Men after #MeToo: Theres a narrative that masculinity is fundamentally toxic’

With masculinity in crisis, can a new mens movement bring a positive shift?

One of the first things I discovered at the mens group was that most men are scared of other men. Here we all were, 25 or so specimens of metropolitan masculinity, gathered in a London yoga studio to spend our Saturday learning how to get vulnerable with Rebel Wisdom, a newly formed mens collective. In todays world, for men to be vulnerable and speak their truth is an act of rebellion, says its chic new age website. We exist to fuel this rebellion.

In practice, this meant we were going to spend a day doing breathing exercises, talking about our fathers, pretending to be tigers, leaning on one another, working out which Jungian archetypes we vibed with, and trying to articulate why we all felt so defensive and angry and misunderstood so much of the time. But first we had to stand in a circle and say how we were feeling. And one by one, the men mostly in their mid-30s, mostly straight, mostly white said they were afraid. One guy, a straight-talking youth worker, reckoned that if the estate kids he worked with could see him now, theyd rip the piss and would probably be right to. Another, extremely gaunt and pale, had recently suffered a huge emotional and physical breakdown, and confessed that this was the first time he had been out in weeks. When it came to my turn, I said I was hungover. (Humour is a good way of deflecting uncomfortable feelings, I find.) Then I tried a bit harder: I cant remember the last time I was in a room with all men, I said. I actively avoid these situations. And maybe thats quite strange.

The next thing I learned was that men at least the sort who come to mens groups are quite nice, really. No one laughed or took the piss. We all listened sympathetically to each other talking about sporting humiliations and paternal misunderstandings. The organisers promised there would be no group hugs, but there were lots of group hugs. They also exhorted us to be honest. What if you just told the Truth? the invite read. I left feeling lighter, warmer, but no wiser as to what that truth might be.

I dont know if youve noticed, but men are not exactly giving the best account of themselves at the moment. Every week brings another high-profile reminder of unhealthy masculinity, from Harvey Weinstein to Aziz Ansari to the former Oxfam boss Roland van Hauwermeiren. Clearly, something needs to shift. Like all the male friends Ive spoken to recently, Ive found the current reckoning disorienting at times, shaming at others, but mostly exciting, necessary and liberating. Ive seen the overwhelmingly positive effect its had on many women in my life. But there are moments say when Im happily cooking with my son when the dominant narrative of masculinity as toxic, entitled, corrupt, dysfunctional and so on seems a little limiting. If youve always found men such as Weinstein despicable and pathetic, its disorienting to find yourself in the same category as him by virtue of also having a penis. A couple of times, Ive begun the sentence: You know, not all men only to recall that that in itself is seen as a dick move. And there are clearly dissonances in political, legal and psychological notions of gender that require careful unpicking: for example, the feminist notion that masculinity is in full control of itself and consciously uses sex to cement its power doesnt quite tally with our understanding of the subconscious. Masculinity is very rarely under control and sexual abuse is often perpetrated by men who are threatened (often by other men), vulnerable, damaged, lashing out. Not that this insight can be expected to provide solace for their victims.

Perhaps all the moment requires is for men to shut up and listen, something many clearly find hard. But watching the hashtags accrue #menaretrash, etc its often hard to discern any positive role for men, beyond apologetic retweeters of feminist memes. And theres a wider defensiveness around masculinity. The comedian Robert Webb titled his memoir How Not To Be A Boy: a negative inversion of Caitlin Morans celebratory How To Build A Girl. If you want a vision of masculinity, Webb writes, imagine Dr Frankenstein being constantly bum-raped by his own monster while shouting, Im fine, everyone! Im absolutely fine!

But as we know, men are not fine. Boys get worse grades than girls. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35; men also report significantly lower life satisfaction than women. According to statistics compiled by the Mens Health Forum, men make up 76% of all suicides, 95% of the prison population, 73% of adults who go missing and 87% of rough sleepers. A key part of this is mens reluctance to seek help. Last years cross-party Jo Cox Commission described male loneliness as a silent epidemic: more than one in 10 say they are lonely but wont usually admit it.

One of the problems is that in the last 10 years or so, the world hasnt really been interested in the psychology of gender, says the psychotherapist Nick Duffell. What weve been interested in are transgender issues and free choice and pronouns and gender as a social construct and abuses of power. But one of the things Ive been working with is how powerless men often feel in the private sphere. Men are very unskilled when it comes to relationships and dealing with their emotions. We need to train them to be better at vulnerability, better at relating and when they begin to do that, the power they develop is more authentic.

US poet Robert Bly encouraged men to find their Zeus energy in his 1990s bestseller Iron John. Photograph: Alamy

It is a few weeks after the mens group and I have come to the launch of something called (for now) Mens Movement 2.0 at 42 Acres, a transformational space in east London. The scent of orange blossom is in the air; green creepers hang from the ceiling; amethyst crystals are warding off bad energy and, hopefully, any mens rights activist (MRA) types who might mistake this for some sort of alt-right/anti-feminist hate-in. The men here are keen to distinguish themselves from these MRAs who they feel have given mens groups a bad name and instead look back to the original mens movement, which had its origins in the early 1970s as a male adjunct to radical feminism, and went on to give the world terms such as male bonding, as well as the 1990s bestseller Iron John by the American poet Robert Bly, who urged men to locate their Zeus energy and sun-like grandeur. Among those present are Kenny the Man Whisperer Mammarella-DCruz, who hosts informal drop-in sessions for men; Alex Bailey of the charity A Band of Brothers, which pairs elder male mentors with young ex-offenders; and Paul Robson of the Nordic Mens Gathering. Still, the fact that the Weinstein scandal has broken between this event and the last one as well as the female allies in the audience this time might explain why the atmosphere is a little more charged than it was a few weeks before.

At the outset, David Fuller, 42, a film-maker and one of the founders of Rebel Wisdom, outlines what Mens Movement 2.0 hopes to achieve. He has been on a personal journey these past few years, he explains, and of all the work he has done from psychedelics to tantra he has gained most from mens work: men coming together in small groups, holding space, sharing their fierce loving energy and helping each other grow. Women give birth to boys, but men give birth to men is an axiom of the movement. A man must do the work to develop his own independence and grow into a relaxed masculine confidence that is not threatened by the feminine. Something magical and unexpected happens when men help each other do this, Fuller believes and its something the world is calling out for in 2018.

Around the election of Donald Trump, it felt really significant that a lot of issues around masculinity were being reflected in the culture, he tells the 60 or so attendees. How is it possible that a man who boasts of sexual assault can be elected to the most significant public role in the world? It spoke to a deep dysfunction around our ideas of healthy masculinity. But, at the same time, theres a narrative that theres something about masculinity thats fundamentally toxic. What we need to do as a society but particularly as men he says, is to redefine healthy masculinity. A masculinity that is no better or worse than femininity, but that stands as its opposite, equal pole.

One of the themes that has come to the fore is that women shouldnt have to perform the emotional labour of teaching men how not to harass and assault them just as it shouldnt be down to people of colour to call out and explain racism. Reflect. Be humble. Work this out. Admit fault. This seems compatible with the core precept of mens work, which involves men sorting out their shit with other men. But the question is, when men get together to talk about men, do they say the sorts of things that women would like to hear?

As the Mens Movement 2.0 launch gets underway, Im not so sure. There is lots of talk about anima and animus, about how men need to make peace with their inner feminine. The lack of male role models and masculine rites of passage is mourned. Duffell, a veteran of the first mens movement, talks about how important it is for men to learn to admit their vulnerability. Weve been educated out of vulnerability! Then an audience member becomes frustrated and asks why were talking about our feelings when violent male fascists are marching on the streets in Poland. But how does that make you feel? Duffell asks.

It makes me angry! the audience member says.

So why dont you just say that? Im angry and scared!

Rafia Morgan, another veteran facilitator, talks about the origins of the mens movement at Berkeley, California, in 1968. Then we watch a video from a Nordic Mens Gathering, whose founder, Paul Robson, tells us that in egalitarian Sweden theyre about five years ahead of us in their approach to gender and celebrate strong healthy masculinity. Alex Bailey of A Band of Brothers talks about how older men are a vast, untapped social resource and encourages us all to volunteer to help vulnerable younger men. Someone asks if gay men have a role in the movement. Yes! All are welcome! Then we spend a long time discussing whether Mens Movement 2.0 is a good name.

Finally, someone remarks that it would be interesting to hear from one of the women in the room. Come on, girls, speak up! One woman says shes been leading feminist groups for years and its interesting how similar the discussions are: Obviously, theres a different energy, and its complicated where the patriarchy starts coming in, she says. But weve been doing this sort of work for a long time and we talk about similar things.

Surprisingly, this is the first time anyone has mentioned the word patriarchy, and it produces a frisson. Bailey steps up: For me, its about the idea that were equal, but different, he says. I have a biochemical experience based on testosterone; a woman has a biochemical experience based on oestrogen. Its a different sort of consciousness, in my belief. But theres also a historical aspect. We as men have denied the effects of patriarchy for centuries. We cant deny that. But if we lump all men and patriarchy in together, men end up nailed to the tree of history and feel a sense of shame that they will never escape from.

Stop calling it patriarchy! comes a voice from the crowd an angry-looking guy with a ZZ Top-style beard possibly a stray mens rights activist. We shouldnt gender a co-created system!

But the reality is, at the top of our society, the vast majority of people are men, Bailey continues. The question is how to differentiate that from masculinity itself.

But do we really need to differentiate it? Everyone turns to Robson, the Swedish guy. It sounds to me that theres some sort of negative association there. What you see in the most gender-equal societies like Sweden is that its still the males at the top, and theres actually a lower percentage of females in leadership positions. For me this idea that we should smash the patriarchy, that men in power are evil, this is quite misguided, you know? Western society is actually kind of OK compared with any other society thats ever existed. And it was built by a patriarchal system. These are guys working hard to make the world a better place. Yes, theres corruption and so forth, but actually I think were doing better than anywhere else in the whole world.

I notice Fuller and Morgan exchanging a pained glance. Two of the women behind me snort. For fucks sake

After the talk, I approach Robson and ask him to elaborate. Well, I dont want to be fact-checked on this, but the more equal a society becomes, the greater the specific psychological difference between the genders becomes. I got that off a Jordan Peterson video, but hes kind of an expert on the issue, right? Peterson is a controversial Canadian psychologist and mythographer, whose recent bestseller, 12 Rules for Life, urges disillusioned young men to take responsibility. He spends a lot of time talking about masculine order and feminine chaos, and is a favourite of the Rebel Wisdom crew, too.

Controversial self-help guru Jordan Peterson is popular with mens collective Rebel Wisdom. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I ask Robson what he thinks of societys current discussions ongender. I see a lot of good things in the #MeToo campaign, but I also see a lot of angry women, he says. All these women are angry at the masculine and theyre angry at men, and this is not helping the guys who are already feeling insecure in their masculinity. Maybe theyre not trying to help men, I say, maybe theyre trying to help other women? Robson seems disappointed with the way the evening has gone. There is this feminine way of talking here in the UK, its very passive-aggressive. You could call it respectful? The problem is that theres a polite surface and underneath things get really angry. He worries darkly that Europe could be about to see an uprising of the far right, precisely because we havent located our healthy masculine.

Other men seem to be frustrated, too. Nelson Melina wasnt sure we got to grips with patriarchy: There are some men at the top of society who make decisions, sure. But competence is not a bad thing. Oppression is whats bad. I dont subscribe to this idea that we live in a system of victims and oppressors. There are different games that can be played in life, you have advantages in some, you have disadvantages in others.

Jason Ho, one of a handful of gay men here, tells me the presence of women made everyone too cautious. I think if we were in a room with all men, the conversation would have gone differently. We would have got to the patriarchy question much quicker. With women around, its more formal, theres less banter and cut and thrust. He says his entire social life consists of mens groups. I wanted more from life, I wanted more from myself and more from other people. Before, I just didnt have many straight male friends. And I feel so close to my brothers now. I dont want to socialise in standard social scenarios any more.

The patriarchy question is one that has been exercising Dave Pickering for some time. A London-based writer and performer, he interviewed 1,000 men about patriarchy for his live show, Mansplaining Masculinity, which he is now turning into a book via the crowdfunding publisher Unbound. About 85% of the men he interviewed thought patriarchy exists; some thought it was a good thing; some didnt; some protested about the premise of the question; others cut-and-pasted the dictionary definition (a system in which men have all or most of the power and importance in a society or group). But it did provoke unexpected confessions. A lot of men talked about being unfairly promoted, and not doing enough domestic chores, Pickering says. But a few were really surprising. One man said, I raped my girlfriend because I didnt know what rape was.

Pickering feels one of the reasons men become so defensive about patriarchy is the idea that they are supposed to be benefiting from it when, in fact, so many of us are suffering under it. The main breadwinner is not a pleasant place to be. The person who is expected to use violence to defend people is not a healthy place to be. More men are in prison, more men are in the army, men are more likely to hurt other men, and its usually because theyre policing masculinity. My mum told me that men are wrong and men are sick. Thats something I internalised. And thats part of patriarchy. Hating ourselves is social conditioning, this idea that theres only one way to be, and if we dont feel that way, we should be ashamed. Pickering has come to question the entire idea of gender, believing its just another way for society to categorise us. As loaded a term as masculinity doesnt begin to reflect the range of experiences and thoughts and feelings that men actually have.

Soon after the launch, the tensions in the Mens Movement 2.0 inevitably rise to the surface. Everyone seems to have found Robson too aggressive. There are further disagreements about whether to call it a mens movement at all. When I describe all this to my wife, she seem unsurprised that we lacked direction. When women get together, we dont talk about femininity. We talk about rights. Perhaps with no specific political cause to rally around, men have nothing else to contemplate other than our wounded feelings.

But thats still a lot to contemplate and even if no one can agree on what to call the movement, it seems to be gathering pace. Fuller recently flew out to Canada to interview Jordan Peterson for his new Rebel Wisdom multimedia channel, and plans a series of intensive mens retreats for the summer. You could spend all summer at similar events: at Heros Journey, a weekender in Wiltshire, men are encouraged to live out the transformation process of ancient myths in a woodland: Were offering this retreat as a safe space, in which supported by the fellowship of a group of men you can move towards a chosen new dream or goal, face your fears and learn from them, and open to new inspiration and direction, says holistic explorer Will Gethin.

When I meet Morgan for coffee a few weeks later, he remains convinced that the mens work he helped pioneer at Berkeley in the early 70s is precisely what the moment requires. Only he points to a difference in scale. Back then, the aim was to reach hundreds of people. In the digital age, a few well-placed memes and YouTube videos mean that mens work could reach millions. Every generation has to learn these lessons for itself, and Morgan recognises in the younger men he mentors many of the conflicts he was working through when his mind was blown by the radical feminists of the early 70s. He moved into a house of male radicals who saw themselves as feminist allies, launched a mens radio station and held co-counselling sessions. But at one of these sessions, he had an epiphany. I remember listening to all these polite, middle-class men, full of guilt, full of anger, full of despair And I had this image of them sawing their own balls off.

He was completely lost at the time. His father had just died and he become a father himself, unexpectedly: a woman had become pregnant with his child, deliberately and without his consent, he says, which left him confused and angry. But then he walked into a bioenergetic mens encounter group, an offshoot of the human potential movement then taking shape in California. These guys just saw me for who I was. I was completely out of touch with my anger. And I just had this anger fit in front of them all. He has now been leading mens groups for 40 years.

What its so good at doing is breaking down the traditional ways men are supposed to relate, he explains. I find men incredibly generous with one another when they come together like that. Theres an implicit support for all men, the wounded men, the insecure men. The message he finds himself giving, time and time again, is that men need to work on being present. Simply listening. I find a present man is by his nature solid, loving, kind, protective. Hes not threatened by his own femininity, or the external feminine. He knows how to make women feel valued. And the problem is, women feel devalued by a patriarchal culture thats run by castrated men and other devalued women.

I cant argue with Morgans central conceit that its a good idea for men to be present, but isnt it a good idea for women to be present, too? Im not sure my own experiences with mens groups have left me more embodied in my masculinity (no doubt I havent gone deep enough). I also wonder if viewing everything through the prism of masculinity really helps men to be better men. If I didnt spend much time worrying about whether I was being true to my gender identity beforehand, I sure as hell did afterwards.

Still, I take some comfort from the main thing I learned from mens groups. Not one of us has a clue what hes doing. I think its one reason many men are finding this moment so hard: we are perceived to have the power, yet most of us feel powerless in relation to our own lives, emotions, relations. You get a real rush when you admit that in front of another man, and another rush when you hear pretty much the same thing echoed back. It may not be much to work with, but its a start.

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