This isn’t a Man’s World

JACK RIVLIN argues that British masculinity needs to change if gender disputes are to be settled.

Grave challenges face the feminist cause every day. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t contribute. I watch porn, I participate in tabloid culture and I listen to music which calls women bitches. And all these activities, which an overwhelming number of British men carry out every day, are seen as evidence of how men threaten gender equality. The truth however is that it’s not women who are being most damaged by misogynistic male culture – it’s men themselves.

What does it mean to be a British man? Zoo magazine, England 5 Germany 1, necking a pint of Stella. I’m generalizing, but almost everywhere in Britain, masculine identity is founded on an aggressive insistence on highlighting our sexual and physical superiority. What is only now becoming apparent is that men are losing out from sexism just as much as women.

Much like British identity, male identity has never really reconciled itself with the egalitarianism of the 20th century. As the empire crumbled, Britons were left with an inflated opinion of themselves that became increasingly out of step with their nation’s real position in global politics. Similarly, as the sun set on male superiority, men found it hard to know their place, to have any sense of how to act in a way which demonstrates pride in their own identity but also respect for women. For almost all of human history, men have enjoyed dominion over women, and now they’re having trouble being themselves without it.

‘Masculinism’ – if such a thing could ever exist (and spell check tells me it doesn’t) consists of little more than a desire to roll back feminism. Being a ‘real man’ means conforming to a misogynistic lad stereotype that owes more to self-conscious fears of inadequacy than it does to any truly male qualities. An emphasis on drinking and violence relies on a now irrelevant survival-of-the-fittest ideology. Many anthropologists have found that homophobia can be explained by a fear of subjugation – a lot of men still think that allowing other chaps to be penetrated will cost them their privileged place in society. In an age of equality, this is a laughable anachronism.

The best example is pornography. Around 70% of male internet users over 18 watch porn once a month, though this estimate seems conservative. The vast majority of male Cambridge students probably watch porn once a week. And this is a new phenomenon: and friends have only existed for the last few years. Whereas in the past a man might have been able to get hold of a (comparatively) soft porn magazine, today he can instantly access millions of hours of hardcore video, all thanks to high-speed internet. This kind of pornography relies on the subjection of women to deliver its addictive hit. The difference between pornography and nude art is that porn relies on a power relationship: one party must demonstrate their superiority over the other. And it is this element of porn which both reflects and reinforces the chauvinism of male identity: men get sexual pleasure from enforcing their superiority over women.

Whatever those involved try to claim, pornography is not about appreciating female beauty, it is underpinned by a power relationship which gives men immense sexual pleasure precisely because it reinforces a sense of power which is in decline.

So men are unable to cope with advancing equality and have responded by trying to return to an image of masculinity which doesn’t matter anymore. So what? Other than the fact that they are fighting a battle that cannot be won, this confused male identity isn’t really conducive to happiness. Chauvinist culture leaves men unequipped to form lasting relationships. Removing power relations from sex is neither possible nor desirable, but allowing them to bleed into the rest of social world tends to have the effect of destroying relations that necessarily depend on equality. The breakdown of the family and its negative impact on society is often attributed to the absence of strong father figures. There is no doubt that a lot of men are finding it difficult to be a strong parent as well as an equal partner. It is undeniable that this affects a child’s development. This is not a comment on ‘unconventional’ family structures: studies have shown that a dysfunctional father-child relationship is often far more detrimental to a family than the total absence of a father figure.

Obviously this stunted development is having an effect on society. You’ve seen the headlines about gang culture. But have you considered the more prevalent (but no less severe) crisis evident on the streets of any town every weekend. ‘Lads out on the lash’ are becoming one of society’s greatest problems. There is an undeniable connection between confused male identity and the fact that British men boast some of the highest rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and violent crime in Europe.

Male culture is in its present form necessarily exclusive. Sex is seen as a male biological urge which women are there to fulfil; spectator sport is something for the lads; and positions of power are reserved for supposedly more rational and capable men. Men have yet to re-evaluate their sense of purpose in the 21st century. Until they do so, gender relations will continue to suffer and men will be held back by their own sense of inadequacy. Many women have come to terms with their femininity, and it is only once men can understand their own place in an age of equality that issues such as the wage gap, political representation and – perhaps most pertinently – nudity can be resolved. If we are to bridge the cultural divide between genders and create any meaningful form of co-operation, it is up to men to realize that they can be proudly masculine whilst accepting women as equals.