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Max Wind-Cowie: Boys will be boys

Wind-Cowie MaxMax Wind-Cowie is Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.  Follow Max on Twitter.

Are men a political issue? Diane Abbott certainly thinks so. In a speech to the think tank Demos (where I work) she claimed yesterday that masculinity is 'in crisis' in modern Britain and that this has implications for politicians and policy makers. Now I'm not given to agreeing with Diane Abbott but, on this, I think she raises an important and interesting set of questions - even if, sometimes, it feels as though she's not so much concerned about men as appalled by them.

It is true that being a modern man is less than straightforward. Why, for instance, are men far more likely to kill themselves, and more likely to die of preventable and treatable cancers, than are their wives, sisters and mothers? Why are boys increasingly outperformed at school and in work by their female peers? Why are modern men so prone to stress, depression and mental health problems, and yet so much less likely than women to seek the help they might need?

Young men in Britain are exposed to a bewildering set of expectations and influences, some ancient and some modern. Sexual norms may be slowly but significantly changed by access to vast, niche and sometimes extreme pornography. The 'provider' role, for so long core to male self-image, has been undermined for many men by the feminisation of the workplace (both in personnel and in character). The 'Superdad' demands placed on the modern, feminist father - caring and chore-sharing but also hard working and earning - makes for a life that is bewildering, full and plagued by contradictions for many men. Having a Y chromosome is no longer the personal and professional advantage that it once, undoubtedly, was.

Much of this is to the good. Who, but the most vehemently reactionary amongst us, would want to kick women out of the workplace? Who, but the most hopelessly optimistic, believes that we will so rapidly and effectively replace our devastated manufacturing base that it will match the more feminised and booming service sector? Who, except for those of us prone to reckless authoritarianism, would argue that we can eliminate online porn and return young men to an age of supposed sexual innocence.

We can't turn the clock back on the battles fought, won and lost in the war of the sexes. Instead, we need to turn our attention to what we might do in order to give men some purpose and some hope in modern Britain. To do this we must take the advances of feminism at their word and ask for what must now, surely, be men's logical due.

An example of how we might do this can be found in the family home - and in how the state mediates the relationship between the private (caring for children) and the public (going out to work) spheres. Men must be fathers as well as providers? Fine. So then we must cease to assume that women are entitled to massively more in the way of parental leave. Instead, couples must be asked to share a single block of maternity/paternity pay - as happens in some Scandinavian countries - so that men might have the space and time to fulfil the new social duties we have imposed upon them.

And courts cannot, in the age of the the new man and all that we now expect from dads, any longer justify their presumption in favour of women when marriages break down and custody is being decided. We must update our laws and our rights in order to reflect the new deal that feminism has struck - thus far, unfortunately, men have often felt left out of the negotiations altogether. Terms have seemed to be agreed almost in private and presented to men as a fait acompli - suddenly reshaping both private and public lives without offering compensation for what men have lost or help to access what is now being asked of them.

Which leads me to a second, but important, point about men. There are evolving problems and paradoxes for masculine identity - some of which are pointed to above - but feminists like Diane Abbott, who talk of a 'crisis', are not being entirely upfront about what their real concern is. Some of the things they talk about are real and present issues for men.  But many other examples used demonstrate not a concern for the fate of blokes but rather a deep discomfort about male behaviour in general.

One audience member, yesterday, raised the case of some boys with whom he worked. They were, he said, respectful to women's faces but often made sexual comments about them when alone with other boys. Wasn't this, he asked, a product of our 'pornofied' culture? Well, no. It isn't. It's what teenage boys do and have always done. Harriet Sergeant, a respondent to Abbott's speech, made the point here brilliantly. The young gang-members with whom she has forged an unlikely relationship do not have a 'crisis of masculinity', she said, but the state has a crisis of confidence in how to deal with young men. Rather than working with young men - and accepting the characteristics that underly masculinity - our society often pathologises normal male behaviour. As Sunday Times columnist Eleanor Mills pointed out, this begins at an early age. Of the children drugged with Ritalin to counter 'ADHD' the over-whelming majority are boys. How many of these, in a previous age, would simply have been called boisterous and sent to run round the playing fields?

Yes, we need to think and talk about men. Yes, we need to correct some of the imbalances that feminism has created to the detriment of husbands, partners and fathers. But in doing so we must also grow up and calm down. It is not new or a problem that young men are interested in sex. It is not problematic that young men have abundant energy. These are not 'disturbing trends' - they are just life. Sometimes boys will be boys - perhaps we could all just be a little more understanding about that?


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