Are single-sex groups a healthy thing? And how helpful is it to use male language and imagery with groups of young men?
In a culture that often carries unpleasant whiffs of male-centredness and male-identification (and where many believe that oppression of women is the very nature of the system), it is worth being cautious.
If I talk to a group of boys about their ‘path to manhood’, I can think of very few ways in which this path might differ from a ‘path to adulthood’, since I see no inherent role for a man as opposed to a woman. I can easily see someone at work saying “I am being an accountant” or someone at home saying “I am being a father.” But there is no situation I can think of where it makes sense to say “I am being a male” or “I am male-ing”; it is of course ridiculous. And I can’t help notice that I behave quite differently in my roles as son / brother / husband / father, but in all of these I am technically a man, for what that’s worth.
Nevertheless, I do quite like the area of male mythopoetic writing – Robert Bly, Sam Keen etc. I do find it useful to think about images of healthy maleness that portray a wholesome man as connected to wildness, emotion, intuition and nature. Such a male heroic identity is pretty aspirational, I find.
But it can’t be called just a male identity, of course. Heroism (or wildness etc) cannot reasonably be reserved as a male trait. It could only be accurate to call, for example, the urge to protect the powerless a heroic human identity (although in real life the motivation might not be entirely heroic).
So is there, in fact, any use in having male-only events, featuring male language and imagery, and only male perspectives?
Well, ask the men at any of the purposefully all-male settings I find myself in, and the answer is Yes, Absolutely. And this is not to the detriment of other settings (the same is also true for female-only gatherings, from what I’m told).
“Being a Man” can invite terrible and debilitating stereotypes, if it only reflects the views held by the small-minded person telling you to Be a Man. But when used in a mature way, rather than as black magic, it can be a very motivating archetype. There is a real and powerful effect on feelings and perceptions in having an all-male group. The question ‘what sort of a man do I want to be’ definitely feels far more challenging than if the word ‘human’ or ‘person’ were used instead.
And such a conversation seems OK because it does not have to be at the expense of women. Bringing in a female perspective would be valid and interesting in a different discussion… but for another occasion, rather than distracting this particular one (it is important that this subsequent conversation does happen though).
Actually, distraction is also an important consideration, I find. When I was a teenager, there was too much mystery and too many unassimilated feelings for me to be able to function authentically around girls; I was awkward and I would find myself trying to show off. Sometimes this is still the case. The male / female dynamic can throw out all sorts of interesting effects and reactions. The majority of the time this is welcome and pretty exciting, but I find it is important to have an element of just male company (and a good chunk which is just me with no company at all).
I do notice that I feel nervous writing about this subject, especially in case I have blind spots which might lead me to step on a land mine; there is so much high voltage around gender issues. So this is another way that all-male environments can serve, where it might feel less complicated or dangerous to unpack and untangle thoughts, to get past some messy and unhelpful perceptions in order to reach more nuanced layers to employ out in the wider world.
Because that’s what the ultimate aim is surely – for me, for the young men on a year course with me, for the men round the fire with me on Friday, for the men of A Band of Brothers gathering at the Crawley youth centre on Wednesday nights. An all-male gathering is not just an end in itself, it’s part of a man’s effort to be more aware of himself and of others, and to walk with more care and respect, perhaps even with a touch of useful heroism.
It really works to use the concept of Manhood to help raise the stakes, emotionally connect and have a look at ourselves, just as long as we avoid the gaping trap of thinking that the themes and aspirations explored only describe the male experience, and don’t also apply to women.
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Hi Chris, I enjoyed reading this and think it’s so important to be asking these questions and sharing thinking publicly. In this incarnation, I seem to be a woman and so perhaps I write from there. Although my experience of gender is not quite so clear as that, so perhaps I write from there too. My response or musing or questions include:
1) fascinating that ‘manhood’ raises the stakes at the aspirational level for guys. I wonder if the same is true for the ‘womanhood’ and women… Or if sadly, it is a little more limiting than ‘humanhood’. Are men perpetuating their privilege by embedding this belief?
2) Interesting that the female perspective is a ‘secondary’ perspective in the conversation about what it is to be a man… Surely it should be primary… Surely what it is to be whatever we identify ourselves to be, man, woman, in between, neither, is in the context of a wider world, and not just accepting that the primary experience is this man’s world that we’re in.
3) I do acknowledge that right now, at this moment in history there probably is space for segregated groups to be feel safe expressing and exploring. But my belief is that that is a product and necessity of the current system. I would love for those groups to work towards a more inclusive group settings where people feel safe to show up as they are, whether they’re men being fathers, women being mothers, women loving women, men loving men, and all the millions of permutations in between and around that, and discover together what it is to be human, high stakes and all.
This is a very generous comment; thank you. Your musings allow me to peel back more layers with further musings of my own. Musings is a good word. I don’t feel like I’m on a road to reach an opinion, just a process of enriching what I see and therefore how I might act… So here are some musings in response (which I much enjoyed writing, so excuse the length)
1) Rather than a belief that manhood raises the stakes, it’s feels more like an experience of it. I would be surprised if the same wasn’t true for women. I hope it doesn’t have to be this way. And it’s not the only way of getting deeper, just one way I like; I wouldn’t want to be without the challenge of such conversations with women as well. A single-sex group does feel simpler in some ways, and therefore easier to focus or amplify certain elements. To think that there is something inherent special and powerful about manhood would be a mistake, as that would embed privilege, which is something I am increasingly aware of, and decreasingly comfortable in supporting. Maybe it’s more a case like this morning, where I was having a conversation with my kids over brekkie, and I turned off Radio 4 so that I could give the best of my attention. Just as long as this analogy is not taken to mean that I see the female perspective as background droning that is nice to turn off – more to do with focus!!
2) Where I think I am coming from is similar to the above, in order to help to hold a line of conversation rather than be tempted by tangents (also a reason why I like to meet good friends one-on-one). A friend of mine who, amongst many other things, is a feminist, identifies an effect called ‘cock-blocking’ (for example, when a subject is female genital mutilation, and men wade in saying ‘but what about men – they get circumcised’ – true, but irrelevant to this particular issue, so save it ‘til later), and it’s maybe a more benign version of this – in some cases, when men’s or women’s voices are added, the nature of the conversation will change to a different conversation. I wouldn’t say that the female perspective is secondary, no way. I do realise that a ‘male perspective’, whatever the hell that is, is defined only by a ‘female perspective’. I don’t even like the look of that sentence; it seems deeply mired in a sexist way of thinking anyway (just as the concept of a single sex group is inherently sexist). I fully realise that, for example, for men to see themselves as ‘strong’, they therefore need to define women as ‘weak’, and that is one of the ways that oppression came about and stayed, and why there can be such a (pointless) problem with anyone who seems like a weak man or a strong woman, or has a mixed experience of gender.
3) I totally agree. This conversation is surely a symptom of where our culture is, and the systems that have built up for centuries around a particular way of thinking, especially defining differences between male and female. There is a paradox in an all-male group forming with a desire for greater integration. But it makes sense to me, because in order to turn up as I am, I need to find out who I am, and as many different ways of exploring that, and the simpler some of them are, the better. And then maybe one day we can more maturely live with the delicious, mysterious differences between male and female that I experience and would never want to eradicate, and act as male and female perhaps being poles that define each other and create a dynamic spectrum between themselves.
Love this and I want to chew it over a bit. For now, I love your radio 4 analogy… After all they often have excellent, insightful, distracting content!!!
I need to digest your final flourishing comment about delicious, mysterious differences between male and female… Because there are surely delicious, mysterious differences person to person… Regardless of sex or gender, and regardless of whether one is straight or gay or bi or something else entirely. And to elevate the m/f divide is to elevate that difference as having more impact than any other… which I think is what I question.
Those poles can exist between people who identify as the same gender. And, conversely, oftentimes, there’s no delicious mystery with people of the opposite sex!!