So…who’s afraid to be a girly man?

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2012/07/03 by admin

Helen Lewis

What does feminism have to offer men? Well, apart from the warm glow of doing the right thing, it can liberate them, too. Breaking down what theorists would call the “hierarchical gender binary” – the idea that male and female are opposites, and male is better – would make life better for both sexes.

Does that sound a bit abstract? Consider this: butchness is far more tolerated in our culture than effeminacy. A woman who wants to be like a man: that’s understandable. She’s trading up. But who would want to be what Arnold Schwarzenegger called a “girly man”?

You can see the practical results of this. Women can wear trousers, but very few men wear skirts (basically, Scotsmen at weddings and David Beckham that one time). No one would look askance at a young girl playing with an Action Man; a little boy wanting painted toenails would attract more comment. Just look at the reaction to J Crew’s advert featuring just that:

One charming sounding psychologist, Dr Keith Ablow, told Fox News: “This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity.” You can bet Dr Ablow wouldn’t say that about a girl who likes blue.

There’s a similar phenomenon with men who suffer “women’s problems”. Take the stories of male breast cancer patients. Now, while this is a rare cancer for men, making up less than 1% of male cancer deaths every year, it’s not that rare. Some 77 men died from breast cancer in 2010, more than the number who were killed by testicular cancer (although age and other factors affect this).

One of the few places which reports on male breast cancer patients is the Daily Mail, probably because of the age profile of its readership. One sufferer told the paper: “The reaction from male friends has varied from stunned silence to comments like: ‘You’ve got to be joking!’”

Another said:

“There was a huge embarrassment factor. It took a while for me to be able to talk about it to anyone. If it had been lung or brain cancer, I could have been more open about it. But there’s a stigma that breast cancer is for women. When I told work I was ill, I couldn’t say the words “breast cancer”, I could only say: “I have cancer in my chest.”

“One of the guys at badminton saw where I’d had my op and said it made me look as if I’d been in the SAS. They try to play it down and make it more masculine. I’m sure it’s because there’s embarrassment about breast cancer.”

You hear similar concerns from male rape survivors, for whom the shame, guilt and other negative emotions are compounded in many cases by the belief that, as men, this should not have happened to them – and the fact that it did imperils their identity. Take a look at this moving piece at the Escapist magazine for an account of some of the psychological consequences of rape.

Again, although male-male rape is less common than male-female, it is far from rare. It is thought to be hugely under-reported, but around 3 per cent of UK men had non-consensual sexual contact as adults according to a 1998 study. In the US, where prison rape is an enormous problem, there are even suggestions that male-male rapes are more common than male-female.

Both male breast cancer patients and male rape victims can suffer from the fact that treatment and support networks have been set up primarily with women in mind. The same goes for male anorexics and bulimics (one in ten eating disorder sufferers is male) and for men who suffer from domestic violence. Here’s B-eat’s “Get help” page, featuring photos of women, with just one man:

And here’s the homepage of Refuge, which bills itself as being “for women and children, against domestic violence”.

Now, these charities can’t do everything (particularly at a time of funding cuts )  but there is a problem here.  In all the cases described above, the idea of having a “woman’s problem” can deter men from seeking the help they need.

If being like a woman wasn’t such a social taboo for a man, would that still be true?

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