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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8 Responses to “The problem with ‘talking about masculinity’”

  1. Lee Chalmers

    Please take a look at the actual science on this. This will help sort out opinion and speculation from peer reviewed rational exploration of the topic.

  2. Jon Stone

    Good points, but isn’t the argument of Penny et al not that there are no differences at all between men and women, but that most of the readily apparent differences happen to be social constructs? I’m trying to read a lot around this as I’m currently trying to write a fiction that envisages a world where those social constructs are completely different, and hoping to get a credible angle on just how far society can mould our behaviours.

  3. David Moss

    Nothing that you’ve said contradicts Laurie Penny or Diane Abbott’s points at all. That there are sex-specific differences, does not contradict the point that “masculinity” (gender) is constructed.

  4. Graham Thompson

    “I strongly support efforts to increase gender inequality in the workplace and the home”

    Calling Dr. Freud.

  5. richnfamous

    am i the only one who finds it strange that (supposedly feminist, egalitarian) women are attempting to define what men should and shouldn’t be, and do?

  6. David Moss

    Is saying that men are discouraged from showing their emotions, encouraged to associate their self-worth with physical strength and violence etc and that these are bad things “attempting to define what men should and shouldn’t be”?

    If so, then no, it doesn’t seem strange that they or anyone else would do this. It’s strange anyone would object.

  7. Ed Pemberton

    There is an awful lot of nonsense written around the topic of evolutionary psychology and I agree that it is good to be skeptical about a lot of the ‘science’ being pushed with regards to gender. I don’t think that the author addresses many of these problematic areas, however, but rather addresses the much less controversial issue of the balance of hormones that different genders experience.

    When it comes to hormones, they act in fairly unsubtle and predictable ways on peoples behaviour and whilst we can work to change our society to be as equal as possible we must accept that there will always be this difference. The effects of testosterone on behaviour increases drive, fuels competition and there is an argument to be made that this is a factor behind men finding themselves in positions of power more frequently than women – a chemical in their brain driving them on to seek new territories to conquer. To give an analogy, if men had an organ that excreted caffeine into the blood supply, and did so to a greater rate than women, would we rack our brains asking why society has made men more restless and irritable? Or would be happy to proscribe it to an observed difference in body chemistry.

    I am not saying this because I don’t believe that there is anything we need to change in our society and we should be happy to accept the status quo, but it is worth considering whether even in a perfectly egalitarian society we would see a genuine 50/50 split of roles or whether there would still be a natural rate of bias that mapped to testosterone levels (which can vary hugely regardless of gender, but would obviously tend somewhat towards men)

  8. Philip Conway

    The problem here is with your understanding of what it means to be ‘socially constructed.’ As I understand it, saying that a thing is ‘socially constructed’ doesn’t mean that biology or other kinds of factors have nothing whatsoever to do with them. It does mean, however, that the categorisation can’t be innocently explained away as the simple, objective representation of an underlying biological reality.

    Yes, there are biological differences between men and women; however, there are also biological differences between men and men (and women and women). Similarly, there are biological differences between racial groups but there are also biological, genetic differences within racial groups – and often the intra-group variation is considerably greater than inter-group variation. The fact that we choose to take a few physical markers such as skin tone and facial features to delineate distinct groups of human being is, therefore, a social construct totally undetermined by biological factors. The way that we code these markers – i.e. the way we understand and decide their meaning – is irreducibly social; nothing biological determines our coding. It could always be otherwise.

    Likewise for sex and gender distinctions. Yes, men are on average taller, stronger and more muscular, etc. than women. But there’s plenty of overlap between the two groups and the same goes for variation within the groups. Pick a man and a woman at random and it is more probable that the man will be taller, stronger, hairier, etc. than the woman but that’s only probabilistic. If you factor in other demographic variables you can imagine cases where the trend is reversed: how many 18 year old women aren’t physically stronger than 80 year old men? These are trends within populations, not essential attributes within individuals. The ‘average man’ and ‘average woman’ don’t exist, these are ideals; only concrete men and women actually exist – and none of these people perfectly conform to statistical abstractions.

    And defining your expectation of a concrete person by a statistical abstraction is the very definition of prejudice.

    So, no, masculinity isn’t something totally separate from biology. But there’s a dead give-away that it’s a social construct: masculinity is supposed to be the same thing across the whole of humanity, regardless of variations within that population. All men are supposed to approximate the same ideal of masculinity, regardless of their own, specific, variable biology. The same goes for femininity. How can this be if these categories derive directly from an underlying biology? How can masculinity be universal and derive from biology if biology is inherently, essentially variable? Well, it can’t.

    Masculinity and femininity are abstract ideals that enforce conformity and alienate those whose differ. Whatever attachments they may have to the physiological properties of individuals doesn’t really matter – they are still socially constructed categories that steamroller differences for the sake of the illusion of homogeneity.

    Of course, the world is far too complex to do without such abstractions – and, consequently, prejudice in a general sense is inevitable – however we must be critical of the codes we live by and we must never, ever suppose them to be rooted in some immutable reality ‘underneath’ the merely social.

    It’s fair to say that my experience of masculinity (or yours or anyone’s) is affected by my own biological constitution, yes; but it’s wrong to suppose that biological constitution generally underlies or in any way determines social categories.

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