Masculinity: Service Users’​ Perspective – What do Fathers say? (2/4)

Masculinity: Service Users’​ Perspective – What do Fathers say? (2/4)


This is the second instalment on the findings from focus groups convened by Future Men to talk about masculinity with the people that we support. There are some very interesting insights shared, both within each group and across the groups when looked at from a bird’s eye view.

If you did not see the first part, you can catch up here.

Group structure and what they were asked to do:

On Friday, 15th of October two groups of men, all fathers, were convened to talk about masculinity. The key focus was to create an open atmosphere that was conducive to discussion. For this reason, no further personal questions such as employment status, ethnicity or religion were asked.

The participants were informed the discussion would be written up as a blog series but that their input would be made anonymous.

As a reminder about the methodology, each group was given a task, to sort a list of statements into headings of strongly agree, to strongly disagree. Each person was given three or four statements at random and three minutes to consider and place their statements under the above headings. They were instructed to consider each statement from a perspective that was wider than themselves but were also reminded of the professional duty of care held by Future. The groups were then asked how they individually found the process and to reflect on their choices.

Estimated time to read: 10 minutes

Key themes:

“All of this would be different if you asked me these things when I was young!”

The impact of becoming a father was significant in shaping their view of masculinity

“I’m not washing knickers!”

Group One:

Before beginning the session, one of the participants asked for a definition of masculinity. This was reflected back to the group. One person said, “It’s about being a man and how you behave.” The group was then asked if anyone had heard of the term ‘toxic masculinity’ to which they all replied they had not. Examples of anti-social behaviour at various levels of society to illustrate what the term could mean, whether that be exercising power in a corporate position, homelessness or alcoholism all conditions where men are over-represented. One person extended this by saying “It’s like when men don’t talk about their feelings”, which, it was agreed, could fall under the banner of toxic masculinity.

Broadly speaking, this group was very open minded and plural about how men could and should behave. Many of their responses were framed as “It depends” and “What’s the context?” demonstrating reflection about the statements and that responses could be different depending on different factors. The facilitator replied they had the freedom to decide what context they wanted to consider the statements in but needed to share that context when talking about their response.

They agreed quickly that men who showed their feelings are not weak and would not be taken advantage of. One participant informed us that he was raised by his mother and two older sisters leading him to be more open about how he felt emotionally. As he quipped “I could come home from school and be smacked around the head with feelings, so I know all about them!” He was joking in this instance, but he went on to reflect that he considered himself to be sensitive and that he was trying to pass this on to his child who he was raising on his own. Another person said that though he did not share his feelings with other people, he did not consider it a weakness if men did talk about them. “It was just something my dad didn’t do, so I don’t do it, but I don’t think less of a man who does”.

There was a great deal of discussion about men needing to be successful. One person stated that “people need to be successful. It has nothing to do with being a man.” Another shared that at one point he had owned a nightclub, a dream for him, and a couple of properties overseas but that did not bring success because he was never at home with his then-partner and child; “at the time I thought I was successful but I didn’t like it and not long after I could see the truth”.

The group response looked like this …

As a group they agreed that it was not important to look good in front of their friends. It was asked if that had changed over the years, to which one person said “Well yeah. When you’re at school you’ve got to have the right clothes or else you’ll get it”. “I just stayed quiet [at school] so people kind of ignored me, but I can understand if people say it’s important when you’re younger. Now … who cares. I’m not going to pay loads of money for my clothes. That’s just stupid” said another person.

“Of course men need to provide [for their family]!” When asked what they needed to provide, one person replied “Everything: food, clothes, money …”. “What about cleaning or taking your child to the doctor?” to which one person responded ‘men need to do the same housework as women’ by saying, “I’ll be honest, when I was working, I had this job in West London and I could be stuck in traffic for like three hours getting back. I’d get home and my partner would answer the door and say “here she is. I’m going out for a fag”. At the time, I was vexed. I mean, I’ve been in traffic all day and I just want to sit down and now I’ve got to look after my kid! But now I’m looking after the child on my own, I know how knackering it is and if I had a partner I’d want to share it out equal.” The others could sympathise with this and the group agreed that providing and housework were the responsibility of both parties. The plurality with which the group viewed housework and providing was deepened when they agreed that it was ok for women to earn more than them. “I was in a relationship where she brought in WAY more than me. Didn’t make me less of a man.” Another person said “My girlfriend earns more than I do now. No problem with that.” Despite this, they did say that it was better if they did make a good living and could provide enough.

In reference to statements around fighting, one person said “It depends. If someone just comes at you, well you have no choice. Gotta do it! But if you’ve got time, first thing I would do is try to talk my way out.” “It don’t make you less of a man if you don’t want to fight.” It was very clear that the individuals were considering the statements at a very personal level and so they were asked if they thought the same would hold true for men in a different part of the country, such as Liverpool. “Never been there so couldn’t say”, “You get to a certain age and you’ve got too much to lose. It’s not worth it.”

The group was then asked how much their views had changed since becoming a dad. “Night and day, night and day” meaning that before becoming a father, they would have placed the statements in different positions. “When you have a kid, you’ve got responsibilities, you’ve got no time and you’ve got no energy. Why you going to be running around like a boy!?” Throughout the session, this group kept coming back to the importance of age in the consideration of masculinity. The group did not articulate it in that way but were very clear that their attitudes and opinions had changed a great deal with age and with the experience of having children. Interestingly, there was minimal reference to culture or ethnicity throughout the conversation. Group two proved to be very different in that regard! It may have been because each of the three participants were from different backgrounds and there may have been a level of self-censure within the group, but that was not outwardly stated.

Group 2:

From the outset, the second group was more vocal with a lead character who was frequently the first to respond to questions. As a group, they had similar, though not the same, cultural influences and could reflect on those influences as a group. As individuals, while they did reflect on context they did not make explicit statements such as “It depends” or “What’s the context of this?”

The first, and most divergent, response from the previous group was the need to earn more than their partners. One person said “I don’t know. You might be with someone who has A-Levels and is bringing in good money”, to which another person said “That’s what this is all about. Your masculinity would be this big [fingers held up to indicate how small] if your partner brought in more than you. Even if you on the grind, you got to bring in more.” Another person tied in the statement about providing saying “I remember when I didn’t even have enough to buy nappies for my child. Do you know how I felt? It’s all about making P’s [money]”. From the outset, the second group focused on money and bringing in money as a defining feature of being a man.

In contrast to this, which might be seen as representing more traditional masculine norms, as a group their views on expressing emotions were more representative of contemporary norms. “I cried like a baby when my daughter was born. Of course it’s ok to cry.” Another person said, “If you don’t talk about your feelings you’re only gonna cause yourself trouble later on. You can’t run away from them.” This person shared that they had spent time in prison and said “When your sat there in the pen, it’s you and your thoughts. When you think, it makes you feel something. That can be scary.” In distinction to potentially being taken advantage of for being sensitive, one person said “People take advantage of nice people. Being sensitive doesn’t make a difference”. The group was asked for further clarification on what “nice” means to which this person said “You know, being soft and not standing up for yourself” and when asked how that was different from being sensitive, he said that being sensitive means having feelings and being able to talk about them which is “normal” but not standing up for yourself will mean people will take advantage.

In reference to the statement on crying, one person said “I come from Jamaica and if I was there answering this, it would go under there [Strongly disagree]! If you cry [in Jamaica] you’ll get slapped and asked ‘What you crying for?’ so it’s just beaten out of you.” They were asked what would happen if a person was to get into a fight and cry from being overwhelmed with emotions. They all laughed, with one person saying “It would be over! I’m kicking you in.” This gives a strong sense of the potential influence of culture. This influence was strengthened when talking about the distribution of housework. This group agreed that it was mainly the role of the woman to do the majority of the housework and two of the individuals directly referenced their cultural heritage as a rationale for their response. One person said “Obviously if the woman is out working, then the house will be clean and food on the table. But I’m not washing knickers!”

The group’s response:

“All of this would be different if you asked me these things when I was young! That [Men who talk about their feelings are weak] would be right over there [Strongly agree]. Same with that [It’s ok to walk away from fights]”. The group was probed about what had changed between then and now, to which one person replied, “When you go bin [prison] you’ve got to think ‘Is this worth it?’” Another person said, “You just get older, you do different things and things mean different things to you.” The group was then asked if culture, experiences or age were the biggest factor in changing opinions. “It’s a bit of each, but I’d say, for me, being in Jamaica would be the biggest thing that would change my answers”, said one person. Another agreed, “Yeah, where you grow up makes a big difference.” “I have to say, age is the biggest thing” replied another. This person then went on to say that when he was younger, he often found himself in fights, that he enjoyed it and he looked for it, but by his early 20’s and after having two children, he just couldn’t justify his behaviour anymore.

One person said, in relation to not liking people telling them what to do, “No one likes being told what to do, but there are ways [of asking]. If people say ‘please’ or ‘could you’ but if people just expect you to do things for them, no way!” Another person said “I’ve done enough wrong in my life that I’ve learned to know when I’ve done something wrong and a person is telling me to do the right thing.” This last statement ties in with the position of “As a man, people need to respect me” in that the group agreed that people should respect them if they’ve done the right thing, indicating that being told what to do or being respected depend on earning trust and confidence as opposed to by virtue of the sex of a person.

The themes from both groups:

Between both groups culture, age, life experiences and status as a parent all factored into how they structured their responses. In general, the groups recognised their responses would have been very different had they completed this exercise when they were 15 and in school. There was a recognition that with age, the need to prove oneself diminishes and that other priorities take over, leaving them with less time and energy to play games of social one-upmanship. The men all cited becoming a father as a moment when they started to change their beliefs and had too much to lose to justify acting with bravado.

One potential conclusion from this, is that addressing these issues at younger ages is key to supporting boys and young men to take a more plural view of what it is to be a man. In so doing, it is possible that the seeds could be sown for supporting boys and young men to consider their thoughts, emotions and actions in a more considered and objective way.

The groups were thanked for their time and engagement in the process. One person said “It was really interesting and made me think. This would be good for young’uns who need to think about these things.”

What’s up next?

We will be sharing the reflections of boys and young men from a secondary school and one of the youth clubs Future Men manages in the next post. Until then …