Masculinity – Service User Perspective (1/4)
‘Masculinity’ … a hot topic of discussion! From Piers Morgan to Gillette numerous commentators have brought their perspective to the topic and, judging by the resulting outpouring of public sentiment, there is no shortage of personal opinion on the topic.
In this blog series, we will be looking into the topic through the lens of the people that Future Men works with; boys, young men and men aged 0 to 25.
Estimated time to read – 8 minutes
‘Mad’, ‘Bad’ and ‘Sad’
Skip to ‘High Level Findings’ for key takeaways
Before getting into the details, it is important to establish a few things …
Who are Future Men?
Future Men launched in May 2019 and is the evolution of a charity that began in 1988 as Working With Men at a time of increasing professional interest and public concern about men, particularly the challenges faced at the end of the 20th century and a perceived ‘crisis in masculinity’. At this time, under the rubric of boys and men’s development much of the work consisted of reports, publications, developing resources and research around the subject and doing consultations with communities-which resulted in the production of numerous reports, for a wide audience.
In 2004 Working With Men became a registered charity and began to use its extensive experience across a range of activities projects and programmes. The last decade has seen a dramatic expansion of policy and practice initiatives seeking to address new challenges related to boys and men and Working With Men has evolved with them.
The work delivered has always been person-centred meaning that we have started by taking the time to understand the needs of the person we are working with and building the rapport necessary to deliver effective work. The work is also not delivered in a vacuum, as we work with those around the young person to gain a global view of them and to be able to deliver benefits to young people in multiple spheres, be they at home, in school, at work or in the community.
30 years of delivering work to this client group, which is then aggregated across the organisation and over multiple personnel has developed significant insights and learning points. The move from Working With Men to Future Men is underpinned by a clarification of the organisation’s ethos. From this strong, practice-led evidence base, we have developed a series of characteristics that are core to the successful functioning of boys and young men today and going forward.
The seven characteristics are:
- Non-violence -The ability to solve problems without hurting others
- Resilience – The ability to recover when things go wrong
- Inclusiveness – Open to the possibility of including different people
- Reflectiveness – Learning from the things that happen to you
- Resourcefulness – The ability to make the best of what you have
- Curiosity – Being interested in the world around you
- Empathy – The ability to see the world from other people’s perspectives
What does Futuremen do?
Programmes and activities delivered by Future Men focus on the transitional times in life such as starting school, getting a job or becoming a parent; these are the times when men and boys are most likely to encounter challenges and therefore most likely to engage or seek help. The aim is to significantly reduce the number of boys and men, particularly from socially excluded or disadvantaged backgrounds, who are unable to achieve their full potential to become productive and active members of society. We do this using a range of evidence based programmes and tools that explore issues related to masculinity and improve resilience, attainment, self efficacy and mental health.
The work covers four broad areas; fathers, youth work, those not in employment, education or training, and emotional literacy. To see more about the work, please visit futuremen.org.
What is Masculinity?
Future Men intends to add to the wider discussion of masculinity, not to challenge or confirm other people’s understanding of the term. The intention is this section is to provide an overview of the topic by referring to the work of some academics and a high level view of some of the discussions.
From the outset, and to dispel a vast misunderstanding, masculinity is not defined by biological function. Definition of sex by biological function is binary and has the terms male and female. Rather, masculinity is a set of characteristics, behaviours or attributes that society deems to be typical of masculine types. The concept of masculinity differs across societies, cultures and epochs (Kimmel and Arronson, 2004) and females can demonstrate masculine traits (Halberstam, 2004).
Social structures, including families, workplaces and communities, are in constant flux resulting in new questions being posed to individuals and groups about their psychosocial makeup. Potentially the breadth and depth of these questions have intensified since the Second World War and women’s increased presence in the labour force and this presence has brought with it measurable economic productivity out of the house. More specifically still, it is possible such questions have again intensified as younger generations of males and females are born into social conditions where traditional norms are challenged at speeds beyond the capacity of intergenerational guidance. From a male perspective, many, though not all, men are expected to balance family and professional life in a way that their fathers may not have been expected to and, therefore, fathers from previous generations are not equipped experientially, to inform their sons of what works. It is conceivable that the aggregate of these changes challenges traditional – potentially historic – gender norms, typified by a set of traits (that might include strength, decisiveness and provider) that are bundled into the word “masculinity”. Through the process of bundling characteristics, perhaps the value of each characteristic is lost through a collective evaluation of the word “masculinity” as opposed to an evaluation of the component parts.
A potential result of the above is that we constrict the ways in which boys and young men can express their masculinity. As an anecdotal reflection of this constraint, one of our staff members drew upon professional experience gained in 2008 of working with boys and young men at risk of school exclusion in an inner-London, fully maintained, co-education and non-denominational secondary school. Talking about anti-social, group activity (definitionally distinct from “gang” activity) it was suggested that some of the behaviours resulted from pressures that were felt from personal, educational, familial and social spheres that boiled over as stress. Essentially, that there was a correlation between potential mental health issues and the anti-social behaviours engaged in. To paraphrase the response, one of the young men stated there were three broad states of being, only one of which was acceptable among peers, male or female. These dynamics were mad (defined by this young person as mentally unwell), bad (angry) and sad (upset or fearful). The consensus of the group was that of these three, only bad was acceptable. The other two were seen as a sign of weakness, suggesting that this group, individually and collectively engaged in the adoption of a social mask that hid vulnerability and rewarded perceived power or strength.
The term “toxic masculinity” has come into greater use in recent years. The term has been used in various contexts to describe a series of behaviours and traits that cause harm to wider society – anti-social behaviour, violent and sexual crime, for example – or that cause harm to men themselves – substance misuse, low academic attainment and suicide, for example. A particular challenge emanating from this term is that it implies that masculinity holds little value and is often destructive. While this may be the case for some, it is not the case for all and in order to better understand how the term masculinity is understood by the boys and young men we work with, a series of focus groups were convened to discuss the topic.
What do the people you work with say about ‘masculinity’?
We know this is what you really want to hear and know about but we have to clarify how the information was brought together before getting to that part.
We wanted to hear from groups of people from each of the areas we work in so focus groups of six to eight people (where possible) were convened, gaining parental consent where necessary, to participate for a minimum of an hour (some groups went over this time threshold due to engagement) to take part in a group activity that fostered a conversation about masculinity. In order to nudge the participants along, an activity was used whereby participants were given a number of sentences broadly linked to masculinity (for example, “Men should be good at sport”) and the direction was to organise the phrases into categories ranging from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’. After each participant had considered the sentences they received and placed them where they felt represented their beliefs, the group was asked to reflect and deeper questions were posed. Of course, the groups were delivered in an inclusive way, respecting confidentiality and adhering to safeguarding principles.
Reflections from the groups generally stated that the participants enjoyed the activity and they found it easier to talk about masculinity than if they had simply been asked questions without something to focus their attention on.
High Level Findings:
Subsequent posts will dive into the specific details of what was said among the groups, to give a more complete picture of the dynamics that lead to certain statements, however there were core themes that came out across the groups that influenced how participants understood and spoke about masculinity and their views on how it is changing. Those themes were:
- The influence of social pressures owing to masculinity diminish with age
- Culture plays an important role in how masculinity is defined
- The way in which masculinity is understood has changed over time
- A person’s role and responsibilities impact how they see masculinity
- Life experiences shaped their understanding of masculinity and the impact it had had on them
Having set the scene for the blog series, the next post will dive into one of the focus groups to bring to life what was discussed.