"Masculinity in crisis" cannot justify killing your family

Maybe it will be clearer in hindsight, but this murderous defence of privilege is shocking.

“Masculinity in crisis” is one of those rag-bag phrases that’s ended up meaning everything and nothing: GCSE results, Fight Club, rape culture, Homer Simpson, UniLAD, househusbands, Page Three, adverts for washing powder, female primary teachers, testicular cancer, single mothers, Rod Liddle, Fathers4Justice, depression, suicide, Diane Abbott, Family Guy… need I go on? It’s a phrase few people like. Men are patronised by it, laden as it is with double-edged pity. Women feel insulted by it, and pressured to apologise for advantages they do not have. And yet it’s a phrase that won’t go away. Masculinity is perpetually “in crisis”. Meanwhile, although we never get there, women are always assumed to be on the up. 

A study into “family annihilation” conducted by Birmingham City University criminologists has gone so far as to link our current “crisis in masculinity” to fathers murdering their own children. Quoted in the Guardian, project leader Professor David Wilson describes a pattern whereby “some men are unable to come to terms with different and developing notions of the institution of the family, where women increasingly play a much more dynamic role than they had in the past”. I don’t suspect Wilson of ulterior motives in saying this, nor do I feel he is making excuses for the 59 men studied by his team. All the same, I find the reporting of his conclusions shocking, particularly in the direct use of the “masculinity in crisis” phrase. 

If family annihilation is truly a reflection of such a crisis what should be our response? Is it meaningful to cling even more desperately to the tragic tale of manhood in decline, tossing glimmers of false hope in amongst all the resentment we thereby create, or should we be questioning the crisis itself? In granting validity to the story, regardless of whether we’re discussing Malteser adverts, family courts or slit throats, aren’t we making it a foregone conclusion that however privileged you are, you will notice only the things that aren’t yours any more?

I think if we were discussing something that happened a century ago we’d feel a greater sense of horror. Had middle-class men of the early twentieth century been murdering their children in order to punish disloyal wives, or due to feeling undermined by women getting the vote, we’d find the phrase “masculinity in crisis” somewhat weak as a description. We’d recognise that this is not simply a situation in which something has been done to privileged men, leaving them unable to cope in a brave new world. We’d see, writ large, the hatefulness of the power relationships such men were seeking to preserve. We’d find it monstrous. And yet the modern-day “masculinity in crisis” narrative has eased itself in so slowly, and so subtly, that it feels self-evident for a certain type of man to mourn the loss of a golden age that never was. It feels wrong to intrude on their grief, even when we’re feeding a myth that, in its worst manifestations, risks validating a murderous sense of ownership. 

Privilege takes many forms. White, cis, heterosexual, middle-class women such as myself have advantages that millions of men haven’t. Yet sexism and misogyny are real, and it strikes me that women sometimes have most to fear from men who will feel any loss of power, real or perceived, most keenly. The Birmingham City University team found that most family annihilators “were employed, including policemen or soldiers, and were not previously known to the criminal justice system”. The “masculinity in crisis” thesis so often leads back to those men who have been able to benefit from being born male, and hence have more to lose. The male columnists who claim to speak on behalf of “the little man”, so harshly put-upon in our post-feminist age, are rarely little men themselves. 

If it is true that the journey is often better than the destination, then perhaps the slow, incremental gains that women make mark them out as privileged in a different way. We are the winners because we’re seen to be in the process of winning. Being an actual winner is, of course, profoundly dissatisfying. It doesn’t feel like victory. It just feels the way things should be, and the “masculinity in crisis” story pretends that it is. The “masculinity in crisis” story positions men as losers. It short-circuits attempts to understand gender relationships in ways that are not based on possession and loss. Women and men, and their children, deserve better than this.

A police line. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.