“Men are vulnerable - they suffer from gender pressure too. We need International Men's Day”

Posted by
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett explains why International Men's Day is not something to be sniffed at - and explains the serious pressures facing the male population today.

Feminist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett says:

Why have an International Men’s Day? You might argue that global gender inequality means that every day is International Men’s Day, and, like Labour MP Jess Phillips, you’d certainly have a point.

The fact that Phillips’ opposition to the holding of an International Men’s Day debate in parliament resulted in her receiving violent threats of sexual abuse on social media simply adds credence to her argument.

As anyone following feminism will no doubt be aware, sexism against women is about much more than Dapper Laughs and Manspreading (though these obviously remain causes for grave concern).

Men dominate an overwhelming proportion of top positions in business, politics, and the media, while we still do the bulk of the childcare and domestic work. There’s the glass ceiling, the abysmal rape conviction rate, sexual harassment and catcalling - not to mention an advertising industry hell-bent on making us feel as insecure and inadequate as possible so that we buy more stuff and diet ourselves into submission.

And that’s just the start of it.

That a female politician can’t even highlight the gender disparity without a bunch of sexist cretins threatening to rape her speaks volumes about the male oppression of women.

But that doesn’t mean that men don’t suffer from gender-specific problems, too.

The co-opting of International Men’s Day by the creepy, angry ‘men’s rights’ activists of the internet has made many women wary of it, but all the day is really for is to raise awareness of specific negative issues in society that are affecting men.

We all have men that we know and love. For many of us, they are some of the most important people in our lives. And we also know that they can sometimes struggle to open up emotionally when they are suffering.

On the 8 March, I usually text my mother and female friends to say “Happy International Women’s Day, lots of love x.” Today I’ll be doing the same for the men in my life. Because why not use this day to raise awareness of some of the issues affecting them?

Both genders, to varying extents, suffer under an unequal system that forces us into unsatisfactory gender roles, and the consequences can be devastating. 

Male suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 45 in this country, and according to the Office of National Statistics, suicide rates amongst men have been rising significantly since 2007.

YouGov research published last month by Calm (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) indicated that 4 in 10 men have thought about taking their own lives at some point.

Though the rapper Professor Green, whose father took his own life, has admirably been raising awareness of the issue in the public domain, cuts to mental health services are a continuing concern.

Think about every female stereotype we suffer under and try reversing it.

While we are perceived as weak, men are expected to be strong. As a result they are much less likely to seek help – YouGov’s research also indicated that a similar proportion of men had never sought help for the emotions they were experiencing, citing feelings of embarrassment, shame and not wanting to make “a fuss”.

Women make up the vast majority (two thirds) of people referred for NHS counselling but this is not, experts say, necessarily due to a gender difference in the prevalence of mental health issues, but because men are less likely to raise the topic, especially with a GP.

International Men’s Day could be a good opportunity to check in with the men you love and ask them if they’re OK.

I’m not saying you should start behaving like an American therapist over dinner (we’re British: a “how’s everything with you?” would suffice) but there’s nothing wrong with making the effort to communicate.

The archetype of the strong, silent male and of the mantra “boys don’t cry” remains a barrier to open, honest dialogue about male mental health issues.

As any woman reading this will know, negative body image is a huge concern for the feminist community. The expectation that our primary function is to be sexy, skinny and perfect-looking so as to better please men is a constant pain in the arse. Well, men face these issues, too, and being surrounded by stereotypes of perfect masculinity doesn’t help.

Statistics in January indicated that male eating disorders have risen by nearly 30% since 2000, and there is no doubt that our appearance-focused culture has ramped up a gear. The pressure to have a ripped, lean physique can be seen everywhere from advertising to film, social media, magazines and television.

Gym obsession and the excessive use of hormones and supplements remain a problem, particularly amongst younger men. Men are also less likely to be taken seriously by their GP when they look for assistance.

It would be a mistake not to offer men a forum to discuss these issues and the gendered pressures they face, especially today. 

Something that my grandmother once said has always stuck with me. She was talking about her marriage, and said: “men are much more vulnerable than you ever give them credit for.”

I have no doubt that many women reading this will know this is true from talking to the men in their lives.

Men are not the emotionless edifices that society so often holds them to be. There are so many issues out there that they face: mental health, homelessness, violent crime, social exclusion, the pressure and expectation that they be the financial provider even in times of recession and unemployment.

I don’t buy for a minute the argument that feminism is bringing about the “end of men” or is the insidious cause of the problems they face. Because ultimately, any good feminist knows that patriarchy hurts men too. Just as any good man knows that joining the campaign to fight it means both genders will ultimately end up better off.

Which is why it’s so important to talk about it.

Send your feminist dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.