Many years ago I wrote a paper with an almost identical title: ‘Gay Men: Gender, Identity and Confusion’. I now find myself returning to this topic. However, this time my primary focus is heterosexual men but that doesn’t mean to say that what I am writing about is not applicable to gay men as well. The difference here is that it is about how men see themselves in relationship to women within the sexual/emotional arena. In writing this I am aware I am entering a very contentious area. At the first psychoanalytic conference I ever attended many years ago. My college and then tutor Haya Oakley began with this wonderful line, “As Scarlett O’Hara said to Rhett Butler, ‘One more turn round the dance floor and my reputation is ruined!’.” I am going to take that turn! Of course her reputation only grew and grew. I am going to take that turn as well but I feel less convinced about my own reputation. However, an ally has emerged in whom may seem unlikely, the actress Emma Watson.
In a simple but remarkable speech to a UN event in New York on the 20th of September she launched the HeForShe Campaign. In fact in reading Watson’s speech I would say that the campaign might be more aptly called HeForSheForHE. What struck me is that Watson is as equally nervous as I am about what she had to say. The gist of Watson’s argument is that equality will not be attained without men being brought on board which one cannot argue with. Watson however goes further and states quite clearly that this also means women have to play their part in their treatment of men and this is the area which makes her nervous. I will now throw my hat in the ring!!
Increasingly over the last few years I have seen a lot of men who have been finding it difficult to maintain, or indeed form lasting relationships. They seem to be echoing Freud’s now notorious statement,”woman what does she want’. I have been wrestling with these men about their totalisation of women expressed as ‘Women do this..’ or ‘Women want that..’. Now one could argue that men have always said this and that is what I have been thinking and tried to shift them into thinking about the possibility of women that are different. I should point out that these are men who are thoughtful and are not chauvinistic. They are from a different generation than me and were born into a world where feminist thought had become widespread. I have to own that as a gay man I am not party to some of their experiences and their experience of women is very different to mine. However, I have not been in sexual/emotional relationships with women and I have gradually realised through paying more attention to popular culture that there has been a profound shift between the sexes. What follows are my thoughts about this and of course there are more questions than answers.
What is certain, however, is that men and boys are in crisis. Boys are lagging behind girls educationally much in the same way before issues of equality were started to be addressed. Today in terms of employment women are still struggling to achieve anywhere near the same pay levels as men and that is appalling. However, that is not the arena I am concerned with here. I am mainly concerned with the world of social interaction and of sexual desire and this is more complex. Suicide rates have always been higher amongst young men and now more men are coming forward with depression and anxiety than ever before. Some of this is doubtless to do with awareness but there is still more stigma for men who have common mental health problems.
A question I have asked myself when looking at popular culture is, ‘Would this be acceptable if it was about a woman?’, and shockingly I have found much that wouldn’t be. I haven’t considered stand up comedy because much of it is ironic to make a point. So for example I have been thinking about advertisements and daytime TV.
There are two phrases, actually they are barely phrases, that sum up one half of the problem and they are, ‘man up’ and ‘grow some’. In my youth they were the kind of thing that men said to other men but now these phrases are increasingly being used by women. What I do know as a gay man is internalised homophobia or as it used to be called self oppression. This leads to a terrible lack of self esteem which is also confusing because in most cases our ‘esteem’ is from what we internalise from the ’other’.
The objectification of women in imagery has long been recognised for the damage it does but little consideration is given to that of men. Now one could say that it is a more even playing field but two wrongs don’t make a right. Perhaps it is worse than that for men because there is the almost universal ridicule of the penis. It is very rare for a man to think he has a beautiful penis. If it’s small it’s an object of ridicule and if it’s large it invokes horror and disgust. We live in an increasingly sexualised world which often focusses on sensation. I leafed through the satellite channels recently and on More4 there was, “The World’s Largest Penis’ and of course on the other side of the coin we have been treated to increasingly grotesque programmes about oversized breasts for years.
Once again this seems to be a balancing out exercise. I was watching, ‘Secrets of the Asylums’ recently and it is a rather tabloid title for what turned out to be an interesting and thoughtful programme. What came to me as I watched it, is that we are not really much better today than the crowds that would flock to Bedlam, but now it focusses more on the physical and the sexual.
What men are growing up with and are constantly being told is how terrible men are.
This can push men in two ways. It can either be denied and reacted against making men even more brutish or internalised, as with the men I am seeing, and creating lack of esteem but mediated by a wish to be better than that. This is the source of the confusion. Perhaps it is exemplified by the term metrosexual which is now, and maybe always was, a term of derision. What it also smacks of is a sense of not really being heterosexual, a bit ‘queer’ of suspect sexuality. OK it focusses on fashion and the use of toiletries but also ‘sensitivity’. A recent ‘pop’ survey of what young women preferred in men found that the majority wanted a ‘cave man’ not a ‘sensitive man’.
A historical complaint that women, quite rightly in my belief, have about men is that they are insensitive and thoughtless and don’t want to talk about feelings. The experience of the men I see, who are sensitive and thoughtful towards women, has been that the women on the one hand think they would make a great friend but lose sexual interest in them. When this happens in relationships this is when the call to ‘man up’ or ‘grow some’ occurs. I haven’t read, and have no wish to, ’50 Shades of Grey’ but as I understand it, it is about a sadomasochistic relationship where a woman is dominated by a man. The female partner of a man I see suggested he tied her to the bed for sex but then told him in disgust to forget it as he wasn’t doing it properly and by that I think she meant brutally enough. Feminist biology, which is a very different kind of anthropomorphising of animal behaviour, describes how females observe the ‘ball clanking’ antics of the males and rather than passively being round up, choose the male for their genetic dominance. Is the confusion of modern man and woman partly fuelled by this biological drive?
On the other side of the coin emotional abuse by men towards women is now thankfully becoming more recognised, but if a man is emotionally abused he is more likely to be described as ‘hen pecked’ which is a criticism of him rather than the woman. There are moves afoot to make emotional abuse a specific crime but it is interesting to note that in the majority of the media it was described as husbands who abuse their wives. The Daily Mirror was a notable exception and their headline was partners who abuse and was not gender specific. The day time press discussion show ‘The Wright Stuff’ is often riddled with these confusions and to be fair to them they do try to get it right. However, it can descend into the ‘double bind’ where men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. There are often examples where things are said about men that would cause outrage if they were said about women. However, they also said one morning that they longed for the day when we talk about people not men and women.
As part of my thinking about this I watched ‘This Morning’ with husband and wife presenters Eammon Holmes and Ruth Langsford. Holmes plays along being the buffoon but throughout the programme Langsford ridiculed him about his dress sense and ‘life skills’ in general. If this was reversed there would be an outcry about misogyny and sexism. What is disturbing is the normalisation of this within popular culture. They are after all presented as a ‘wonderful loving couple’. This is not what feminism was or is about. The philosophy behind ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ was that in contemporary life we all need someone to blame and no one wishes to take responsibility. The show takes it to the ultimate with Jesus and Satan both looking to blame God and God plaintively singing ‘it aint easy being me’.
So the question has to be who is to blame for the current uneasy relationship between men and women? I refuse to point the finger at anyone because we all are. Of course there are gender differences, most are more likely to be cultural rather than biological and I do hold with Judith Butler’d assertion that gender is socially constructed. There may be a simple answer to the current fascination with transgendered people that we now live in a more open and tolerant society or is it symptomatic of something more confused in our society about what is a woman and what is a man? and how they ought to be. The current situation does neither gender any favours but currently it feels like men are bearing the brunt in the sexual/emotional stakes.
If you wish to read Emma Watson’s speech it can be reached at: