Last week saw the publication online of the interactive resource ‘Being a boy’, which I had a hand in developing. The resource can be found on OpenLearn, the Open University’s free learning site, whose stated aim is to ‘break down barriers to education by reaching millions of learners each year, through free educational resources.’ Those resources provide bite-sized learning experiences which offer a taster for The Open University’s main programme of courses and qualifications, while also being complete in themselves. They also constitute a channel for showcasing the university’s research and making it accessible to a broad audience. I’ve contributed to the development of a number of these resources during my time with the university, a full list of which you can find here.
‘Being a boy’ is the third in a series of interactive learning resources on the topic of men and masculinity that we’ve developed over the past year. The ideas for the series originated with colleagues in the OpenLearn team, and it was our faculty media fellow at the time, Mathijs Lucassen, who suggested me for the role of academic consultant on the project. The way the process works is that the designated academic sketches out some content ideas, based on their own and others’ research, and the OpenLearn team then organises that content into a basic structure for the interactive resource. In the case of the masculinity series, we decided to begin each episode with a brief animation, followed by an interactive quiz, and then some pages summarising key research on issues related to the topic. The media company Damn Fine Media was commissioned to develop the animations, for which I wrote the scripts, which were then voiced by the actor Sanjeev Kohli.
Sanjeev Kohli (via imdb.com)
The first resource in the series, titled ‘What makes a good father?’ , was launched to coincide with Fathers’ Day in 2022. The animation posed a series of questions about where shared notions of fatherhood come from, while the quiz asked learners to select what they thought were the key characteristics of a good father, the feedback suggesting how these reflected traditional or modern views of fatherhood. There were no ‘right’ answers to the quiz: the aim was to encourage people to think about how ideas about fathers’ roles have changed over time and how they vary between cultures. The web pages that followed the quiz focused on three key issues surrounding contemporary fatherhood: absent fathers, young dads, and identity and loss, each of them drawing either on research we’ve conducted at The Open University, or on prominent studies from elsewhere.
The second resource in the series, ‘What does it mean, to be a man?’ appeared earlier this year and took a broader focus, exploring changing and diverse notions of masculinity. Once again, the animation posed a number of questions, while the interactive quiz asked learners to select the characteristics they associated with being a ‘real’ man, the feedback indicating whether the qualities selected reflected traditional, modern, or even ‘toxic’ notions of masculinity. Despite the controversy that often surrounds the latter term, I was keen to tackle it head-on and to suggest that, although masculinity is not in itself ‘toxic’ (a common misunderstanding of the term), my own research, particularly with young men, suggests that some aspects of male identity can be harmful to women, and indeed to men themselves. Building on this, the topic pages that followed explored men’s mental health and wellbeing, men’s attitudes to gender equality, and the difficult issue of men, abuse and violence, again drawing on recent research in which I’ve been involved, as well as other landmark studies of these topics.
‘Being a boy’ is the third and final resource in the series, the animation taking as its starting-point the media rhetoric around the so-called ‘problem’ of boys. This time the quiz was slightly different, being a test of learners’ knowledge of some of the key facts about boys’ experiences of issues such as education, health, violence and family relationships. The three linked topic pages that followed focussed on boys and education; role models; and boys, sexism and gender equality. This time, I made more use of work by other researchers and writers, including Richard Reeves’ important book Of Boys and Men, which I wrote about in this post.
This latest resource is the one I’m happiest with. It took me a while to get used to the novel way of working that producing this kind of interactive resource entails. I was worried to begin with about the danger of simplifying the findings from research, or giving the impression that there are straightforward answers to the questions we were posing. I also became more confident, as time went on, about suggesting improvements, or highlighting things with which I wasn’t completely happy. Looking back on the first two episodes in the series, I’d certainly want to do a number of things differently now. In the case of ‘Boys will be boys’, I think we got the tone about right and mostly resisted falling into simplistic representations of the issues. Even so, at least one Twitter user has already responded critically to the animation, suggesting that it denies the important role that fathers play in boys’ lives: in fact, the video simply poses the question as to whether positive male role models are essential for boys’ wellbeing. The purpose, once again, is to encourage learners to challenge their own thinking and to consider all the evidence before making up their minds.
Despite my concerns about over-simplification, I believe that interactive resources of this kind can play a useful role, opening up bodies of knowledge and ways of understanding to those who are usually denied access to them, encouraging people to reflect critically on their own beliefs and why they hold them, at the same time hopefully promoting a more nuanced and informed debate about contentious issues such as masculinity, identity and equality.
With my Open University colleagues Kerry Jones and Sam Murphy, I recently carried out a study of the experiences of men who joined football teams for fathers who have lost a child through stillbirth or neonatal death. Supported by SANDS, the UK’s leading neonatal death charity, a number of ‘SANDS United‘ teams have sprung up across the UK in the past five years or so. Key features of these initiatives have been that they are organised by bereaved fathers themselves; that they offer men an opportunity to honour their children’s memory, for example through displaying their names on their football shirts; and that they provide fathers with different avenues for finding support and for sharing their stories with others who have had similar experiences, for example through touchline conversations, social events and WhatsApp groups. You can watch a video (with specially-composed music by Lewis Capaldi) about Rob Allen, who founded the first SANDS United team in Northampton in 2017, here.
As a researcher interested in fatherhood, masculinity and care, I was particularly keen to explore how this kind of shared physical and social activity could provide a way of reaching men who find conventional forms of support and talk-based therapies either inaccessible or inappropriate to their needs. We know that many fathers are deterred from seeking help by social expectations that men should respond to bereavement by being stoical and resilient and getting on with life, while others have been conditioned to see a man’s primary role in such circumstances as being to support his partner, rather than acknowledging his own feelings of grief. I was also intrigued by the men’s need, repeatedly emphasised in the interviews we carried out, to have their children’s brief existence acknowledged by others and to hear their children’s names spoken: to me, this also reflected a broader need to have their own identities as fathers affirmed, when the pressure from the wider society is often to forget, and to move on.
Earlier today, I gave a presentation on the initial findings from our study to the Children, Young People and Families Research Group at The Open University, and I’ve attached my Powerpoint slides from the presentation below:
Kerry, Sam and I are planning to publish our findings in a chapter in the book that Kerry and I are editing on men and loss, which is due out next year, as well as disseminating our research through journal articles, blogs and podcasts. With our colleague Alison Davies, we’ve already published a scoping review of existing research on men and perinatal loss, highlighting the need for further work to understand men’s distinctive experiences of bereavement and their specific needs for support.
Jones, K., Robb, M., Murphy, S. and Davies, A. (2019) ‘New understandings of fathers’ experiences of grief and loss following stillbirth and neonatal death: a scoping review’, Midwifery, 79, pp. 102531–102531
Jones, K. and Robb, M. (eds.) (forthcoming, 2024) Men and Loss: Masculinity, Bereavement and Grief (working title), London: Routledge
I’ve recorded a video tutorial for Sage Research Methods, on ‘researching sensitive issues with men’. The video is now live on the Sage website. You’ll need to subscribe to watch the whole thing, which lasts about 20 minutes, but you can view a brief preview, and get a sense of the main issues covered by the video, here. I’m waiting for Sage to send me a longer clip that I can post as a taster.
Sage Research Methods is a website run by the academic publisher of the same name, aiming to support research by providing material to guide users through every step of the research process. As the website states:
Nearly everyone at a university is involved in research, from students learning how to conduct research to faculty conducting research for publication to librarians delivering research skills training and doing research on the efficacy of library services. Sage Research Methods has the answer for each of these user groups, from a quick dictionary definition, a case study example from a researcher in the field, a downloadable teaching dataset, a full-text title from the Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences series, or a video tutorial showing research in action.
[The article] reflects on my personal experience, as a male researcher, of discussing gender identity and relationships with young male participants. Using examples from two of the research studies in which I’ve been involved, the article argues that the nature of masculine identities, and the way that masculinity ‘works’ in the research process, mean that research with young men on issues of this kind is always inherently sensitive and brings with it considerable challenges for researchers.
Adopting a psychosocial approach to issues of gender identity, and to conceptualising the research process, I also contend that it’s important to understand the research encounter as an intersubjective process in which the identities of both researcher and researched influence each other in dynamic though often hidden ways. The article discusses these challenges in detail and makes some practical suggestions as to how researchers might respond to them.
I drew on some of this material in my video tutorial for Sage, though I widened the scope to discuss research with men generally, rather than just young men.
Screenshot via methods.sagepub.com
The process of recording the video was interesting. At the time (June 2022), Sage were still working mostly online and asked me to record the video at home, rather than in the studio. This entailed sending me some simple recording equipment and, on the day, connecting with me online to provide instructions. I had to record the video on my phone and then send a copy to the Sage recording engineers, who checked it for sound and vision quality. We had to do a few ‘takes’: as you’ll see if you watch the final product, I found it difficult to simultaneously refer to my approved script (I’m not capable of doing a twenty-minute recorded talk from memory – at least, not one that will be viewed potentially by hundreds of people) and at the same time maintain eye contact with an imagined viewer.
I think the final product is OK. I hope the video will be useful to other researchers who are thinking about exploring sensitive issues of gender, identity and relationships, with men.
One of the main findings of my research with men who care, whether as ‘hands on’ fathers or paid care workers, has been that an early experience of caring for others can be instrumental in the development of a capacity to care. As I wrote in my book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities, ‘the actual experience of caring for another person can be transformative for boys and men, with early opportunities to care for family members often contributing to a decision to work in the care field’. And in an earlier post on this blog, I noted: ‘In my research with men who care professionally for children, I’ve often been struck by the influence of childhood or teenage experiences on their decision as adults to engage in care work. In many cases, it seems to have been an early experience of caring for a child – babysitting younger siblings, for example, or being offered a work experience placement in a nursery – that was a key influence in their later choice of career.’ In the same post, I commented that these experiences are still comparatively rare for most boys, and I wondered whether ‘if more boys were involved in hands on care for others from an early age there [would] be more men coming forward to work in the caring professions, or more fathers willing and capable of taking a full and equal role in the care of their young children?’
Image via proudtocarehull.co.uk
With this in mind, I was interested this week to read a new article by Leah Libresco Sargeant (see this post), in which she proposes that teenage boys should be encouraged to care for the elderly. Sargeant approaches the subject at a slightly different angle from me, prompted initially by a concern about a growing divide between the generations:
There’s a deep poverty in age-segregated societies. It is especially pronounced in high school and college, when teens and twenty-somethings are often siloed off from older people, even those in their own families.
She notes that ‘one of the most delightful ways to shatter age silos’ to emerge in recent years has been the practice of co-locating nursery schools with nursing homes, of which there are a growing number of examples. As Sargeant comments: ‘Both seniors and toddlers move unsteadily through a world built for the capacities of able-bodied adults. Both ages are more willing to sit in contemplation while the “productive” world hurries by.’ You can read about the first such intergenerational facility in the UK here, and get an insight into its daily practice by watching this inspirational video.
Sargeant’s proposal is that this initiative in crossing the generational divide should be extended to involve teenage boys in caring for the elderly:
More elder care should be taken on by teenaged boys. Aging seniors often need physical support, which may go beyond what their adult children and caretakers can provide. Teen boys need to be needed, and they need examples of how they can grow into someone that others can depend on.
Sargeant’s argument is motivated perhaps less by a desire to develop boys’ capacity to care and more by the need to find an outlet for young male energy, which she portrays in what some might think is a mildly stereotypical manner:
For teen boys, adolescence is a time of growing into strength without necessarily knowing what to do with it. Team sports are a way to blow off energy and grow into brotherhood; shop class can be a way to learn to make a mark on the world. But it’s hard for young men to get experience with the other purpose of their strength — to be a support to someone weaker than themselves.
Personally speaking, team sports were never my thing – I was more likely to ‘blow off energy’ and bond with friends through rock music – and as for ‘shop class’, which those of us who grew up in the UK knew as woodwork and metalwork, it was the bane of my school years, just as my wife now looks back with horror on her compulsory ‘domestic science’ classes. However, Sargeant’s general point is well taken.
Sargeant is closer to my own concern with the development of boys’ capacity to care, when she suggests that an early experience of caring for younger children can help young men to acquire the skills and aptitudes that they will one day need as fathers:
Teen boys are less likely than girls to sign up as babysitters, and even less likely to be hired. When a young man takes an interest in children, he’s more often met with suspicion than with praise for his desire to develop the virtues he’ll need as a father.
As I wrote in my earlier post on this topic, since care is a fundamentally embodied practice, then as well as encouraging boys to think that caring is something they might like to do, and be capable of, these early experience of ‘hands-on’ caring can actually develop what I described as ‘an early bodily habituation to care’ – a ‘muscle memory’ for caring, if you like. However, in addition, Sargeant is surely also right to view caring for others as an important part of boys’ moral education as future men:
Caring for the weak is good formation for young males who hope to grow up to be depended on as men. It gives them a chance to take pride in their distinctive, masculine gifts, while also seeing that they receive these gifts in order to offer them to others.
Men and women have both been unsexed in the name of equality. The injustice done to women is more blatant…But for men, there’s also been an unsexing. A man who is just told not to abandon his child has not been called to the fullness of fatherhood. The emphasis on breadwinning similarly reduces a father to a generic parent (or worse, a mere payroll deposit).
A woman’s motherhood is more starkly physical; a baby’s demands during gestation and nursing are undeniable (despite our culture’s efforts to escape them). For men to participate in a sex-realist, pro-family movement, we have to articulate what is distinctive about men and their capacity for fatherhood.
In my own experience, the Bradley approach to labor and childbirth was profoundly engaged with dignity in asymmetry. Only I could labor to bring our daughters into the world, but my husband was no passive observer (and he certainly wasn’t out in the lounge with cigars). I depended on him more than our midwives or our doula—to take my weight during contractions, to speak for me during consults for interventions, and to be prepared to hold our baby first when I was immobilized by a c-section.
I look for that model of complementary strengths and dependencies outside of the labor and delivery ward. Mothers and fathers both need space outside of being generic “workers” to give themselves to their families and communities in their own distinctive ways.
One of the many good things about the new online journal Fairer Disputations (see this post)is that, as well as publishing innovative content on the emerging new (or sex-realist) feminism, it also aggregates relevant articles from a wide range of sources, some of them from a while ago, making it possible to catch up with interesting pieces that you may have missed when they were first published. Recently, the site linked to a 2016 article which somehow passed me by when it first appeared, by Erika Bachiochi, author of the much-praised book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, which I’ve mentioned in a number of posts on this blog.
Erika Bachiochi (via americamagazine.org)
Bachiochi’s article, entitled ‘Embodied Caregiving’, is basically a critical dialogue with Eva Feder Kittay’s 1999 book Love’s Labour: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, a key text in feminist care ethics. I really liked the article, as it manages to articulate, more coherently than I’ve been able to, some of the ambivalence that I’ve felt for some time about what Bachiochi calls ‘care feminism’. I should say that Kittay’s book is one that I’ve always found enormously sympathetic, and for me she is one of the more appealing feminist writers on care, her writing obviously deeply influenced by her personal experience of caring for a profoundly disabled daughter. As I noted in a post a couple of years ago, Kittay’s emphasis on the inescapability of relationships of dependency, and her critique of a view of human experience that privileges autonomy over interdependence, shares much in common with the thinking of Alasdair MacIntyre, and indeed with that of Bachiochi herself and other ‘new’ feminists. I was privileged to hear Eva Kittay speak at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon, in 2018.
However, while noting these synergies, and praising the work done by Kittay and other ‘care feminists’ to ‘shift the feminist paradigm from a vision of sexual equality that prizes autonomy above all toward a view that embraces human vulnerability and ennobles caregiving’, Bachiochi argues that Kittay’s ethic of care ‘ultimately falls short’. One way in which it does this, in Bachiochi’s opinion, is by its support for abortion, which she sees as in tension with Kittay’s emphasis on mothers’ ‘special duty to nurture and protect the vulnerable unborn child’, a moral claim that ‘arises….out of a relationship between one in need and one who is situated to meet the need’. Bachiochi maintains that a ‘pro-choice position’, though ‘common among feminists…runs counter to the logic of Kittay’s argument’. She adds: ‘The affirmative duty of care that arises from the special relationship between pregnant mother and dependent child remains among the strongest arguments against the abortion issue’. Bachiochi, of course, like a number (but by no means all) of the authors associated with Fairer Disputations, is unequivocally pro-life, holding that a belief in a consistent ethic of life is by no means at odds with a commitment to feminism: indeed her book, by revisiting the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other pioneering feminists, seeks to show that early feminism was also resolutely anti-abortion. I share Bachiochi’s perspective: I remember being brought up sharp by a conference presentation from another prominent feminist care ethicist, who presented the rolling back of abortion ‘rights’ in the United States as a sign of contemporary society’s lack of ‘care’. I wondered: did an ethic of care not extend to the vulnerable unborn child? However, I should say that I’ve always admired Eva Feder Kittay’s willingness – by no means shared by all who hold her views – to debate with those who see things differently. See, for example, this online symposium to which she contributed, organised by Feminists Choosing Life of New York, in which Erika Bachiochi also participated.
Eva Feder Kittay speaking at the ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ conference, Portland, Oregon, 27th September 2018 (author’s photo)
Another of Bachiochi’s criticisms of Kittay’s book, and by extension of feminist care ethics more generally, also resonated strongly with me. Bachiochi perceives Kittay’s underlying discomfort with the private nature of care and her preference for state provision. In Bachiochi’s words: ‘The optimal situation, for her, is a “public provider”, the state. She envisions government compensating those whose work is the care of dependents’. I have to say that I don’t remember detecting this emphasis quite so strongly in Kittay’s writing as in the work of some other feminist care ethicists, such as Joan Tronto, for example. The latter’s book Caring Democracy, while making the completely plausible case that contemporary western societies have marginalised care, and that care should be foregrounded in public policy, leaps from that to an implicit assumption that this means the state stepping in as the care provider of choice. It was partly my frustration with this tendency in the writings of feminist care ethicists, and a desire to explore a viable alternative, that sparked my interest in writing something about care ethics from a personalist perspective (a work that is still in progress!), one that starts from the primacy of the relationships of care and dependence into which we are all thrown and believes that public policy should support those relationships rather than try to substitute for them.
Underlying both of these criticisms of Kittay’s work by Bachiochi is her argument that the former – in common with many other feminist writers on care – pays insufficient attention to human embodiment, and specifically to embodied sex differences, which leads to a tendency in her writing to, in Bachiochi’s phrase, ‘degender care work’. So, a third area of critique in Bachiochi’s article centres on what she sees as Kittay’s ‘failure to appreciate sexual difference and the distinct contribution of fathers’. This is where Bachiochi’s article moves into an area of debate that is close to my own research interests, and speaks to my own growing dissatisfaction with arguments for men’s role in care, whether familial or professional, which assume that men’s and women’s care is identical and which overlook embodied differences. And it speaks to my continuing quest to find a way of articulating those differences in a way that does not resort to outdated stereotypes or undermine the struggle for equality between the sexes. Bachiochi is explicitly critical of the argument, proposed by Kittay and other feminist writers on care, that men’s and women’s roles within families, and specifically in their care for children, are interchangeable:
[Kittay] argues that women’s disproportionate role in caregiving is a socially constructed feature of a still prevailing patriarchy. Care work is so critical to a humane society that men ought to undertake it as well. To promote this tendency, she uses the term mother to denote any proper caregiver regardless of the person’s sex. Men, too, can be mothers.
As Bachiochi sees it, the problem with this ‘is that recent findings contradict the claim that caregiving by women is born of social construction alone’ and show that ‘given the choice, women choose to give care at rates far higher than men do.’ By contrast, Bachiochi seeks to redignify motherhood:
After all, as vulnerable and dependent human beings, we enter the world inside of our mothers. Our fragile bodies develop within their protective bodies. They provide complete nourishment until we emerge from our mothers’ wombs and for several months thereafter. Efforts to degender mothering devalue this role, which is enjoyed by women alone. No other caregiving in the common course of human experience better manifests the reality of human dependency and the proper human response.
Kittay sees no differentiated role for fathers. If men are going to be involved with dependents (which they ought to be), then they should take over some of the caregiving work traditionally performed by women. Women can then participate in the workplace more freely, and men may enjoy the benefits and burdens of caregiving. Men and women can and should alternate caregiver and provider roles. There is no reason why we should think of a form of paternal care as distinct from maternal care. It follows that two women or two men can raise a child just as well as the child’s mother and father can. So long as a provider offers the caregiver the support needed, the sex of the provider and caregiver is irrelevant.
In following this line of argument, Bachiochi believes that Kittay is undermining her emphasis elsewhere on the embodied nature of human experience, and of care in particular:
Just as she has a diminished view of women that ignores the role of their bodies in relation to their children, she also has an anemic view of men and their bodies, reducing them to quasi-mothers. In her desire to ensure cultural respect, protection, and adequate provision for caregiving and caregivers alike—and her praiseworthy view that men, too, can care for dependents—Kittay forgets the premise from which she began. In so doing, she trivializes that crucial time of pregnancy and childbearing that epitomizes a woman’s care and dependency, and she disregards entirely the unique relation of fathers to their children.
So how does Bachiochi counter this? As a ‘sex realist’ feminist, how does her view of fathers’ role differ from this ‘degendered’ perspective? She adduces research evidence that men’s active engagement in fathering is good for children, for mothers, for men themselves, and for society in general:
A child wants her mother and father, not two interchangeable individuals playing degendered roles. The same holds for men and women. In fact, for men the paternal role can be especially transforming. When fathers take seriously their paternal duties, all of society benefits.
But what does Bachioci think those paternal duties are? She argues that ‘men’s contributions as fathers are less biological and immediate’ than those of women as mothers, ‘though just as needed by their children, as well as their children’s mothers.’ She writes about ‘the unique contributions men make in the lives of their own children.’ Bachiochi cites a catalogue of problems that she maintains arise for children, and especially boys, as a result of father absence. Conversely, she quotes research that fathers’ involvement in family life is good for mothers too: ‘Moreover, the leading determinant of a mother’s happiness is the father’s commitment to and emotional investment in her well-being and that of their children.’ This is a riposte to those, like Richard Reeves in his recent book Of Boys andMen(see my last post), who argue that women’s new-found autonomy from men is unequivocally a good thing and that trying to revive marriage as a societal ideal is a lost cause.
‘The leading determinant of a mother’s happiness is the father’s commitment to and emotional investment in her well-being and that of their children’.
(image via pew research.org)
But what does Bachiochi think a father’s specifically male ‘emotional investment’ looks like, and how exactly does it benefit children? She continues:
A father cannot … be a mere stand-in mother, sharing an androgynous caregiving role. But neither should he serve only as a support for the mother. Children whose fathers are attentive and present in their lives have better educational outcomes overall. Fathers seem to be a determining factor in the emotional and social well-being of their children. Children with caring fathers in intact marriages enjoy more security, more confidence in exploring the world, a greater ability to deal with school stresses, and better social connections with peers. Children with attentive fathers are more patient than children with fathers who are less attentive. Fathers tend to engage their infants and preschoolers in stimulating, rough-and-tumble play, and researchers think this is one reason why the children of attentive fathers more effectively regulate their feelings and behavior. Girls whose fathers like being with them and their mother experience the benefits of delayed sexual development and delayed sexual experience. Boys with attentive fathers have better impulse control and pro-social behavior, and so have far lower crime rates. And fathers tend to encourage children to do things for themselves at a young age, which helps their competence and confidence later in life. While children who grow up in single-parent or adoptive families can show impressive resilience—and many flourish throughout their lives—researchers from the Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution confirm that children enjoy the best likelihood of positive outcomes when they have a loving relationship with both of their biological parents.
While I agree with much of this, I was a little disappointed to see Bachiochi falling back on what, to me, is a stereotypical view of fathers, and male carers, as engaging primarily in ‘rough-and-tumble’ play. I know plenty of emotionally and practically engaged fathers – including myself, when our children were young – for whom this does not ring true. Then there is Bachiochi’s emphasis on what she terms the father’s ‘relative distance’ from the child:
The embodied human condition, differentiated as it is by sexual dimorphism, offers clues for the care of children that we cannot ignore. If the mother’s initial embodied immediacy with the child influences her custodial care for the child’s physical and emotional needs, the father’s relative distance from the child plays an essential part, too. The father’s attention and affection, uniquely offered to his child, gives the young child the assurance he needs to separate from the mother’s embrace and progress toward independence. The custodial care the mother offers the infant child enables the child’s needs to be met promptly and responsively; the father’s care enables the child to move out into the world with confidence. Both are needed for the child’s development.
If what she’s describing here is simply the biological fact that men are not intimately involved in pregnancy and birth, then that’s fine. But if ‘distance’ means more than this, it risks denying the closeness experienced by many fathers who are equal carers, or in some cases the primary carer, for their child. And what if it’s equally, or even mainly, the mother who is moving ‘out into the world’ as the family breadwinner?
Later in the article, there’s another paragraph that seems to resort to stereotypes about male aggression that aren’t particularly helpful, and again don’t resonate with my own experience and that of many of the men I know:
A full culture of care…demands that men turn their penchant for conquest—a masculine tendency that, when undisciplined, gives way to gangs, gamers, and worse—inward to conquer their passions for the good of their families… Fatherhood curbs instincts of aggression. A culture of care encourages men to give of themselves for the good of their wives and children.
This is quite a negative take on masculinity, I’d suggest. Yes, of course, most people would accept that there’s something distinctive about masculine energy that’s different from feminine energy. But do we have to define the former in such negative terms, as something to be ‘curbed’ or transformed into care? Can’t men also have an innate instinct for care, even if it plays out in differently embodied ways?
I’m a huge admirer of Erika Bachiochi’s writing (as I am, for different reasons, of Eva Feder Kittay’s) and believe her article is a thoughtful contribution to continuing debates about gender, embodiment and care. Even if I don’t agree with some of her specific conclusions, it’s certainly prompted me to question my own thinking, and for that I’m grateful. Finally, I completely endorse the sentiments expressed in the closing paragraph of Bachiochi’s article:
Kittay is right to advocate greater support and provision for caregiving. But universal provisions for caregivers will not bring about authentic sexual equality—even if greater public provision should be made—because sexual equality will never be fully realized at the hands of the state. Rather, it is found in a mutual appreciation of sexual difference, an affirmation of moral duties that arise out of sexual asymmetry, and a deep and abiding trust that the one truly wills the good of the other.
Richard Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, but he describes himself as a ‘transplanted Brit’. Before moving to the States, he was director of the think-tank Demos, then director of strategy for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg during his tenure as deputy prime minister. In an earlier phase of his career, Reeves was a journalist on The Guardian and The Observer. However, Of Boys and Men is a very American book, not just in the sense that most of its research evidence and many of its policy examples are drawn from the U.S. context, but also because it exemplifies a certain kind of American popular academic text, one that tends to assault the reader with a fusillard of statistics, interspersed with folksy anecdotes from personal experience, and culminating in compelling policy prescriptions, all delivered with a breathless sense of urgency, giving the impression that this is the most important issue of the moment.
Having said that, I believe that Reeves’ book is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate about the state of boys and men. It sets out very clearly some of the key ways in which boys and men are currently struggling in many western societies, in terms of education, employment, their roles in relation to women and children, and in their general emotional wellbeing. And I think the underlying ambition of the book – to demonstrate that, in the author’s words, ‘one can be both passionate about women’s rights and at the same time compassionate towards vulnerable boys and men’ – is a worthy one, and I’m completely behind his quest to develop what he calls ‘a positive vision of masculinity for a post-feminist world’. Reeves is to be applauded, too, for challenging the tendency to overlook the impact of biological differences on male and female experiences, for example in relation to education. I also think that some of his policy prescriptions are certainly worth considering, such as his suggestion that boys should start school a year later than girls, as well as his support for a more direct role for fathers in the care of children, and his general encouragement for more men to enter the caring professions.
Richard Reeves (via Twitter)
Reeves is very much a man of the centre-left and his own ideological assumptions occasionally show through: annoyingly, especially for those on the Eurosceptic Left, he lumps Brexit together with the election of Donald Trump as examples of right-wing populism supposedly fuelled by white male anger. He also dismisses conservative – and sex-realist feminist – fears about the rise of radical gender identity ideology, on the grounds that it only affects a few people, because ‘at least 99% [of the population] are cis’ (his use of that term perhaps betraying his own bias). However, as other reviewers have pointed out, this is surely to miss the point: it’s not the numbers involved that are the main concern, so much as the impact of the ideology, and the disproportionate influence of a small activist class, in threatening the hard-won rights of women.
However, these quibbles aside, one of the things I like about Reeves’ book is his willingness to be equally critical of progressives and conservatives when it comes to attitudes towards, and policies affecting, men and boys. In fact, reading his chapters on ‘progressive blindness’ and right-wing dreams of ‘turning the clock back’, reminded me (if I may make an immodest comparison) of my own analysis of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of both progressive and conservative thinking, in my recent book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Identities and Experiences (if you’ll forgive the shameless plug).
In his critique of leftist myopia, Reeves takes issue with, among other things, the use of the term ‘toxic masculinity’, arguing that ‘masculinity is not a pathology’ and that suggesting that it is can have a negative effect on the self-perceptions of boys and young men. But I think that here Reeves falls into the error committed by certain sections of the popular press: that is, assuming that the term ‘toxic masculinity’ implies that masculinity as such is ‘toxic’. That’s not the sense in which I understand the term, which is rather that certain kinds of masculinity are decidedly negative in their impact, not only on women, but on men themselves. I remember, at a conference in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, listening to two male ex-offenders performing a rap poem with the title ‘Toxic Masculinity’, which blamed the form of masculine identity in which they had been raised – centred on violence and misogyny – for landing them in prison. They weren’t criticising or rejecting masculinity as such, far from it, but rather a certain twisted and harmful form of male identity.
Noah Schultz and Stephen Fowler performing their poem ‘Toxic Masculinity’ at the ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ conference, Portland, Oregon, September 2018 (author’s photo)
I’ve written elsewhere, with my co-researchers, about how some of the marginalised young men we interviewed for our studies were enabled to exchange the ‘reckless’ masculinity that had got them into various kinds of trouble, for a ‘responsible’ masculinity that helped them to move forward with their lives, the transformation often helped by becoming fathers, or by the intervention of support workers who had themselves walked the same path. What we need here, and what I feel Reeves’ book lacks, is Raewyn Connell’s sense – which has been so influential in academic studies of men and masculinity but hasn’t perhaps filtered out enough into the wider culture – that masculinities are plural and diverse. So, it’s perfectly possible and legitimate to hold that some kinds of masculinity are harmful, without suggesting that masculinity is ‘toxic’ per se.
There’s perhaps a connection between this problem and the tangle I believe Reeves gets into in his critique of what he sees as ‘individualist’ explanations of problems faced by men, together with his insistence that what is needed is a structural explanation and response. But the instances he gives of supposedly individualist explanations don’t quite work. He offers the following examples:
If men are depressed, it’s because they won’t express their feelings. If they get sick, it is because they won’t go to the doctor. If they fail at school, it is because they lack commitment. If they die early, it is because they drink and smoke too much and eat the wrong things. For those on the political Left, then, victim-blaming is permitted when it comes to men.
But this is to run together a number of very different kinds of things. To say that men find it difficult to express their feelings, or tend to be reluctant to visit a doctor, is not to blame individual men. When academics make these claims, based on their empirical research, they – we – are not blaming or stigmatizing individual men. Rather, the argument is that these inhibitions arise precisely out of deep-rooted structural causes – i.e. the dominance of conventional social expectations around ‘being a man’ with which some groups of men are still imbued. As for the third example cited here by Reeves – that boys’ educational failure is due to their laziness– that’s a very different kind of thing and not something one hears much in debates around why boys are falling behind in school. Nor does one often come across the argument that men have poorer health outcomes because of individual lifestyle choices, unless these are the result of the loneliness and depression which, some would argue, are themselves the result of social expectations around masculinity which leave many men bereft of real friendships.
Despite the space devoted in the book to education and employment, Reeves finally puts most emphasis, in his search for a way forward for men, on a new role for fathers: ‘a reinvention of fatherhood based on a more direct relationship to children is the answer’. I’m completely behind Reeves’ vision here, but I think he makes a couple of missteps in arguing for it. Firstly, I believe he underestimates the extent to which fatherhood has changed in the past few decades, and I think he strikes too negative a note in saying that ‘fatherhood remains stuck in the past’. Perhaps he does this for effect, but I don’t think it reflects the enormous changes that have taken place, if only or mainly at the level of ideas. A key finding of my own research around fatherhood, going back to the early 2000s, is that, certainly at the rhetorical level, and at least in the UK, the ideal of the ‘good father’ has changed dramatically, and that both men and women now assume that a good dad will be closely involved in the day-to-day care of his children. Conversely, a man who doesn’t pull his weight with the children, and around the home generally, is now widely thought of as a ‘bad’ or inadequate father.
The second misstep that I believe Reeves makes in his argument for a closer involvement of fathers in their children’s lives is a more significant one. Reeves accepts the feminist critique of traditional marriage, with its inbuilt inequality, and argues that one of the major gains of feminism has been lessening women’s dependence on men and increasing their personal autonomy. Although he believes that, traditionally, marriage had the advantage of binding ‘men to women, and thereby to children’, he argues that in an age of gender equality, reviving marriage as an aspiration for the majority of the population is ‘an unrealistic expectation’. He continues: ‘Rather than looking in the rearview mirror, we need to establish a new basis for fatherhood, one that embraces the huge progress we have made towards gender equality’. However, disappointingly, he assumes that equality can and should be built on the autonomy and independence of the sexes, rather than on the basis of more equal relationships between them. Although Reeves’ policy suggestions for encouraging greater father involvement – such as non-transferable paternity leave and father-friendly workplaces – are admirable, I find something rather depressing about his statement that ‘these policies are intended to support the development of a new model of fatherhood, suited to a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads’. But surely all the evidence points to a committed, stable relationship between a mother and a father being good, not only for children – but for the wellbeing of the parents too, and especially mothers. Rather than seeing men’s presence as necessarily a constraint on autonomy, it’s possible to see it as creating a partnership – especially around caring for children – which actually facilitates women’s greater equality – and wellbeing.
When talking about fatherhood, you cite data to demonstrate that the quality of a child’s relationship with the father is more important than the physical presence of the father in the home. You then argue that one way to cure this modern male malaise is to restore and elevate fatherhood. That all sounds good, as far as it goes. But you then turn around and do the exact opposite thing with women.
In the past, we had this vision of the role of the husband and father that centered on financial provision and physical protection. With children, you said, “Okay, maybe they don’t need that any more, but they still need something else.” But with women you say, “Okay, they don’t need that anymore. Women can provide for themselves, and therefore, women just don’t need men at all any more.” So it sort of seems like the gist of your argument is, “We can just move on from marriage, accepting that feminism and the sexual revolution are here to stay in their totality. It’s not like we can say there are good parts and bad parts. We have to just accept them wholesale and then do what we can about the consequences.”
I contrast that with the vision that Erika Bachiochi sets out in her book on Mary Wollstonecraft: a feminism that rejects this ideal of unbridled autonomy and sees rights as being linked to duties. She’s totally on board with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom you both cite, in terms of looking at individuals’ unique capacities, nondiscrimination law, encouraging men to be caregivers, and all of these things. But her book elevates a vision of marriage and domestic life as something that should be bringing both men and women to greater virtue. They need each other, and their children need them, and that’s a good thing. It’s an interdependence model.
Whereas your book says, “Okay, well, we’ve accepted this idea of autonomy. Women are autonomous now. Don’t even try to get men and women back together. Instead, we should create a workaround so that men can just have a relationship straight with their children, and cut out the mother as middleman.” And I think that’s a mistake...
To me, this is a social justice issue. We have all of this nice-sounding rhetoric coming from the highly educated upper classes based on the tenets of sexual revolution—that we can uncouple sex and childbearing, that women should be totally independent, all these sorts of things. But the people who are hurt the most by the breakdown of the family over the past half century have been those at the bottom of the economic spectrum. I think devaluing marriage further is just doubling down on that inequality instead of solving that problem.
I tend to agree.
I was interested to read this review of Reeves’ book, by Nicole Penn in American Enterprise. Its two key criticisms of Reeves’ book are remarkably similar to my own. Similar to my own argument that Reeves misunderstands the term ‘toxic masculinity’ as pathologising masculinity per se, Penn contends that ‘Reeves minimizes the destructive effects of certain types of antisocial male behavior in his attempt to rein in progressives’ eagerness to blame men’s problems on “toxic masculinity.”’ She believes, as I do, that ‘it is possible to critique men without pathologizing them’. In taking issue with Reeves’ rejection of marriage, Penn uses language that is reminiscent of my own review. Where I suggested that Reeves had made a ‘misstep’ in this part of his argument, Penn writes that ‘Reeves fundamentally missteps’ in discussing marriage. Needless to say, I agree with her critique, as expressed here:
Coldly characterizing modern marriage as ‘a commitment device for shared investments of time and money in children,’ Reeves discounts the importance of forming men who (in cases of heterosexual unions) can sustain permanent bonds with the mothers of their children, and who are capable of seeing women as lifelong friends and fellow stewards of the small platoons that form society’s foundations.
I’ve been researching and writing about men, masculinity, and care for the past twenty years or so, beginning with small-scale studies of hands-on fathers and male nursery workers and leading eventually to major studies of young masculinities and caring relationships. Although the field of fatherhood studies has expanded enormously during that period and there have been a number of important recent studies of men as childcare workers, I believed there was an urgent need for a book that brought together these two topics and at the same time explored the underlying questions surrounding men’s role in caring for children more generally.
The book also grew out of my dissatisfaction with some of the ways in which the topic of men’s care for children is currently theorised, and a wish to move beyond existing orthodoxies to develop a perspective that was true to my own personal experience and to the findings from the research in which I’ve been involved. So the book represents my own search for a better understanding of issues that continue to be of concern to me as a parent and researcher and could be viewed as an ongoing debate with myself. The conclusions reached at the end of the book should be regarded as tentative, at best, and as work in progress, rather than anything resembling a final and definitive word on the subject.
Fairer Disputations is not just an online journal. It’s an international community of scholars, public intellectuals, journalists, and advocates. Our mission is to advance a new vision of feminism, one that is grounded in the basic fact that sex is real. Although the authors we feature do not all agree on every issue, they each make important contributions to the debate over how society should, in justice, accommodate the reality of sexual difference.
Fairer Disputations will advance that debate by aggregating both popular and scholarly writing, publishing our own original material, and creating an online community of new feminist voices.
The new journal’s roster of featured authors brings together faith-based and secular feminists from a wide range of backgrounds, and I was pleased to see that this eclecticism extends both to the articles linked to by the site and the list of recommended reading. There are clearly important differences of opinion among those who have attached their names to the project, but what they share is a dedication, in their words, ‘to defending a vision of female and male as embodied expressions of human personhood’. Although those involved are ‘united in an understanding that biological sex is real’, they plan to ‘publish an array of perspectives on how society ought properly to accommodate that reality.’
In a field that has too often been marked by labelling, cancelling and the shutting down of debate, let’s hope that FairerDisputations lives up to its name and creates a space where reasoned discussion about important issues of sex and gender can take place. And perhaps this development really is a sign that, in the words of the journal editors, ‘a new feminism is emerging.’
Some of the key names behind Fairer Disputations participated in a stimulating and informative online discussion earlier this week, as a way of launching their new venture. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube, or below:
Exactly four years ago I wrote a post on this blog, bemoaning the absence of fathers from television Christmas advertisements. After running through that year’s crop of ads, highlighting the invisibility of men in their sentimental seasonal narratives, I added the following reflection:
Of course, it could be argued that fathers are somewhat peripheral to the story of Christmas. When our children were young, we bought a set of Nativity figures to display in the fireplace at Christmas. When we unpacked them, we found that the set consisted of seven figures: Mary holding the baby Jesus, an angel, two shepherds and three kings – but no Joseph. It’s as though he’d been erased from the narrative – and I suppose some would say that the notion of a virgin birth makes a human father pretty redundant anyway.
Even when Joseph is present in representations of the Nativity, he’s often a peripheral figure, sitting or standing in the background and looking on while all the attention is focused on Mary and her newborn Child. You’d look in vain for images that present Joseph as a model for ‘hands on’ fathering.
So I was really pleased to come across this reproduction of a 15th century French icon, via Scott Hahn’s Facebook page. It shows Joseph caring for baby Jesus while Mary studies the Scriptures: a great example of caring fatherhood and equal parenting!
There’s now a direct link available to the animation that we produced, in partnership with Kong Studio, as part of the support material for the BBC / Open University documentary, ‘James Arthur – Out of Our Minds’ (see this post). I’ve also embedded a copy of the video at the end of this post. Entitled ‘Man Up or Open Up?’ the short video explores the topic of men’s mental and emotional wellbeing, and the ways in which men experiencing mental health issues can best be supported. You can read an account of how the animation was developed on the Kong Studio website .
In the UK, three times as many men as women die by suicide and men are nearly three times as likely to become dependent on alcohol and to indulge in frequent drug use, with men also reporting lower levels of life satisfaction than women. However, men are much less likely than women to seek professional help for mental health issues, with only around a third of referrals to the NHS for talking therapies coming from men.
Why is it that men are more likely to experience certain mental and emotional problems than women, and why are they less likely to seek help for those problems? One theory is that certain aspects of traditional masculinity are partly to blame, on the one hand contributing to the loneliness and absence of emotionally fulfilling relationships experienced by many men, and on the other hand creating a sense that asking for help is somehow ‘unmanly’. This theory certainly found some support in the study of young men, masculinity and wellbeing that we carried out in partnership with Promundo a few years ago (see this post), with participants claiming that if they had mental or emotional problems, they would prefer to ‘bottle it up and just get on with it’, rather than sharing their feelings with those close to them, or seeking professional help.
However, it has also been suggested that many conventional therapies are not well adapted to the needs of men. As the James Arthur programme demonstrated, with its excellent coverage of a football team set up to support men who had experienced mental health problems, initiatives that are focused on shared activity, and which build on men’s existing interests and passions, may have more success than those that involve sitting in a room, talking to a therapist or counsellor. This is also borne out by the research that my colleagues and I have undertaken recently with members of football teams set up by bereaves fathers (see this post). The work of Alright, Mate, which takes participatory arts projects into locations where men gather, in order to facilitate conversations about mental health, is another excellent example of this kind of development. You can hear Cally Hayes, the founder and director of Alright, Mate, talking about their work in the video.