As a male literature student you get used to being told by the more extreme proponents of the feminist school of thought that you are – by the sole virtue of being in possession of a Y-chromosome and a penis – automatically and irredeemably of the devil.
One particularly ardent subscriber to this critical stream railed, rather memorably I might add, against the presence of fathers at childbirth as “a penetration – and I use the term intentionally – of the female sphere”. Quite.
Nobody’s denying that females, historically, have had a pretty rum deal in the equality stakes: from Aristotle’s description of women as “a kind of mutilated male” a couple of thousand years ago things didn’t perk up much, and I use the term intentionally, until sometime last century.
But it is the male of the species that has been looking haggard and under threat as of late. The Sunday Times examined recently the rise of stay-at-home fathers, in the context of both the recession – wiping out many traditionally male-dominated jobs – and longer-term educational trends that have seen females outpace males from GCSEs through to employment. Female undergraduates now outstrip their male counterparts by almost 50% and there is a corresponding disparity in numbers of entrants into high-paid jobs such as medicine and law.
“It is the male of the species that has been looking haggard and under threat as of late”
While you could easily, and not entirely incorrectly, argue that such changes are a long-overdue swing towards economic gender equality, the fact is that the playing field is changing fast and such rapid transformations inevitably bring with them a new set of only partially-anticipated problems. These abrupt changes are accompanied by a background trend of single-parent families, often lacking a male role model, and alarming rates of male-perpetrated crime – in 2006, 80% of crimes were committed by men.
The writer of the Sunday Times piece, in her attempt to make sense of these shifts, revisited the works of the influential feminist Simone de Beauvoir, venturing so far as to posit that it may now be the male who is “the second sex”. And that is a radical claim indeed.
In the light of the looming obsolescence facing the hunter-gatherer you’d think that the creation of the first ever men’s society in Manchester University (MENS society – Masculinity Exploring Network and Support) would be greeted with cautious nods of approval, provided that they avoid the stigma of macho Bullingdon-esque drinking clubs of yore. And in theory at least, this newly founded group does so admirably, taking a proactive approach that aims to foster responsible masculinity and raise awareness of male issues, from testicular cancer to the high rates of male depression and suicide.
But no, the NUS women’s officer Olivia Bailey has found it in herself to be suitably outraged, claiming that “discrimination against men on the basis of gender is so unusual as to be non-existent, so what exactly will a men’s society do?” Clearly she hasn’t been reading The Times. She continued in similar terms, adding, “To suggest that men need a specific space to be ‘men’ is ludicrous, when everywhere you turn you will find male-dominated spaces”.
Such reactionary responses are unhelpful. This isn’t a conspiracy to ensure the continuance of some kind of centuries-old male hegemony – the MENS society does not discriminate on the grounds of gender (almost a third of its members are women), it’s just that the focus is on masculinity and what this means in contemporary society.
Surely anything that encourages an open and honest conversation about our roles and our responsibilities can only be a good thing? After all, males – especially British ones – have never been renowned for being especially emotionally forthcoming and whatever tentative steps we can take towards bettering ourselves ought to be welcomed with open arms. There’s no dark secret lurking at the heart of masculinity, just a grubby, slightly dazed teenager wondering what to do next.