I’m due to become a father soon, and the following question is becoming increasingly pertinent in my mind: what does it mean to be a man today?
As a young boy, I imagined that I’d make myself into a man by being rational, analytical, controlled, steadfast and independent. I would exercise these uniquely male characteristics in my various roles as a father, husband and breadwinner. But in reality, though at times I might display these qualities to my wife and employer, I also display their opposite: I can be unreasonable, emotional, whimsical and needy.
It would seem that my childhood forecast of masculinity has not been fully realised, that I’m some way off its fulfilment. Can this solely be attributed to my own weaknesses and inadequacies, or is my failure representative of all men? My hunch is that I’m not alone, that there are other men out there feeling the very same, looking over their shoulders and crying out, “Look at these women!”
In intellectual development, social adjustment, professional achievement and personal happiness, women are surpassing men at an alarming rate. How have men responded to this challenge to their dominance, their loss of control? Well, by doing what us men do best … being destructive! In Britain, men perpetrate over 90% of convicted acts of violence. Around 90% of school children with behavioural problems are male. Men carry out most sexual abuse. Jails are crammed full of men. In 2010, three times as many young men killed themselves as young women. We’re not responding well to the challenge of the post-feminist world. Drink and drugs will not save us. We’re sick.
Feminists need not be so vociferous and vengeful anymore. Women are winning, and all the signs are that they are fast becoming the dominant species. Last year, some 25.5% of GCSE exams taken by girls was graded an A* or A compared with just 19.5% of qualifications sat by boys – a gap of 6%. In the European Union, there are now 20% more female graduates than male, and their prospects of employment far exceed men’s. And most significant of all, an increasing number of women are choosing to conceive and rear a child on their own. Man’s role is being reduced to a petri dish, God forbid! Even for the most deluded of men, in a state of perpetual denial, this picture of male decline in the new millenium is strikingly clear.
Radical feminist thinkers insist that women scare the man in me, threaten me, and make me defensive in female company. According to them, I look at women as impersonal objects to be impregnated, and nothing more. I feel that I must control them at all times, since they have a tendency to be hysterical, dependent, irrational, ambiguous and weak – all these uniquely feminine characteristics.
Now, different arguments have been put forward as to why men fear women. Freud thought it was the fear of castration. A man looks at a woman’s genitalia and sees with horror, and disgust, the absence of a penis – a woman is a kind of mutilated man, sick and inadequate. But is there not something exquisitely beautiful about the female genitalia, and is it not male genitalia which inspires horror, in Sylvia Plath’s words “a turkey neck and gizzards.” Then there are the attachment theorists who believe that a boy’s separation from his mother is a terribly painful experience, which he never fully recovers from. With this loss comes the realisation that he can no longer possess his mother orally, and that he will never control her genitally. Thus, he mustn’t allow himself ever again to completely trust a woman, be so dependent on one. He can never again feel so weak and helpless, out of his mother’s arms. And so he grows up into a man who hates all women as whores, and wants to be sadistic and cruel to them. It is no mere coincidence that men, when they are violent towards women, often rape them. For this is where they feel they can exercise most control. And last of all, there is the fact that the fulfilment of a heterosexual man’s desires is utterly dependent on a willing woman. All men have an ever-present itch that they need to scratch, perpetually driven by their incorrigible sex drive. They produce 25 times more testosterone per day than women. They fantasise about having a woman who is always sexually available to them. And when they can’t get what they want, well … then they want to destroy it. Modern man is in love with pornography. It relieves the itch – it’s quick relief, impersonal, controlled and contained in the realms of fantasy. He gets excited, masturbates, and then ejaculates. Steve Biddulph, the author of Manhood, remarked that “the sex-sell in this country is incredible. It’s amazing that young British men can think straight. They’re taught that they want one thing and they believe it.” Today, men define themselves by their genitals – the size of their prick and how hard it can get.
Men are violent. Yes we are. For men who have lost someone or something, who have failed to express themselves in other ways, and who are preoccupied with control, violence is their final desperate mark on the world. I have been an angry young man who thought the whole world was shit. Restless and aggressive, I had to put my rage and frustration somewhere. Those feelings could only go one of two ways, either inside or outside myself. A violent man is either reduced to a depressive state, curled up like a child in his bed, with no will to eat let alone get up, or he is locked up in a prison cell after harming someone else. But in both instances, the man commits violence, be it against himself or someone else. In his bed or in his cell, he feels the same – hopeless, ashamed, humiliated, angry and alienated. Suicidal and homicidal tendencies go hand in hand. When I was depressed, I fluctuated wildly between self-destruction and the destruction of others. Thankfully, I never hurt anyone. But I could have done. The point I am trying to make is that violence against oneself or someone else comes from the same place. This reality – for it is precisely that – does not justify or pardon the actions of a violent man, but crucially explains them as a complex web of interacting factors. Let’s forget John Major’s call after the murder of James Bulger for “less understanding and more condemnation.” And let’s not label a violent man a “monster” or “devil”. It is no longer appropriate to explain his actions as the product of the innate evil in his character. Such a populist or monistic religious view is untrue. A moral judgment must be made, but not so as we can suspend our horror at the painful truth of our own accountability and blame. For then how would man ever learn to tame his aggression, to learn the language of non-violence? He never would.
I have painted a rather bleak picture of the sate of modern man. What about modern woman? Mustn’t she be held accountable for some of the trouble with us men? Can it really be our entire fault? Have we let ourselves be emasculated? Are there not violent and cruel women as well as men? We only have to look at the organisation of AMEN, an Irish group helping male victims of domestic violence, to testify to this fact. According to one recent study, half of spouse murder victims were found to be alcoholic or psychotic and had played a significant part in their own death. And then there is Erin Prizzey, founder of the first women’s refuge for battered women, who declared that battered women were themselves violent by nature, much to the dismay of certain feminists. However, men’s violence still far exceeds women’s. Far more men hurt women than women hurt men. This fact cannot be ignored.
The psychiatrist Anthony Clare, in his book, On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, states that “phallic man, authoritative, dominant, assertive … is starting to die.” But he believes that a new man can emerge in his place. This man will no longer be reticent about his emotional life and relentless in his desire to control women. Rather, he’ll harness his propensity to dominate and express himself through words and tears rather than threats and punches. It does seem that man must now reinvent himself in a new image. Guns and viagra are firing blanks, the final death throes of a dwindling phallus. Good luck to us all. We need it.