cw: mentions suicide, rape, abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence
I left this year’s Being a Man Festival with over fifty pages of notes and a hopeful feeling – inspired by the coming together of people of all genders to take part in a dialogue on gender and its many intersections. Events like this show just how much there is to gain from men addressing gender from a feminist perspective, as opposed to the toxic perspective of the MRA groups. Below are a few highlights from the weekend focusing, in this first part, on mental health and the role of violence in men’s lives.
Being a Man (BAM) Festival began at the Southbank Centre three years ago, when founder Jude Kelly felt concern about the ways in which patriarchy also affected men. Today, much of the festival centres on men’s mental health, with panels and workshops directly addressing topics around this issues. During one panel event, Cecilia Knapp spoke about the loss of her brother, and how she faced some backlash for being a CALM ambassador – a charity that aims to prevent male suicide, citing it as the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. The backlash surprised me. To me, issues such as male suicide seem so obviously linked to gender and how, within patriarchal societies, boys and men are socialised differently to girls and women, yet still expected to conform to particular roles.
At BAM, men were given a space to be open about their struggles. Poet, Byron Vincent, disclosed that he had attempted suicide three times, and spoke about the intersection of class, and how poverty and a working-class background can exacerbate mental health problems. It was also illuminating to find out that some medication may work with depression and anxiety, but for other complex psychological disorders they can have the opposite effect, triggering suicidal thoughts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the three things that were cited as having the biggest positive impact on mental health were talking therapy, exercise, and genuine human relationships.
This is such an important topic and thankfully, some of the talks can be revisited online. Particularly interesting are those with Simon Amstell (Help) and Robert Webb (How Not to be a Boy), both of whom have recently published books on these issues.
The subject of violence is arguably a gendered issue in terms of how men are socialised, in both violence against women and men being violent to each other. Having recently found out that an ex-student of mine had allegedly killed someone, the panel on teenage knife crime was important for me.
This particular issue is a complex one, including many intersecting factors; a shortage of places for young people to go, poverty, postcode wars and a skewed perception of safety were all highlighted. One obvious problem in achieving a cultural shift is the lack of trust in police, yet this is also due to the institutionalised racism that exists within the police system (exemplified by procedures such as stop and search). It is promising that relationships are being built between the police and communities, such as in Lambeth where the police are involved in the Dwaynamics boxing club. Set up by Minister Lorraine Jones after her son was stabbed to death, it aims to rebuild trust. She spoke passionately about making positive change within communities, and how important it is to to give your time to young people.
In the light of the #metoo social media movement, we were reminded that this campaign had been going on for ten years before garnering the current attention from mainstream media
Another panel that dealt with violence of a different nature was an impromptu discussion about the pandemic of sexual violence perpetrated by men. It is sometimes necessary to repeat information so that it reaches new audiences, as is the case with the statement that false rapes account for only 3% of rape testimonies (in line with other crimes). In the light of the #metoo social media movement, we were reminded that this campaign had been going on for ten years before garnering the current attention from mainstream media in response to the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and other alleged abusers from Hollywood and beyond.
Some tension arose in this discussion. Nihal Arthanayake came across as a bit of a Nice Guy™, whilst Chris Hemmings seemed to relish a kind of one-upmanship, repeating what he’d learnt from Sophie Walker, referencing the trope of having a daughter as a reason to care about women and girls. Although having a daughter can be catalyst for taking a more active role in the fight for equality and liberation, Nihal displayed a good example of male fragility in his defensive response. The person who was on point throughout the whole discussion, was Kevin Powell, who was able to acknowledge the shortcomings in his past and articulate how to make cultural change. While it may be a difficult pill for some feminists like myself to swallow, it is often more effective to engage those who may resist the political angle by questioning and listening, rather than through using the complex terminology of feminist discourse.
There are no quick-fixes when it comes to moving towards a feminist utopia. At some moments, revolution is necessary, but when it comes to the cultural changes underpinning our daily lives, it is more about evolution. In the next part, I’ll discuss what this evolution could look like.
Featured image – Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival logo
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