What does it mean to be a Man in 2021? International Men’s Day fell today in the middle of Movember, a month to raise awareness of Men’s Health Needs, and this question poses itself to me loud and clear. In my work as a doctor in Psychosexual medicine I ponder on the array of stereotyped narratives I see can plague people with sexual and relational problems. I wonder as a parent what world my son is growing into, especially when male suicide is often noted as a silent epidemic with it being the single biggest cause of mortality for men under 45 and three times higher in men than women.
From previous blogs, it can be seen I am open in my support of extending conversations around gender wider to non-binary discussion and the meeting with intersectionality. However, in this article I start my focus on what Masculine gender norms are, their place in society and how they may impact men - and humanity. In 2021 I consider how we can use this awareness to make the world a little bit better- a man’s world, a woman’s world, a person’s world – and everyone’s land.
Masculine gender norms in society
Independent. Logical. Decisive. Directive. Competitive. Ambitious. Work Focussed. Performing. Leading. Strong. Aggressive. Violent. Sexual. Confident. Risk Taking. Silent. Non Emotive.
Listed above are common gender ‘norms’ of masculinity. What may they mean? I see they all theme into three sections- being thought centred, work focussed and strong. Interestingly, it may be argued that these norms are also seen as preferred states in humanity not only masculinity,particularly in more individualised cultures, of which the UK falls. Some have been branded as more beneficial than others, with ‘Toxic Masculinity’ as a definition used to define the negative impacts of violence and reduced emotionality, linked to prison stays and worsening mental illness in Men.
Impact of norms on men and humanity
Considering impact, I believe norms become problems when they are assumed or expected, extreme or fixed, and this leads to harm. In the understanding nothing is wrong, but context is key. Take an example that you are being attacked – violence in self-defence at a proportionate level is considered appropriate by a jury. Similarly, having experienced a breakup there may need to be a directive focus on financial security that takes priority to reflecting emotionally. However, a problem arises where the violence continues, or no space is later found to connect emotionally/and it is expected not to do this.
Toxic Masculinity has had controversy as a term as it has not appreciated the impact norms may have on more general aspects of life- for example working family dynamics. These aspects may have just as significant an impact on well-being – if not more. A person who identifies as male with these noted norms may frame that to ‘be enough’ they must provide for their family by being work focussed. This could create misery and worsening mental health for a variety of reasons; Firstly, their identity may become embroiled with work- if it fails they fail- rather than it being something someone does and has purpose in. Secondly, this may limit the finding of purpose in family life- and hence limit enjoyment this way. Thirdly, it may limit options for someone assuming a different gender norm, when needing to work with or build a family with this individual.
Making a change personally and systemically
Other reasons the terms Gender Norms and Toxic Masculinity have gained controversy are the implications that nothing may be done, or how the understanding acts as an excuse for bad behaviour. The first step to making any change- as in motivational interviewing or therapy- is raising awareness, however. Knowing what norms are can lead to a choice of what one wants to connect to and how one wishes to interact. These are lessons from non-binary focus. Rather than considering a ‘have to’ for each norm, one can be curious of the meaning of each norm and how it applies to a person, in a context, and what else may be needed. Sharing male gender norms, and female gender norms (spoiler these are the opposite in most respects), enables wider discussions of meaning and brings awareness of bias that may be held to conscious awareness.
Systemically it also pays to think with these norms: “am I mirroring any of these?” A saddening fact noted that caregivers speak less to baby boys than baby girls. Baby boys’ language development is often noted behind girls, so it could be argued this is responsive, however, it is a two-way interaction. If we expect silence we may show silence and we may achieve silence. With emotional expression also, how we show this is how we will continue to develop this.
There may be things that still feel out of reach. Fair maternity and working rights for women and all people will also only come when there is equally fair paternity and family emphasis placed for men- and these societal and governmental restrictions are not all in our control. They partly originate from norms however, and do not have to be accepted as given. If anything, the pandemic is a change that can act for us to counter working practicalities- to ask for what we want on the spectrums we form from. Over time, enough asking may advocate change and separately there can be campaigns.
To where I have got to, I may read that I am moving to idealistic review- or in some parts resignation. I hope that through this article I have expressed a few more angles to look at the picture. I end with a disclaimer that I enter this article with a balanced view for women’s needs – and non-binary needs, though I do not have the same facts focus to bring on this. I hold anger at the rates of domestic violence being disproportionately towards women, how fewer women make CEO positions or juggle 70% more housework as professionals. For them and all humanity we need to understand more and show compassion for all sides- for fighting for women’s rights isn’t even half the picture. A focus on male norms does not make a man’s world. Who would want their son to grow up in no man’s land, where norms are not explored, and my son may be more likely to do less housework and become a CEO, but be miserable through this and at higher risk of suicide and imprisonment. I hold hope that even the smallest steps bring change,-for me I aim to talk regularly to my son, discuss emotions and explain gender norms as clearly as I can to whoever will talk with me, noting more choice through understanding them, even within societal limits.