Tackling Male Entitlement, One Conversation At A Time
It was half 10 on a Wednesday night when I picked up my phone, crying, to message my friends. The news had just broken about Sarah Everard. I opened WhatsApp. They were already there, and the conversation had already begun. We shared how we felt - our anger, our fear, our overwhelming frustration that we had just had confirmed something we had known was coming. And, in the following days, as the stories poured in all over social media, women shared their experiences, their near misses and their deep traumas. We talked about the rituals we undertake when we walk home alone in the dark, keys between our fingers, a friend on the other end of the phone to monitor our progress to the front door. We talked about being groped on public transport, being followed, or harassed, about inappropriate comments from people we know as well as those we do not.
It was #MeToo all over again.
And, because of that, there was a further layer of anger. A post on Twitter read “This week, the country has been split into men going about their daily lives and women worrying and praying for a woman they don’t know but feel like they do.” We’d been here before, we’d told our stories, the collective experience was visible and laid bare – but nothing had changed and, what’s more, the response to this awful event was still overwhelmingly female. Equally anger-inducing, the hashtag #NotAllMen was trending - a defence neatly dismantled in this Guardian article.
I fumed, I raged, I didn’t hold back in sharing my ire. Why were so few men talking about this?
And that’s where it began. “I’m thinking about feminist learning spaces for men” I messaged my friend and colleague Andy, as I stood at a level crossing with my 3-year-old “…we just need to seed something because I’m not seeing anyone else doing it.” It was obvious to me that, as a woman, I shouldn’t be driving the car, even if I was drawing the outline and helping to start the engine. I’d be perpetuating the problem otherwise; we can share our stories, but if we’re not the ones causing the harm there’s only so much that we can do to stop it.
Andy sent out a message through his networks and off it went – the beginning of the Men Don’t Talk network.
The thing is, the world is full of structural disadvantages, of intersectional problems, and it’s really hard to know where to start in addressing any of them. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my work, it’s that conversations and relationships are where most of the real work happens. The starting point is coming together to bring the problem into the light, examine it in order to learn – even, or especially, if this means challenging many of your own past actions or inactions – and have the bravery to resolve collectively to act. And then, we show what’s possible, we inspire, we pollinate, our actions are multiplied in those of others. If the idea of a network of men resolving to dismantle the patriarchy is a seed, conversation is the water, and learning is the light that helps it to grow.
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In the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, my friend and colleague, Abby, began talking to me about the outpouring of anxiety and emotion she was seeing online, amongst her friends, and that she herself was feeling. Abby talked about her own fears of male violence, about how there were certain streets she wouldn’t walk down for fear of being attacked, and routine practices she and most other women undertook to stay safe (carrying an alarm, holding keys between your fingers, ringing someone or faking a phone call so it looks like you’ve got company, crossing the road when someone walks close behind you, getting off the bus early or moving train carriages to escape the advances of a stranger). Abby said that she and many of her female friends had been sharing their own experiences of male violence against women. And she said that she and many of her female friends had all noticed that what was happening was just women talking to other women. She described a deafening absence of male voices.
Working broadly within the field of systems change, Abby said that we should do something about this and suggested that I could set up a ‘feminist men’s network’ – a group of men who would explore, challenge, and use their voices to break this silence. So I did.
The Men Don’t Talk network (our third name) has only existed for about six months. We’re very small and we’re still finding our feet, but it has already been a fairly profound journey for me. The name Men Don’t Talk is itself an uncomfortable truth – men very rarely have open, honest, emotional, vulnerable conversations with other men. I know that I don’t, and so the simple act of pulling a group of men together to try to have such conversations has felt by turns awkward and painful and uncomfortable The simple act of creating The aim of the group is primarily (but not exclusively) to be a male-only space where we ‘do the inner work’ - share and interrogate what it’s like to be a man, eventually working to challenge gender inequalities and promote anti-oppressive practices by starting with ourselves, the micro-decisions we have to make, and the ripples that flow from them.
I’m a new father. My daughter, Rosa, was born in January. In the lead-up to the birth, my wife and I were part of a NCT cohort (online) with eight other sets of first-time parents. As the course ended, the women set up a women-only WhatsApp group to enable them to share what they were going through with others going through the same experiences. The level of sharing within that group of people who have never met in the flesh was amazing – the degree of emotional openness, the sharing of embarrassing physical details, the vulnerability. The men also set up a private WhatsApp group. We swapped some jokes, exchanged a few practical tips, and then basically stopped talking.
There was no sharing, no vulnerability – because this is the reality of what is expected for men. I have loved becoming a father, but I have also found it very hard. There has been no support offered to me specifically as a new father. All of the things I have accessed have told me that my job is support my partner and child. There has been no focus on the impact on my mental health, my concerns about how to be a good father. And I think this is deeply problematic.
Through this period of new fatherhood and male violence in the headlines, I’ve been reminded of Brene Brown’s work on shame. Brown says men and women experience shame very differently. For men, shame is experienced as a single unrelenting message: don’t be weak.
I consider myself to be a fairly emotionally-literate bloke, but it is shocking to me how much I continue to feel the pressure to ‘not be weak’. This has played out through my new fatherhood, where the implicit message I’ve been receiving is that my role is to be strong for my wife and daughter. This plays out in a work context where although I do talk reasonably often and openly about how I’m feeling, I tend not to let people see when I’m struggling. We held a session on ‘lad culture’ two months ago, led by two of the younger members of the network. It was shocking to see how quickly they made the connection between lad culture and poor male mental health. They talked about how all the members of their lads group was struggling with different mental health issues, and how one of their friends had been driven to suicide. They talked about how so much of lad culture is just a cover for male mental health issues – a system of peer pressure based on low self-esteem, looking for validation from other men because ‘I didn’t respect myself’. For me, this all comes back to this central message of ‘don’t be weak’.
It’s early days for the network. It has already been really challenging being part of a group of men who are trying to be emotionally open. It is something that I think none of us are used to. It feels raw and confronting and strange in a way that simultaneously feels like we’re doing really important work because it is all of those things. And something has to change.