In the shadow of Big Sister

August 23, 1996

David Walker reports on the growing pains of men's studies. What a state we heterosexual men are in. Women and gay men have, intellectually at least, got their acts together. There is a vast apparatus of feminist analysis; women's work stretches even into the shell-backed quantitative social sciences.

But where are the tools, the disciplined thought to help us - men - out of the slough of despond we are said to be in? In May, the Equal Opportunities Commission said that for the first time in its 20-year history it had received more complaints from men than women about discrimination in the workplace.

Bad fathers, unemployed or marginalised at work, unable to compete with or assist the successful women in our lives, we flounder, jealous but guilty I we engage in ridiculous bearhugs with one another in the woods.

You can certainly ram disparate bits of evidence together to paint a picture of men in crisis. Here are some of the examples that preface the new book What Next for Men? edited by Trefor Lloyd and Tristan Wood. Younger men are suicidal (compared with women); more of them are overweight. They commit disproportionate amounts of crime and (of course) are responsible for risen rates of assault on women. Boys outnumber girls two to one in schools for children with learning difficulties. To cap it all, sperm counts are dropping.

Is there an academic correlate of the ferment that newspaper commentators evidently believe is going on within the male breast? The short answer is no. Men's studies do not exist as such in Britain, however fashionable they may be in the United States. A smattering of course options and a couple of book series is about it. A small number of men (and some women) are engaged in studying aspects of men's behaviour and they stay loosely in touch. There is no journal nor, despite one attempt now abandoned, even a newsletter. Several of those working on men are only marginally in the university world - they operate from places such as the Institute of Community Studies, the unconventional social research unit founded by Lord Young of Dartington.

But those doing "men's studies" do have one thing in common I women: that is to say, a looming awareness of the success of women's and gender studies and academic feminism. A state approaching paranoia is detectable in some quarters - one university researcher I spoke to kept, metaphorically, glancing over his shoulder. To some of these men feminists are Big Sister - and she may not approve of them muscling in. George Mair, professor of criminal justice at Liverpool John Moores University, asks of the male crisis: "How many women would want to join with men in helping to refashion them? Women would certainly be suspicious."

Geoff Dench is visiting professor of sociology at Middlesex but works from the Institute of Community Studies. A radical, he argues for shifts in public spending to create jobs for men to allow them once again to become breadwinners and supporters of women and children. He recently wrote: "Once they have children, most women would actually prefer a male partner to carry the main economic burden and to perform themselves the main family management and caring role."

Dench thinks the growth of men's studies may require the use of elbows. "Gender is already there and belongs to women so some people have felt doing men's studies would be like colonising territory already occupied. It takes a certain type of aggression, you've got to take on an Establishment, in this case either women or those men who agree with feminists.

"Much of the work in men's studies is being done by psychologists, on problems of identity - but it might be that's the only area of development allowed by the academic system. It does not challenge feminism if men are a 'problem'."

Talk to Dench and you have a sense of men's studies as a samizdat-based underground, scrabbling for research grants in structures dominated by "feminist orthodoxy". He even says "people are very afraid", as if Big Sister were indeed on the watch.

Working With Men, publisher of What Next for Men?, is a not-for-profit organisation subsisting on grants for projects. It eschews academic introspection for what director Trefor Lloyd calls practical problems - working with schools, the health service and the probation service. "People focus on a number of key issues, such as boys' under-achievement, male violence. The question is what can we do to turn things around - for example, creating jobs or changing men's ideas of what it is to be a man?" But Lloyd, too, is cagey over the question of intellectual relations with feminism. "If [like some Americans] you start to talk about men as oppressed you run into conceptual problems. We can, however, talk about power. In terms of personal relations between men and women there are some dramatic changes going on - in terms of who has power within relationships. But in terms of the structural and institutional aspects of power, glass ceilings and so on, not a lot is changing."

But that does not hold for thinking itself, argues Vic Seidler, professor of social theory at Goldsmiths College and something of a father figure for men's studies in Britain. He thinks the study of men is in ferment, as it hovers on the cusp of wider recognition within academic life.

Men and masculinity are not just subjects for men. Seidler cites the work of Lynne Segal, Sheila Rowbotham and Mary Maynard as scholars "thinking about gender relations but open to recognising the complexity of gender relations". Segal, professor of gender studies at the University of Middlesex, takes the line that there are attributes - soft/tough, active/passive - that traditionally have been linked with one or the other gender. They have to be de-coupled and re-thought, she argues. "We have to loosen them up so that there is no way any longer we can think of men and women being in different social spaces."

Few of the men I spoke to seem as confident as that. You get a sense that they are tiptoeing around, unsure whether where they next put their foot is a flower or a landmine. There are at least two pressing reasons why this should be so: one is that women are indeed the intellectual problem for men, in the sense that men's studies are inconceivable without feminism and so look like an also-ran. The other is a certain lack of intellectual edge. There are now first-class studies of women in history and fruitful rerappraisals of great literary works from a feminist perspective - there is, in other words, a feminist academic body. Not so for men - unless you take the line that all history and literature to date are men's. Men's studies in Britain seem to suffer, too, from a sense of isolation from other parallel streams of intellectual work to do with sexuality and gender, notably gay and lesbian studies (again very much a North American phenomenon).

Yet men's studies in Britain do have an edge - their connection with the social work and social admin traditions, pointing people in the direction especially of problems with boys and young men. There is now a network of people concerned about men's health, which came together in England at a conference organised by North Derbyshire health authority last December. Of course such work does not need the "men's studies" rubric. Are studies on fathers and fathering, for example, straightforward sociology or men's studies?

Perhaps men's studies are identified by a normative element - some of it even taking on a Baden Powellish, do-your-best tone. There is a parallel here to the effort some years ago to give gay men a "positive image". Seidler acknowledges "that I do try to think in relation to positive notions of masculinity. Not men as brutes I some feminist work reproduces that negative image. Some men have been left with a very negative sense of what masculinity could be. Perhaps younger men are now less concerned about their relation to feminism and are more concerned to understand their experience as men."

But it seems their experience as men does not involve Fairy Liquid. Angela Dale of City University recently reported a survey showed only 1 per cent of men undertook household chores on a permanent basis, even though 91 per cent said they were in favour of sharing such tasks equally. Iron John has not yet got his hands in the kitchen sink.

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