‘Of Boys and Men’

I first came across Richard Reeves’ writing on boys and men last year, via Bari Weiss’ excellent Honestly podcast, and then suddenly he seemed to be popping up everywhere, on media sites and all over social media, discussing his book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. I decided to get hold of a copy and find out why the book was attracting so much attention.

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. 

Serena Sigillito (via thepublicdiscourse.com)

This criticism of Reeves’ argument has been set out much more coherently in a fascinating dialogue between him and Serena Sigillito, editor of the new online journal Fairer Disputations, which I wrote about in this post. I’d recommend reading the whole of their conversation, but here’s an extract from Sigillito’s critique, focusing on precisely this issue of the relationship between fathers, mothers and children, which incidentally references Erika Bachiochi’s excellent recent book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, which I wrote about in an earlier post:

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.


The Child, Law and Policy Network has published an interview with me on their website, about my book Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities. Here’s a taster:

Q: What made you write this book?

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.

New book chapter on masculinity, faith and care

I’ve contributed a chapter to a new book on Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions, edited by Inge van Nistelrooij, Maureen Sander-Staudt and Maurice Hamington, and published by Peeters of Leuven.  

According to the publisher’s blurb, the book is ‘a collection of original essays that address the intersection between contemporary feminist care ethics and religious morality’ and it ‘engages theorists from various disciplines in discussing the continuities, discontinuities, and applications of feminist care ethics, spiritual traditions, and religion.’

The book consists of thirteen substantive chapters, divided into three sections, with contributions by authors from across Europe and North America, representing a variety of religious traditions. My own chapter – ‘”With Prayer from Your Loving Father”: Men, Masculinity, Faith and Care’ – is in the second section of the book, which explores issues of ‘embodiment, gender and family’. In the chapter, I use the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War as a springboard to discuss the ways in which, contrary to received opinion, certain forms of religious belief can motivate and inform a caring masculinity, and more broadly an ethic of care. (This is the second time I’ve drawn on these family letters in an academic publication: in my article for the special issue of Genealogy on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective’ that I edited in 2020, I used them as a resource for challenging popular assumptions about fathering practices in previous generations.) Here’s a description of my chapter from the book’s Introduction:

Because care ethics developed out of feminist analysis and was rooted in women’s traditionally under-valued experience, understandably, there has not been as much written about care and masculinity. This absence is changing as care ethics grows in popularity across a variety of disciplines. Martin Robb, who has written extensively about masculinity in the context of care, furthers this vital conversation in ‘”With Prayer from Your Loving Father”: Men, Masculinity, Faith and Care.’ The chapter begins on a personal note, with Robb sharing excerpts of letters from his great grandfather to his grandfather. He leverages these letters in the context of Christian Methodism to argue for a Christian masculinity compatible with care theory. In particular, Robb challenges the notion that Christian masculinity was handed down as a monolith. On the one hand, he acknowledges that one form of Christian manliness was reinforced as ‘neo-Spartan virility as exemplified by stoicism, hardiness, and endurance’ by Christian and quasi-Christian social institutions. However, that form of masculinity existed in tension with a narrative that Robb finds revealed in his great grandfather’s letters where ‘the emotional spirituality of Methodism offers him a language in which to openly express his love for his son’ as in closing his letters with kisses. Robb concludes with a note about the significance of imagination for care. Although the tendency is to address care theory in the rational and analytic tradition of Western academic theory, he contends there is a need for an ‘imaginative superstructure to inform and motivate care’ that religion can provide. 

The new book is published as open access. You can find more details, and download the whole book for free, here

The genesis of gender

In a recent post, I wrote about my growing dissatisfaction with aspects of mainstream feminism (and male pro-feminism), as my own religious and political beliefs have gone through a process of change. I mentioned my interest in the work of a number of writers and thinkers who are attempting to develop an alternative, faith-based feminism, one that acknowledges the gains made by the women’s movement in the past century or so, but at the same time is critical of some of the directions taken by recent feminist thought. In particular, I mentioned the work of Erika Bachiochi, whose important book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, published last year, makes a seminal contribution to this ongoing discussion, by recovering forgotten aspects of the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and other feminist pioneers. I also mentioned the work of Abigail Favale, recently appointed as a professor at the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame, whose book The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, was about to be published. I’ve now read Favale’s book and want to share a few thoughts about it, and extracts from it, in this post.

Favale’s book is very different to Bachiochi’s in a number of respects, and presents a contribution of rather a different kind to the development of an alternative feminism. Bachiochi is a legal scholar and a good deal of her focus is on developments in the law and public policy, whereas Favale has a background in the humanities and gender studies and is more concerned with offering a critique of aspects of contemporary feminist theory. In addition, while The Rights of Women is a more straightforwardly academic book, The Genesis of Gender, though grounded in a deep knowledge of academic theory, is aimed at a broader readership, and combines an extremely accessible analysis of ideas about gender with elements of the author’s personal story. It’s the story of a former teacher of gender studies, who was once a true believer in postmodern feminist theory, but whose conversion to Catholicism has led to a revaluation of those ideas, but by no means a complete disavowal of feminism.

A third difference is in the specific issues that each author chooses to foreground. Although her scope is much broader than this single issue, Bachiochi returns time and again to the vexed question of abortion. By contrast, although Favale does tackle the arguments surrounding abortion (particularly in the chapter entitled ‘Control’), she is primarily concerned to offer a critique of what she calls the ‘gender paradigm’ (and what others would describe as gender identity ideology) and its impact on the lives of women and children. A final important difference is that, whereas Bachiochi’s book, though clearly rooted in its author’s personal religious and ethical commitments, does not use explicitly religious arguments to make its case, Favale’s book, as evidenced by its subtitle, is clearly aimed at a predominantly Christian audience. In fact, the book’s aim could be said to be helping its Christian readers, who may have scant knowledge of or interest in the finer points of gender theory, understand current debates about gender identity – and at the same time presenting an alternative vision rooted in a deeply sacramental vision of the human person. 

Abigail Favale (via Twitter)

Having said that, The Genesis of Gender is something of a mixed bag of different kinds of writing, and there are certainly parts of it that a non-believing reader would find interesting and helpful. The book’s title has a double meaning and the text includes two very different origin stories. One, which will appeal mainly to readers who are believers, is a metaphorical reading of the creation of man and woman in the book of Genesis. In a sense, Favale is reprising here the account provided by Edith Stein in her essay on ‘The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman’, which is referenced in the book. I like the way that, in Favale’s feminist reading of the creation story, the ‘dynamic of domination’ of men over women, and the sexual objectification of women by men, are seen as a ‘distortion’, rather than as part of the original plan. And I especially like the way Favale draws out from this narrative a sense of the fundamental goodness of human embodiment and of the sexed body in particular:

Sexual differentiation is not a mishap, but cause for celebration and wonder. This difference is good, our bodies are good, and both of these are an integral part of the created order, which is good. The emergence of man and woman from the sleep of nonbeing is not a footnote in our origin story: it’s the ecstatic culmination. There is more, if we dig deeper still…the body reveals the person. Our bodies are the visible reality through which we manifest our hidden, inner life. Each person’s existence is entirely unrepeatable, and our unique personhood can only be made known to others through the frame of our embodiment.

William Blake, ‘Endearments of Adam and Eve’ (1808)

This emphasis on the body revealing the person will have implications, later in the book, for Favale’s argument about gender theory. The other origin story in the book is, in fact, an account of the development of contemporary ideas about gender. Although inflected with its author’s profoundly Christian perspective, there is much here that secular readers concerned about current confusions around gender will find helpful. In a way, Favale is providing a shorter, more accessible version of the extensive and more philosophically informed narrative developed by Kathleen Stock in Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, published last year (which I would also highly recommend).

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve always found Favale’s account of the development of gender theory, as articulated in her articles and interviews, both persuasive and easy to follow. She reprises that story here, particularly in the chapter headed ‘Waves’, which is a kind of potted history of feminist ideas, and in the chapters on ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’, which offer a step-by-step account of how thinking on these topics has developed, and how one has come to be increasingly separated from the other.

However, although she is critical of some of the recent directions taken by feminist theory, warning of ‘the danger of embracing feminism unthinkingly and letting it become a totalising worldview,’ Favale remains committed to the basic tenets of a feminist approach and believes ‘there is also a danger is dismissing feminism too hastily, because that leaves important concerns unaddressed’. As she writes:

Despite feminism’s conquest of the mainstream, girls and women are constantly bombarded with images that objectify and degrade them. Depression, anxiety and self-harm are sky rocketing among preteen girls. That same demographic is, in exponential numbers, deciding to reject womanhood altogether and embrace a male identity. The questions that feminism seeks to address are still vital and relevant, even if the answers feminism provides are often self-defeating.

To these issues she might have added continuing concerns about gender-based violence, concerns which sadly have been highlighted recently, here in the UK, by the shocking murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, what Favale is keen to do is point out some of the ways in which, in her view, feminism has been blown off course. She maintains that the complete separation of notions of gender from the body and biology in contemporary gender theory can be traced back to developments in second wave feminism: 

[T]he gender paradigm is the Oedipal offspring of feminism – offspring because it is through feminist theory that the concept of gender has taken hold of our imagination, and Oedipal because like Oedipus’ murder of his own father, this concept has eroded the very foundation of feminism, turning ‘woman’ into an identity that can be freely appropriated by men, regardless of material reality. 

Judith Butler (via en.wikipedia.org)

However, it is with the ‘postmodern turn’ taken by feminist theory in the past half century that, according to Favale, things really began to unravel, and as in her earlier writings on this topic, she pins particular blame on the influential work of the eminent gender theorist Judith Butler: or more precisely, on the ways in which some of Butler’s key ideas, such as her notion of gender as performance, have percolated into popular thinking:

In my years reading and teaching Butler’s writing, I have never seen a student correctly grasp the full implications of her argument. They latch onto those aspects that are intelligible and jibe with their own experiences, and on the basis of that minimal confirmation, embrace the rest wholesale. This creates a phenomenon of what I call ‘trickle-down gender theory’: the widespread popular acceptance of ideas that spring from a worldview that most people…would reject. Because that worldview is never clearly articulated, it is smuggled onboard unseen.

Elaborating on this claim, Favale argues that students tend to respond positively to Butler’s idea of gender performativity ‘because there is a sense in which it is true.’ She continues:

Most people have had the experience of playing up their masculinity or femininity in order to conform to sex stereotypes. There is certainly a basic arbitrariness to some of the visible signals of sexual differences in terms of hairstyles and clothing, which vary from culture to culture. There is a sense in which all of us perform, or enact and embody, our sexed identity.

However, Favale argues that students, and others who use Butler to reinforce their arguments about gender identity, tend to overlook the more radical implications of her ideas:

She’s saying that sexed identity is only a performance, that there is no ‘real’ woman or man underneath the various cultural expressions. The cultural expressions themselves are merely creating an illusion that men and women exist.

One of Favale’s key arguments is that, although Butler is in a sense the godmother of gender identity ideology, that ideology in fact represents a profound misreading or reversal of her central ideas:

Judith Butler’s theories have arguably shaped the gender paradigm, but those theories morph once they are swept into the capricious winds of popular culture. For example, Butler’s early work, particularly her hit concept of performativity, does not align with the transgender narrative of having a gendered essence that is in the wrong body…This is an essentialist narrative, one that cuts against Butler’s denial of gender having any essence at all.

Much of what follows in the book is a working through of the implications of this wrong turn in gender theory, illustrated by sensitive accounts of conversations with young people caught up in the web of the ‘gender paradigm’. In sharing these personal narratives, Favale is concerned not to judge or to condemn, but rather to empathise and understand. She sees in the gender confusion experienced by an increasing number of young people, and especially young women, an underlying desire for healing and wholeness. As she writes: ‘There’s a holy side to every longing.’

As well as highlighting the often devastating consequences on young lives of the ‘gender paradigm’, Favale is also concerned to critique it on an intellectual level, and particularly its reinstatement of the essentialism against which feminists once fought:

Both narrow-minded traditionalists and postmodern genderists fall prey to the same error: defining manhood and womanhood by stereotypical caricatures and policing those stereotypes, assessing how well individuals conform, or fail to conform, to a fantasized ideal.  Part of countering the gender paradigm must be a greater openness to the variability within the categories of man and woman.

In the later chapters of her book, Favale presents an alternative vision, one informed by a recognition, rooted in Christian personalism, of the unique value of each human person, and a sense of the profound unity of body and soul. It’s a vision which resonates with phenomenological insights into the ‘expressive body’ and the sense of the living body as an ‘expressive whole’, which I discussed in the previous post. I’ll end with a quotation from Favale which crystallises this vision:

Our consideration of sex and gender must be attuned to the holistic and sacred reality of the person – the person as an integrated unity of body and soul. We must follow a path of contemplation that sees the various dimensions of personhood in order to receive the miracle of each person. This is a path that moves toward integration, from disorder to wholeness. The postmodern approach to sex and gender runs in the opposite direction, into fragmentation, a piecemeal self, where body and psyche and desire are split off from one another and rearrangeable – where the body is not the foundation of personal identity, but rather its lifeless tool. In contrast, the personalist approach allows us to see each human being as a person, rather than a collection of ever-proliferating labels, and, more importantly, to attune our awareness to the sacramentality of every human body.

Amen to that.

Contract for a new book on men and loss

Back in January I wrote a post calling for expressions of interest in contributing to a new edited collection on men, bereavement and loss, which my Open University colleague Dr. Kerry Jones and I were planning. I’m pleased to report that we were overwhelmed with abstracts for possible chapters and were able to put together a robust book proposal to submit to interested publishers.

I’m also delighted to report that Kerry and I have now signed a contract with Routledge for delivering the book, with the provisional title Men and Loss: men, masculinity and bereavement, in 2023.

Dr Kerry Jones

As we argued in our proposal document, although bereavement and loss are unavoidable events in life and can be challenging experiences for anyone, regardless of sex or gender, in contemporary western cultures, men’s experience of bereavement continues to be framed by socially constructed ideas surrounding masculinity. Men who do not grieve in accepted ‘masculine’ ways can feel judged, alienated or disenfranchised. Men also tend to have fewer informal support networks than women, while formal bereavement support, in its focus on talking therapies, often fails to engage men or meet their needs. In addition, gendered social expectations may hinder men from expressing their feelings openly and from seeking help.

There are currently very few publications that explore men’s experience of bereavement in depth or discuss men’s specific needs for support following loss, and certainly no recent book-length texts on these topics. We argued that there is a need for a book which increases understanding of men’s experience of loss, drawing on recent research and cutting-edge ideas about bereavement on the one hand, and men and masculinities on the other, and at the same time contributing to improving support services to men following bereavement. The increasing focus, in policy and practice, on mental health issues affecting boys and men should also make this publication timely. We believe that our book will fill a definite gap in both the academic and professional literatures on bereavement, at the same time making a significant contribution to the literature on men, masculinities and wellbeing. We also believe it will have a significant appeal to researchers, educators and professionals working in a variety of fields.

Our interdisciplinary and interprofessional edited collection will bring together authors from a wide range of backgrounds in research, teaching and professional practice, many with personal experiences of loss that have informed their thinking and practice. As co-editors, Kerry and I combine academic expertise in teaching and research on end-of-life care, on the one hand, and men, masculinities and care on the other. Our contributors are drawn predominantly from the UK, but also from Europe, North America and the Middle East. The collection will include theoretical analysis, reports of research findings, reviews of support and interventions, and a wealth of personal accounts, with many chapters interweaving the person with the academic or professional. 

The book will be loosely structured, beginning with theoretical and research-based chapters, followed by personal accounts and ending with chapters that reflect on practice and consider the implications for supporting bereaved men. However, the considerable overlap between these different categories makes a strict division between discrete sections impossible. The forms of loss discussed will include partner loss, childhood bereavement, perinatal loss and bereavement through suicide, as well as bereavement at all stages of the life course. Although the primary focus is on the ways in which the experience of loss is framed by gender identity, a diversity of experience and practice in terms of social class, ethnicity, culture and geographical location will also be represented in the book. 

Image via sands.org.uk

I’ll post more details of the book on this blog, including names of authors and chapter titles, when we’re a little further along in the writing process. However, I can state definitively that one of the chapters will focus on the research that Kerry and I have been undertaking recently, with our colleague Sam Murphy, on the experiences of fathers who have lost a child in the perinatal period, and specifically those who have formed themselves into football teams, under the auspices of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity (SANDS), as a means of providing mutual support. We’ve now completed all the interviews for the study and have just begun the analysis phase: watch this space for further updates.

New book on sensitive research

The special issue of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology on sensitive research, to which I contributed an article, and which I wrote about in this post, has now been published as a book by Routledge (with a cover design startlingly similar to my own monograph on Men, masculinities and the care of children). More details can be found here.

My chapter is entitled ‘ “Men, we just deal with it differently”: researching sensitive issues with young men’, and it appears in Part 3 of the book, ‘The ideal sensitive researcher’: reflexivity, internalisation and the cost to self’ .

The book was edited by three of my colleagues from the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at The Open University – Erica Borgstrom, Sharon Mallon and Sam Murphy – and includes a truly diverse range of chapters which, taken together, interrogate the notion of what we mean by ‘sensitivity’ when it comes to academic research. As the promotional blurb puts it:

The term ‘sensitive research’ is applied to a wide range of issues and settings. It is used to denote projects that may involve risk to people, stigmatising topics, and/or require a degree of sensitivity on behalf of the researcher. Rather than take the notion of ‘sensitive research’ for granted, this collection unpacks and challenges what the term means.

This book is a collective endeavour to reflect on research practices around ‘sensitive research’, providing in-depth explorations about what this label means to different researchers, how it is done – including the need to be sensitive as a researcher – and what impacts this has on methods and knowledge creation.

The book includes chapters from researchers who have explored a diverse range of research topics, including sex and sexuality, death, abortion, and learning disabilities, from several disciplinary perspectives, including sociology, anthropology, health services research and interdisciplinary work. The researchers included here collectively argue that current approaches fail to adequately account for the complex mix of emotions, experiences, and ethical dilemmas at the heart of many ‘sensitive’ research encounters. Overall, this book moves the field of ‘sensitive research’ beyond the genericity of this label, showing ways in which researchers have in practice addressed the methodological threats that are triggered when we uncritically embark on ‘sensitive research’.

New book on men and loss

My Open University colleague Kerry Jones and I are developing a new edited collection on men, loss and bereavement. At this stage, we would be interested in hearing from prospective authors, who are invited to submit a 300-word abstract for a chapter (5,000 words) by 29th January 2022. We welcome contributions from all academic disciplines, as well as from those in professional practice and men with personal experience of bereavement. 

Image via yournewfoundation.com

This interdisciplinary collection seeks to examine a range of men’s experiences of loss as mediated by social and cultural representations and norms. With a focus on theoretical, practitioner and personal perspectives, the collection will examine some of the difficulties and challenges of representing men’s bereavement and how men are challenged by societal and cultural expectations of expression of grief. 

Death, dying and bereavement are unavoidable events in life and can be challenging experiences that prompt a whole range of social processes and practices.   In contemporary western cultures, socially constructed masculine ideals continue to dictate that men must be stoic following a loss, with grief manifesting in anger or despair. Since the expression of grief is highly gendered, it is also profoundly ‘policed’ and men who do not grieve in ways that embody socially assigned masculine traits can feel judged, alienated and disenfranchised. It can be deemed especially detrimental if men have fewer support networks than women and an experience of loss can be especially challenging without such support. Formal support has tended to focus on attracting women in the form of support groups and therapeutically. 

Due in part to the persistence of these gendered expectations, little research has been undertaken which explores men’s grief or indeed, examines some of the ways men navigate through loss and grief and how they mediate their identities after a loss.  It is hoped that this edited collection will contribute to improving understanding of men’s experiences of loss, and to improving services and support for men following bereavement. While the locus of much writing about loss and bereavement has hitherto been within the field of Death Studies, we intend that this collection will be interdisciplinary and invited contributions from all relevant academic and professional backgrounds and perspectives.

Possible topics may include but are not limited to:

  • A cultural and social understanding of men’s experience of loss
  • Models of grief and how they contribute/ don’t contribute to understanding men’s experiences of loss
  • Disenfranchised grief and stigma
  • Grief activism 
  • Grief in prison
  • Young men and grief
  • Grief in later life
  • Men’s experience of loss following – death/suicide of a spouse/ partner or friend, child, perinatal loss
  • Supporting men
  • Formal therapy
  • Informal support
  • Support through sport/activity
  • Online support

At this stage, we are exploring possibilities for publication of the book and have initial interest from a number of publishers. A full proposal will be submitted once chapter abstracts have been received and approved. Authors will be contacted by 31st March to confirm whether their chapter has been approved and will be kept and informed and updated throughout the process.

Please send abstracts, or any queries, to kerry.jones@open.ac.uk or martin.robb@open.ac.uk

The personal and the professional

My recent appearance on the ‘Now and Men’ podcast has prompted me to reflect further on the relationship between the personal and the professional. As I noted in the previous post, the most challenging part of the interview for me was when Sandy Ruxton and Stephen Burrell probed me about the connection between my beliefs about masculinity and gender equality, and my personal experience as a boy and a man. I think I found this difficult because, most of the time, we’re not consciously aware of the ways in which our life experience has shaped our thinking: perhaps it’s something that other people who know us can see more clearly than we can ourselves?

These further reflections have also been prompted by the recent publication of Sandy and Stephen’s own book, co-edited with others, on Men’s Activism to End Violence against Women: Voices from Spain, Sweden and the UK, which is based on interviews with men who are engaged in some way in combatting gender-based violence. You can hear Sandy and Stephen talking about the book’s contents in the post-interview part of the podcast. The emphasis of the book is very much on the relationship between personal experience and practical action, in this case in the cause of gender equality.

It’s a relationship that perhaps doesn’t attract enough academic attention. When Heather Montgomery, Rachel Thomson and I co-edited Critical Practice with Children and Young People, the core text for a module in the Open University’s Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies, we decided to dedicate the third and final section of the book to the personal context of practice. The section included chapters by a mixture of practitioners and academics, who provided often quite moving reflections on the complex, iterative connections between their personal lives and their professional practice. It included accounts of mothers becoming teachers (and vice versa), youth workers who were also committed feminists, and an academic in the field of educational inclusion who is also the father of a son with a learning disability. In my interview for the ‘Now and Men’ podcast, I spoke about how becoming a father was the main catalyst for my own academic interest in men’s care for children, and how thankful I was to be working in an academic department – the OU’s School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care – where this connection between personal experience and academic passion is not only allowed, but is actually quite normal, with colleagues’ ground-breaking research often motivated, at least in part, by their personal experience, or the experience of those close to them, of disability, discrimination, illness or loss.

Sandy Ruxton

However, my own recent ruminations have focused less on the influence of experiences of this kind and more on the ways in which personal relationships, and in particular friendships, have intertwined in often unexpected ways, in the development of my own career, first as a practitioner in community education and later as a university teacher and researcher. Sandy mentioned one example of this in the podcast, recalling that he and I first met some thirty-five years ago, when we worked together on an education project for ex-offenders in Basildon, Essex. I’ve written about this experience elsewhere, in a post on this blog about my work with offenders and in prisons. The Basildon job, managing a new scheme set up by NACRO, was my first full-time post after university, after a series of part-time teaching jobs in adult and further education. Sandy came to work for the project as course organiser and we worked together for a year or so, with our colleague Debbie Amas (now a social work lecturer at Anglia Ruskin), running classes and activities in community centres around the new town, before I went off to set up a similar scheme in Hackney. Sandy also eventually moved on to other jobs, and for a number of years our paths only crossed intermittently. 

Then, soon after I came to work at the OU, and I began to develop a research interest in the topic of men and care, I found myself at a seminar in London on ‘Men and their children’ and was surprised to see that Sandy, now working as a freelance researcher, was not only one of the organisers and key speakers, but had been involved in writing an important policy report on the topic. As far as I can recall, we’d never really spoken about masculinity or gender issues when working together in Basildon, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that our research interests had converged in this way.

It was an even bigger surprise when, browsing the Internet some time later, I came across an academic debate about men’s role in families between Sandy and another old friend of mine. Before going to work in community education, I’d been a postgraduate student at Manchester University. In my first year, I found myself living in the Moberly Tower, a rather grim block for postgraduates on the university campus. My neighbours on the top floor included two students who quickly became my close friends. Nigel Rapport, Keith Pringle and I had all been undergraduates at Cambridge, though at different times and different colleges, and we hadn’t known each other before arriving in Manchester. I was studying for a PhD in the Arts Faculty, and Nigel in Anthropology, while Keith, after a number of years working as a civil servant, was studying Social Administration with a view to switching to a career in social work. 

I kept in touch with both Nigel and Keith after our time in Manchester came to an end. Nigel took up a series of academic posts in Canada, before returning to the UK and eventually being appointed as Professor of Anthropology (now emeritus) at St Andrews. Keith practised as a social worker in his native North-East and, as already mentioned, I wound up organising education projects with socially disadvantaged groups and communities, first in Essex and later in London, Oxford and Milton Keynes. Then, about the time that I joined the OU, initially as a Lecturer in Community Education, Keith also made the transition to academic life, teaching social work at Middlesbrough University.

Keith Pringle

However, I wasn’t aware that Keith had also developed an academic interest in men and masculinities until I came across his discussion, in the pages of a journal, with Sandy. It was an odd experience to see two of my old friends, not only having research interests in the same area as me, but engaging in debate with each other. In time I would find myself quoting Keith in my own writings, commissioning him to write a chapter for an edited book, and inviting him to give a seminar at the OU, on one of his occasional visits to the UK from Sweden, where he had become a professor (now emeritus). None of this could have been predicted on the basis of our experience as fellow students in Manchester some decades before.

As for Sandy and me, our newly-discovered shared interest in men and masculinities meant that we kept in touch more regularly and eventually developed a research proposal together, which became the ESRC-funded ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, an Open University/Action for Children collaboration that also involved my then-OU colleague Professor Brigid Featherstone, as well as three early career researchers: Mike Ward, now a senior lecturer at Cardiff University and the editor of the journal Boyhood Studies, Anna Tarrant, now an associate professor at Lincoln, and Gareth Terry, now a senior research lecturer at AUT University in his native New Zealand. Since that study came to an end, Sandy and I have worked together again, on Promundo’s international ‘Man Box’ study, and have published together on a number of occasions. Most recently, Sandy contributed an article to the special issue of Genealogy that I edited, later reissued in book form, on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective’, after we discovered another shared interest, in family history, and particularly its intersection with our academic research interests (another striking example of the interweaving of the personal and the professional), all of this stemming from a friendship forged when working together with ex-offenders in Essex in the early 1980s.

Nigel Rapport

As for the other member of our Manchester trio, I suppose Nigel Rapport was the person whose academic path I would have least expected to cross with mine later on. So I was intrigued, when I began to follow Nigel’s latest work on academia.edu recently, to notice some surprising synchronicities, including a shared interest in theories of care. I’ve written in other posts on this blog about my developing interest in care ethics: I gave a paper at the inaugural conference of the international Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon, in 2018, and I’ve contributed a chapter to a book on care ethics, religion and spiritual traditions which is due to be published in 2022. In a paper published on ‘The action and inaction of care: Care and the personal preserve’, Nigel references a number of the key names in feminist care ethics, such as Carol Gilligan and Joan Tronto (a speaker at the Portland conference) who have influenced my own thinking, though I think our approaches might diverge somewhat: Nigel has developed the intriguing theory of what he terms ‘cosmopolitan politesse’, while I’m more interested in the ways in which care arises from embodied and embedded relationships. However, the very fact that we have both arrived at this focus on care ethics, despite our very different academic starting-points, is itself quite remarkable.

What do I conclude from all of this? When I first met Keith and Nigel as students, or first worked with Sandy, all those years ago, there was no way I could have predicted that we would end up working on similar areas of research. However, these coincidental convergences must surely have something to do with the fact that people often end up as friends who, at some deep level, share a similar outlook on life and are tuned into the same influences in the Zeitgeist, even if their ideas are still undeveloped and embryonic at the time they first become friends. Conversely, it must also be true that friendships can prompt and inspire new directions, perhaps at an unconscious level, in the development of individual ideas and interests. 

In this post, I’ve focused on three male friendships that have been important to me, both personally and professionally. However, it would be misleading to give the impression that all of the key influences on my thinking and practice, whether as a community educator or as an academic, have been men. In fact, most of the people I’ve worked with, in both phases of my career, have been women, and many of the important influences on me have been female. But maybe that’s a subject for another post…


I can’t leave the subject of my time as a student in Manchester, and its connections with my later career, without mentioning two other friends – in this case women – who, like me, ended up in the caring professions and then as academics in the care field, despite having studied very different subjects at university. Through Nigel I got to know his sister Frances, who was studying art at what was then Manchester Polytechnic. Who would have predicted back then that she would end up as a Professor of Health Implementation Science at Macquarrie University in Australia? Just as unforeseeable was the fact that my fellow English student Helen Scholar, whose postgraduate specialism was in an obscure area of medieval literature, would become a probation officer and then a lecturer in social work at Salford. But maybe no more surprising than the fact that I, with my half-finished PhD in twentieth-century religious poetry, would go to work in education projects with ex-offenders and end up as a senior lecturer in a School of Health and Social Care..

What I meant to say…

This week I made my podcast debut, as a guest on the first episode of ‘Now and Men’, a new podcast about men, masculinities and gender equality, hosted by Durham University’s Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, and co-presented by Stephen Burrell and by my friend and former colleague, Sandy Ruxton. You can listen to the episode, and read the ‘show notes’ here.

My conversation with Stephen and Sandy lasted about 45 minutes and covered a wide range of topics, from fatherhood to family history, moving back and forth between the personal and the philosophical, and was mainly structured around the chapters of my recent book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities (Routledge, 2020). The interviewers could not have been more gracious or supportive, but some of their questions were quite probing. I found it particularly challenging being asked to reflect on the connections between my beliefs about masculinity and gender equality and my personal experience, both as a child and an adult. 

Our son James on ITV’s ‘The Voice’ earlier this year

The proud parents

The interview actually began on a personal note, with a question about my recent television debut, as a parent supporting our son James’ appearance on the ITV singing contest The Voice (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch the relevant clips here), and my reflections on the show’s portrayal of family relationships. It was a neat segue into a discussion of my analysis in the book of fatherhood and men’s care for children as reflected in popular culture. 

Listening back to the edited version of the interview, I wasn’t too unhappy with my performance, though I think I sometimes slipped into the irritating academic habit of answering every question with the caveat that there are no simple answers and the issues are incredibly complex and nuanced, etc.  

Inevitably, as I listen to the podcast now, there are one or two moments where I wished I’d said something different, or added something more. After the interview, Sandy commented that we hadn’t mentioned the work we did together back in the 1980s, organising an education project for mostly young male ex-offenders in an Essex new town. In fact, I omitted to say anything about the decade I spent as a community educator, before becoming an academic, despite the fact that it was certainly formative of my beliefs about gender equality, as it was about other issues. But maybe you can’t cover everything in a 45 minute interview.

I’m grateful to Stephen and Sandy for inviting me on to their new podcast, which I’m sure will go from strength to strength and become an essential platform for important discussions about men and gender equality.

I hope you enjoy the episode.

Another new book

The special issue of Genealogy on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective’ that I mentioned in the last post, is now available as an attractive printed book. For the cover image, I had to select a photograph for which I had copyright permission, so I chose one from my own family history research: taken in 1906, it shows William George Hoerr, a London cabinet maker and son of German immigrants, with his daughters Minnie and Blanche. He was my first cousin, 3 x removed, on my mother’s side of the family.

You can purchase a copy of the book (or download the pdf for free!) here.