Today, over 70 different countries the world over celebrate International Men’s Day. Since its inception, its primary objectives have been to improve gender relations, promote gender equality, and draw attention to positive male role models. Needless to say, the event has attracted both praise and criticism in varying degrees. The University of York has embroiled itself in controversy after announcing it would mark International Men’s Day to highlight skyrocketing male suicide rates and shorter life-expectancy, then promptly cancelling the event following strong opposition from the college community.
Since then, an e-petition has been launched to reinstate it, arguing that to do otherwise would disregard men’s rights. It emphasises that “it is important that we recognise men’s day just as much as women’s day. True feminists should be fighting for gender equality for both men and women. To cancel Men’s Day is simply hypocritical. Equality is not just for women and should concern both genders.”
First and foremost, it is important to distinguish Men’s Day from both the semi-satirical movement of “Meninism”, a recent social media response to perceived problems with modern feminism, and the Men’s Right’s movement (MRM) that started in the early 1970s. The latter movement began with groups of men who felt concern about instances of discrimination and oppression against men in several sections of contemporary society, including education, family law, military service, and parenting. Campaigners claimed that men’s rights have been gradually taken away, and that men ultimately suffer as feminism progresses. For many women, such movements are offensive and laughable considering the obvious entrenchment of the patriarchy for many thousands of years. Scholars have pointed out, correctly, that some aspects of these movements are targeted at halting the achievements of feminism. But the full picture is rather more complex.
But it also presents a different problem altogether: a reluctance for men to talk about their problems.
The ultimate goal of feminism is gender equality for women and men alike – both in the law and in society. To oppose this definition is to be sexist, an opponent of liberty, equality and rationalism. But just as numerous transgressions occur against women, men experience social problems of a diverse range. To show this, The University Times spoke to several men in Trinity about the problems they have experienced.
Manus Dennison, the Vice-President of the University Philosophical Society – a second-year law student – said that “social pressure has shaped pretty much every aspect” of his life: “Since getting the piss taken out of me in my all-boys secondary school, I learned very quickly to hide the things about me that I liked; in favour of a more acceptable ‘lad’ version. FIFA? Oh yeah, I love that Alex Ferguson chap. Styling my hair? What do I look like to you, a girl? Being one of the “lads” meant conformity, and it meant keeping your head down. I’m amazed at how the parts of me I would downplay have now become an integral part of who I am. Those pressures are still there but what has changed is my approach to it. What it means to be a man is nothing more than what it means to be yourself, and don’t ever change that to fit in with other people.”
Whether or not you are comfortable with your gender identity, male or female, chances are society has put significant pressure on you to fit into your gender role. For men, the pressure to be masculine, to avoid emotion, pursue sport and look a certain way is undoubtable. Objectification and bullying of women is painfully prevalent in lad culture. But it also presents a different problem altogether: a reluctance for men to talk about their problems. Mental health already has a stigma attached to it as it is, and perhaps years of questioning male privilege is stopping men from speaking out.
In November 2014, the Telegraph mentioned a “crisis in modern masculinity”, with male suicide rates in the UK at a 15-year high – suicide is now the largest cause of death amongst men aged between 20 and 49. A study that coincided with International Men’s Day last year, published by the mental health charity CALM, concluded that about half of the 1000 men and women had experienced depression of some sort, though women were considerably more likely to seek help. In the same survey, men had much higher rates of joblessness, risky behaviour, feelings of sexual inadequacy and pressure to be “strong in times of crisis” than women. CALM’s chief executive, Jane Powell, summarised the problem neatly: “so often their own worst enemies, men need new rules for survival. Outmoded, incorrect and misplaced male self-beliefs are proving lethal and the traditional strong, silent response to adversity is increasingly failing to protect men from themselves.”
While little attention is paid to the issues and anxieties of cisgender men, there is even less paid to transgender men, who experience an entirely different kind of difficulty when it comes to being comfortable in society. Felix O’Connor, the Librarian of Q Soc, Trinity’s LGBT Society, said: “As a bisexual transgender man I’m actually fairly at peace with my masculine identity. I still experience pressure to act in certain ways to be “acceptably masculine” (and, an added pressure for trans men, to “pass” as male), my personal strategy is to adopt those that appeal to me (like a short haircut and working out) and ignore those I disagree with, because it’s a losing game trying to be a capital “M” man all the time. It’s too subjective, often ending up just as performative as trying to be a girl was.”
Men and women alike face further significant stigma when it comes to being victims of sexual abuse, emotional abuse and domestic violence, preventing them from speaking out and holding those responsible to account. But while gender and sex-based violence has become a focal topic in recent years, it has in the past been presented primarily with regard to violence against women by men. Now, it is mostly accepted that both men and women can be subjected to violence and abuse.
Research carried out by the National Crime Council in Ireland in 2005 found the following supporting data: that 15 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men suffer severe domestic abuse; that 13 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men suffer physical abuse or minor physical incidents; and 29 per cent of women (1 in 3) and 5 per cent of men (1 in 20) report to the Gardaí. The study concluded that somewhere in the region of 88,000 men and 213,000 women in Ireland have been severely abused by a partner at some point in their lives.
The causes are multiple, and complicated. But it is possible that feminism has led people to overlook the problems men face, and ignore holidays like International Men’s Day.
Meanwhile, inequality in education is growing, fast. In 2007 Muiris O’Connor wrote “Gender in Irish Education” for the government. She found that in Ireland, boys are much more likely to leave school early and show poor levels of attainment in education. In the Leaving Certificate last year, girls scored better than boys in 50 out of 59 papers, while they are still winning more college places than their male counterparts. Despite all this, women still earn less than men in most areas of employment and have poorer career progression. They are particularly underrepresented in top-flight academia, with a 2010 HEA report showing that while they make up half of all college lecturers, they total just 20 percent of professors in the country’s seven universities (of which the presidents, ours included, are all male). Even worse, despite the numerous gender imbalances pervading the system a Department of Education office monitoring education equality closed more than ten years ago, and has not been replaced. Clearly, there is massive amount of work to be done.
Therefore it is not only damaging, but also erroneous to blame the problems of the modern man on feminism. The causes are multiple, and complicated. But it is possible that feminism has led people to overlook the problems men face, and ignore holidays like International Men’s Day. While many men may indeed be “privileged,” there is a growing proportion of men who are still being labelled with this privilege, while they no longer possess it, either in the eyes of the law, socially or culturally. Questioning social imbalances is vital, and we should reject gender inequality of all types, in all sections of society. But such discourse must occur in a gender equal context.