An abridge version of this article recently appeared in the British Journal ‘Therapy Today’.
Has there ever been a more challenging time to be a man? Whilst many patriarchal structures remain in place worldwide, masculinity gets a bad press in the Western world these days. ‘Toxic’ is the adjective it’s most commonly coupled with (1).
‘Me Too’ and the unmasking of how some males in positions of power in Hollywood, the church or politics get their sexual needs met coercively has dispelled illusions, freed up survivors and empowered some women. Meanwhile, male chauvinist display now dominates current affairs with Trump, Kavanaugh, Bolsonaro, Putin and Erdogan — even Boris and Farage. As spectators, we don’t know whether to be shocked or to take this style, with its defensive and offensive tactics, as the new reality. At the same time, many of the traditional classes who are losing out under financialisation and globalisation (2) seem to find vicarious comfort in an uncertain future by cheering on these bullish authoritarians.
Perhaps ‘toxic masculinity’ is right? How should we make sense of this?
It affects us all: exactly half the DNA in each human is male and about half of us are born as males. Denouncing the atrocious entitled habits of some men renders needed truth to power, but what is the effect on males themselves, especially on youngsters needing to identify with a positive masculinity? What is it like for them to experience the aggressive and emotionally defensive style in world leaders? How is it, when they looking for good models of masculinity to align with as they grow up, to have examples of predatory male sexuality both minimalized and defended as well as righteously attacked? Worse, if all men are potential rapists or ‘pussy grabbers’ how will children have trust in the male of the species?
I think it’s high time for masculinity’s detox.
A decade ago in these pages, Manu Bazzano (3) pointed out that many men born and raised after feminism are deeply bewildered about what it means to be a man, especially those raised without a father present. Struggling to find a good reputation for masculinity, some are furious with their world, their elders, their mothers or their fathers, or their own bodies. Some refuse altogether to identify with anything they see on offer as masculinity, supporting Grayson Perry’s assertion that ‘masculinity is finished as an idea’ (4). Increasingly, it seems that in the West, parents, educators, clergy and therapists, tasked to guide young males towards inhabiting an authentic sense of self rooted in a masculinity they can have faith in, are at a loss to know what to say to the young.
The reductionist model of social power relations that has dominated the past few decades just won’t cut the mustard — ask any teenager in school today whether their Sex and Relationship Education speaks to them. It hasn’t stopped male teenagers carving each other up on the streets of our cities or diminished the suicide rate amongst men who have no idea at all how to talk about their feelings, as the white London rapper Professor Green demonstrated in a moving TV programme about his father (5).
And of course, male aggression is only part of the story. Many men struggle to embody their impulses to healthy aggression or wanting; instead, they adopt a diffident, hesitant, placatory or withholding stance. This can become a problem in family and intimate relationships, if one with a different directionality to machismo. As a couple therapist and facilitator of men’s groups, I see the latter more regularly than the easier identified male difficulty of learning how to properly regulate anger, aggression or ambition.
It’s complicated. Some women report how a ‘stonewalling’ male partner feels violent to them. In British public life such a diffident character style has long been a national ideal, in contrast to the Fox News’ version to which we are now exposed. Besides, there can often be a sting in the tail of the passive male. In the British model, a polite self-deprecating personality can go hand in with malicious, blaming irony. I have written about this at length in Wounded Leaders (6), out too soon to include examples from our current challenger, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The culture-only view of gender is not up to the job because it fails to take proper account of developmental issues, which are rooted in the body but occur at the interface of changing social and cultural mores and are processed psychologically. So I propose here to briefly explore the developmental journey for boys to see where the masculinity detox is needed.
Growing up male
Boys have a lot of learning to do and most of it not in school. They have to deal with the fact that as mammals their sexuality is different to females in desire and expression and can easily take a predatory turn. They must discover how to accommodate their impulses towards wanting and grabbing (Ian McGhilchrist describes grabbing as a reflex dominated by the left-brain (7)), without throwing baby out with bathwater. They must learn how to regulate their aggressive instincts in light of their archaic heritage as hunters and warriors. Previously, fighting and death were everyday facts of life while, nowadays, dilemmas are played out on digital devices in the jungle of social media.
It’s a big learning curve, and although self-regulation is the goal of every mature organism, these things cannot be learned on one’s own. It begins in childhood, especially after infancy, and has a second take in puberty-adolescence. Here is where the presence of an emotionally intelligent, non-absent father is irreplaceable for the boy — to say nothing about what it means for a daughter.
The father has a job on his hands that he most likely never envisaged: to teach the boy emotional responsiveness and self-regulation of narcissistic impulses. Where the demands of work keep the father focussed elsewhere or where the emotional difficulties of intimate relationship propel him away from home, it’s a pretty tough ask.
In his absence, the boy will have to look elsewhere for mirroring as a male. Where should he look — to his mother, to her disappointment about the presence of males? Therein lies a whole other story. What he usually does is look to the peer group or the gang, and to the culture. His peers cannot mirror him and culture has a habit of reinforcing the lowest common denominator in gender. ‘Redtop’ newspapers, action movies and gaming reinforce the urge to grab and motivate the drive sex and violence, rather than teach a boy to master them in his own body through the mediation of his heart supported by a present father.
Over time, father needs assistance from other good-hearted mature males, because the job is a big one, and the adolescent male’s energy needs directing. It helps if the older men can remember the violent emotional and sexual urges inside young males. The storyteller Michael Meade — a wild youth himself — writes that indigenous people in Uganda had a word for this energy, litima. They knew that if this inextinguishable force was not directed it would ‘burn the village down’ (8). This is why cultures wiser than ours, operating at smaller scales, had in place initiatory rites and processes for children going through puberty — for their individual development needs and the welfare of the whole society.
Today’s young men are regularly left with a hole from the presence of absence of the older male’s positive modelling. This often makes itself felt as anger or reckless behaviour. It fills the psyche with distance and turns the male towards women in a disconnected way.
And here he is not on a level playing-field, neither sex nor gender are actually symmetrical. Chromosomatically, all foetuses start off female in utero (double X). Only in the seventh week, if a Y is present — and all goes to plan — does a transformation towards maleness begin (9). The ground of Being appears female: each daughter is born with all the eggs she will ever need; while in the mammal kingdom, male sexuality involves competition and loneliness. Typically, men are less fluent in emotions and relationships, perhaps because boys don’t get the training or perhaps for other reasons. The male frequently looks to woman as though she ‘has’ the sex and he hasn’t, feeling empty until he gets ‘it’ from her. Then the poorly developed male allows the grabbing impulse to take over rather than evolving his sexuality into a giving, connecting energy.
The Father with a Heart
In the late 1980s, the poet Robert Bly brilliantly re-framed men’s anger towards the father as hunger for him. Bly had read the German psychoanalyst Mitscherlich, who said that if a boy doesn’t feel his father a ‘hole’ inside results, and, because nature abhors a vacuum, into this hole rush ‘demons’ (11). This occurs by the father being ‘out’ at work, but equally when he is at home but emotionally absent.
Fathers have particularly important tasks during teenage years. Bly proposed that father should be a wall of contact for the youth to come up against, to argue with, to dispute with, in politics and ethics, to exercise his un-integrated but passionate nature. From such clear contact in relation to another who cares about him, he gets a sense of what he is, feeling connected and not distant, which is the quality that continually risks invading the male psyche. The father should not be so strong a wall that the boy is smashed, but he must also not be so soft, or absent, or compliant or permissive that the boy has nothing to push against.
Such a father is not perfect but has cultivated emotional skills: he knows how to be present, listening and supporting more than giving advice. He is less ashamed of his vulnerability and therefore less scared of his partner’s. Along with whatever other qualities he has, such as practical or intellectual resourcefulness, he models how to regulate his emotions, providing a rounded rather than partial model of masculinity, free enough from defensiveness. This is what — unbeknownst to him — every boy is searching for on his own journey of maturing and awakening.
It is my firm belief, after thirty-two years studying how both the lottery of sex and the hyper-rational culture affect men’s hearts (10), that a lack of positive father presence diverts masculinity towards negativity, defensiveness and reluctance to evolve. Males of every age seem not to have had enough of what I call the ‘Father with a Heart’. It is as if the adolescent is often still alive in side many men, influencing their confusion, aggression or sexuality. This is the toxicity, I suspect.
But I have also repeatedly experienced how this toxicity is healable through therapeutic menswork in groups, and how men readily embrace personal evolution when encouraged to in such a setting.
To fill the lack, men of all ages are busy (unconsciously) searching for and projecting the ‘father with a heart’ wherever it might land. Sometimes this makes them vulnerable to grabbing abuse in football clubs, churches or boarding schools. But projection is also a valuable form of psychic activity that can bring about completion over time and can be made use of therapeutically. This is precisely where the facilitated men’s group is most useful.
I have written elsewhere that group therapy can be more effective for men than the intense one-to-one encounter of individual therapy (12). Not only do therapeutic groups mitigate habitual male tendencies towards isolation, but since men learn dominant and defensive masculinity in groups of men, they can best unlearn it and find a new way in groups. Defensive masculinity is immature, so unlearning it is step towards maturity. Supported to explore identity issues in therapeutic menswork, men can safely practise sharing feelings, developing supportive challenge alongside empathy. They are then better placed to stand in the eternally difficult world of relationships.
In our quarterly men’s groups, ages span the 20s to the 70s, but the bulk of participants are in midlife. Whatever his background, an adult male may encounter a time when his goals and beliefs loose meaning, or when the parameters of his life start accruing loss; in particular, relationships fail. Underlying this may be some developmental lack that no longer sustains. This is the existential crisis well known to our profession, and if negotiated well a breakdown can become a breakthrough. Such a crisis may be a chance to intentionally learn a different kind of self-regulation, where meaning, value and the wisdom of the heart have more weight than the ‘patriarchal’ goals of status, muscles, wealth, pedalled at the lowest common denominator of culture.
The journey now more of an inward feel than an outward trajectory. Here the male’s development process is potentially evolutionary — a movement away from a base starting ground to a potential for awakening and flowering. Elsewhere, I provocatively described these two points the ‘GITs’ (Gendered Imaginary Tendencies) and the ‘GETs’ (Gender Evolutionary Tasks) (13). The GITs are the stereotype of defensive and distance-ridden masculinity, which we can see all around us. Many imagine that this is all there is, that masculinity is toxic because it is selfish and wants to dominate. But this ignores another masculinity that can be cultivated, but which is hard to do alone.
The psycho-spiritual evolution that beckons at the GETs is towards awakening the heart as the discriminator of meaning and determiner of action. Even without personal experience of the father with a heart there exists a legacy of male poets, artists and spiritual teachers that speak of such a journey, but it is rarely framed in gendered terms. CG Jung saw individuation as an ‘Inner Marriage’ in which the elements of masculinity and femininity, which have been partially integrated inside a person, begin to harmonise for the re-creation of the whole. Jung’s idea reminds us how, biologically, our DNA — half from mother and half from father — combines to form something completely new. The evolution of masculinity, however, happens at another level from the physical.
Masculinity can become toxic, but this is a cheap description. From a deeper perspective, males need encouragement to cooperate with evolution itself.
Nick Duffell is a psychotherapist, psychohistorian and author who has run men’s groups since 1987. In 1996 co-founded the Centre for Gender Psychology. Nick’s books include The SIMPOL Solution (with John Bunzl), Wounded Leaders, Sex, Love and the Dangers of Intimacy (with Helena Løvendal) and The Making of Them. He is an honorary research associate at University College London, where he is working on a virtual reality experiment for healing childhood attachments.
This year Nick initiated the first Menswork Faciliator training and will speaking at a major new conference on men’s violence and vulnerability in London in May. Details on https://www.facebook.com/MensWorkUK/ www.genderpsychology.com and https://www.facebook.com/events/2137852409860738/