In the introduction to her 1998 collection, 'A Fragile Union', Joan Nestle writes:
With this book, I offer you the fragile unions that are my life – the life of a fifty-eight-year-old white Jewish fem lesbian woman with cancer living in New York City in the United States of America at the end of the twentieth century. I give you these details not as markers of identity the way we often did in the lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s and '80s, thinking that if we laid out our particulars, we had cleared away all ambiguity about our lives, but precisely for the opposite reason. Each of the listed elements represents huge worlds of shifting meaning, unending searches for what can keep my love and what has to be let go.
I agree with the sentiment; such words cannot and do not define us. Nevertheless, they do offer an indication of our history, the forces and experiences which forged us, the intersections of our privileges and oppressions. It is to that end I offer my own fragile unions: a forty-eight-year-old white femme queer straight man of middle-class Christian upbringing living in Nottinghamshire in England at the start of the twenty-first century. The reason: to provide context, however limited, for the rest of this post.
Feminist activist and author, Laurie Penny, has recently become interested in men – in particular, in how sex, gender, sexuality and feminism affect men. See, for example, this piece in The Independent back in April. QRG massive have had some disparaging remarks to make about all that (see here), but I haven't mentioned this in order to get involved in that argument myself. It's just another preamble to the real purpose of this post.
Last weekend (6th/7th October) Penny tweeted (@PennyRed) about a survey she was conducting, prompted by the publication and subsequent discussion of 'The End of Men' by US journalist, Hanna Rosin. “So chaps, if I were to do another totally-unscientific questionnaire about the male experience like I did a few months ago, who would play?” and “For clarification: the survey is for anyone who identifies as male, OR who was raised as a male.”
Because I was one of the men who responded, because I spent a little time on her questions, and because I don't like to see my work vanish into the oblivion of cyberspace, I thought I'd post my answers up here.
So perhaps the point of my first preamble now becomes clear. In responding to this survey as a man, I respond as one man. I do not speak for "men", nor for other men "like me". I respond from my own experience and from my own history, which my preamble very briefly summarizes. And thus I contribute my own small individual part to the sum of all men's stories, each of which is equally valid and significant. And the conclusions that, in my opinion, can be drawn about men from the sum of these stories are — nothing.
But here are my answers anyway (for posterity if you like), each preceded by Penny's questions in bold – there are 28 of them.
How old are you, where did you grow up and go to school, and what do you do now?
48; Stockport and Nottingham (mostly Nottingham); editor.
Do you think that it's the 'End of Men' - is traditional masculinity at an end? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?
The title is silly. But if an end to "traditional masculinity" means an end to enforced gender roles for men (and for everybody) then that would be a very good thing.
Do you think there is a 'crisis in masculinity?' Has this got worse with the recession and the loss of traditional employment?
No. I think this is a 'problem' largely imagined by sociologists. In my experience, men mostly just get on with stuff.
What are the biggest problems men face today?
For men as a group, in England, right now... I can't think of any offhand. Unless the coalition reinstates conscription or something.
How important is your gender identity to you?
Very. But my gender identity is queer (and femme), not stereotypically masculine, so I think about this stuff a lot.
How does sex affect your experience of being a man?
Errm, not at all. I think it's more the other way round: that as a man I might be expected to fulfil a particular sexual role, a role that I'm not interested in fulfilling.
When do you feel most vulnerable as a man?
When I'm out late at night by myself in an unsafe district. Or when my appearance is overtly un-masculine. But this is vulnerability as a person (and fear of violence) rather than specifically as a man.
Do you worry about being judged by women? How, and in what way?
Not especially. I can only think of one instance where it ever worries me a bit: I have a personal interest in female presentation, so I tend to look at women quite a lot, to see how women dress and present themselves. (Men, too, but men mostly aren't sartorially very interesting.) Sometimes, therefore, I worry about my looking being mistaken for oppressive behaviour. I need a big sign that says: "I'm looking at your clothes not your body. No, really!"
If you could change one thing about being a man, what would it be?
About being a man: nothing. About being a man in society: an end to all gender stereotypes.
Tell me what being a boy meant to you as you grew up (if relevant).
Only that I wasn't "allowed" to like or do certain "girls' things". I did them anyway, but with various degrees of secrecy.
What, in your opinion, does 'being a man' mean in this society, and how has that changed over the past two generations?
To me, it means nothing at all. I don't accept any limits on human characteristics, personality, behaviour, etc on account of binary sex. How things have changed is that there's perhaps more gender freedom than before, though not enough for my liking.
Time for the opposite question: what does 'being a woman' mean? How do you think things have changed for women over the past two generations?
Again, it means nothing to me. As for change: feminism has made a lot of gains over the past two (and more) generations, but again not enough.
Do you feel pressure to conform to social expectations of masculinity? From whom, and what does that mean?
Pressure, yes, from society at large. But this is because I tend towards gender non-conformity, rather than just being masculine.
Are you a feminist? What can feminism do for men, and what can men do for feminism?
Yes. By breaking down gender barriers for women, I see feminism as consequently breaking down gender barriers for everyone (including men). Men can support feminist issues (where we agree with them), behave in a non-sexist way (why wouldn't you?!), and criticize other men's sexist behaviour.
What aspects of the male experience do you think are least understood by women and by society at large? What do you wish more people knew about men?
Nothing in particular. The only time this arises is when people (women or anybody) make assumptions about men because of gender. Oi! Stop that! Men are not all the same.
How did you feel about women as a young man? Did you have close female friends or siblings?
I'm primarily heterosexual, so this was a significant factor for me as a young man (if by young you mean adolescent). Female friends: one or two. Siblings: one sister.
What do you feel about women now? How do you relate to them?
How I feel depends on the individual woman. Otherwise I mostly relate to people as people.
What about women as sexual/romantic partners (if relevant) - what role does that sort of relationship play in your life?
I'm attracted to gender non-conformity, in particular to deliberate female masculinity (the cultural ubiquity of female femininity makes me tired). At the moment: no relationship.
Have you ever been sexist? In what way? Has the way you treat women changed?
Probably, though I can't think of anything right now. The way I treat people has perhaps changed as I've grown older.
What about sexual consent? Why do you think rape and sexual violence are so endemic in our society?
Consent is paramount. Because people can be bastards. As for rape and sexual violence by men towards women: because our sexist and heteronormative culture defines male sexual aggression and entitlement as normal.
What's your relationship to porn? Do you think it has affected the way you behave sexually?
I don't have a relationship to porn. The majority of porn seems to be visual and promotes a form of sexuality to which I don't personally relate; e.g. it presents sexually available naked women and I'm supposed to want to do stuff to them. My sexuality doesn't work like that. Also, I'm more aroused by language than imagery.
When do you feel most 'masculine' and why? What things that you do make you feel masculine?
I had to think about this one. I suppose anything that involves physical strength makes me feel sort of masculine. This is a cultural product of course: men are stronger than women on average, and our culture assumes a correlation between men, masculinity and strength. For instance, I felt sort of masculine recently when shifting a large sofa about, which other people were struggling with.
Do you ever worry about being misunderstood or misinterpreted because of your gender? When and why?
I don't really worry about it. But when it happens – when people make any assumptions about me because I'm a man – I tend to get cross.
Do men experience sexism? In what way? Can you give examples from your own life?
Certainly. When men are assumed to do (or not do) or be (or not be) or think anything specific because of gender. (In that regard, some feminists can be outrageously sexist.) But mostly this is just an annoyance; it doesn't have that many definite consequences on my own life. Or to put it another way, I can mostly count on male privilege when I want it.
How does race affect your experience of gender?
As a white man in England, not much.
How does your job (or lack of a job, if you are sick or out of work) affect how you experience your own gender?
My job – editing – is culturally fairly gender neutral, so it doesn't affect my experience of gender. Especially as I work from home, so there's no work environment.
How do you think knowing a woman will be the one reading these questions has affected your replies?
Not at all.
And finally - What have I left off this survey that I should have asked? Is there anything else you want to talk about?
No, there's nothing else for me right now.