No, I will not "grow a pair"

Men need to admit their vulnerability.

If there's one phrase I'd love to get rid of, it's "grow a pair". You hear it a lot nowadays, not just said by men to other men they wish would grow up, but even from men to women, or women to other women. "Grow a pair", they say, or "strap on a pair", as if a couple of testicles will solve all problems, like a pair of dangly amulets.

As most men know, growing a pair of balls, or having them drop, doesn't really change much at all. You remain pretty much the person you used to be, albeit with a slightly deeper voice. But still, in our culture and language, "balls" and "ballsy" mean courage or courageous; we talk of "cojones" or "having big balls" to mean audacity or power.

It's irritating nonsense, for several reasons. Courage isn't inherently a masculine quality, of course, but there's more to it than that. People often use the phrase "grow a pair" or "strap on a pair" as a way of belittling someone who has shown weakness, or vulnerability - someone who didn't show the requisite assertiveness that apparently lives in the testes.

As well as that, it reinforces the very worst stereotypes of the "man's man": the rush to confrontation, rather than negotiation; a certain headstrong or even bloody-minded quality; the idea of maleness as something that is aggressive, rather than collaborative.

For those of us men who are more team players than the all-conquering alphas we're supposed to aspire to be, it's a tiresome thing. Not all of us are meant to shout and bellow and fight our way to success; some of us prefer other ways of doing things. It's not through a lack of balls, but through a lack of unfeeling uber-competitiveness.

Must we still, in this new century, be talking of men as people who should be nasty, assertive, pushy, unpleasant, in order to be proper men? We're not all Gordon Ramsay (who has a fondness bordering on obsession for talk of "big bollocks" when upbraiding some poor cookery sap on television).

But there's something else, too. The real quality that testicles have is staring us in the face. Human males, unlike many other mammals, have external testicles, dangling merrily away from their undercarriage like a couple of lychees in an old leather purse.

This evolutionary quirk exposes the adult male to extremes of pain and suffering at a stroke. A well aimed kick from an attacker, or punch from a young child (children happen to be at the perfect height to connect with full force), and even the toughest man will be reduced to a quivering foetal position of helplessness. There are no words for the pain, which I am pretty sure is definitely entirely worse than childbirth (THIS IS A JOKE).

How humans could ever have believed that a benign (and in many cultures apparently male) creator decided to place a couple of pain grenades hanging invitingly down as they do is a question for anthropologists. What it means, though, is that men's testicles, far from being a centre of our strength, are our most visible sign of weakness.

Every year, dozens of men die because they decided to "strap on a pair" rather than admit their own weakness. Whether it's shrugging off a niggling illness or feeling unable to talk about mental health problems (young men are at far greater risk from suicide than women, for example), the things we've been told about what it is to be a man can be our own worst enemy. It's not weakness to admit you can't cope; it's strength.

If we can't get rid of the odious phrase "strap on a pair" perhaps it's time it should take on a new meaning. Because it is courageous to strap on a pair - to hang your vulnerability so obviously, to invite a kick in the balls. It's an aspect of masculinity that often gets overlooked, the quality of honesty, vulnerability, and gaining strength through admitting your weaknesses rather than glossing over them with displays of machismo.

So if someone asks me to strap on a pair, I'll take their advice: be more aware of shortcomings; realise how vulnerable we all are; remember that a fall from hubris is just a well-aimed punch in the nuts away. That's real courage, I think.

"Adam's leaf" underpants, invented in 2004, are supposed to keep the testicles ventilated and increase sexual potency. Photograph: Getty Images

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

All photos: India Bourke
Show Hide image

“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.