How to be a man

A book, an “actorvist” and a study of teenage boys has got me thinking hard about being a man – and I’m not one.
The book is the really fascinating Masculinities by Australian academic RW Connell. The “actorvist” is Pieter Dirk Uys, who despite his dislike of our president has taken him dead seriously and is spending a year of volunteerism travelling the nation’s schools and universities with his straight talk about sex and Aids called “For Facts’ Sake”. The study is the one reported last week in the Mail&Guardian online and conducted by University of Natal psychologists Graham Lindegger and Pamela Attwell among teenage boys and their teachers in 30 KwaZulu Natal schools.
To start off my train of thought: Masculinities is a combination of investigation into what theorists are saying about being male in this world today with Connell’s own study of four different groups of Australian men, ranging from delinquents who show typical bad boy behaviour through to “new men” who are fellow travellers with feminists in the environmental movement. Bob Connell picks out what he calls “hegemonic masculinity” – the sort in which to be a man means wielding power, using force, being breadwinner and head of household and subjugating women and girls. Connell then weighs up how this fares against the onslaught of feminism of the last four decades. Connell finds the same kind of confusion that Lindegger and Attwell report in their study among KZN boys. Feminism’s impact on all sorts of men has been to conscientise them about bad treatment of women, about women’s rights to have independent lives free of violence from men. But men (not even new men) have not been able to successfully craft an alternative to hegemonic masculinity that takes the violence and force out of the identity of being male. They continue to live conflicted, anxiety-ridden lives in which they often resort to aggression and force to act out their maleness.
Now to PD Uys. His hour of stand-up talk at Rhodes University last week played to a packed house and he was funny and engaging throughout. But afterwards I weighed up what he had actually said to a mostly late teenage group of men and women:
• Don’t have sex if you don’t want to. Say No (this to the girls).
• We all do have sex, abstinence is a harsh alternative, use a condom (this to both boys and girls – but especially to the girls “carry condoms in your purses”).
• Sometimes we engage in risky behaviour (“drink too much, back into a corner with our pants down”), go and get tested.
• Don’t be ruled by fear of the virus. Even those who have it can find a functional way of living without fear. Don’t avoid facing it, don’t cower if you’ve got it.
He held up a condom and bemoaned the fact that the ones made in SA are not the right skin colour for all men. He also held up a femidom and told us that he knows women in KwaZulu Natal who when they travel put them on to protect themselves – not from rape, which they can do nothing about, but from Aids.
That was the bit that got me thinking. His is a simple and very important message, but unfortunately the simple ABC messages have not stopped the rampage of Aids. And this is because the spread of this virus is deeply connected not only to sexual behaviour (we keep on keeping on), but also to what being a man today in this world is all about. Most of the spread of the virus is not about all of us being careless but about certain of us being invaded by men taking sex in very aggressive and dangerous ways.
The strong and pervasive messages of hegemonic masculinity – which keep on telling apprentice men that they are naturally aggressive, naturally sexually charged and that their identity as male is tied to this – persist in a world in which other powerful discourses (even official ones like the Constitution) say loudly and clearly that women have rights to their bodies and their minds.
The bit that bothered me in the Lindegger/Attwell study is the focus on the boys’ male teachers who express as much anxiety and confusion about their masculinity as those they are teaching. They can’t model anything different because they don’t know how. The bit that bothered me about Uys, was he had nothing to say to the Rhodes students about being an alternative kind of man and how this would impact on sexual relationships and therefore the disease – and he should have lots to say about this given his own life.
These kind of men do exist in our world – I know because I’m surrounded by them. I work with them, I live with one. Men who don’t spend their waking hours anxiously wondering what manhood is. Men who like women and work alongside them without wanting to dominate them or drag them into the bushes. Men who acknowledge that being male is not straightforward and clear cut. And also that maybe being male is not the most important part of the identity project to invest in.
And this brings me finally to my last thought. When I questioned my husband about how he manages to be a decent human being whose maleness doesn’t thrust itself in my face all the time – he didn’t really know how.
I suspect it’s because he doesn’t spend a lot of time angsting about being a man. He spends a lot of time on his friendships and relationships, and many of these (particularly with me) involve the kind of psychological work involving reassessing who you are and what you do that any human has to do to stay in a long-term relationship. His work on his identity is not primarily about crafting maleness.
Now to come to the thing that foxes me: how do you get a teenage boy across the chasm from anxiety about his manhood to putting it aside as only one part of an identity and working instead on being an all over decent human being? And do this in an environment that keeps on screaming those old messages about dominating manhood being the only real sort. And without the men who have figured it out, saying nothing publicly?

July 2003

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