Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. The title of the anthology reflects the staggering statistic that suicide takes 84 men each week in the UK. The causes of suicide are many and varied, and you surely have your own opinions about prevention, but one paragraph from Helen Calcutt’s introduction stuck out for me:
“Women cry, men do not. Men hit women, women don’t hit men. Both examples of what we would consider a socially accepted norm, denies either party their natural complexity. Women do hit men, and though a violent and harmful act, it also highlights a particular type of vulnerability (perhaps a trauma too) that needs addressing. Men weep. It’s probably one of the deepest, moving sounds I have ever heard. Denying this as a normal attribute to male behavior, almost refuses them the bog-standard right to grieve, to shed a skin—to let it out.”
In the end, this is a book about grief but also hope. Many of the poems are from people who have experienced loss to suicide, some from those who experience or at least describe the feelings that lead to suicide, and some are about the possibilities for better lives and better approaches to male vitality.
I don’t want to quote or describe the poems as I think it takes from their power for the reader, but this book is not only for a great cause, it is great poetry. If you love poetry, you are likely to see names you recognise, but you may also be delighted to discover fresh talent. As you would expect, the poems are moving, but never maudlin or overly sentimental.
I don’t like all your self-referential poems and
Confessional narratives where you just go on and
On and on with your boring anxieties and
Insights into a meaningless existence.
I mean, just like the time you said
She floated on an azure sky and
Had lips that made the rain seem dry.
It started as a conventional statement of
A poet who likes women with moist lips,
But then you had to go and address the
Reader directly before declaring how
Much you liked her hair that seemed to
Have been spun from mists of gold or
Some such shit.
It is just the typical male objectification of
Women, and I, for one, am tired of it,
And I’m sure the readers, if you have
Any, agree with me.
And I must here apologize to the reader
For the overall incoherence of this
Of this rant, or whatever it is.
Nobody needs poetry, anyway,
And if you are trying to process your grief, shame, or
Rage, just get out in front of it.
Lay off the self-indulgent,
Pseudo-intellectual clap trap and confront
Your own failings
Then, you can leave your damp-lipped damsel
Alone on the beach to do whatever she wishes with
Her own alabaster thighs as you turn away
I, personally, have no patience for
Anxious but idealised objectification of
Beauty. I would rather turn my attention
To the dry-lipped strength of a messy-haired
Physically strong woman who pulled me
Up, sometimes literally, when I felt I had no
Reason to lift myself.
But that is only some kind of self-interested
Infatuation, too. Idealising a person based on
My own needs.
I guess it is no wonder why so many
Male poets just describe women as flowers.
She spotted him across the bar,
And her pulse quickened.
She wasn’t surprised to see him;
She knew he would be here,
But she stepped outside to finish
The joint she had started earlier.
After a few long drags, she
Went back in, downed a
Shot of tequila, and walked over.
She looked him straight in the eye,
Took his hand, and led him outside.
She firmly guided him to a dark spot,
Stared blankly into the dark, and
Unzipped his pants. He was full
Of confidence. “She couldn’t get
Enough, eh? Had to come back
For more of the good stuff.”
She was numb.
He was nothing.
He meant nothing.
It meant nothing.
It was only mechanical.
She wasn’t damaged.
She was strong,
Because she could
No longer feel.
If anyone accused him of
He would say,
“If she didn’t like it,
Why’d she come back for more?”
I’m a depressive. It has been some time since suicidal ideation, depersonalisation, and derealisation enveloped my pshche and smothered me in a warm fog. Still, being a depressive is like being an alcoholic. It never really goes away. “My name is Randall, and I’m . . . .”
When my depression comes, it usually greets me in early spring along with the new blooms of fresh gardens and reinvigorated old trees. I have no idea why spring is such a difficult time for those of us who struggle with depression, but I do know I am not alone. When most non-depressives think of depression and seasonal sadness, they think of winter when the skies are dark and the holidays strain the resilience of family ties and over-burdened budgets. But it is spring that brings the spike in suicides.
I don’t think anyone can say for sure why suicides peak in the spring. Some say it is due to allergic responses to pollen. Some say people tend to take action in the spring after a relatively dormant winter. You can click here for a brief overview of theories.
Whatever the reason, please be aware of the increased risk of suicide as spring rolls on. Many of the warning signs are straightforward: talking about suicide, buying weapons or poison, becoming withdrawn, expressing feeling of hopelessness, or mood swings. A less obvious symptom, though, is an increase in energy and mood after a period of depression. Sometimes people may feel happier or energised after deciding on what they see as their only way out. You can click here for a list of suicide warning signs.
Women report suicidal thoughts more often than men, but the majority of completed suicides are men. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take women seriously if they are having suicidal thoughts, of course, but it may be that men are less likely to seek help or admit to feelings of weakness, so it would behoove us all to make support available to men and to help men feel more comfortable seeking help.
Finally, some people may threaten suicide in a bid to get attention, or they may be judged that way, anyway. I can only say that if someone will go to those lengths to get attention, they desperately need attention. Please try to give them some. Attention in the form of care is a human need as real as the need for water or air.
In a world where a man who talks openly about kissing and grabbing women without consent can be taken seriously as a candidate for leader of the “free” world, you may wonder how toxic masculinity has spun out of control. As an antidote to all the bully posturing, perhaps the wisdom of a famous cross-dressing artist can help explain how we got here and how we can move forward, so it is time to pick up Grayson Perry’s TheDescent of Man and begin to unravel the mystery of toxic masculinity.
If you have already spent some time pondering feminism, masculinity, and gender, you really have two choices as you read Perry’s screed: You can quietly applaud from the choir loft or utter a mild rebuke that it doesn’t go far enough to liberate us all from the shackles of rigid gender roles. On the other hand, if you have not really examined assumptions about gender and how they affect the world, prepare yourself for a brief but fairly inclusive overview of entertaining and insightful musings on gender, violence, fashion, and injustice.
If you aren’t already familiar with Grayson Perry, he is a celebrated artist, cross-dresser (he refers to himself as a transvestite and sometimes “tranny,” something I decline to do), and host of a television program titled All Man, which was also an exploration of masculinity. At the outset of the book, Perry says that some may think his cross-dressing gives him a better understanding of women, but he insists that it instead gives him a better understanding of men. Though he mentions cross-dressing a number of times in the book, it plays a relatively minor role in this overall thesis, with the exception of his emphasis on fashion.
For a man of a certain means and status, wardrobe options are limited. When doing any kind of business, a fairly bland suit with a fabric “penis,” as Perry says, wrapped around his neck is the default choice for what Perry describes as the Default Man. The Default Man represents all the power and privilege of being male, but Perry acknowledges that not all men share the power and privilege of maleness equally. Still, the Default Man is the assumed cultural archetype for Western society. His clothing is bland, Perry avers, because the Default Man is in a position to observe and objectify others, not to be observed and evaluated himself.
To care about fashion is decidedly unmanly, and, indeed, men who fuss about their appearance are often assumed to be gay by homophobes and self-appointed gender police. Men from other social classes may not be condemned to the prison of the gray suit, but are still considered effeminate in the event that they spend too much time worrying over hairstyles and clothing choices. This is why, of course, cross-dressing is so emotionally and, for some, erotically charged.
While noting that men are responsible for most of the violence in the world, Perry claims that aggressive masculine behavior is entirely, or almost entirely, the result of conditioning that begins even before birth as parents, family, and friends begin choosing clothing, toys, and decorations that “match” the gender of an expected child. Infants and children are treated differently according to their gender, so it would be surprising if boys and girls did not behave differently. Boys learn early to suppress their emotions, be fiercely independent, and solve problems with violence.
Perry gives many compelling and interesting examples of how boys and men experience violence and emotional isolation, but I wish he had spent a little more time talking to the men who seem immune from this conditioning and to people of all genders who fail to fill the role of stereotypical male. For example, if gender is all conditioning, why is it that at least some gay (and some straight) men fail to follow the dictates of the gender binary? What disruptions alter the course of the conditioning? If we are hoping to modify gender roles for future generations, we need to explore alternative paths to non-binary or, at least, non-destructive masculinity.
Though he gives some a passing mention, Perry mostly ignores the experiences of nurturing men such as at-home dads, male carers, transgender men, transgender women, and intersex people. Perry claims gender is a matter of performance in that we all perform behaviors, dress, and emotions that indicate our gender. In other words, we perform masculinity or femininity by taking on the attributes of either gender. In this sense it would seem that anyone would be free to change the mode of performance at any given time.
The use of the word “performance” in this sense recalls the work of Judith Butler, who distinguishes between “performance” and “performativity.” Butler explains here that performativity is about the effects our behavior as related to gender has while performance is a choice to take on a role. If gender were merely a performance, bullying and other forms of gender policing would probably not be such a problem. The shame people feel when they are unable to conform to gender expectations is related to what they are, not what they do. Perry is probably wise to avoid the treacherous philosophical waters of gender identity and deep linguistic analysis, but the question of how deep our inclinations run and can be modified haunts the discussion like the baggage of an old relationship.
In chapter four, he begins by declaring, “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.” If he is correct and gender is not in our genes, is not biologically determined, then we have a much better chance at making changes. We can expand the emotional lexicon of boys and men. We can increase male capacity for empathy. We can end war and violence and finally bring peace on earth.
After declaring that we are free to change our gender expression, he paradoxically says this: “Men, bless ‘em, are tethered to a monster, a demon conjoined twin, a one-man ‘wrong crowd’ who will often drag then into bad behaviour. The penis is at once us and not of us.” He says a boy’s sex drive keeps him from understanding the importance of platonic relationships and forming adequate social support networks. Here, near the end of the book, he seems to be speaking of a kind of gender essentialism, which contradicts most of what comes before.
He says, “Men, particularly when young, view the world through a heads-up display of sexual desire.” I’ve never been a young girl or woman, but I have a suspicion that sexual desire also occasionally clouds female judgment and causes them to behave less rationally than they may otherwise hope. And some boys, I am certain, are not so driven by their sexual desires. Regarding biological determinism, Perry clarifies, “We may be genetically predisposed to be straight or gay, identify as male or female or in between, but I think the attitudes, cues, contexts, power relationships, props and costumes are supplied by conditioning.” This clarification is crucial.
While some men “perform” masculinity well and succeed throughout their lives, other boys and men (or people assigned male) find it impossible to “act like a man” and, further, have no desire to join the fraternity. Removing the toxic part of masculinity can make more room for varied forms of gender expression.
In the end, Perry seeks to liberate men from the confines of narrow gender conformity. Once men are freed from shame around weakness and vulnerability, perhaps they can have more compassion for themselves and for those around them. Perhaps, finally, boys who like My Little Pony can say so without fear of bullying. Perhaps, finally, men in the throes of grief can cry openly without being told they need to pull themselves together.
When Olympian gymnast John Orozco made it onto the US Olympics team after recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and, more importantly, the loss of his mother, he wept openly with a mixture of joy and profound grief. We can’t know whether he was trying to suppress his tears, but they flowed freely and he made no apology for them. I was moved by his emotion, of course, but also grateful that he appeared to weep unabashedly and free from shame.
Not many men can do the same. I have been honored and fortunate to be in the presence of men crying on a regular basis. As a volunteer facilitator for a grief support group, I see men seeking support after the loss of their children, spouses, or other loved ones. Although a few manage to suppress their tears, most of the men weep, and almost all of them apologize for crying like a child. Fortunately, other men who have experienced a traumatic loss are quick to offer a reassuring, “Don’t worry, I’ve spent many hours crying my eyes out, too” or something similar.
It is disappointing, though, to learn how many men do not feel comfortable crying in front of their own families and partners. I hear stories of men crying in the middle of the night or in cars, closets, and bathrooms. Some men schedule time to let their tears flow as they try to put on a brave, unemotional face for the world.
I wish I could say their efforts were unwarranted, but too many men have been criticized for their tears. One distraught father who lost his son to suicide told me people at the funeral told him to “pull himself together” for his family. Other men tell of supporting their wives through extended fits of wailing only to receive a cold shoulder when they break down. Often, I hear laments along these lines. “I know I’m a strong person. I have to be strong. But this is too much. Is there nowhere I can get support?”
It is commonly held, even by some therapists, that men naturally grieve differently from women. Allegedly, men process their emotions through actions rather than emotional purging. Men may bury themselves in work, start organizations in the name of the deceased, build monuments, or fight for legal changes to prevent future deaths. Of course, many men do this, and so do women, but this does not mean that men’s biology prevents them from accessing their tears. Men and women both grieve through actions and tears.
If anything prevents men from grieving openly, it is social prohibition, not biology. Whether you are a man or a woman, please know that most men are capable of crying, need to cry, and should not be ashamed of their grief or their tears. If you need to support a man in mourning, please let him cry. If you are a man in mourning, please follow the example of John Orozco and cry without shame or apology. You are not crying like a baby; you are crying like a man.
As a child, I grew up in a culture defined by rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia. While I now realize many of the people around me were gay, they were invisible to me at the time. At least, their sexuality was invisible to me. As a teenager, I made an intellectual decision that everyone had a right to equal dignity and expression. Living in a seemingly homogeneous society, though, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience my own implicit biases until later.
I strongly defended the rights of gay people to live, work, love, and express their lovepublicly, but my reaction to actual gay lives was untested. I was probably a bit too comfortable with myself and my choice for equality, for the first time I saw two men kissing, I was horrified to find that I looked away with feelings of discomfort and perhaps even disgust. I was then filled with shame for the latent feelings I obviously had, but I did my best to not turn away.
Over time, I was lucky enough to find many gay friends and to experience their love and affection in ways that seemed perfectly natural because they were perfectly natural. I’m sure I still have many implicit biases, and I keep trying to overcome them all, but at least now I can usually deal with people kissing with no internal conflict. (As I age, I have become painfully aware that many young people feel the same disgust when they see older people kissing.)
Unfortunately, many people react to a man crying in the same way I initially reacted to men kissing men—they turn away in discomfort or even disgust. It is widely assumed that it is men who are disgusted by other men crying (and I’m sure some are), but famed vulnerability researcher Brene Brown found that it is more often women who can’t accept men’s vulnerability. Obviously, being vulnerable means much more than just crying, but I would like to say that I think crying is really the single behavior that sets people stomachs to churning.
We find crying so shameful, in fact, that we often call it “being vulnerable” in order to avoid saying the word “crying.” I don’t mean this to be a criticism of researchers’ use of the word “vulnerability” while they discuss men’s emotional health. Rather, I mean to suggest that the rest of us have adopted the word “vulnerability” as a way of avoiding discussion of crying. Often we will only say that a man “was vulnerable,” because to say that he was “openly sobbing” would be to rob him of his dignity and bring shame to him. Paradoxically, by trying to protect him from judgment, we reinforce the judgment that all men face for being weak, sad, or emotional.
I should qualify that last statement. We don’t judge men so much for being emotional as we judge them for what particular emotions they express. Crying is acceptable for women and girls, but anger is reserved for boys and men. If a man loses his son or father, for example, he may seek revenge in various ways, and he is often honored for doing so, especially if the death was caused by malice or negligence.
Historically, revenge frequently took the form of actual violence, and vengeful violence has certainly not disappeared, but revenge can also take the form of lawsuits, public shaming campaigns, and other legal and socially acceptable forms. But the man who falls into a deep depression or cries uncontrollably for an extended period will face criticism. I once talked to a father who was told he needed to “get it together” at his own son’s funeral.
We pretend that men aren’t in touch with their feelings or that men are incapable of expressing their feelings. If these things are true, it is only because we have conditioned men to suppress their feelings through our own reactions of disgust. Boys are taught in their first months out of the womb that crying is unacceptable. The result is that men must either destroy themselves or destroy those around them in order to process their own feelings.
The price we pay is that the men we are around are emotionally drained, stressed to the breaking point, and prone to anger and destruction over empathy and connection. Of course, this is an oversimplification and is an exaggerated statement of what happens. We all know well-balanced men who are nurturing and emotionally connected. Some men are lucky that their lives have not burdened them with too much grief and sadness. Other men have, in spite of social programming, been lucky to find people who accept them and their emotions. And, finally, some men have the fortitude to find effective means of self-care.
Still, we can and should work to remove the shame and stigma from male weakness, and that begins with removing disgust from the sight of male tears. How do we do it?
Don’t turn away. If a man is crying in your presence, do not avert your gaze. Continue to look at him and let him know that you are with him, free from judgment.
If you are a man, openly discuss your own tears with both women and men. When we remove our own shame, the disgust of others cannot affect us.
Stop saying, “boys don’t cry” to anyone, especially a child. Boys hear this almost as soon as people start talking to them. Support the full emotional range of boys.
Stop mocking male tears. Some feminists seem to feel that making fun of male emotions is an acceptable response to centuries of male tyranny, but mocking male tears is a sure way to help perpetuate misogyny and the oppression of women.
Create safe spaces for men. Men need opportunities to talk to other men about crying and weakness. Men need to let one another know that crying is not weakness. You can take care of your family, be a protector, or be a warrior and still take time to cry.
Recognize the varied experiences of men. Adult men are often victims of childhood abuse whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual. Men are victims of domestic violence and abuse. While physical violence is a reality for many men, emotional battery is even more common. The victimization of men is not a joke, so please stop laughing at it.
Many men will reject my suggestions as being absurd and will suggest I should just “man up.” I ask those men to remember those words the next time, and it will happen, they are struggling to force back the knot forming in their throats as they build a dam against the tears threatening to break forth. Whether we choke the tears back successfully or not, the damage is done. We still feel the shame and disgust. We feel devalued and demoralized by our own natural emotions. We can be free and we can be whole. We just have to come out and be honest about what and who we are.
In a post on how men can be better feminist allies, Emma Cueto advises men to avoid the temptation to put men’s issues first. She sums up the problem of “toxic masculinity” by noting, “is not fun for anyone and often limits men’s choices in terms of interests or self-expression, and it means that many men are never really given the tools to properly deal with their own emotions.” She goes on to say that men are not sexually assaulted at the same rate as women, are not victims of domestic violence as often as women, are not victims of pay disparities or sexual discrimination as often as women, and aren’t confronted by laws designed to control their bodies. She is right on all counts, but Tom Digby’s book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance, helps show why it is impossible to separate culturally programmed masculinity from sexual assault, reproductive regulation, domestic violence, and job discrimination and why feminists must deal with how sexism affects both men and women simultaneously.
His thesis is that militaristic societies establish values and goals that require men to cut off their feelings of care for others and for themselves, see women’s freedom as a threat, and rely on violence to solve their problems. In order to achieve military objectives, subject both boys and girls with intense cultural programming from birth to encourage strength in boys and passivity in girls. With this thesis, he flips the script from what many assume: that men are violent and cut off from their feelings by biological programming. Early in the book, he offers two pieces of evidence that this assumption is faulty. First, men and women in some societies do not show the differences that are so prevalent in militaristic societies. Second, he shows that men often fight against their own biology to retain the appearance of stoicism. Indeed, almost all men have been cruelly taunted for their failure to maintain their composure (choking back tears) even before reaching adolescence. If biology prevented boys from crying, no one would have to keeping telling boys not to cry. The conditioning is relentless and severe.
War dependent societies must maintain ample supplies of expendable men as well as childbearing women who will provide future generations of warriors. This requires shutting down empathy in men, glorifying risk and violence, and valuing women according to sexual availability and passivity. To the extent that maintaining near constant war was the goal, this model worked for centuries, but things have changed. I wish I could say we are no longer reliant on war, but that is sadly not driving the change. Digby points out that while war is still with us, the need for individual warriors who do one-on-one combat, relying on brute strength, has greatly diminished. Combat is now highly mechanized, and what physical differences may exist between men and women often offer no benefit to either side or may even give an advantage to women (he notes the case of jet fighters).
As a result, most men do not experience direct combat, or any kind of combat, in their lives. Our warriors must find other outlets for their masculinity. They may do it through aggressive sports, war games such as paintball, or even through violent video games. Digby points out that while women may be attracted to warriors, the guy who dominates video games doesn’t get quite the accolades of war combatants.
Another change is the material relationship between men and women. In the past, women were materially dependent on men and would comply with men’s wishes in order to avoid poverty. As women have entered the workforce, many are now the primary wage earners for their families. As women earn college degrees and professional credentials at higher rates than men, it is inevitable that men will become increasingly dependent on women for material support. These social changes leave our masculine warrior with an identity crisis. One option is for him to change his identity, which requires becoming more dependent and empathetic. This would be to become more “feminine” (a horror to the warrior). Or, the second option is for him to become more strident and militant, which may account for increased attacks against feminism and women these days.
When we observe the vitriol in attacks against feminist women online, graphic violence against women in video games and movies, and actual physical brutality and murder of women, it is easy to see the desperation of the warriors who refuse to go down without a fight. The fact that their opponents wish them no real harm seems to be of no consolation. It took me awhile to read this book because I assumed I would agree with it, and I did. I already knew that men were programmed to cut off their empathy, to expect women to be passive, to have the greatest disdain for “feminine” men, and so on. This book does bring a new analysis to these facts, though. It gives a new understanding of how things have gotten where they are and how they may be different.
I have only one minor quibble with one claim in the book. In chapter two, Digby quotes Sandra Bartky to explain the transactional nature of heterosexual relationships. He quotes Bartky as saying, “He shows his love for her by bringing home the bacon, she by securing for him a certain quality of nurturance and concern.” The claim is that men are emotionally unavailable or unsuited for empathy and emotional nurturance. On the other hand, women are expected to provide comfort and emotional support for men. I do think it is true that men are more likely to seek emotional support from women than from men, but I do not think this transaction is so readily accepted in heterosexual relationships.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to both men and women in grief. Many men are so conditioned to “be strong” that they will never ask for support from the women in their lives for fear of appearing weak. Also, many feel they must suppress their emotional needs for the good of the family. Because they succeed in appearing strong, the women around them believe they are strong and do not need emotional support. As a result, men too often face grief and depression in complete isolation. When they finally crumble under the pressure, many will say, “I had no idea things were so bad.” This may help explain why men commit suicide at higher rates than women. Sadly, I’ve heard too many women say that they, also, do not feel supported by other women. Increasingly, at least in the United States, I feel grief is becoming a solitary activity for both men and women.
I hope we can all begin to support one another by offering each other protection, emotional support, material support, and just human kindness.