Masculinity: Service Users’​ Perspective – What do boys in school and youth clubs say? (3/4)


Masculinity: Service Users’​ Perspective – What do boys in school and youth clubs say? (3/4)

Introduction:

This is the third part of the four-part series sharing insights from the service user perspective of masculinity. 

In the last instalment we heard from fathers and young fathers brought together as a focus by Future Men to talk about the topic. In this blog we will be hearing from boys in school and young men who attend one of the youth clubs managed by Future Men.

Time to read: 8 minutes

Key themes:

  • Traditional norms of masculinity come through more strongly in the statements from this age group
  • More statements relating to religion and the notion of masculinity
  • Stronger statements about the need for physical presence

Here we go …

School group structure

Future Men met with four boys aged 14 and 15, at a secondary school in Wandsworth, to talk about masculinity. The key focus was to create an open atmosphere that was conducive to discussion so no further personal questions such as employment status, ethnicity or religion. The boys did share their backgrounds over the course of the focus group but mention will only be made at the level of the group and not the individual to protect anonymity.

As with the groups in the previous blog, each individual was given a series of sentences that might represent some people’s views of masculinity which they then had to place under a heading of Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree, providing a rationale. The discussion was then opened to the group for a wider reflection. 

What did the group say in general?

At a very high level, the boys held flexible views of masculinity typified by the following statement “if the man and the woman work 9 to 5, then the housework should be done equally. If the woman does more work [out of the house], then the man should do more housework. Simple!”

Diving deeper …

The statements on the cards can be grouped into categories such as physicality, housework, income generation, parenting and emotional literacy. Of all the statements, the most contested was ‘Men have to provide for their family’. Individuals in the group each had unique experiences of parenting. One person shared they had grown up in a single parent, mother-led family so in their experience there was no man to provide. It was my understanding that this person was concerned that agreeing with the statement might invalidate his mother in some way, though I did not share this thought for concern of upsetting him. Another person has grown up in a single parent, father-led family and shared “even where there is a man and a woman, I would still expect the man to provide”. He was asked if this statement was more general in regards to fulfilling a responsibility or if it was in regards to being a man. He responded, “I would want to provide more. I can’t explain it more than that.” A third person stated he felt there was no reason why a man should provide more than a woman. He referred to the statement ‘Men need to earn more than their partners’ saying “That makes no sense whatsoever! What if you go out with a really smart girl and she gets a really good job? Why shouldn’t she earn more?”

“Men need to be able to protect their family” was the statement of one in relation to ‘Men need to be muscular’. The group challenged this person’s view saying that muscular meant a physical appearance as opposed to being able to defend oneself. Through discussion what came out was that this particular young person did not feel very capable of defending himself, referring to himself as “scrawny”. He reflected that he would get “merked” (beaten up) if he were to get in a fight with another young person in the group. Further discussion illuminated many in the group felt that physical size can offer protection. One person shared they thought their size may play against them as he felt he was often viewed and treated as older that he is. 

The group’s response …

These comments could indicate a number of dynamics within this age group. During adolescence, there are frequently large differences in the physical stature of young people and these differences can influence their perspectives. Another indication is that potentially adolescents are more physical in their approaches to one another and this dynamic might influence how they see their ability to defend themselves, hence the use of the word “protection” over physical appearance when considering the statement ‘Men need to be muscular’. Interestingly, the need to defend oneself or be muscular did not translate into needing to be good at sport (“I know I’m a man but I am lame at sport, so that’s in ‘disagree’”) or ‘As a man people need to respect me’ (“Respect has to be earned. It’s got nothing to do with being a man or not”).

One respondent said that he felt both his mother and father influenced his sense of masculinity. He felt that both sexes modelled what it means to be masculine, through how to think, behave or emote, both to oneself or the person of the other sex. The sentiment of plurality was corroborated by the group placing ‘Men need to do the same housework as women’ and ‘Dads need to look after their children as much as mothers’. “Both parents have the same responsibility to the child. It don’t matter if you’re the man or the woman.” The earlier statement about sharing the responsibility of housework is also an indicator of applying a framework of equality. 

Equality, however, could spill over negatively in other areas of daily interactions between boys and girls. During the focus group, there was a long and lively discussion about boys and girls fighting. “I have seen girls slap boys across the face and it’s like they are using the fact they are girl as protection” said one person when the discussion moved into equality and physical actions. Another person said, “if you’re going to act like a man, then get treated like a man”, i.e. if a girl is going to be physical towards a boy, then they should expect the same in response, according to this young person’s statement. As a group we discussed the dynamic of physical strength and how the group had previously agreed that boys were generally physically stronger than girls and that this brought a level of responsibility. Across the group, there was a reflection that this is a difficult area as they felt there was no way for boys to win in situations like this because “either you do nothing and then you look weak or you do something, and you get done for beating up a girl”.

When the group was asked if they would have structured their responses differently if they had been in their home nations, one young person responded “Of course! In Jamaica a lot of this would have been very different.” As with other focus groups, there was a strong recognition that culture plays a significant role in how individuals understand masculinity. If nothing else, this is a testament to the fluidity of gender constructions across cultures. Similar statements have been made about the influence of time and the perception of masculinity, though not specifically by this group, possibly because they were still too young to have that perspective.

The above statement was reflected in the positioning of the card ‘People would take advantage of me if they thought I was sensitive’. This was put in the middle because “it’s ok to show a bit of sensitivity to a girl because … well they aren’t a boy, but if you showed any weakness to another boy, then yeah … they would probably take advantage of you”. This was totally contrasted by the statement ‘Men who talk about their feelings are weak’ as the group agreed that it was good to talk about how they were feeling. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to analyse the differences the group saw between being sensitive and talking about how they were feeling as the group had to be wrapped up.

Young men at one of the youth clubs

A group of four young men aged 18 to 23 from various backgrounds came together at one of the youth clubs managed by Future Men. The structure of this focus group differed from the others in that a conversation tool was not used but rather an open discussion fostered. The feeling was very much that this group of young men held quite ‘traditional’ views of masculinity, those of provider, women not needing to work, but also competition between the sexes.

To reflect the difference in delivery, this section will be written differently to reflect a theme followed by statements made by members of the group.

Provider

“From 17, boys need to start making some money to help out around the house, paying bills and stuff. Not all of them, but helping out, ya know”.

“Girls don’t have to do that. They just have to go to school and get good grades.”

“You can’t be 20 something asking mumsy and dadsy for handouts. Come on!”

“If a person was handed a business by their parents, I wouldn’t consider them a man. You’ve got to make it for yourself”.

Ethnicity and culture dominated viewpoints

“I get a lot of my thoughts from my parents, but I can be more flexible”.

More flexible than parents’ generation

“It’s different now than it was for my dad. He HAD to go out and work. I can choose to work or study, but I still have to make money and put food on the table.”

Women shouldn’t have to work

“It’s not so much that women can’t work outside the house, but they shouldn’t have to”.

“Women should mostly be looking after the house and the children”.

“If the man and the woman work outside the house, it’s still the woman who should do most of the cooking and the cleaning”.

“I would feel bad if my wife earned more than me”.

Pressures different for boys and girls

“Yes, girls are doing better at school but they don’t have to think about making money for the family. They can relax and look after the children”.

“You’ve got to be able to look after you family financially and physically. If someone threatens your family, you’ve got to be able to beat them down.”

Changing social norms

“Things are changing. Look at top companies. Women are climbing the ranks”.

“‘Yeah, women are levelling up and men have to do the same”. 

Sense of competition between sexes.

“People have to make money”

“It comes down to making money. That’s what London is for; make your money and get out”.

“Could respect a person who makes money legally, but would still admire a person who made a lot of money illegally”.

“If a man can make his money and conduct himself like that [present as humble and not brag about his drug dealing], than yeah, I respect him”.

“I can respect a person who works in Asda, because that’s his grind (way of making money). But I feel pity too because they’re not going to have any status”.

Money was a dominant association with masculinity, though social power also featured heavily in the conversation. 

We talked about suicide and social ill-health in men including the prison population, homelessness and alcohol abuse with the view to discussing why they thought men were over-represented in these areas.   

(NB, the participants were forewarned that the topics can be challenging and that if they wanted to disengage from the focus group, they were allowed to.)

“Maybe there’s just too much pressure on men and they can’t cope”.

“It might be a midlife crisis [in reference to the highest proportion of men taking their own lives being aged 40 to 49]”.

“Men don’t want to speak about their problems”.

“They’ve got to be strong”.

Over time

“I think it’s harder today than in the past because there were a lot of jobs and now there are no jobs”.

“Today you have to have lots of degrees. Back in the day, you just needed to work hard”.

Conclusion:

These focus group held, what might be termed, ‘traditional’ norms of masculinity more closely than other groups. It is possible that opposed to the groups of fathers or the boys in the secondary school, this age bracket – combining with other characteristics – were the group closest to the ideals they were espousing, but also felt a great distance from achieving those ideals. Whatever the cause, this group held their views firmly.

What’s next?

In the last instalment we’ll be looking at the views of young men and men at risk of not being in education, training or employment.