The problem with ‘talking about masculinity’

There was a debate on BBC Radio 4 this morning about the apparent 'crisis of masculinity. According to the guests, which included the writer Laurie Penny, men were being restricted by repressive social norms that said they must be "dominant" at the expense, presumably, of being more sensitive and caring.

There was a debate on BBC Radio 4 this morning about the apparent ‘crisis of masculinity’ in Britain. According to the guests, which included the writer Laurie Penny, men were being restricted by repressive social norms which dictated that they must appear “dominant” and “violent” at the expense, presumably, of being more sensitive and caring.

This was having a damaging effect on women and preventing men from truly being themselves, the guests concluded.

There has been quite a lot of this talk lately.

Labour MP Diane Abbott recently claimed that a shift in social attitudes and a rise in unemployment had left Britain facing a “crisis of masculinity”.

Speaking at London-based think-tank Demos, Ms Abbott said that British men had been left “isolated and misdirected”.

In some ways the above-mentioned women are on to something – I certainly believe Diane Abbott is, especially when she talks about families and absent fathers – but in other ways they are confusing equality with sameness.

I strongly support efforts to increase gender equality in the workplace and the home, as well as work to combat rape and clamp down on street harassment. I would consider myself a feminist in much the same way that I call myself a socialist – I have problems with certain strands of certain interpretations of the doctrine but I am on the same page, so to speak.

There are plenty of reasons why.

In the workforce the average gap in pay is virtually unchanging. For every £100 men take home, women on average take home around £85,” according to the Fawcett Society, a charity which campaigns for workplace gender equality.

Attitudes to rape and sexual harassment are also worryingly regressive.

A survey of more than 1,000 Londoners in 2010, carried out to mark the 10th anniversary of the Haven service for rape victims, found that more than half of those questioned said there were circumstances when a rape victim should accept some responsibility for an attack.

As we can see, in terms of equality there is still a long way to go on several fronts.

However some of the arguments put forward by feminists like Laurie Penny – that masculinity isn’t in any way a natural or inherent thing; that it is socially constructed by things like upbringing – I take issue with.

Of course in some ways masculinity is influence by the environment. There is undoubtedly pressure to conform to certain gender roles, and this is felt especially by women.

That said I do think it is extremely likely that there are general, statistical ways in which men and women (in general) differ from each other behaviorally that cannot be explained simply in terms of environmental influences. The alternative – that gender (and presumably masculinity and femininity) is a social construct – would mean concluding that it makes no difference to a person’s behavior which of two alternative cocktails of hormones the brain is exposed to in utero, during puberty, and in later life.

If that is what you are prepared to believe, then you will need to explain why natural selection bothered to produce two different sets of hormone cocktails in the first place.

To give another example, most of us (including most feminists) accept that homosexuality and heterosexuality are strongly influenced by biology. And with good reason. That’s where the evidence points (as well as humans, homosexual behaviour has been observed in over 1,500 species of animal). Many progressives also strongly object to the idea that homosexuality is a choice (justifiably, in my opinion).

There is similar evidence that some behavioral differences between men and women are biologically-influenced. In neither case do we fully understand the pathway between the gene and the corresponding behaviour (nor do we always know which gene we’re looking for), but the correlations are suggestive.

So why the double-standard?

As Ben Cobley has pointed out, there is a strong element of determinism in the arguments put forward by Penny and her contemporaries which are reminiscent of crude versions of Marxism:

“The use of false consciousness and the unconscious to explain why most women and men do not see themselves respectively as oppressed and oppressor has some especially troubling implications. For it necessitates judging people’s everyday non-harmful habits and choices as objectively ‘wrong’, while the person making the judgement is objectively ‘right’. This is a fundamentally authoritarian and elitist way of looking at people.”

Sure there are problems with social pressure and masculinity. There are pressures to live up to expectations in many areas of life, and ideally everyone should be free to take their own path and not feel constrained by unreasonable societal norms.

That’s very different, however, from asserting or implying that masculinity is itself ‘imposed’.

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