cw: mentions of rape and addiction
For this second part on the Being a Man (BAM) Festival, I’ll be looking at the various panels that addressed men’s body image, different kinds of addiction, and the concept of masculinity – looking beyond gender as something binary, and taking sexuality into account.
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf concluded “things are not better, but worse, and ordinary men are now being sucked in as victims of the beauty myth too”. This panel considered how this has come to be. Laura Dodsworth talked about her project, Bare Reality, which saw her photographing women’s breasts and men’s penises, telling their respective stories. Whilst it would have been interesting to take this beyond binary gender, it did offer some insight regarding the subject of body image with cisgender men. This included looking at the experiences of gay men, in terms of body type (twink, bear, otter) defining reductive sexualities. The dangers of this were highlighted by Andrew McMillan, author of poetry book Physical, who revealed that coming out led to an eating disorder. There was also the interesting case of a man who admitted he felt emasculated when his partner told him he wasn’t a threat in regard to his penis size. He linked this with the ‘spornosexual ideal’ – in which men are expected to be a combination of sporting hero and porn star – and the shame that results from being unable to live up to these unrealistic expectations.
Two different panels really dealt with the issue of addiction. In the first, Crash and Burn. Andrew Lovell aka “Shovell” from M People talked about the ‘hungry ghost’ and attempting to fill an unfillable hole without knowing that was what he was doing at the time. What followed was a frank discussion about suicidal thoughts, loneliness, drug and alcohol addiction. He discussed and what helped both him and Stefan Olsdal from Placebo And it was interesting that there was an emphasis on both needing those around them to challenge their behaviour as a catalyst for change, as noted by Olsdal, but also the importance of being alone for part of the path towards change, as Lovell asserted. Mike Trace, provider of recovery services, spoke about that turning point towards recovery highlighting that it is a long road, and not a linear one at that. He said he struggles with the bureaucracy you have to go through to help people, wanting to form human connections, but not even allowed to hug, instead being required to fill out twenty page forms to even begin to help people.
The role of shame was discussed, as well as the lack of qualified professionals able to educate young people about sex and relationships
The next panel in this section was not strictly about addition at all, but rather simply titled ‘Porn’. It featured Daniel Morri, who works with young people through Safer London; Yomi Adegoke, author of Slay in Your Lane; Christopher Green, writer and performer; Justin Hancock, founder and writer of BISH; and was chaired by Wendy Jones. It was really eye-opening in terms of the idea of porn as a kind of media that should be critiqued as we do other types of media, and the idea that many of the problems with porn are down to regulation. The role of shame was discussed, as well as the lack of qualified professionals able to educate young people about sex and relationships, when many adults could still do with an education when it comes to things like consent. During the audience Q&A, one man was angered at the denial from some of the panel about porn addiction. Although I think Hancock makes good points on this subject, I do think he should still acknowledge that some people have problems that qualify as an addition. Another audience member expressed surprise that he would dismiss the changes in the brain with the throwaway comment that “everything changes the brain”. When virtual reality porn was brought up, he didn’t seem concerned, and it seemed he would likely feel the same way about sex robots being made with a ‘rape mode’, with models made to look like pornstars, as well as children.
Beyond Two Genders
The final two panels I attended over the weekend dealt directly with ideas of masculinity. The first was specifically about Middle Eastern men, in which the most interesting point that was made was about the differences between appearances and reality. In an analysis of different attitudes across the world, Sherren El Feki found that younger generations of middle eastern men tended to outwardly have more conservative views, yet in reality they did not reflect their private views. In addition to this mismatch of public and private lives was the false idea of progression – when laws are changed, but cultural change has not yet happened. Most importantly, it was acknowledged that change must come from within rather than from the West’s superiority assumptions, and that there needs to be a sexual evolution, rather than a sexual revolution.
By dismantling patriarchal notions of emotional support, men can be there for other men rather than relying only on women and femme-presenting people.
Finally, the part of the festival that looked beyond gender binaries included Mawaan Rizwan, comedian and actor; Cairo Nevitt, actor and filmmaker; Travis Albanza, performance artist and poet; Oliver O’Donohoe, mentor for young men; and was chaired by Paul Burton, writer, performer and founder of Polari. Mawaan spoke about the difficulty of combining parts of his identity as a bisexual Pakistani Muslim comedian. The discussion turned to issues of visibility of men who don’t conform to stereotypical identities, particularly trans men, and representations of gender non-conformity rather than solely trans representation of gender binaries. Albanza was a highlight of this panel, offering insight into their experience of talking to young people who at ages 13-15 are already openly asking about people’s preferred pronouns, and openly talking about how small things such as putting on nail varnish can be a breakthrough for those breaking out of traditional ideas of masculinity. Commenting on one friend that only speaks to them to offload on what they cannot talk about with their other friends, they asserted that there needs to be an unlearning that emotional labour is just the job of femme people. By dismantling patriarchal notions of emotional support, men can be there for other men rather than relying only on women and femme-presenting people.
When we talk about gender, the conversation needs to include all genders. Yes, there should be women-only spaces. But, for differing reasons, there should also be spaces for men – including those where men can support other men. This is more favourable than women taking the brunt of the emotional labour that comes with both being a one-person support network for the men in their lives, and trying to engage men in feminist discourse, which can not only be exhausting, but emotionally damaging too.
Featured image – Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival logo
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