This was the ninth male psychology conference and the third under the auspices of the British Psychological Society (BPS), though – thanks to Covid-19 – the first in-person BPS male psychology conference. It was held in the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, 21-22 June 2022.
With 22 presentations I can only give a brief indication of the content. Not having the Abstracts I am reliant on fallible memory and some scruffy notes, so the authors will forgive me for any inaccuracies which are likely.
Please bear in mind throughout that I am trying to reproduce what was said, or at least its tenor, not expound my own views.
Jamie Taylor, Head of the School of Psychology in the University of Central Lancashire opened with a welcoming address (making reference to Nicola Graham-Kevan’s recent award from the Lancashire police). Liz Bates, Chair of the male section, introduced the conference and alluded to a few key issues – such as the need for a male section.
Martin Seager – The Life of Boys and Men: Key Questions from Cradle to Grave
Martin noted the appropriate timing, being the day after Fathers’ Day and following Men’s Health Week. Martin’s talk was an excellent run-down of the broad range of men’s issues. Regrettably it’s still necessary to start a talk about issues facing men and boys with a disclaimer that this is about common humanity, not about being anti-female, and that diversity includes masculinity. Martin referred to psychologists having colluded with the societal prejudice against men. What are we to think when one-third of the vote was against creating a male section? “Lived experience” is to the fore – but not men’s. The APA have softened their stance on working with men recently, but their Guidelines are still strongly based on “patriarchy”, whilst in the UK the PTMF (Power Threat Meaning Framework) is beginning to be used in therapy – clearly a recipe for therapeutic failure, akin to the use of Duluth in DV perpetrator programmes.
Is it men, or society’s approach to men that needs to change? Gamma bias is a reality and widespread. Boys’ increasing educational failure is ignored. Does anyone think that going into schools to lecture boys about not raping is doing any good? Or does it just add to the negative attitude towards masculinity which already pervades schooling – and does this impact on boys’ educational achievement?
Martin noted that despite the well-known and long-standing dominance of men in the suicide statistics, none of the books on suicide had chapters devoted to men’s suicide. (An audience member said he knew of one, but I think that was in Danish). Suicide, 75% men; rough sleepers, 85% men; addiction, 75% men; deaths at work, 97% men; imprisonment, 95% men; and men’s life expectancy is shorter than women’s. Fatherlessness is the most important issue to address but is also ignored. Where are Dads in the psychology models of child development? In EDI culture (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion), is “toxic masculinity” realistic or harmless or discriminatory? We need to respect masculinity more.
Alexandra Kirby – Attentional Biases Towards Body-Related Stimuli in Healthy Males: A Systematic Review
Alexandra drew attention to the increased concern by some men for developing a muscular physique. Her work related to the cognitive biases related to this tendency, and the associated body dissatisfaction; for example, when scanning magazines and online sources such men may focus preferentially on male body-types which tend to their ideal. (If I understood correctly, her finding was, however, that men are rather less prone to this than women). Any link with socioeconomics remains to be explored (personally, I would expect one). I did wonder whether part of such men’s motivation might be the desire to present themselves as distinct as possible from women.
Dennis Relojo-Howell – Blog to bounce-back: A qualitative study on the viability of blogs as a resilience intervention
Dennis’s talk related to blogs whose purpose was essentially therapeutic. He noted that adolescents regarded blogs as more helpful (and perhaps safer?) in the context of mental health issues than professionals. There is perhaps a link here with therapeutic writing (see Kevin Wright’s talk below). Dennis’s ultimate objective is to launch a Global Resilience Blog.
John Barry – The belief that masculinity has a negative impact on one’s behaviour is correlated to lower mental wellbeing
John made reference to the crazy things that journalists can get away with saying about men and masculinity. For example, “recycling is gay so men don’t do it”. John presented what might be the most interesting graph of the conference. Two questions were asked: does masculinity promote the protection of women, and does masculinity promote violence against women? The results, as a percentage of respondents, were plotted against age. Whilst the question about “protection” showed no age dependence, the question about violence was strongly age dependent, with younger men (under 40) far more inclined to believe that masculinity promotes violence against women. One presumes that such men consider this (supposed) negative aspect of masculinity to be operative in other men – not themselves?
Liz Harper and Liz Bates: Exploring men’s experiences of domestic violence and abuse: Psychological abuse and gaslighting
One of my areas of interest and I found myself agreeing with all they said. They reported on interviews with male victims (N = 45 if I copied that correctly). The focus was on non-physical abuse, especially aspects of coercive control. Much of it could be categorised as humiliation, denigration or gaslighting. The most important observation was that these were everyday patterns of behaviour. Men were commonly made to question their own sanity, and saw that their children’s perceptions were being similarly influenced. Children were commonly used as weapons (threats to prevent the men’s contact with children; threats to abort). Contrary to popular belief, financial coercive control is also commonly a female abuser’s trait. (I have also found this in surveys of male victims). Conclusion: power imbalance narratives just don’t cut it anymore.
Ben Hine (with input from his father): Fathers and Intimate Partner Violence: An Autoethnographic Analysis of Current Literature on Men’s Experiences of Abuse Involving Children
Ben recounted his own personal story as a child. His mother took him and left the family home, giving his father no prior warning. His mother had been ill for some time, and when this deteriorated further Ben was handed back to his father (who had spent very large sums of money by this time trying to gain greater contact). Ben was subject to PA (he described his mother’s actions as “malicious intent”). His father said that he had to pay for the privilege of seeing his children. The children were made to feel guilty for wanting to see their father. This is all classic PA. Ben made reference to the automatic perception that children should be with their mother (even an ill mother). He has found that these experiences have “screwed up the way he thinks”. We must recognise the chronic undervaluing of fathers’ contribution to parenting (his view and mine).
Liz Harper and Daniel Gibbons: The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case in news media: A Critical Discourse Analysis
Am I the only person on the planet that didn’t follow the Depp-Heard saga? There’s a reason: I hear 500 stories much the same every year. I know nothing about critical discourse analysis. However, I believe the word “critical” here relates to its usage in Critical Theory rather than its usage in “critical thinking”. In other words it relates to language as a mechanism of social power (as opposed from a tool for rational evaluation). Two sources were used: The Guardian and the BBC. (It caused amusement in the audience that the BBC was chosen as a presumed “neutral” commentator). It was demonstrated how linguistic “tricks” can direct the reader to perceive people as belonging to an in-group or an out-group, thus subtly directing one towards positive or negative views of the individuals. Thus Heard was “personalised”, by the use of her name, whilst Depp was “functionalised”, by referring to him as “the actor”. In Q&A – if I heard this correctly – the claim was made that The Guardian was more neutral than the BBC, and the BBC was right-leaning (I know, I know).
Nicola Graham-Kevan: Men, Boys and Domestic Abuse
Again very much my own area of interest, so little in the way of surprises here but no harm in hearing it repeated so clearly. Nicola stated that coercive control is not gendered, that the prevalence of partner abuse is greatest in lesbian relationships, that the Respect Toolkit (for working with male victims) is simply a means of imposing anti-male bias, and that women seeking help for their own abusive nature are not helped by being sent on the Freedom Programme. Boys and girls are exposed to similar levels of sexual abuse, while boys are more likely to experience 4+ ACEs. Unusually (outside the MHRM community), Nicola made reference to the legality of MGM, i.e., male infant “circumcision”, as opposed to the illegality of FGM. (I was happy to hear Nicola raise this topic but I am obliged to be more precise: MGM is actually illegal but it is being tolerated). Nicola discussed the statistics on homicide, as perpetrators and victims, and noted that male killers tend to be younger (peak 16-24) cf female killers (peak 25-34).
Jenny MacKay et al: Identifying the profile and needs of Perpetrators of IPV engaging with perpetrator programmes in England and Wales
Certainly the most entertaining start to any of the presentations – a video “Everything goes in the square hole”. Jenny remarked that the “Duluth”, feminist power & control / finger wagging type of perpetrator programmes were “still influential”. (I would say almost universal). Apparently 29 programmes are accredited by Respect (whose guidelines are such as to effectively require this type of approach – my opinion, not necessarily the presenter’s). Jenny referred to the Babcock et al 2016 review of 400 studies which concluded that these types of perpetrator programmes have no convincing evidence of efficacy. The much-vaunted EU-funded Project Mirabel was “a very poor evaluation”. Jenny made reference to the RNR (Risk-Needs-Responsivity) model, used in prisons, and also mentioned other non-Duluth programmes (e.g., Temper DV). She emphasised the need for independent evaluation and accreditation. (I presume “independent” would subsume independence from Respect or other organisations overly wedded to a specific ideological perspective?). Afterwards I talked to Jenny briefly about DRIVE, over which I’ll draw a veil.
Kealey Jayes: Home is not always where the heart is: How the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions have impacted practitioners supporting male victims and male victims from help-seeking, a two-part study.
Kealey surveyed 28 male victims and 11 practitioner DA organisations to determine the impact of Covid and lockdowns on men’s help-seeking and service provision. Kealey accessed police report data and data from the National DV Helpline, comparing years 2018/19 with “lockdown year”, 2020. (One has to be cautious about assuming any difference is due to Covid/lockdowns, see here). Kealey noted that the messages about DV during the pandemic were focussed on female victims. But she reported no effect on male victims’ help-seeking behaviour during the pandemic lockdowns (but their awareness of services was poor before lockdowns). There is a need for more services for mal victims, and what support there is needs to be made more visible to promote awareness. (In passing I note that lockdowns had a major impact on non-resident parents’ contact with their children, and this implies an impact on male victims because many/most non-resident parents are victims of DA, see here for the extent of this impact).
Ben Hine: Safe accommodation needs of male and LGBT+ survivors of domestic abuse
The aim was to understand the needs of male and LGBT+ victims in respect of “safe space” (refuge) provision. Ben noted there was a lack of understanding by services of the barriers these victims face. Services need to be more responsive to individual needs, and there is a requirement for dedicated services for these victims. Currently, for example, male victims will generally have to travel hundreds of miles to a refuge – which rules out this option for most (due to work commitments, or issues of child contact – bearing in mind vanishingly few men’s refuges also take children). The situation in respect of refuges for men is dreadful (I believe there are none at all in Greater London or the whole of Kent). Ben stated that it was a legal requirement to provide accommodation for these victims (as well as straight female victims). I think he claimed that under the Equality Act? I suspect the DA Act would also cover it. I guess challenges need to be made to local authorities or nothing will improve. I don’t disagree with any of this but I note that, from survey evidence I’ve seen, refuge accommodation is not top of male victims’ priorities. The top support items are, in order, (i) support to recover from the psychological trauma through professional counselling, mental health services etc; (ii) help to keep my children safe – eg family support services, child mediation, help to apply to the Family Court etc; (iii) practical help with legal protection eg arrest & charge of perpetrator, Non Molestation Order, Occupation Order etc; (iv) peer mentoring and support – being able to talk to others in groups about your experience, ‘Healthy Relationship’ courses etc.
Rick Bradford: Male Victims of Partner Abuse: Barriers to Help-Seeking and Experience with Services
My talk – you can find a slightly rough & ready practice run-through recording here.
John Barry for Rob Walker: How therapists work with men is related to their views on patriarchy, politics and masculinity
Rob Walker was ill so John Barry stood in at the last minute to present on his behalf. The study posed the question whether therapists’ politics influence their work with men. John referred to the APA Guidelines, which remain a mixed bag, but still refer to masculinity as a social construct and position masculinity as problematic (Guideline 3). But any guidelines should be evidence based. Surveying practitioners revealed that, out of 60 responding, 36 said they were male-focussed (e.g., solutions focussed), 20 said they were gender-neutral, and 4 that they adhered to the patriarchal / social constructivist view. It could be worse, but I fear “gender neutral” is not a good response as it probably means assuming that men will respond well to treatment designed around women. Men seek help less often than women, so it is particularly important to provide safe and effective therapies that appeal to men.
Kevin Wright: The Search for more Male-Friendly therapies: Psychological & Physical Health Benefits of using Journal & Expressive Writing
Continuing the theme of the previous talk, Kevin made the plea for gender-specific therapy for men. His talk was about the benefits of expressive writing in alleviating depression. Its efficacy, he claimed, was because it encourages deconstruction and critical appraisal of strong emotion or trauma. Neurobiologically, it by-passes the amygdala and goes straight to the Hippocampus (apparently). Effect sizes have been found to be larger for men than for women, perhaps because men communicate preferentially in writing. Kevin called for more neuroscientific studies to consolidate these findings.
Lucy Clarke: An Examination of the Portrayal of Gender in Marvel and Star Wars Media Targeted Towards Children.
In question were the Disney animations of Marvel and Star Wars, not the film versions. The most obvious features of the male Marvel characters were muscular physique, aggression and banter, and the relative absence of sincere conversations (and when they did occur, they ended in banter). I think Lucy labelled that as “lad culture”. Respect had to be earned, and anger was the only emotion available to them – though that had to be controlled. “Masculinities” and “heteronormative” came into it. Strong female characters were much more valued (than whom?, not sure) and were present most of the time. Tended to have “mother figure” and “action girl”. The male and female characters didn’t work well together. In Star Wars only the male characters used “the Force” (interpreted as a hierarchy of power). Lucy unwisely claimed that weapon play was related to real-life violent behaviour. This was jumped on in Q&A and discredited, I think.
Emma Langley: The role of fathers raising children with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities at different life stages: an exploratory pilot study
My overall impression of this talk was that the interviewed fathers’ experience was qualitatively similar to that of any father – but just that much harder. Emma’s message was that fathers do a great deal, contrary to the opinions of some that “they are at work all the time so they don’t do much with children”. Most fathers faced a “crash” at some point, when they just couldn’t cope anymore (lone crying). One practical issue was the thought many fathers had about what would happen when their child reached adolescence and then late-teenage – would they live with me forever, or what would happen to them? Such Dads (and this I think will go for all Dads) have never spoken to anyone about their experiences with childrearing and its attendant stresses and difficulties – and, for these fathers, there was an inexpressible feeling of hopelessness.
Craig Harper: Investigating social attitudes to male victims of penetrative sexual offences
Craig reminded us of the sexual assault laws and the gendered definition of rape. He reminded us of the “reasonable person” standard re consent. He made reference to Siobhan Weare’s work on made-to-penetrate. This is often accomplished by the female partner using threats, blackmail or other coercion. Craig noted that “rape myths” are invariably constructed around female victims and male perpetrators (whilst the biggest rape myths of all arguably relate to male victims – my words, not his). Eliciting opinions of vignettes led to some interesting results presented in graphical form (see Craig’s slides here). Male victims were, (i) more likely to be subject to “victim blaming”; (ii) less likely to have their experiences labelled as criminal; (iii) less likely to be perceived as having been harmed by their experience. The views of male and female respondents to the vignettes was much the same, with men being marginally more aligned with the above views. (In short, it’s the gender empathy gap, folks – and both sexes have diminished empathy for men).
Natalie Quinn Walker: Do healthcare professionals delivering emergency services have adequate knowledge and awareness to identify and support male domestic abuse victims?
This was another presentation that confirmed what those of us working in the male DV area largely knew from our own work. Nevertheless, the litany of methods used to physically abuse men was distressing to hear: hot irons, pokers, cigarettes, hot water or hot oil (sometimes when asleep), blunt instruments, knives, strangulation, damage to teeth and the use of allergies against the victim (e.g., deliberate exposure to peanuts). Natalie’s survey indicated 31% of the men had accessed A&E as a result, 17% a GP, 12% sought assistance at a pharmacy and 4% at a dentist. She recounted one case where a man with three broken ribs and visibly bleeding was nevertheless handcuffed to a bed by the police. This no longer surprises me. Only 5 out of 100 men interviewed had had a positive experience from healthcare. Conclusion: we are not doing enough to raise awareness of male victims. (Unfortunately it isn’t just a matter of telling people – we struggle against innate gendered psychology – my comment, not Natalie’s).
Naomi Murphy: Beware the wolves in the walls: How stereotypes cause failure in the criminal justice system
Naomi Murphy is a returning speaker, having presented at two previous conferences. She presented to the APPG on men and boys issues recently. She worked for many years in prisons as a forensic psychologist, often with the most serious offenders. Her message was that stereotypes can create self-fulfilling prophecies. Referring to prisoners by number rather than name is common. Prisoners are of several types, including the violent robbers and psychopaths (who, I suppose, are the “alpha males” of the community), the “vulnerable” (i.e., sex offenders), the “extremists” (the ideological, who stick together), and the model prisoners. Mental ill-health is common, with anti-social personality disorder being to the fore, and borderline PD and paranoid PD, plus a range of common comorbidities: depression, OCD, substance abuse, PTSD, etc. The mean tariff of the prisoners with whom Naomi worked was 12 years – but some double this, or lifers (offences splitting equally between murder, other violence and sex offences). The stereotypes could be classed as, for example: the loners, the self-harmers, the needy, the violent, the mad, the weird, the exploitative, the hard-to-engage, and the sexually deviant. There is a very high prevalence of disadvantage in their background (neglect 81%, physical abuse 73%, sexual abuse 66%, being in care 53%, parental separation 65%, bullied 77%, etc etc). Naomi repeated the statistic that 52% of the men who had been sexually abused had been sexually abused by at least one woman. Nevertheless men were often “patted down” by female officers.
The perception of prisoners by staff is very different from everyday life. As an example, one prisoner was taken into segregation because in a poem he compared a therapist to a rose – and this was considered dangerous. The psychology/therapy team were generally white, middle class women – and despite the sex offenders (or other men who had been sexually abused by women) having a difficulty with women, this was seen as a key ingredient in the therapy. Having women teach men about normal male sexuality could be seen as rather condescending. These clinicians would be seen initially by the prisoners as sneaky, agents of the state, rich and posh. On the other hand, the prison officers – generally male, straight, white and working class (often ex-military) saw the clinicians as a security risk. In short, a whole bunch of interacting stereotypes which get in the way of seeing the humans behind the “roles” of offender, staff and clinician. The aim of Naomi’s work was to create hope and possibility, to inculcate the valuing of kindness and compassion, and to facilitate the emergence of the “real person”.
Craig Harper and Rebecca Lievesley: Exploring the psychology of men’s ownership of sex dolls
Sex dolls are a multi-million dollar industry. They are customisable and can be based on real people. Cost typically $3.5k – $10k. The motivation for buying one is approx. 80% sexual and 20% “relationship” (don’t ask me to explain that). Many organisations have called for sex dolls to be banned. The reason is unclear but perhaps due to an assumed relationship between their use and sexual aggression (without evidence). The authors carried out interviews with 158 sex doll owners (plus 135 in a “control group”). The traits that predicted sex doll ownership were: more likely to be divorced/separated; more likely to be bisexual, less likely to be gay; no difference in education standard; on average each owner had 3.3 dolls and had sex with them 11 times per month.
Doll owners were found to have lower sexual aggression; less likely to be borderline PD; more likely to be OCD; more likely to see women as “unknowable”. They did not hate women as a rule but were suspicious of, and cautious about, women. Sex dolls were generally a surrogate for a relationship. The issue of child-like dolls was raised as a future research issue (are they actually made? Not sure). The authors thought that their use might be protective rather than dangerous, but it’s hard not to feel uneasy about it.
William Costello: The Psychology of Incels (Involuntary Celibates)
A surplus of sex-starved young men is a recipe for harms to themselves and others, William told us. But, he estimated, fewer than 10% of online incels are misogynistic trolls. William referred to the stories of a couple of self-identified incels who became killers and reiterated that the best approach to these aberrants is not to publish their names, as notoriety is part of what fuels them. He carried out interviews with 151 incels (and 9 “femcels”). He found them to have elevated scores on Interpersonal Victimhood, though effect sizes were small-medium. 82% of incels had considered suicide. This was reflected in very poor well-being scores with large effect sizes (Cohen’s d around 0.9 from memory). The image of incels promoted by popular media is that they are far-right, white supremacists (well, aren’t we all?). Actually 36% of incels are BIPOC (BAME); 45% lean left politically, compared to 39% who lean right. So the popular narrative is wildly wrong. However, it is true that 50% of incels live with their parent(s). Comparing characteristics of communities with their prevalence of incels, prevalence was greater where there is higher income inequality, fewer single women (hardly surprising), and lower gender pay gaps. So it is the surplus of economically unattractive young men that is primarily the feed-stock for incels. The idea amongst the badly informed that incels are part of the MHRM is, of course, seriously wrong. It would do these rather self-pitying young men some good to get more involved in the MHRM, because they would learn that their mistake is to make their sense of self-worth dependent upon the approbation of women.
I was incredibly fortunate to attend this year’s conference, and was at any one time surprised, impressed, gently amused, shocked and saddened by the topics discussed and presented. But eternally grateful, and left feeling incredibly inspired. So much so, that with Kevin’s presentation in mind, and after a brief discussion with John Barry. I spent some time writing about my experiences (traumas) during my first year in training to be a soldier (16 to 17 years). Additionally I completed an exercise that my own psychologist had separately prescribed and wrote a letter to my younger self, regarding another event from my military history but this time relevant to active service. My preliminary findings in this study of one are positive, and whilst exhausted, I believe that I notice a shift in my thinking and understanding. So, thank you, Kevin, John and all those others who made this, my first BPS conference, so incredible. Go well and go gently.
I noted your comment about men seeking very “masculine” bodies, partly to be as different as possible from women. A simple explanation but I suspect one with more explanatory power than more complex theories. I’m often struck by the parochialism of much research, as if our society’s norms are not simply recent innovations from just one part of humanity in place and time. As a student I vividly remember an anthropological book looking at 12 different societies. There were six pairs. In one potting would be a Male task and its “pair” potting was a female task, similarly with weaving, or food gardening or animal care and so on. Of course the “point” was to show that there weren’t universal rules about Male and female tasks. But of course the authors completely missed that in all 12 the division into Male and female tasks was rigidly applied. There was a “universal” expectation that there were different spheres for each sex. The other obvious pattern was that in all the societies the “male” task was one which required moving away from “home”. So the males did herding across vast ranges and the females cared for animals close to the village, the Male potters had to travel and trade for the clay while the females had a source right by the village, and so on.
Much is made in popular media about skirts and trousers, yet in fact in many societies in history and today males wear “skirts” or “robes” and their females have forms of trousers. The truth is that attempts at uniformity (such as the “Mao” suit of China) prove short lived as even “unisex” (of my youth in the 1970s) soon is applied in ways that make obvious the difference(so many with gorgeous long hair also sported beards and moustache). In short one doesn’t have to look hard to see the powerful push to very clearly signal the “difference” between human males and females.
I’m writing this having seen a trailer for “love island” and of course there is no doubt at all which are the females and males!
One of the few things the French got right – vive la difference.