Beyond Control: Attending A Conference on Men, Patriarchy & Mental Health

The author attended this conference earlier this year.  

Beyond control: a conference on men, patriarchy and mental health

by Leah Jewett (RSE – relationships and sex education - working group lead at the Women’s Equality Party)

Men, patriarchy and mental health; feminism; taboo… Over the years, the Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility (PCSR) has picked intriguing conference themes. This year’s event, held on 6 May 2017, was organised by Dearbhaile Bradley, “eco psychologist, counsellor and poet”, and Chip Ponsford, whose starting point for wanting to be involved was having tried to run a workshop in the northeast called Rip Up Your Man Suit. No one had come.

Of the 70-plus participants who have shown up today at a venue near London’s Canal Museum, about half are PCSR members – therapists with avowed interests in politics, society and culture. Given that 80% of all therapists are women and that women predominate in mental health professions, it’s gratifying to see a fairly even male/female split to the crowd. Everyone seems open, considerate, at ease, gentle even, and the insights I come away with prove to have a long tail – to this day I’m still thinking about some of the profound, affecting points that were made.

 

TALK #1: “IF MEN WERE FREE OF LIMITING CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS THEY WOULD BE HAPPIER, BETTER PEOPLE”

Author Rebecca Asher has a close-cropped androgynous haircut and speaks eloquently. Her fascinating 2016 book Man Up: Boys, Men And Breaking The Male Rules has contributed to the now-pervasive debate around masculinity. While researching it she was “taken aback by how mindful boys and men are of the notion of a real man as emotionally and physically strong and domineering whether they felt they lived up to that ‘ideal’ or not”.

Citing the fact that three-quarters of suicides are men, Asher advocates a “joining of the dots between framing masculinity as powerful, tough, stoic and, for instance, boys’ behavioural problems in school, the male-dominated prison population, and the cultural, legislative – and internal – barriers that men face in becoming fully involved fathers”.

Gendered stereotypes are perpetuated in the media and through merchandising, she says, while our own expectations of gendered traits and behaviour are similarly “rigid and narrow… Boys are framed from babies as rowdy, naughty, physical, unthinking – tearing around rather than talking, making noise rather than nurturing, and competing rather than cooperating”.

She was horrified to realise the extent to which parents – “Myself included” – treat boys and girls differently: “They are less likely to discuss emotions, with the exception of anger, or to read to boys… Why would boys be interested in books, gentleness, contemplation or conversation?”

Asher asserts that “gender – the roles and expectations imposed on males and females according to their sex – is a means of patriarchal oppression. Gender oppresses boys and men too.”

Being a man is about power, says Asher, which is often manifested in sexual harassment at school, everyday sexism or physical violence. One young man who “followed the trajectory from educational rejection to criminality”, JV, told her: “I can explain it in one word: thrill. The thrill of getting into fights, street stuff, gang stuff. I’m going to be honest with you: being known for being a bad boy is an amazing feeling. You are The Man.”

Taking issue with the term “crisis of masculinity”, Asher counters: “The truth is more complex: the crisis is masculinity.”

PCSRimage1bookManUp.jpg

 

We can all implement changes, she says:

At home Don’t abide by the pink/blue divide of clothes and toys. (Even young people understand that gender is a societal construct.) Be aware of your own assumptions, expectations and treatment of boys and girls. Override worries about boys not fitting in by encouraging them to be individuals and talking to them about how to negotiate peer pressure. Show by example that men can nurture and open up about their emotional life.

In the workplace Dads can be pioneers, and “active fatherhood can be a route through”.

At school Stop discriminatory, though often “benign, unthinking”, traditions such as lining children up in the playground according to sex. Address “the troubling unconscious bias against boys of marking them more harshly and expecting them to be more disruptive”. Challenge gendered subject selection and career aspirations. And importantly: “Get children to think and talk about relationships, equality, mutual respect and what they really want out of life.”

Referencing the “love ethic” spelled out by the cultural critic and feminist writer bell hooks, Asher explains that we need to treat boys with compassion, understanding and love. She agrees with the now-widespread insight that hooks outlined in The Will to Change: “In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are… Their value is always determined by what they do.”

It’s heartening, says Asher, that men now recognise that patriarchy causes “hurt and pain, and that they lose out from its oppressions. I met many boys and men, of all ages and from different walks of life, who had come round to this way of thinking – even if not all express it in those terms.”

She makes a strong concluding case: “If we can free men from their belief that a real man is tough, competitive and unemotional, then we can create happier men – and better partners, friends, colleagues and fathers. Men need feminism, and feminism needs men. When looking to defeat patriarchy it helps to have people doing an inside job. Let’s all come together to overthrow patriarchy and liberate ourselves so we are free to be who we want to be.”

There’s enthusiastic applause.

Audience members are invited to spend five minutes talking with the people next to them about the ideas generated by what the facilitator calls Asher’s “pretty radical overview”.

Five minutes of discussion My immediate neighbours and I talk beards. To my left is a guy from Glasgow who has, quote unquote, the beard of a Norwegian fisherman. To my right is the “father of an 18-year-old man”. Some friends accuse him of hiding behind his trim beard; some find it sexy; others think it makes him more masculine.

Flashback My son, age 11: he sits in the living room, transfixed by video games – it’s all skateboarding, train driving, car racing, jet flying, rocket engineering. My son, age 15: he sits in his bedroom playing first-person shooter multiplayer games past midnight. Total immersion, headset on, supernormal stimulation ramped up. He likes the strategising and tactical nature of them, the problem solving, how they test his twitch reflex. At least he’s connecting with friends, even if it is only virtually. When they socialise as a group it’s to go see the latest superhero movie. Though he’s not into superheroes, he’s along for the ride. I feel I’ve lost my son to hours of relentless “unrealistic” violence and domination. Turbocharged masculinity has colonised his downtime. We entrust our kids to mainstream culture – and they get bombarded by violent role play, fantasy role models. Aren’t there other storylines and dilemmas to be motivated by, interested in? I’m easily shocked by how kids these days are inured to onscreen brutality. “Wonder Woman? It’s not violent,” a friend’s sweet nine-year-old boy declares. As for me, I’m dismayed for them.

 

TALK #2: BLACK MEN DO TALK

Back from Nigeria that morning, clinical psychologist and researcher Ade Afilaka arrives late, and this sense of urgency informs his great presentation – he’s nearly breathless from having so much to convey. He explains that he’s a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, a “talking therapist”. His ongoing doctorate is concerned with “the limitations and restrictions on the experiences of black male therapists, which contributes to the development of psychological services that do not serve black men (and other marginalised groups) as well as others”. The fact that “there aren’t that many of us” is one of his areas of interest.

There’s very little research, he says, that meaningfully involves diversity, race, the impact of racism, the trauma of marginalisation or comparing African and Eurocentric models. Most research is not impartial – it’s been done on whites and then deemed the “normative standard”. Afilaka takes issue with the “social constructionism” defined over time by discriminatory men “with access to power”. Who is privileged by constructionism, he asks, and answers that there are problems with social interchange, that racism is “embedded in normal practices”, that “the discourse of the elite serves to maintain social stratification.” We are all judging ourselves against white men, he says, and cites Grayson Perry’s incisive book on damaging masculinity, The Descent of Man.

Alluding to critical race theory, neo-Marxism, colonialism and war, Afilaka talks about the “illusion of fixed behaviour being linked to biology”, and the “hegemonic Western masculinity” of men as being stoic, rational, heroic conquerors – a “concept of leadership sustained through literature, popular culture etc”.

Black masculinity, “seen in contrast to whiteness”, historically involved subordination. Afilaka cites research around “white slave owners’ characterisation of enslaved black men as ‘Quashee’… the stereotype of the patient, submissive, happy-go-lucky slave who was also irresponsible, lazy and childlike”. Afilaka maintains that “contemporary constructions” can paint black men as “hypersexualised, feminised, disreputable and pathological”, with an emphasis on their physicality rather than their minds.

He adds: “The relationship to power is different for black men compared with black women, so the intersection of race with gender may be important.”

Diversity and mental health intersect via Hip Hop Psych, a University of Cambridge initiative that fuses “medical credibility” with the music of artists like Tupac. The idea is to promote self-esteem through messages of aspiration given that hip-hop lyrics “contain raw, unfiltered narration describing… coping mechanisms used to combat detrimental circumstances” and are “rich with references to psychiatric illnesses”.

For his study on black male therapists, Afilaka has talked to 14 professionals. The criteria he’s taken into account include age, sexual orientation, religiosity and neglectful or oppressive early experiences in (often matriarchal) families. Their experiences highlight the invisibility of being black and male in a predominantly white-female profession.

“I myself didn’t feel I fitted in,” he explains. “That’s motivated me to do the stuff I’ve done.”

The therapists he’s interviewed have conveyed passion and enthusiasm about their work (“I love it”) as well as feelings of “high-visibility isolation” in institutions and throughout their training, and a sense of being seen as “aggressive, cocky, confident”. Often there’s an uncomfortable awareness of “special case” tokenism. Sometimes they describe having their individuality overlooked – instead their status is that of a spokesperson, as in: “You’re the expert in blackness”, and taking on “black issues” becomes an obligation. In addition to feeling that they have to be careful with their words, they find it hard just to say: “I am a psychotherapist.” Another syndrome, which they find “difficult to put their hand on”, is that they feel “sexualised somehow”. Not unsurprisingly, these men report high levels of depression and burnout.

When an audience member says it’s great to hear a black therapist’s perspective, Afilaka admits: “It’s uncomfortable for me to talk to a largely white audience about race. We have a tendency to locate the issue of race in others. But it’s here.

 

Five minutes of discussion: We talk about confronting our own levels of prejudice. At school the gentleman to my right had experienced the arrival of second-generation kids from India and Pakistan; being in the minority, they were combative and on the defensive. The man to my left had had little exposure to other races while growing up in 1970s Glasgow.

 

Star power: Reluctant Immigrants teacher Rashid Silvera – the first African-American man to appear on a GQ cover (April 1983)

Star power: Reluctant Immigrants teacher Rashid Silvera – the first African-American man to appear on a GQ cover (April 1983)

 

Flashback San Francisco 1969. Break-time at Diamond Heights Elementary, the local primary school in our new-build neighbourhood. “Goin’ Back to Indiana” by the Jackson 5 blares out through the playground loudspeaker. Though the school is overwhelmingly white middle-class, my best friend is Filipina. Black kids have just been bussed in from Hunters Point, a rough part of town. They’re cool. I like their expressiveness, attitude, the way they talk. It gives Africa an allure to me. We play war games in the sand pit. (After two years, there’s something about me being bullied for wearing glasses, so in an act unintentionally symptomatic of “white flight”, my parents take me out.) Feeling like an outsider myself, I’m drawn to reading about the underdog, about marginalised people asserting their identity and taking a stand against discrimination like the Native American protestors who in 1969 occupy the prison island of Alcatraz out in the San Francisco Bay; like the gay people flamboyantly out and proud in the nearby Castro District; like the women speaking out in Ms magazine about being second-class citizens; like the Black Panthers mobilising in the 1960s across the bay in Oakland. Fascinated by stories about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railway, I read Up From Slavery by Booker T Washington and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; I watch the late-70s TV slave-trade miniseries Roots; I’m captivated by standups like Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, the young Eddie Murphy; I write a report on actor/singer/civil-rights activist Paul Robeson for my high-school class on slavery – the class, entitled Reluctant Immigrants, is taught by Rashid Silvera, himself a renaissance man and the fourth African-American male model to appear on a GQ cover; I hear Maya Angelou reading in a local library from her just-published 1978 poetry collection And Still I Rise. I’m inspired by African-American expression against oppression.

We disband into our chosen breakout sessions. Interestingly, one workshop leader, an existential psychotherapist, writes that hehas experience of masculinity as a rugby coach and project manager”.

Workshops include:
Supporting male survivors of sexual abuse and assault
• Domination/submission: power and sexual roles

Rip it up and start again? (About anger, which is “erroneously conflated with violence”)
The quiet coercive use of patriarchy in film (“Journeying through famous films that reinforced but challenged patriarchy, we will explore why patriarchy became a safe structure that anchored male subjectivity”)
The assumed masculinity of autism and how this affects autistic men (“The ‘computer geek with difficulty socialising’ image is conflated with autism. Many autistic men have traits that are considered feminine; they are more likely to be LGBT and misdiagnosed as mentally ill”)
Banter, feelings and breaking from the crowd (“Exploring how banter separates men off from their feelings and reinforces their position and how therapy can shift this”)
Belonging: understanding male identity (About tribe vs community)

 

WORKSHOP #1: WHO’S TO BLAME FOR PATRIARCHY?

The brief: “The idea that men are somehow to ‘blame’ for the oppressive power dynamics that we call patriarchy is an assumption that is often neither recognised nor challenged. Explore how we all contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchy and how through changing our behaviour we can challenge the mechanisms of oppression.”

This “facilitated conversation” is the first workshop to fill up and – with 14 women to four men participating – it’s over capacity, but counsellor Dearbhaile Bradley kindly lets me crash it.

Unconsciously we shape our worldview via an “internalised oppressor”, Bradley says. She makes the point that: “The idea is out there of winners in patriarchy” then forcefully states: “For me there are no winners in a patriarchy – just fucked-up men fucking up the world.”

Everyone gets to speak, uninterrupted, for several minutes. A few people take issue with the word “blame” in the workshop title, but someone counters: “We need to put strong feelings on these ideas to address them properly.”

Some thoughts that are voiced:

• We need to break through men’s silence

• It’s such a gender construction to think about who benefits, who suffers. I used to feel men were to blame, but now I’m levitating with fury when I hear women buying into the system and wanting to maintain it. Women sometimes collude with patriarchy

• I was born in 1946. I’m really aware of internalised sexism and misogyny. Often we perpetuate the mistreatment that we witness and experience

• I came from a matriarchal household that was dominated by a patriarchal higher ideal. Women were in charge, but it was in the interests of men…

• When I was a boy I didn’t fit in – I went to all-boys’ schools but ending up palling with kids on the edges of society. Patriarchy is a discourse we take for granted. It’s hard to find a way to oppose it because it’s seen as normal. We expect power to be vested in the hands of powerful white men

• My mother was the consort and hostess for my naval-officer father. Fathering happened through her – she was representing the nearly-always-absent father

• I’m a male historian bringing up two boys in a feminist-influenced household. Patriarchy is all about the family – it means ruling by the father. It’s about men’s control of economy and corporations

• Being a sounding board for my raging, pontificating father, I always let men have the upper hand. I notice that women, even when they’re in the majority in a group, often automatically defer to men

• The question is not “Who’s to blame?”, but rather: “Who does the mopping-up?” The answer is: it’s the women. Women mop up the men feeling the effects of patriarchy

• As a therapist I deal with men who feel that “anger tears” are the only acceptable way to cry. We need to think about patriarchy both individually and structurally. Religion and ritual have powerful roles in the origins of patriarchy

• I work with shame and belonging, and I was drawn to this workshop to hear about power dynamics. Can we say: “We’re different” without abusing power?

• I like the phrase “swimming in patriarchy”. I feel it on my skin even when I’m walking down the street. It’s palpable. It’s about power, privilege. But it’s not as simple as winners and losers…

• In the 80s I was a radical feminist; I still am. Who’s to blame for patriarchy? Men!

 

Five minutes of discussion: In a group of five we talk about whether feminism can be about making a connection with men and allowing men to make a connection to themselves. Men need confidence to be vulnerable, someone says. There’s discussion around how the word patriarchy is associated with the phrase “smash the patriarchy” – language which can be useful or alienating in terms of the strength behind it and its historical significance. Perhaps it’s better to use the word privilege rather than patriarchy – and of course with privilege comes responsibility…

Flashback London 2014. A breakout area in my open-plan workplace. I’m telling a colleague that I feel my input gets systemically stamped out by men hierarchically above me, that I feel I don’t have a say or a voice. He asks: “Are you sure it’s a gender issue?” Suddenly I doubt myself: “Yes, maybe it’s not down to my being a woman. Maybe it’s to do with the quality of my work, or a personality clash, or because I’m 52 or American or…” Then it strikes me: this is classic. A man is invalidating a woman’s opinion, calling into question her not feeling heard, negating her. We’re deep into “personal is political” territory. Luckily, though, he has a solution. If I feel hard done by, or that what I have to say is consistently railroaded over, all I have to do is to shout louder – that way my viewpoint will stand a better chance of being taken into consideration. Again, classic. The thing is, shouting isn’t my style.

 

TALK #3: DECONSTRUCTING/RECONSTRUCTING MASCULINITY, AND ENGAGING MEN AND BOYS IN GENDER EQUALITY

He’s been sat – hoodie up, casual – in the front row, but then he leaps into action, and with his quick humour and dynamism Ben Hurst commands the room. Intriguingly his first slide reads: “Inside the minds of 13-year-old boys”.

Hurst knows lots about what’s on boys’ minds. Working as Europe/UK project coordinator for Great Men – tagline: “Disrupting gender stereotypes” – he manages the tri-nation IMAGINE (Inspiring Male Action on Gender Equality In Europe). His remit includes engaging men and boys in sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention as well as managing peer educators. Delivered in schools and sports/youth clubs, the workshops give boys “the tools and confidence to make healthy choices and resist negative pressures… to not be perpetrators… to value gentleness over aggression”.

Coolly he states: “We’re non-judgemental. We’re unshockable.”

In order to talk to boys about the pressures they face, manhood and “positive masculinities”, Hurst creates a safe space. Games play a fundamental part. In the word-race activity, students run up to a whiteboard to write down their ideas fast, so they’re “not filtering”. Here are some words they free-associate with men: “strong, beard, job, father, son, boy, penis, gay” while for women they come up with: “clothes, pretty, boobs, vagina, long hair, sexy”.

Though boys can be “homophobic and sexist”, says Hurst, “they’re also informed and more progressive than we think.” They themselves bring up trans issues, inequality, gender identity and even patriarchy, which sometimes makes their word-race list.

For the advert quiz, Hurst shows the boys provocative ads like Dolce & Gabbana’s “simulated gang-bang” image, released in both 2007 and 2015, of a woman pinned down by a man while three men look on impassively – according to the Advertising Self-Discipline Institute (IAP), she wears “an alienated expression, an absent look”. The Lynx series includes a shot of a lingerie-clad model bending over while taking a turkey from the oven (“Can she make you lose control?”). It was banned in 2011 after being ruled offensive, demeaning and “gratuitous” by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA); meanwhile the manufacturer, Unilever, defended it as being “playful, sexy, tongue-in-cheek”.

When Hurst asks the boys to explain what these ads are getting across, he gets reactions like: “She’s being paid to model/promote that”, “This is what women like; this is what women do”, “These are dumb”, “They think we’re stupid”, “Sex sells”, “We’re not idiots”.

To challenge gender stereotypes – and to examine the lack of societal representation in terms of size and race – we need to encourage critical thinking, Hurst says. “I remember what school was like: it was repetitive and you’d get bored if you were just told things. You have to give kids the tools to analyse. Give them the space to talk – they get talked at so much; they don’t get to imagine or think for themselves. Parents should ask their children about where norms originated. And probe – if kids give a simple answer, ask: ‘Why?’ and keep going: ‘Why…?’ Then they’ll get to the point and have an epiphany.”

The figures around children’s mental health that Hurst sets out are stark – for instance 94% of boys have seen porn by age 14, though they are not necessarily watching it (ie they’re “not sex addicts or predators”). But the “gonzo” or click-bait porn they view involves risky sexual activities and is degrading, violent and/or increasingly extreme.

Hurst highlights the macho lad culture as incorporating male-on-male violence, sexual violence and harassment. The fact that one in five girls experiences unwanted sexual contact in school is linked, he says, to boys not being able to express their feelings – “They’ll touch a girl’s bum rather than say: ‘I’m attracted to you.’”

Hurst challenges his students to develop alternatives and say: “If I could express an emotion other than anger, if I could cry, if I could change this version of masculinity…”

Here’s how to change the patriarchy, suggests Hurst: “By learning, exploring, encouraging people – basically creating the space to challenge individuals.”

“What is stopping men from changing?” he asks. “Let’s change men. We want men to be free.”

Five minutes of discussion: My fellow audience member and I talk about how the political landscape is increasingly acknowledged as being “male dominated”. Look at the emphasis on who gets to wield power, on being “strong and stable” and “taking back control”. Politicians are derided for their lack of manliness or characterised by their masculine credentials: David Cameron’s “mouthy male bravado” (though he did stake a claim for the “toughness” and “satisfaction” of fatherhood); the “sensitive masculinity” of Emmanuel Macron; the pint-in-hand, “ordinary blokeness” of Nigel Farage; the bluster and “retro”/“boy’s own” masculinity of Boris Johnson; the “subordinate” masculinity of “metrosexual”, “pretty boy”, “not man enough” Justin Trudeau; the “non-macho”, “effeminate”, “feeble”, non-violence-espousing, garden-tending Jeremy Corbyn’s “deficit of masculinity”; the “testosterone-fuelled face-off” between “hyper-masculine” Vladimir Putin (with his bare-chested “virility”) and “bullying” Donald Trump (who’s synonymous with “retrograde”, toxic, “fragile”, “caricatured”, “locker-room” masculinity); the “unisex” “black masculinity” of “cool”, charismatic, “forceful and tearful” Barack Obama, an avowed feminist. It was noticeable, too, how “unelectable” Corbyn had come under “personal attack” for his “shabby appearance”, “Soviet-era wardrobe”, “socialist dress sense” – a tirade about image that’s familiarly levelled against women.

Flashback Bristol 2017. I’ve been to a great conference put on by A Call To Men UK that talks about the “man box” – the “mentality, behaviours and restrictions that men are socialised to conform to”. Afterwards, over dinner, I ask a friend about the kinds of masculinity that he’s confronted or that define him. He won’t be drawn. I urge him on: “You’re gentle and non-testosterone driven, like your father. So what kind of man was he, what kind of person? What was he like to be around?” He can’t say. Like his father before him – who wouldn’t talk about his past, his family or himself – my friend stays silent. He sits across from his teenage son and does not find the words to describe his own father.

 

TALK #4: PATRIARCHY AND TRANS MASCULINE EXPERIENCE

Trans activist Jesse Ashman, with short peroxide hair and a button-down-collar shirt, makes a compelling speech so rapid-fire it’s hard to catch the tail end of one thought before he’s onto the next complex insight. Having a background in mental health, with a master’s degree in sexual dissidence – “a fancy way of saying queer and gender theory” – he is now a writer, speaker and illustrator for Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that supports transgender young people and promotes awareness of gender diversity.

Defining a transgender person or trans person as “anyone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth”, Ashman explains: “When I was born I was presumed to be a little girl. Having been told that I belonged to the oppressed group – women – I decided to join the dominant group instead – men. I transitioned at 18, so I’ve lived all of my adult life as a man. Now I identify as a man and present as a man in all contexts.”

He talks about the “internalisation of identity. I didn’t see myself in the images of, or gender performance of, women around me.” Instead his role models were men: “I saw figures I identified with in positions of power who were belittling and mistreating women. I hated wom­en.”

Because people still often subscribe to the “male/female brain idea – that you’re born this way – with transgender identity there is pressure to prove you do not have a mental health problem.”

Ashman speaks movingly about how “mental distress, discomfort or incongruity” compels people to transition, when they feel “something isn’t right. It might vary in intensity from person to person, but you feel something integral to yourself doesn’t match with something external – your body, name, how you interact with people, anything that genders you – and that creates this split between the self and the presentation or description of the self.”

At the gender clinic, in stating his interests – animals, computer games, literature – Ashman came up against gender expectations: “They were checking that I wasn’t going to list stereotypical straight-male interests. Some people feel a pressure to conform to hyper-masculine interests like football, cars and beer – but you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard. This can lead to an internal disjointedness. In trying to find yourself you are also seeking to find what masculinity really is, and it’s easy to stumble into toxic masculinity.”

Being “read as a man” affords Ashman insight into expected male behaviour, such as not showing weakness or seeking help. He’s privy to men being “lewd and sweary when women are not in the room”. Men also tend to talk about mental health concerns only if they’re solely among men, “as if the performance of masculinity as strength is somehow for the benefit of women”. Transgendered men are sometimes accused of “having done it for societal advantages” – in fact Ashman now finds that he is listened to in meetings.

Generally Ashman is openly transgender, but sometimes when he comes out to someone “they’ll claim they can now see the tells of it: ‘Oh I could tell by your voice’ or ‘You’re not like other men.’ Sometimes it seems like the options are to be hyper-masculine so you aren’t found out or to tell people you’re transgender and have them look for non-masculine traits in you – neither option is a nurturing environment for a positive form of masculinity to flourish.”

Ashman concludes: “When men are seen as the enemy, transgender men are seen as having chosen the other side in a fight for equality. We do have the option of performing masculinity in a way that is hurtful to ourselves and others. That can shield you from a lot of realities, but it always involves shutting off parts of yourself or refusing to talk about certain things. Because of this, dismantling the prevalent patriarchal form of masculinity is the only way for men to move forward – and this will benefit everyone.”

 

Five minutes of discussion: I tell the person beside me that what I respect about LGBT people is that at some point they were forced to recognise, and come to terms with, impulses in themselves that differed from the norm, and that they then had to decide to either suppress or act on those feelings. Stories like Jesse Ashman’s take that self-interrogation, self-acceptance and courage to challenging new levels.

 

Shine on: candlelight march for Harvey Milk, San Francisco, November 1978 (from thecastro.net/milk/candlemarch © UD Graphics

Shine on: candlelight march for Harvey Milk, San Francisco, November 1978 (from thecastro.net/milk/candlemarch © UD Graphics

Flashback Castro District, San Francisco 1978. Streets are blocked off to cars on Halloween night. There’s something in the air that feels wild, unbridled, barely containable. In these pre-Aids times the area is thronging with men looking deadly serious in skin-tight leather and bare skin or letting loose in ostrich-feather tails and outrageous make-up – exhibitionist, celebratory, unstoppable. The ice cream parlour Double Rainbow serves up a flavour (risqué for its time) called Better Than Sex, and there are clothes shops with names like All American Boy, Does Your Mother Know?, Out of the Closet. Our family friend, Dolly, is in a longstanding lesbian relationship. It’s amazing but unremarked-upon to see a man wearing red lipstick, prim heels and “nude” stockings under his black trousers pick up his kid from school. One summer I get a job in the Haight-Ashbury at an espresso/pastry bar called Kiss My Sweet… and work alongside colleagues like PJ, who makes jokes about seamen, and BJ, who lives it up on Fire Island and intones in a camp drawl: “Well, as I live and breathe!” Within a decade they have both died from Aids-related illness. I’m 16 when gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk is assassinated – a march is spontaneously organised, and that night I walk the length of Market Street in a crowd of 50,000 silent people carrying candles.

 

TALK #5: THE IMPACT OF HYPER-RATIONALITY ON MEN’S HEARTS

Bearded, wearing walking boots and tanned from living part-time in France, psychohistorian and men’s group leader Nick Duffell has a rugged look about him. “Patriarchy was used in the 1970s but it’s not a useful word any more,” he says, joking that he may be saying this from the vantage of being “an old white man”. He continues: “It’s polarising – we don’t want any more polarising in the world.”

Author of The Making of Them: the British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System, Duffell founded the organisation Boarding School Survivors in 1990 to offer therapeutic help for adult ex-boarders and to train therapists to work with men who were, often from a brutally young age, taught to rule but not to emote; they cannot compute emotion. That this system has “affected the whole of society and contributes to our political malaise” is the topic of his latest book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion.

Thirty years of working in men’s groups has led Duffell to examine a “transgenerational problem that’s particularly bad in Britain. We aren’t bringing up our boys well, both privileged and underprivileged boys.”

Talking about our hyper-rational society, the “male heart problem throughout history” and how men need “heart-to-heart connection”, he says: “We have rejected men’s hearts. Our heart has to be mirrored by our fathers. Father, tell your son how you deal with disappointment and rejection.” He stresses men’s need for empathy and emotional fluency. But he concedes, referring to Ashman’s comment about stereotypical male hobbies: “We can have beer and football too.”

Duffell makes distinctions between men and women – he talks about hierarchy versus cooperation, men shutting down their heart versus women closing down their sexuality, and the need to belong and nurture versus the need to be autonomous, go out and create. “They don’t work together,” he concludes, but says that difference makes creativity.

Five minutes of discussion: The therapist next to me brings up “social construction”, mentioning a study in which, when babies were randomly dressed in pink or blue, the adults interacted more physically with the blue-outfitted babies, tossing them in the air etc. In his own practice the therapist has noticed that boys express anger while girls cry before expressing anger. He tells me about a TV programme about a GP surgery at which young boys were being given an injection and were told to be brave. His heart went out to them, he says – they were so little, yet they were already being conditioned not to cry.

Flashback London 2005. At three years old, my son isn’t averse to the colour pink until the day he comes back from nursery and categorically declares: “Pink is for girls.” A girl had taught him that. Another time he comes home upset. He relays the story: a girl he usually plays with had hit him. He tells me: “Boys don’t cry.” Acculturation strikes young.

 

WORKSHOP #2: WORKING WITH MEN IN COUPLES THERAPY: DILEMMAS AND CONDUITS

The brief: “The aim of the workshop will be to explore how in couples therapy we can recognise and get into dialogue with the many sides of being a man including the cut-off aggressive rivalrous male aspect as well as the wounded boy, the boarding school survivor, the conqueror etc.”

Seven women and three men show up for this workshop led by psychoanalytic psychotherapist Andy Metcalf. His approach has been outlined as humanistic, integrative and psychodynamic; his areas of focus include work, marriage, identity development and “men-specific” issues.

As a non-therapist, it is fascinating to gain insight into the perspective of a man who does couples counselling. Metcalf, who helped produce pro-feminist men’s journal Achilles Heel, edited The Sexuality of Men, worked on the TV documentary About Men and had years of experiences leading men’s groups, says it was doing couples therapy that “re-energised” him professionally.

Forceful, earnest, taut and emphatic, Metcalf has been doing weekly couples-counselling therapy with a female colleague for the past three years. The advantage of working with a woman, he finds, is the “differentiation” between them. His experiences with mostly heterosexual couples have inspired his ideas about “men, feeling states and patriarchal positions”. The setting of one couple facing another in relationship therapy is often stressful – and “buried archetypal male positions can surface, almost always in an oblique manner”. The intensity of contact between him and his male clients took him by surprise.

Through his work, Metcalf has come to see men as being uncomfortable with their feelings, as well as over-rational and tribal. His clients retreat to a place where they feel threatened by exposing that all is not well in their relationship. Couples therapy puts the man into an unfamiliar place where he feels insecure: “We’re getting into his system, and a patriarchal psychic core position is there. As in: ‘This is my woman – hands off.’” This is never stated explicitly but instead conveyed by looks, body language, ways of talking, and the strong sense that Metcalf has to “find a way of defusing the man’s hostility and fear towards me as the other man if any emotional work is to be done. It’s cold, hostile paranoia. It’s the fear of being back in the cave, and an unknown man is a threat.”

Acknowledging his own stance (“It’s also in me – I have that patriarchal thing too. I’m quite combative. I like getting down and dirty; I have to be restrained”), Metcalf explains: “My job is to be empathetic and on the client’s side. Once he feels good with me I can challenge him.”

Men feel it’s “unsafe to have a therapist enter their lives”. So when Metcalf literally stands behind his client, hand on the client’s shoulder – as if to say he has his back, is guarding him – it’s a gesture of fatherly supportiveness. He calls it “unlocking, so that men can bend and show loving concern. There is a psychic basement that can open up.”

Metcalf says that during couples therapy “you want to say: ‘This is not about the argument you insist on having. We don’t even believe in your dispute. I think it’s because you’re threatened, George.’ The men are defensive. The fantasy is that they’re in the dock – that’s the patriarchal position. They’re the chieftain. It’s like we’re back in the 1950s, with extremely gendered situations. These men take recourse to power but they’re not in charge. They have no idea of what’s going on – they get back at 8.30pm. In their family, the father is an add-on. But they’re not sad about it. They’re machines; they’re wired for work.”

 

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What if the woman has taken on the man’s role? How do men deal with feelings of shame or vulnerability? “The deflated male is also part of the patriarchal position,” Metcalf says, adding: “Men carry wounds, broken-up parts of themselves.”

How does he get to their compassionate side? Sometimes, says Metcalf, with these high-flying professionals “you’ll get no purchase. So you make a judgement: will that land or not?”

One participant volunteers: “I learned to speak their language.” A couples therapist, she is sometimes hired by the wives of City workers – the one percenters – who tend to “scapegoat” and put great pressure on their 15-year-old sons. She says: “The men arrive in their Gucci suits and their attitude is: ‘Who are you?’ I feel like saying: ‘Shut up and sit down – here’s what I know about your son.’ I reach their heart so they can understand what I’m saying about their son. It’s exhausting.”

There’s an outbreak of discussion about work/life constraints. Someone comments that his peers have gone for careers which are in fact less about money than about power or perceived power – the office, the big desk.

If men are working untenable hours, how available can they be to their kids? “If you do global technocracy,” Metcalf avers, “you can’t get what families are about.” The consensus is that the difference between putting in 45 as opposed to 65 hours is that a father can be “switched on and home for bath time”. A male therapist explains, laughing: “I’m working with clients who I think are insane. I choose to work my kids’ school hours.”

Metcalf agrees: “When I’d come home after doing 50-plus hours, any relating was difficult.” He says that men can be participatory, open, “humble, loving and soppy” and add value despite a heavy workload. Women, meanwhile, are “better socialised” – but, as a female participant points out, they also carry more guilt.

No matter what the socioeconomic level, the same power dynamics apply, says Metcalf: “It’s easy for men to think our job is to satisfy women in all spheres, but that’s a dangerous position.” Men are expected to provide a high-end lifestyle, with “enough sex, holidays and tender emotions”, and they’re also under pressure to have a great body and do half the housework. “There’s no mutuality in it,” he says, whereas ideally “it’s a mutual enterprise: ‘How can we be happy together?’”

Because as a society we’re used to hearing about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, it is revolutionary to me when Metcalf says: “It’s tragic to see how father/son relationships can be so fraught and difficult.”

Over the course of his own therapy he came to appreciate his father. “It’s catastrophically wounding if the dad is a rival,” he states with such vehemence it must from a deep place. Interestingly he notes that the “pathology” of a father feeling jealous – particularly of the love his wife shows their son – is not as prevalent with fathers who are in their 30s and 40s.

Having more open dialogue is “a big step change in English culture – any culture”, Metcalf says. But encouragingly he wraps up with: “Movement is possible.”

Five minutes of discussion: We talk about how, since the Evening Standard’s takeover by a man, words evoking violence often grace the front page: the headline on day one was a visceral “Brussels twists knife on Brexit”. Even once you’re aware of how military jargon, images and metaphors are so pervasive in our culture and our minds, it’s hard to avoid deploying aggressive language. Gunning for it, ambushing, choosing your battles, detonating, manoeuvring, soldiering on, barraging, bombarding, besieging, taking no prisoners, coming under fire… These are fighting words, and they’re common currency.

Flashback Surrey 2017. Six smart-casual City types arrive at a spacious family home to take part in an all-men focus group on sex education. To break the ice they exchange confident banter – it’s almost like armour they slip knowingly into, and it is a huge contrast to the sincerity and vulnerability with which they start to reveal themselves. The fact that they are this self-aware and introspective defies the stereotype of British repression and male emotional illiteracy. Surprisingly, these men are happy to reflect on their roles as husbands, sons, fathers. To a man, they have made an active choice to redress the wrongs of their own distant or absent fathers. They’ve conveyed to their kids the message that sex is just one component of a relationship; they’ve made an effort to have open conversations even around tough topics like pornography (porn comes with the territory of being a guy, they say, though they wouldn’t rule out talking about it with their daughters). In reflecting on their own sexual development, they are confronting how their children’s world differs from the one in which they came of age, and they are being forced to work on themselves. In tackling sex-education issues with their kids, they are strengthening their relationship with their children, giving them a new attitude of openness to hand down.

 

The day is almost over. Rebecca Asher makes some final crucial points: “Dads with young kids talk about work/home pressures and their unhappiness about the roles they have to play – they don’t name it as patriarchy but it’s what they’re talking about. Men are beginning to realise it’s a problem for them as well. But where do we go from here? How do we harness that? Patriarchy is not a word on everyone’s lips, but if you prick up your antennae you’ll realise it’s all around.”

There’s a final activity called The Gathering which is adapted from an eco-psychology exercise called The Milling. It involves everyone circulating around the room then coming to a halt in front of someone. We stand still, locked in a frozen handshake while conference organiser Dearbhaile Bradley explains that, over huge expanses of time, shaking hands has signified agreement, greeting, reaching out. Then we have to tell each other what we’ll do differently “as a result of today”.

It’s awkward, intense, gripping. Standing in close proximity to a stranger and looking into their eyes in silence is a real test of boundaries, an attention-focusing way to end a day that has challenged our views on power, vulnerability, masculinity, men.

 

Worldview: the Psychotherapists & Counsellors for Social Responsibility (PCSR) logo

Worldview: the Psychotherapists & Counsellors for Social Responsibility (PCSR) logo