Monday, November 24, 2014

The Silence That Damages Us All

I was really lucky to have a group of close, male friends through my childhood. We all went to the same primary school, and most of us went to the same secondary college. We played basketball together, shared the same taste in awful nineties dance music, drank our first beers together, and spent most of our spare time just hanging out. I'd often have them round at my place, and my mother would regularly embarrass me by pointing out what good taste I had in friends. My family loved them. And I did too.

"So, did you give it to her?"
"Didn't you hear? He stuck it in her ass mate!"
"Get fucked, really?"
"Oh, she was such a dirty fat bitch. Took me forever to find the fucking thing before I finally got it in. Punished the shit out of her."

Everybody laughs.

I was around 22, and we had all caught up for some drinks in the city. This is my last, lingering memory of those friends.

These days I wonder less about what made me uncomfortable about that conversation, and much more about why I just laughed along, drank my beer and didn't say anything.

There are no rules for men engaging with one another. And yet, there are so many. So many unspoken codes - no-go zones and taboos. Saying something at that moment would have almost certainly meant my resignation from the group. My objections would have either been met with a long, awkward silence - or me being labelled 'soft', 'a femmo' or 'PC' - and either way, that would have been the end of it. No one wants to have beers with a guy who's going to rain on their pussy parade.

These are the same boys I went to primary school with.

Somewhere along the way, men learn to limit their interactions with each other to a narrow spectrum of designated topics. We are constantly looking to each other for acceptable behaviours – ways we can ‘be men’ which meet the approval of other men. When we occasionally dip our toes in the water and show some emotion or vulnerability, we get called on it. Our mates give us shit. We get called pussies. Soft. On our rags. We get laughed at and told to suck it up.

In most cases, the language that reminds us of our masculinity is gendered - and denegrating to women. It paints women as vulnerable and frail, and reminds men of their need for stiocism and testicles. It tells us that women are weak, and we have to be better than that. Every time this happens, we learn more and more that exhibiting 'feminine' qualities is something to be avoided. At all costs.

(Courtesy Jeff Perera: The Ladder of Manhood)

In a classic piece of stand-up comedy, Jerry Seinfeld comments "That's why we're honkin' car horns, yelling from construction sites. These are the best ideas we've had so far. Why do men behave in these ways? Why are we rude, obnoxious, getting drunk, falling down, peeling rubber, making kissing noises out the window? Why are we like this?"

Seinfeld's material is met with laughter and applause, but beneath his comments, there's a much more serious question: what options have we given ourselves to express our masculinity?

If being a man is avoiding ‘feminine’ qualities at all costs, what sort of challenge have we set ourselves?

Let's think for a moment about what we have decided is feminine: expressing feelings, showing emotions, being vulnerable - speaking openly about anxiety, depression, or any other challenges we might be facing. Talking plainly about care and concern for each other. We've filed all these behaviours under 'female.'

And what does that leave us with? What avenues are available to men if we need to talk about any of these issues? Can we open at the pub, on the sporting field or at work? Do we feel comfortable letting our guard down around other men?

Or does that little voice in our head tell us to suck it up and grow a pair – my mates probably won’t understand, and they’ll just give me shit.

Be strong. Don’t be a princess. Get off your rags.

Almost 2000 men commit suicide each year in Australia. That's over five men taking their own lives every day, just in this country alone. Comparatively, around 500 women commit suicide in Australia each year. A little over one per day. Whilst any form of self harm or suicide poses questions about our society, why men? Why are we killing ourselves at four times the rate of women?

If, as men, we have taken behaviours we perceive as ‘feminine’ off the table, what options does that leave us with when we need to reach out?

November 25th marks International Day for The Elimination of Violence Against Women. A solemn reminder that one women will be killed by her partner or ex partner every week in Australia. That one in three women will experience violence at the hands of men in their lifetime. Of course, men experience violence too – but over 90% of that violence will be at the hands of another man.

When feminists and female leaders try to challenge male attitudes, they are routinely met with the response: "Not all men. I'm not like that."

The hashtag #notallmen has taken off online in recent years, as an attempt to remind us that not all men have damaging attitudes towards women. Not all men are rapists, not all men are violent. Not all men hold misogynistic views.

I have a serious problem with this statement. And it goes to the heart of the problem facing masculinity as it currently exists.

We have created a situation where all the 'good men' among us can relax, because it's #notallmen. “I treat women really well, so this doesn't apply to me.”

Meanwhile, those of us who are violent, controlling or abusive have never been engaged to begin with.

'Good men' don't need to hear the message, and the men who do aren't listening.

These issues of what it means to be a man, our attitudes towards women, and the current rates of domestic violence are closely connected. Studies have found that rigid gender roles - our current definitions of masculinity and its relation to women - are a leading cause of violence against women. (Hattery, A., Smith, E. (2012). The Social Dynamics of Family Violence)

Thinking back to that evening in the city, I can't help but wonder if the '22 year-old me' needs to stand up in the middle of that conversation and say something. To challenge my friends when they simultaneously brag about - and insult - the women they are sleeping with. To start conversations that fall outside the 'safe zones' of male interaction.

Our masculinity does not have to be proven by the cars we drive, or how we drive them. It’s not about the sports we follow, or the women we have sex with. Being a man doesn’t have to be defined by our avoidance of 'feminine' behaviour. When other men pay us out or call us women, we need to challenge these statements, rather than allowing them to limit and define us.

The rules that we men have made for ourselves are hurting us in ways we don't fully understand, and hurting women in ways that are very well documented. Women should not live in fear of men, just as men should not live in fear of each other. Whether it's the fear of ridicule, the fear of shame, or the fear of violence. We have to be better than this.

We owe it to the 52 women who will die at the hands of a male partner or ex-partner this year, and the one in three women who will experience domestic violence at the hands of a man in their lifetime. We owe it to the 2000 men who will take their own lives in this year alone, and the countless number of men who experience violence at the hands of another man, each and every year.

Good men stand up and have conversations with other men that are difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. Our current definition of masculinity is the problem that ties all of these issues together. It is a problem for women - and the problem for men.

Recently, Gavin McInnes, founder of Vice Magazine was asked about his thoughts on feminism. He responded by saying “Women are feigning that toughness. They’re feigning toughness and they’re miserable.”

I couldn't help but think he was talking about men.

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