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A shed of one's own

We need to be more open about issues facing men.

New Statesman
Sisterhood: this "pink Zumbathon party" was held to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. London, October 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

We need to talk about men and we don’t do so. Quite often, because of the cultures of both modern men and women, it’s because we can’t.

Even to suggest that there are issues among men that might need talking through is a minor heresy: being a white male is like playing a computer game on “easy mode” – men are the patriarchy. Not only do we sail easily into the elite, with great jobs and pay, we’re also responsible for a huge number of problems faced by other groups.

For some men, all of the above is true. Looking at the very top of society, you could imagine it was the case for huge numbers. But it's not the case for everyone: millions of men are losing out and their situation is getting steadily worse each year. And all too often, it’s happening below the radar.

Despite the focus on the real and severe impact of the UK’s austerity measures on women, men were more likely to be unemployed before the downturn and still are.

Men are more likely than women to be the victims of violence and far more likely to be in jail. Year after year, boys’ school attainment falls behind that of girls, as does their chances of getting into university.

It goes further. There is still a pay gap between the genders for those under 30 – but men are lagging behind women. Given what’s happening in education, this could sustain and even worsen in the coming decades.

Are these problems the fault of women, or feminism? Of course not. Do they mean that it’s time for women (and men) to stop fighting for social justice, access to abortions, an end to domestic and sexual violence and more? No.

But why should the problems of one group only be addressed and discussed if they are caused by another? We certainly don’t do so for race: black-on-black violence is recognised as the genuine social problem it is and efforts are made to tackle it. Similarly, few suggest that the staggering level of black youth unemployment – in excess of 50 per cent for men – is simply down to racism. It’s far more complex than that.

So it is with many of the challenges facing modern feminists and the problems faced by many men. The pay gap for women over 30 is now far more about access to childcare – an issue that surely could unite men and women – and choice of profession and primary care-giver, rather than outright prejudice.

Right now, too much of the conversation around what’s going on with men is left to people who’d either prefer to go back to 1950 or who think feminism’s battles are won.

But if we will take the time to acknowledge complex issues for women, why not for men? The game need not be zero-sum: things that benefit men need not come at the cost of women, nor vice versa.

Our uneasiness about bloke talk has wider problems. Take cancer as an example. Breast cancer killed 11,556 UK women in 2009, while prostate cancer killed nearly as many men (10,382). But despite their broadly similar mortality rates, breast cancer receives nearly three times as much site-specific research funding as prostate cancer.

The reason for this is a positive one: the "sisterhood" is a positive image and one used to fundraise aggressively for an excellent cause. Women’s-only fundraisers and races are increasingly common – not just for cancer but for other causes.

Being a strong and successful woman might still be loaded with a huge amount of baggage around appearance and more that men don’t have to face but it’s almost unquestionably a positive image.

Seeing a group of strong men as part of a "brotherhood" is not nearly such a positive image, reeking of conspiracy and cabal. Any club or society that only admits men is (possibly rightly) pilloried.

Success as a man is for many of us loaded with the guilt that comes from having it easy – and talk about male culture too quickly slides into chauvinism.

It’s a confusing welter of mixed signals that leads to no decent sense of male culture and male identity – something that is surely a contributing factor to the problems set out above.

The “battle of the sexes” is a cliché with a lot to answer for. It’s a fake battle that we should all be tired of fighting. Surely allowing for room to think about and discuss men, masculinity and what’s going wrong with it is legitimate. If it led to creative thinking or solutions to violence, imprisonment or low attainment, men would certainly not be the only beneficiaries.

Give men a bit of space to think, to discuss, to write – a shed of one’s own, as it were – and we might all come out better off.

James Ball is a journalist for the Guardian