Man Speak: Conversations on Manhood, Responsibility and [not] Growing Up

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Guyland is not some esoteric planet inhabited only by alien creatures — despite how alien our teenage and something sons might seem at times. Without fixed age boundaries, young men typically enter Guyland before they turn 16, and they begin to leave in their mid to late 20s. This period now has a definable shape and texture, a topography that can be mapped and explored.

Almost all violent extremists share one thing: their gender

A kind of suspended animation between boyhood and manhood, Guyland lies between the dependency and lack of autonomy of boyhood and the sacrifice and responsibility of manhood. Wherever they are living, whatever they are doing, and whomever they are hooking up with, Guyland is a dramatically new stage of development with its own rules and limitations.

It is a period of life that demands examination — and not just because of the appalling headlines that greet us on such a regular basis. As urgent as it may seem to explore and expose Guyland because of the egregious behaviors of the few, it may be more urgent to examine the ubiquity of Guyland in the lives of almost everyone else. In fact, my point is precisely the opposite. Though Guyland is pervasive — it is the air guys breathe, the water they drink — each guy cuts his own deal with it as he tries to navigate the passage from adolescence to adulthood without succumbing to the most soul-numbing, spirit-crushing elements that surround him every day.

They couch their insecurity in bravado and bluster, a fearless strut barely concealing a tremulous anxiety. They test themselves in fantasy worlds and in drinking contests, enduring humiliation and pain at the hands of others. They struggle to conceal their own sense of fraudulence, and can smell it on others. But few can admit to it, lest all the emperors-to-be will be revealed as disrobed.

They go along, in mime.

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Just as one can support the troops but oppose the war, so too can one appreciate and support individual guys while engaging critically with the social and cultural world they inhabit. In fact, I believe that only by understanding this world can we truly be empathic to the guys in our lives. We need to enter this world, see the perilous field in which boys become men in our society because we desperately need to start a conversation about that world. Only when we begin to engage in these conversations, with open eyes and open hearts — as parents to children, as friends, as guys themselves — can we both reduce the risks and enable guys to navigate it more successfully.

So what does it mean to be a good man?

This book is an attempt to map that terrain in order to enable guys — and those who know them, care about them, love them — to steer a course with greater integrity and honesty, so they can be true not to some artificial code, but to themselves. Just who are these guys? They live communally with other guys, in dorms, apartments, or fraternities. Or they live with their parents even after college. Their jobs, if they have them, are modest, low-paying, low-prestige ones in the service sector or entry-level corporate jobs that leave them with plenty of time to party.

Of course, there are many young people of this age group who are highly motivated, focused, with a clear vision and direction in their lives. Their stories of resilience and motivation will provide a telling rejoinder to many of the dominant patterns of Guyland. There are also just as many who immediately move back home after college, directionless, with a liberal arts BA that qualifies them for nothing more than a dead-end job making lattes or folding jeans. In some respects, Guyland can be defined by what guys do for fun.

There are some parts of Guyland that are quite positive. The advancing age of marriage, for example, benefits both women and men, who have more time to explore career opportunities, not to mention establishing their identities, before committing to home and family.

And much of what qualifies as fun in Guyland is relatively harmless. Yet, there is a disturbing undercurrent to much of it as well. Teenage boys spend countless hours blowing up the galaxy, graphically splattering their computer screens in violent video games. In fraternities and dorms on virtually every campus, plenty of guys are getting drunk almost every night, prowling for women with whom they can hook up, and chalking it all up to harmless fun.

White suburban boys don do-rags and gangsta tattoos appropriating inner-city African-American styles to be cool. And sometimes gay-baiting takes an ugly turn and becomes gay-bashing. Occasionally, the news from Guyland is shocking — and sometimes even criminal. These are the guys who are devising elaborately sadomasochistic hazing rituals for high-school athletic teams, collegiate fraternities, or military squads. It is true, of course, that white guys do not have a monopoly on appalling behavior.

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There are plenty of young black and Latino boys who are equally desperate to prove their manhood, to test themselves before the watchful evaluative eyes of other guys. But only among white boys do the negative dynamics of Guyland seem to play themselves out so invisibly. He came from such a good family!

The research

These norms also generally lead to men — even if they are physically present — making minimal contributions to unpaid care and household work. These attitudes frequently lead men — or enable them — to sidestep non-financial care responsibilities. This leaves women with the double burden of being the sole breadwinner as well as the person primarily responsible for unpaid care and household work. This, in turn, reinforces gender inequality as women have less time to pursue market work, education, leisure and civic life, and are expected to sacrifice their own interests for those of children.

'Toxic' masculinity is failing all of us

But there are men who choose to be involved fully in the care of their children despite economic difficulty. We have done research into the reasons for this involvement, and the different forms that it takes.

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The initial research has been done by Masters students Manon van der Meer and Hylke Hoornstra, and forms part of my PhD which is due to be published early next year. Their examples point to the possibility of creating a more gender equal society. The first group of men we interviewed were fathers working in low income jobs in Johannesburg — mostly security guards and fast food restaurant staff. All were cohabiting with their partners and children.

Almost all emphasised that providing for the family financially was central to their definitions of a good father. Given their low-paying jobs, they were constantly worried about their inability to do this which often led to feelings of inadequacy as a father. But most men saw their father roles as encompassing more than just financial provision. Almost all spoke of a need to be available emotionally for their children, and to spend time with them. Most also had no problem with performing care work such as changing nappies, bathing children, helping children with schoolwork or household work cleaning, cooking, laundry, and ironing.

After many years working in education, in youth care homes, in prisons and on the streets with gangs, they wanted to provide an alternate model of positive masculinity, steering boys onto a path of empowerment, leadership and responsibility. Mentors lead a conversation about anger and encourage the boys to open up about their emotions. One of the key inspirations was a trip Williams took to the Gambia in to explore his family roots, where he witnessed a revelatory traditional rites-of-passage celebration for young men.

He brought back the idea of a rites-of-passage themed program tailored to thriving in the urban environment of his London community. The group meets weekly, with programs aimed at pre-teens and teenagers, exploring different aspects of becoming a man through modules represented by the four natural elements: earth, water, fire and air. The group files quietly into the room and gathers in a circle, arms interlocked, representing an unbroken chain.

Each session is started this way, with a supportive pep talk and a set of affirmations, repeated as a group and as individuals. The coaches, as the mentors are called, push the boys to stop constantly making jokes and to be authentic with themselves and each other. They check in to find out if anyone has anything in their life distracting them from their focus and gently chide a couple of latecomers. Boys playfully tease one another before the session begins and cell phones are collected to minimise distractions.

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