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Man problems

It’s not easy to be male these days. It’s even tougher to talk about it.

By Trisha Elliott

Women still earn 74 cents for every dollar a man earns. The glass ceiling remains thick. But there’s a glass floor, too. It’s a tough time to be a man — and it’s really hard to talk about it. Raising the topic of men’s issues ignites the fear that recognizing the needs and concerns of men will diminish or repeal the gains women have made in the past century.

But the need for conversation is crucial. Startling statistics simmer beneath the raging gender wars: men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. While overall high school dropout rates are declining in Canada, the male dropout rate of 10.3 percent is significantly higher than the female dropout rate of 6.6 percent. Boys account for 90 percent of juvenile alcohol and drug violations and are three times more likely than girls to be obese.

As a mother of two boys, these statistics frighten me. But deciphering them is hard. Attempts to decode the numbers are thwarted not just by fear of derailing feminist progress — they’re also muddied by vocal men’s rights activists whose dressing-room speeches range from pummelling feminist groups and everything they stand for to joining forces with women to promote gender progress. Amid the screaming rhetoric, it’s hard to separate the men from the boys.

University and college campuses are prime turf for the dispute. Published by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, the Campus Freedom Index, which measures the state of free speech at Canada’s universities, reports that “men’s issues awareness” clubs are being silenced. “The first incident of censoring a men’s awareness group was reported in 2012; since then, we’ve identified several incidents of censorship. In some cases, men’s issues awareness groups have been refused ratification, or speakers with unpopular views were either not allowed to give talks or were told to watch their words,” says Michael Kennedy, who co-authored the latest report.

Kennedy says that the American group A Voice for Men (AVFM), which is openly anti-feminist, and its much tamer Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), are leading the men’s rights movement on campuses in Canada. CAFE has had up to 17 organized groups on college and university campuses. Some have been denied ratification by student unions that accuse them of promoting hate speech; others have faced vehement protests over controversial campus talks. Sadly, the reasonable voices raising real issues concerning the brothers among us are lost in a cacophony of rhetoric, suspicion and distrust from all sides.

“Some men’s rights groups even blame the economic crisis on feminism,” says Andrew Smiler, one of the leading experts on men, boys and masculinity in the United States. “They make it harder for me to do my work. It’s frustrating. They are very selective in how they read data. They tag my colleagues and I as ‘pro-feminist.’ I don’t even know what that means.” Smiler says he is similarly vetted by feminist groups. “I don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it takes two or three conversations before I’m accepted. There is a lack of trust and real questions about whether I’m anti-feminist.” Smiler explains that he is “about expanding the feminist mind to apply it to men and help men escape restrictive gender roles as we have helped women escape restrictive gender roles.”

I ask Smiler if men and boys are in crisis. “Can you call something a crisis if it’s been going on for over a hundred years?” he asks. Smiler gives me a short course in men’s history. In the Victorian era, women were seen as emotional and men as reasonable. By the 20th century, women were seen as capable of reason, and the more “reasonable” women became, the more emotionless men were expected to be. That’s where the expectations of men stuck.

As people moved from rural to urban centres, people grew concerned that boys were no longer spending time with Dad on the farm but with Mom at home and with female teachers at school and church. “Boy Scouts of America was the answer to the ‘crisis’ a hundred years ago, as were sports leagues and boys-only clubs,” says Smiler. “Since then, every seven to eight years there’s been a new form of the ‘boy crisis.’”

Ronald Levant, a professor and co-author of A New Psychology of Men, also considers how gender roles have evolved over time. “The problem is that while women’s roles have changed significantly, men’s haven’t,” he says. “No one can deny women’s roles are dramatically different than what they were in the 1950s. What’s happened to men in the meantime is that they have changed reluctantly, slowly, begrudgingly.” Levant’s own perception of what it means to be a man changed when he married his second wife, who, equally educated, challenged the traditional ideas he grew up with. “Some things have changed over time. Like more men are comfortable being hands-on fathers,” he says. “But what hasn’t changed is that masculinity is always obligatory for men. Boys and men are made to feel like failures if they don’t live up to masculine norms. Poorly educated men endorse masculine norms more strongly.”

Levant says he wouldn’t say men are in crisis but that they are living with “gender role strain,” attempting to reconcile old notions of masculinity with new expectations.

Until about 1980, masculinity and femininity were considered biological byproducts. But groundbreaking studies conducted at Berkeley and Harvard universities proved that gender is not just a matter of chromosomes — it’s also a social construction.

Characters like Cary Grant, John Wayne, James Bond and Don Draper are the picture of traditional masculinity — as is virtually any comic book hero. In his 1998 book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, author William Pollack calls the expectations of masculinity the “boy code”: a set of unwritten rules that teach boys to hide fear and vulnerability and exude stoicism and strength. The connection between the boy code and high suicide rates, late medical interventions and violence is obvious. Having to be invincible makes asking for help excruciating.

But it’s complicated. Culture, race and sexual orientation make a difference. What it means to be a gay Asian man is different than what it means to be a white heterosexual one. Numerous studies show boys from low-income families and visible minorities are more likely to adopt traditional male ideology. And the younger a boy is, the more vulnerable he is.

Levant’s latest masculinity study, published in November, examines energy drink advertising. Typical ads portray young white men doing extreme sports, often with a fawning female ogling from the sidelines. Of the 467 men studied, those under 32 years were more likely to buy into the idea that consuming energy drinks makes them more manly.

“I think that as men age, they accumulate masculine capital. They have accomplishments that reassure a man that he is sufficiently masculine. He completes his education, gets a job, etc.,” Levant says. “Younger men are more vulnerable. They don’t have the accomplishments to make them feel secure; they see an ad and think, ‘This is a way I can be more masculine.’ But energy drinks are dehydrating and full of caffeine.”

Advertising dishes out plenty of versions of the “guy’s guy”: Men wearing hard hats on construction sites. Men hurtling dangerously down mountains. Aloof men flexing their abs in hunkvertisements. Rarely do we see men as fathers, openly showing affection, or in the company of women who aren’t drooling after them.

Maclean’s magazine recently tallied the number of times Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hugged each new member of cabinet: 22 hugs and 32 kisses. Trudeau’s open affection has garnered significant attention. “I am vexed to think that this same type of discomfort now waits for me at each event involving Canada’s new prime minister, who is surely the huggiest head of government this nation has ever seen,” writes Robyn Urback in the National Post. Why are we keeping score? It isn’t just that Trudeau is demonstrative. It’s that he’s a demonstrative, powerful man. He’s bucking the boy code.

The gay rights movement and the increasing visibility of the trans community have deepened the conversation about gender roles. If scholars like Smiler and Levant are right, a healthy future for boys lies in continuing to challenge masculine norms.

Masculinity needs to be revamped, and Christianity has to tone up before it can contribute to the makeover. The problem isn’t just that too many women run the church today.

Concerns about the feminization of the church began long before women flocked to ordination and older male laity began retiring. As far back as the third century, when Christianity was a baby and the Roman Empire ruled the world, Emperor Diocletian accused all Christians of being effeminate because they advocated peace and self-restraint. From the beginning, Christian virtues of compassion, love and forgiveness have been more closely associated with femininity than masculinity. “Blessed are the meek” wouldn’t get much play on TSN.

Christianity as a religion and Jesus as its leader have always been tethered to the orbits of Mars and Venus.

The rationale barring women from the priesthood

goes that if Jesus represented God’s image on earth and Jesus was male, then women by virtue of being female don’t make the cut. At various points in history, particularly as women vied for church leadership, portrayals of Jesus downplayed his masculinity and highlighted traditional feminine qualities. On the flip side, churches interested in maintaining traditional gender roles dose him with testosterone. 

Mark Driscoll, former pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, famously stated in a sermon that he blamed the church for failing men by projecting a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ” instead of the true “ultimate fighting Jesus.”

There are plenty of guys in the Bible you can’t beat up: Noah saves not only animals but the entire human race. Moses flexes his muscles and the sea parts. Against all odds, David kills Goliath with a slingshot.

Jesus projects a different kind of masculinity. While he flipped over tables in a rage, called the Pharisees vipers and hung on the cross for his values, he also nursed wounds, taught in the education system of his day and offered an empathetic ear. In the Bible’s shortest verse, “Jesus wept.”

The problem is that Jesus’ stereotypically masculine and feminine qualities are compartmentalized, and whichever doesn’t suit the gender agenda is conveniently lopped off. Instead, Jesus needs to be regarded holistically. It is the total package of who he was in the world — not his binary, stereotypical masculine or feminine qualities — that has the potential to make all of us more fully human.

If Christianity wants to bring something meaningful to the discussion about what’s happening with boys, it needs to start by adopting a more expansive image of Jesus. God knows the world doesn’t need another macho, masochistic loner saviour.

“What makes Jesus a good man?” I ask my boys, 10 and 13, over dinner, explaining that Jesus presents a different version of manliness than the emotionless, conquering brutes they are bombarded with every day. They roll their eyes. But then a conversation about masculinity gets rolling. My 10-year-old grows exasperated. “How should I know what it means to be a successful man? Every man is different. Each person gets to decide what makes them a good person.” We have a wonderful conversation about what kind of man my son wants to be and how he defines masculinity for himself.

It’s hard to know what to make of the perplexing statistics about boys — harder still to have meaningful discussions about them in today’s climate. Simple dinnertime conversation with our sons might be a good place to start. When we slip into Mars-Venus rants, ripping a verse from the Good Book isn’t a bad idea either: “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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