In the ninth century BC, Spartan boys aged just seven were sent to military schools where they suffered beatings to harden them physically, and were coerced into sexual relations with older soldiers to reinforce their loyalty.
In England, teenage would-be knights fought and jousted before being sent to fight in the Crusades while male Lakota (a native American group) youths were forced to fixate on the sun while suspended by ropes threaded through pegs pierced through their skin.
Many ancient rites of passage to manhood persist. Maasai boys are exiled, the solitude believed to inform their wisdom and respect for others, but not before they’ve endured tortuous rituals like teeth-pulling, tattooing, bodily piercings, burning and circumcision (this one pops up a lot across many cultures). Young boys of the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea are also separated from their mothers and must perform bizarre undertakings like nose-bleeding and sexual relations with their male elders. In some Indian regions, young men may prove their character by walking barefoot over smouldering coals, or even wrestle bulls.
While secret initiations into certain clubs or sporting teams may require some form of humiliation, rites of passage in the west are rare—and unlikely to involve the sacrificing of body parts or fighting ferocious beasts, but that’s not to say struggles on the path to manhood are any less heartfelt, they just often occur within the privacy of thought. A couple of years ago, a note by a nine-year-old Canadian boy clearly resonated with many when his handwritten musings about the worse things about being male went viral. Among his concerns were that boys smell bad, grow too much hair, and had an “automatic bad reputation”. He also lamented our inability to be mothers, our predisposition to violence, and, most tellingly, that we’re not supposed to cry.
A common thread is that the cultural and social realignments of the 21st century has left a generation of men adrift — the redefined concept of masculinity somewhere over the horizon, but how far, and in which direction, no-one is quite sure. “Men are performing for an invisible authority, the Department of Masculinity,” writes Grayson Perry in The Descent of Man. “We never know when we are being observed, so we constantly keep watch on ourselves and each other; we guard the boundaries of the role. We are all the authority figure and the prisoner.”
Late last year, the Guardian invited its male readers to write in to express what they believed society expected of them. The response was one of contradiction and of confusion. One reader, who grew up in London with his mum and sister, but no dad, said he was grateful for the lack of macho clichés in his upbringing as it had left him with a more open mind about what it was to be ‘manly’.
“Maybe a real man is one who never gives any thought to masculinity at all.”
– Steven Poole –
A gay man also from London, said dating apps are awash with the phrase ‘masc 4 masc’, that is, gay men making it clear they’re only interested in guys who “show no signs of femininity”, while Francisco from Santiago, said manliness used to be about protecting your family, but is now something “more superficial”. Kotti from Guntur, said that in many parts of India men are not expected to be emotional, and that men in their movies were seldom seen as thinkers, or even someone who “feels”. Peter summed up the mood best with a comment that being a modern man is “confusing, challenging, and everyone has an opinion”. Today’s men need to understand how women think; be emotional, yet strong, as well as a listener, a gentleman, a chef, and a mechanic,“ and ultimately a role model to the next generation of men coming through”.
In a piece for the New Statesman, Steven Poole valiantly argues that it’s not masculinity that’s in crisis, rather humanity itself and that the notion of a “crisis of masculinity” simply “reinforces the idea of male exceptionalism” and “shores up the patriarchy”. His finishing line, however, that “maybe a real man is one who never gives any thought to masculinity at all” could either be construed as wishful thinking, or somewhat callous given recent suicide statistics that prove overthinking needs be urgently addressed.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for British men aged 20-49 (three times the rate of women), and suicide rates in men aged 45-59 are at the highest since the early ‘80s. In the US, suicide rates are also at their highest level in 30 years, while the number of young Kiwi men killing themselves is double that of Australia (themselves suffering record numbers), with Maori males aged 15-24 twice as likely to take their own lives than their non-Maori counterparts. A study of male suicide survivors by Vienna’s Medical University found that almost all reported that “their masculine beliefs led to them isolating themselves when they were feeling down, to avoid imposing on others… [and] that adherence to masculine norms meant that feelings associated with being vulnerable provoke greater anxiety than the thought of being dead”.
Suicide rates have risen 65% in the last 45 years, and in 97% of countries, rates are higher among men than women, on average, by more than two-to-one (it’s even worse across western nations, particularly in the UK and US where it rises to four-to-one). Men are also more likely to get (and die from) cancer than women (around the world, women’s overall health just tends to be better) while accounting for 95% of workplace deaths. In most countries, women can generally expect to outlive their husbands by five years.
Celebrated in more than 60 countries, on 19 November — coinciding with Movember — International Men’s Day, shines a light on the above issues and more. It is, says the foundation, “an opportunity for people everywhere of goodwill to appreciate and celebrate the men in their lives and the contribution they make to society for the greater good of all”.
No-one else can put the bins out quite like us.
Find out more at internationalmensday.com
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces