying to shove people into moldy, old boxes. Your “appropriate gender roles” are built upon thousands of years of oppression, religious interference, politics and other various pieces of bullshit. We are all members of the same species and the truth of the matter is that we actually have an amazingly poor understanding of the incredibly complicated topics of sex, gender and actual roles vs. a history of malleability as a species. You’re bigger than me… maybe. You’re stronger than me… maybe. You’re *insert any presupposition based on sex that is not the kind of genitalia you have* than me… maybe. Depends on the individuals, but you are trying to remove the individual from your social equations.

      The thing is, is that we know men and women are naturally different. We just don’t know exactly how (minus the glaring physical) or how much, and I don’t think it matters anymore (I would REALLY love people to stop talking about it). We’re ALL miserable and it’s not the “Femnazi’s” fault. No one has been “emasculated”. Both of those things are fear mongering words the overlords use to freak us out. You sound like you’re already wearing a tinfoil hat when you use such intentionally overwrought language.

      It’s a few people who believe they are more important than over seven billion other people and have created a system in which they can pull a few levers, imbalance everything and make us all run around like rats in a maze… until we get too close to dethroning them for comfort, then they pull the levers again. War, media circus, gender wars, heath trends, Big Bang Theory (hate that show lol), “debates” that no one is having… all these things tailored to keep you fighting the wrong people. Look up and aim your vitriol a little higher than a few women who are obviously as nuts as the few men who hate them back just as much.

      I do not want to be a stay at home wife. I do not want to be a mother, under any circumstances, ever. I do not want to be anyone but myself and I would like people to leave me alone with their ‘definitions’ and “roles” long enough to figure out who I actually am. It’s hard to extract myself from my conditioning. The roles are too confining for things as complex as people and the penalties for not measuring up, too harsh for any pain feeling creature. I don’t want any man to suffer like this. Living up to unfair “appropriate gender roles” is what enraged women to the point of social revolution, just as I hope men are doing right now. We need one, badly.

      You have a lot of irony wrapped around that line about discussing common tactics of immature folk. Fight your war, brother, but may you not become a casualty of your own fear and hate.

      p.s. The one line that really made me giggle was, “Now, women are wondering why their men aren’t faithful, better more loving husbands, etc.” That is something people have been wondering since marriage was invented. Not new at all. Really, really, really funny that you think it’s new though. It works in reverse too, even. Humans are not faithful creatures no matter how many religious or societal pressures get put on us. Sorry. We like to bang and the sheer amount of us is pretty hardy proof.


  2. swedishbitch says:

    I am amazed the Guardian published this.

    It all rings true, and the article explains it well without edging into what may be construed as mild misogyny – not all that easy! Growing up as a non-gender conforming gay man, the constraints and expectation that came with being a man felt like a prison: only twice did I see my father display emotion and vulnerability. Once when he was writhing in pain from appendicitis; and once after my mom passed away.

    But the article misses, perhaps, the broader picture. Throughout human history, male stoicism and female ability to command compassion and protection were not arbitrary phenomena. Quite the contrary: they were essential to the survival of the tribe and the species. With ubiquitous warfare, no medical care, 35 year average life spans, and most children likely to die before reaching adulthood, any tribe that did not put protecting and providing for women and children would die out, unable to allow their women to have the average 4-5 children needed just for the population to remain stable. There was no room for male vulnerability in such a society. And while there is now, we cannot simply wipe out thousands of years of biological and cultural programming in a matter of the two-three generations during which we have enjoyed unprecedented health and wealth. That is also why feminism as an idea (rather than its extremes) enjoys near-universal acceptance, while its male counterpart incurs fear or ridicule: it feeds into our human instinct to protect women.


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