Men without a mission

June 28, 1996

Equal job opportunity for men and women is bad for family life. Partners tend to geton better if the man is the main bread-winner during the child-rearing years, argues Geoff Dench. Most people would agree that traditional family life, organised around a rigid sexual division of labour, is no longer desirable. Changes are needed in order to accommodate lesser and generally later fertility and a corresponding diminution of domestic labour, and to make better use of women's skills outside the home.

This need not entail complete deregulation of domestic relations and blind worship at the altar of personal choice. It may, on the contrary, be essential to strengthen publicly sanctioned conventions regulating families - not just because it is difficult otherwise to mobilise appropriate community supports when relationships hit trouble or break down, but also because unbridled personal choice may undermine sexual contracts.

My own research on men's family roles suggests that individual negotiation of sexual partnerships and domestic roles in "alternative" families may be writing men out of the equation altogether. We all need to feel needed, if we are to function properly as adults. This rarely bothers people with access to prestigious roles in the community. But it is a serious consideration in humbler quarters, and it is here that family obligations which make people personally responsible for the well-being of others can be most valuable. They can enrich the most menial tasks, and this is what libertarian thinkers neglect.

Deregulation of family life seems to be producing a polarisation of men's and women's experience. Women have not had responsibility for children taken away from them. They still have this source of meaning and personal motivation as well as greater opportunities for participation in the public domain. It is the opposite for men. The new "alternative" family culture may not directly exclude men from family life. But it specifies that family roles are optional, and argues against the tradition that men should support families. This makes it easier for men to avoid family obligations, for women to decide to live without them, and for couples to split when the hassle of "negotiating" sexual roles becomes too tedious. It is mainly men who get left out of families as a result, and whose sense of purpose - and corresponding ability to cope with pressures outside of the family as well as inside - may become seriously diminished.

The good news is that this problem of male alienation is understood by ordinary people, who regard policy makers as out of touch. My own research shows that notions of sexual interdependence are not dead. As people grow older, bring up children and take on roles as family managers they trade in libertarian ideas for more traditional views. A groundswell of opinion seems to be developing which may force policies to become more responsive to conventional values.

This need not require abandoning the goal of fuller participation by women in the labour market, but it may mean ditching the equality of opportunity ideology which has helped to fuel deregulation of family life. The Anglo-Saxon insistence on strict equality seems counter-productive. It reduces men's economic productivity without promoting domestic sharing. It is actually among couples who practice some sexual division of labour - and where men have a clear sense of the importance of their economic contribution - that relationships seem to be most durable, satisfying and flexible.

This is recognised pragmatically in many European countries, where a "neo-conventional" consensus has been evolving around the notion of a modified sexual division of labour - in which both partners have paid jobs but those of the men are normally regarded as more important to the family during the years of child-rearing. This compromise seems to be associated with lower levels of divorce, family break-up, and family poverty. It may be what we should be looking to for visions of Britain's future.

If we continue down the road of individualistic negotiation we cannot expect to discover a basis for a new sexual contract. This is the direction in which the Afro-Caribbean community in Britain has been moving for the past generation. What propels them is not Caribbean tradition - which is anti-individualistic and conventional on family and gender matters - so much as overzealous assimilation to the libertarian values which were emerging here when their main settlement was taking place. They are now in the vanguard and show where this orientation leads - which seems to be towards increasing sexual conflict and polarisation, with more single adult households, where men are apathetic, unproductive and socially marginal, while women are "independent" but over-burdened with multiple demands of work, children and other family and community commitments. "Personal choice" does not appear to lead either to sustainable family life or to gender equity.

The Place of Men in Changing Family Cultures by Geoff Dench, Institute of Community Studies, London, Pounds 9.50.

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