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'How is a man supposed to be a man?'

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from a British Psychological Society Male Psychology Section mini-conference.

11 December 2020

Opening the British Psychological Society's Male Psychology Section mini-conference, Chair Dr John Barry described the first two years of the Section's activity as 'finding our feet', and a realisation that there is 'not an awful lot to be gained from focusing on negative aspects of masculinity'. Barry cited a 'thirst for information that doesn't put men down at every opportunity', saying that the Section are looking to harness more positive 'valuing of traditional masculinity' for physical and mental health improvements.

The first speaker, sociologist Dr Rob Hadley, considered the 'involuntarily childless men' who make up 24 per cent of the UK adult population. 'I to go like an elephant through a china shop because I'm excited about it,' he warned us: 'My working class White Britishness comes through in all sorts of ways.' That personal angle made for a fascinating talk, as Hadley confided that he had been 'very broody' in his 30s, but didn't become a Dad for 'lots of reasons… economic, the people I met…' He came to realise that societies are 'pronatalist': the childless are labelled as 'other', 'stigmatised' and made to feel / treated as 'outsiders'. Feminist scholars of Assisted Reproductive Technology had highlighted the invisibility of men's experiences. So Hadley interviewed 14 self-defined Involuntary Childless men, aged 49-82, for his PhD in 2012. 

Some never married, some expected to be childless, some were so by choice, circumstance… the 'arc of life' has different pathways to childlessness, Hadley said. Older childless men are not disadvantaged when their health is good; but if health deteriorates, the informal care usually provided by family isn't there and there can be an increased risk of loneliness, social isolation, depression and ill health. Formerly married childless men show poorer physical and mental health, sleeplessness, excessive drinking and smoking, in comparison with men with partners.  

But the 'interesting bit', Hadley said, is what the men said. 'It's something I will never stop regretting. You know, it won't go away.' There were existential fears – 'having kids is a way of producing a sense of continuity. Otherwise, death feels very final'. All the men, according to Hadley, said 'there's something missing' – emotionally, and structurally. 'How is a man supposed to be a man?', said Frank, aged 56.

Masculine stereotypes embedded in service delivery add to exclusion, isolation and the stigmatisation of older and childless men – many referred to the threat of being seen as a paedophile when around children. Hadley mentioned a 'disenfranchised grief', where the losses are not viewed as socially valid and men are 'doubly discounted… they are literally not counted'. Hadley's own excellent poem closed his talk, referring to 'the latent maelstrom of the none man… this line is incomplete'. 

Next, incoming Chair Dr Liz Bates (University of Cumbria) spoke about her research (much of it with Ben Hines) on fathers' experiences of parental alienation. While recognising that women experience all these issues too, Bates highlighted how systems are more set up to work with men as perpetrators and women as victims, and some men find this used against them in 'legal and administrative aggression'. 

In this way, children may be used as a 'tool of control'. False allegations are the 'silver bullet' within custody disputes, because of the impact they can have in the target parent getting access and contact. 

Bates and Hine did an anonymous qualitative online survey with 190 people, finding a number of ways that parental alienation was achieved, often within a wider context of abuse beginning within the relationship. There may be relocation, acting as gatekeeper ('she continues to control everything, even though there is now a shared residence order…'), false allegations, breaching court orders, denigration ('she refers to me as a 'sperm donor'') and using schools ('not providing their new school with any of my details, I didn't exist until I approached them').

Bates suggested that policies and legislation are urgently required that are 'inclusive in both name and spirit'. 'Men don't see themselves in legislation, and that creates barriers for help-seeking.' For example, Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 states 'where there is an ongoing relationship then the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour should be considered'. This sidelines parental alienation after separation, despite the fact that as Bates says, 'where you have children, there is always going to be a relationship'. 

The final speaker, Dr Pat Fagan, is Director of MARRI (Marriage and Religion Research Institute) at The Catholic University of America. Inevitably, his views on 'raising the good male' can be viewed through that prism. He argued that 'most of society remains invisible, because it goes on in the family', that 'the need to belong is critical', and that 'figuring out the transcendental will always be a key part of society'. Fagan's perspective 'from embryo to altar' sees 'religion as a natural part of all human culture'. He draws on survey data, such as from the National Survey of Family Growth, to suggest that those couples who had fewer sexual partners before coupling are more likely to have an intact relationship five years later, and that the highest 'grade point average' for children is in those intact families who worship weekly. Intriguingly, Fagan did say 'sometimes the worst are those who worship just a little…'

As for women who were virgins when they coupled, and worship weekly… well, they hit the orgasm jackpot. From the chat function it seemed I wasn't alone in finding the data and interpretations problematic… I'm sure others have dived into such studies, but my suspicion is that there are a lot of miserable couples 'intact' through a sense of religious duty, raising academically successful kids more through socioeconomic status than religion, wishing they had had more sexual partners before they settled down, and lying about their orgasm intensity. 

In the Q&A, Fagan did urge participants to 'go where the data is', even if that is uncomfortable. He also called for more rewards in academia for synthesis: 'because that's what's needed'. The future role of the social sciences, he said, is 'to transmit the knowledge of what works… What is the optimum adult male?' You have to wonder if there is such a thing, but when Fagan advocates for practices such as 'skin to skin contact between father and newborn in first few days', it's easy to get behind that. If outdated practices, stereotypes and 'discounting' of male perspectives continue to harm men (and, by extension, those they form relationships with), then the Male Psychology Section has a clear role to play in changing that narrative.

- Look out for Perspectives in Male Psychology – An introduction, by John Barry and Louise Liddon, published by Wiley in March 2021.