Male Psychology Conference, UCL, 24th & 25th June 2016
Martin Seager opened the conference, setting the scene by referring to the universal narrative of toxic masculinity, the lack of recognition of male disadvantages, and how feminism creates a paradigm about gender in which no room is left for male suffering. The toxicity, Martin opined, was in society’s view of masculinity, not in masculinity itself. Unfortunately, too many of the speakers have not yet caught up with this message. But the value of the event lies in providing a forum for making such views more acceptable, and – frankly – beginning to undermine learnt prejudices.
First up was Kate Holloway reporting on a survey of psychological therapists’ perceptions of gendered treatment preferences. Kate was the first of several speakers to claim that men are less likely to seek help. Are we sure this is true? I noted only one supporting reference, from 2003. The survey question, “how do you think men’s help seeking behaviour could be improved” seemed rather loaded to me. Kate was also the first of several speakers to summarise gendered expectations of therapy in the pithy “men want a quick fix, women want to explore”. It rings true. It was the therapists who were surveyed, not their clients. A typical response was that, in the therapists’ opinion, masculine culturalisation, e.g., stoicism, was much to blame for men’s difficulties. The view was prevalent amongst the therapists that gender is a social construct and that being “raised as masculine” is a major source of men’s psychological problems. But the message I took away is that the therapists’ own culturalisation might be the bigger problem.
In the context of the high male suicide rate, Lina Skora & Oliver Payne reported on a survey of men reacting to posters designed to advertise men’s help lines. Which might be more effective at encouraging men to seek help? A preference towards “goal oriented problem solving” was noted. Does this mean “real help” rather than just talking? Oops, I think I’ve exposed my preference.
Jenny Young talked about male carers, specifically for cancer sufferers. The public tend not to think of men in the caring role, but actually 42% of carers are men (Jenny told us, and its a figure I’ve seen before), and 38% in the case of cancer. Jenny suggested that men find it particularly difficult being a carer because the role is seen as effeminate. Really? But surely the psychology of caring – at least caring for a female – is essentially the same as resource provision, isn’t it? I can believe that men might find acquiring the practical skills necessary in caring to be a problem, but then so would anyone. Jenny also said that men find it harder than women to access support in their caring role, and that men find it difficult to adjust to a caring role “due to socially constructed gender expectations“. But expectations in the minds of whom, I wonder – the men themselves or a society which provides less support to them? Most distressingly Jenny concluded (and I could not see on what this was based) that “men may adopt a gendered style of caring associated with hegemonic masculinity“. Increasingly the phrase “hegemonic masculinity” is being used inappropriately. Let’s remind ourselves that hegemony is imperious dominance enforced by actual or threatened imposition of physical force. For God’s sake, is this an appropriate way to refer to a carer?
Mark Brooks presented an abridged version of his GEN talk, a video of which can be found here.
Next up was the great man himself, Warren Farrell. This was to be the first of three sessions by Warren, each of which had a workshop element to them. For simplicity I’ll run all three together. To any MRA the contents of Warren’s talks would be very familiar. There was nothing dramatically new. It was rather like going to see an old rock band perform their extensive back catalogue. You’ve heard it all before, but nevertheless it’s just what you want to heard again – but this time delivered live by the man himself. I’ll summarise some of the key messages below. Whilst it’s all very familiar to me, I must keep reminding myself that, many people in the audience – including many of the speakers – will never have heard the men’s movement perspective before. This is, in truth, where the value of the conference lies – not in my attendance. Here’s an inadequate summary of Warren’s key points (but in my paraphrasing – except where you will recognise well known Farrell quotes),
- Being the disposable sex is bad, but when one’s very sense of purpose is invested in disposability, that’s inimical to real equality;
- The inculcation in men of the desire to be a hero is actually a social bribe;
- Men are required to always show strength – which carries as a corollary the suppression of emotion which would be taken as a sign of weakness;
- Women are human beings; men are human doings;
- If women are sex objects, then men are success objects. (In both cases, I would add, the sex in question conspires fully with the role);
- Women have options in terms of work-life balance (working full time, part time or not at all). Men have no option. The obligation on men to work full time is presented as an aspect of male dominance but is actually a disempowerment;
- The earnings gap is actually discrimination against men;
- There was a workshop session on attendees’ experience of their fathers and what motivated them, and another on ‘housework’ and the areas where men contribute more;
- Warren spoke at some length about partner violence. He reminded us that it was generally not gendered, and in some cases predominantly female perpetrated (e.g., dating violence). He referred to the partner homicide data indicating more women victims, but argued that male victims were often hidden due to the perpetration being carried out vicariously by a boyfriend or hired man. (Can we be sure that this is common – there is no data?);
- On the boy crisis, Warren reminded us that, in the past, survival depended upon society’s willingness to let males die. So compassion for males is deselected by evolution. The boy crisis, then, is permitted to occur because no one cares much;
- Farrell’s view of boys’ educational failure is that fatherlessness is the main root cause. He also saw fatherlessness as the key driver of the ever burgeoning prison population;
- Loss of the male role / purposelessness: to me this is the main issue. Warren’s opinion is that fatherhood is the role which will reinvent a sense of purpose for men. I believe this view will be shared by Nathanson and Young in the final volume of their epic sequence on misandry. How the trend of distancing fathers from their children is to be reversed is a mystery to me. And, even if it were, it’s not clear to me it could be enough. I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate on this issue, but the conclusion would be bleak. I find it hard to see how the Nathanson and Young criteria for a healthy group identity, namely being necessary and distinctive, can be achieved by men in a world in which women can do anything a man can do – perhaps with one hand tied behind their backs (thanks, Hilary);
- And then Warren tell us that boys’ IQ has dropped 15 points since the 1970s (really? that’s huge – did I mishear that?);
- Then there’s video game addiction, the gender puberty gap, differential maturation rates affecting school performance, teacher bias – being marked down for being a boy, ADHD, porn and the self-fulfilling narrative of “girls rule, boys drool”;
- Warren offers us ‘postponed gratification’ as a strategy to encourage success. I don’t disagree, but everything is predicated on having a sense of purpose;
- Apparently ISIL recruits are disproportionately fatherless. That’s a new one on me;
- The feminist theory of patriarchy has spuriously legitimised focusing concern on women;
- The theory of patriarchy makes it impossible for male suffering to be recognised. Hence a healthy future for masculinity requires this key feminist notion to be ditched.
Jennie Cummings showed us a clip from High Noon. It baffles me why exactly. The main thing I take from westerns and war films of that era is the number of men who die but whose deaths are treated as unimportant because they are not Gary Cooper or Cary Grant. There were several of these in the High Noon clip we were shown (admittedly baddies, so their deaths were doubly unimportant). Why did Jennie Cummings find it necessary to allude to the killing of Jo Cox? Ostensibly because it “demonstrated how violence is impacting on our lives“. Really? But in the ten days since she was killed, statistically about 15 other people will have been killed by homicide in the UK. I can’t recall when an MP was murdered previously, but many thousands, probably tens of thousands, of people in the UK will have been homicide victims in the intervening period. Yet I have managed to live for 62 years without violence ever impacting on my life. It is those in the lowest socioeconomic groups who are impacted, and it isn’t the deaths of MPs that does the impacting. The killing of Jo Cox was appalling but it tells us nothing about “how violence is impacting on our lives”.
Ben Hine essentially did a repeat of his talk on male victims of violence at the conference last year, but with some added data. The changes were: fewer people now think that violence against males is humorous, and, there are now some information posters appearing alerting the public to PV against men. Two years ago there were none. So, progress.
Ashley Fallon talked on the experience of male forensic patients. The message was gendered rehabilitation provisions for men are trailing behind those for women.
Marvin Westwood gave a gripping account of his work with traumatised veterans in Canada, including dramatic reconstructions as a key part of the therapy. He quoted there being 18 veteran suicides in the USA per day. I think one needs to be very cautious about that figure. One of the messages here was the need to be culturally sensitive – including when the culture in question is the highly macho culture of an army veteran. Part of the issue is that no serviceman ever wants to see a psychiatrist: it’s taken as an admission of being broken. The claim was of a high level of success in “unfucking their shit”. I did wonder what services our veterans receive.
Kevin Wright talked about gender differences in coping strategies for managing stress. He found that men experienced significantly more workplace stress than women, and full time workers experienced more stress than part time workers. The main result, I think, was that, although both genders made initial improvements, by various strategies, by the time the six month follow-up was carried out, men’s gains had disappeared.
Louise Liddon gave an account of an internet survey being carried out to determine what types of therapies people of specified gender would prefer. Some 189 respondents so far (twice as many women as men).
Catherine Buchan reported on a study of naturally occurring psychological change, whilst Laura Middleton told us about a study focussed around a ‘gender script’ theory of suicidality. The report was preliminary. The question was asked – what about correlation of suicide with divorce and custody battles? No one has hard data, of course, because no one has done the research (have they?) – but everyone has a suspicion the correlation is large. Are we dancing around the elephant in the room? Laura noted that unmarried, childless men were more likely to suicide. The male provider role appears to protect men from suicide to some extent. (I note that this does rather imply that the loss of this role after divorce might be expected to correlate with suicide). Warren Farrell made a point here, stating that male suicide results from the combination of four things: no one loved him; no one needs him; there is no hope of it changing; there is no one he can talk to about it without loosing respect.
Gijsbert Stoet gave an excellent talk on the underperformance of boys in education. I’ll not repeat the statistics – you can find them on this site. He noted that the problem starts pre-school, even at age five there is a clear gap in both literacy and numeracy. One possible cause is that mothers talk more to their girl children than to their sons. Apparently even girls raised by under-educated mothers develop verbal skills in advance of boys raised by well-educated mothers. Gijsbert reiterated many of the points made by Warren Farrell in regard to the boy crisis – and also noted that boys just don’t do their homework! He was not convinced that male teachers, or single sex education, would necessarily improve boys performance. He cited Saudi Arabia as a counter-example (strict segregation, but the gender gap in favour of girls is even greater than here). His talk culminated in a ten point Action Plan to improve education outcomes. Unfortunately I failed to note them all down, but five were prohibitions, including “no video games, no mobile, no tablet”. As I recall, none of the advice was specific to boys. I did wonder how parents were going to enforce these rules outside a boot camp environment. I did offer the view that actually only one thing is needed – namely to make educational success something that boys really desired. If passing exams gave as much cred as prowess at football or guitar playing, nothing further would be needed. But at present, especially for poorer boys, being too good at school work is actively avoided.
Rico Fischer presented a meta-analysis of studies on visuospatial cognition, namely mental rotation of objects. There was absolutely clear and emphatic evidence for boys’ superiority at 3D rotation. In 2D the difference showed in some tests but not all, though there was still a male superiority overall. Neither age nor the imposition of time limits changed this conclusion. This sex difference emerges in childhood suggesting it is biological. Rico ended on the contentious suggestion that perhaps, if cognitive abilities are biologically skewed according to gender, we should change the nature of our educational system.
Two papers on the timetable were not presented: one on male survivors of child sex abuse and one on ‘Men’s Sheds’. Pity, I would like to have heard both of them.
Belinda Brown presented data from surveys of south London secondary schools (130 girls, 271 boys, aged around 13). The data indicated a clear positive relation between pupils who reported valuing family life (wanting to marry, wanting to have children) and having a positive attitude towards school. The percentages wanting to marry and/or have children were quite high – which surprised me – but there was a large component of ethnic minorities in the sample, who might be expected to have more traditional views. Belinda made a number of observations, firstly that male unemployment is related to single parenthood. She noted that the impact of single parenthood is greater on boys’ non-cognitive development than on girls’. Also, in single parent families, a son misses out on his father making the world of work, and indeed male endeavour generally, relevant to family life. So we abandon the male provider role at our peril. Belinda emphasised the difference between the middle classes and the working class as regards the plight of fatherhood. For the middle class there are factors which compensate for the lack of recognition of the provider role, namely job satisfaction itself and involvement in parenting. But for the working class man, the loss of status from the provider role may leave a man with nothing.
Belinda used anthropological allusions to draw attention to perhaps the most important fact in gender. It is also the least widely appreciated – namely that men always struggled to match women’s magical powers to give birth and nurture children. The male provider role – call it patriarchy if you must – acted as an effective ‘equaliser’ when allied with legal rights in fatherhood to compensate for men’s biological disadvantage. And the male womb within which we all live – the modern technological world – was a damned good effort by men to compensate for their biological lack. Unfortunately it would seem that the technological womb was merely the product of male privilege – unlike women’s biological womb, which isn’t a privilege at all, apparently.