‘For my generation, men were men and women were women’

How to be a Man: In a new ‘Irish Times’ series, seven Irish men discuss the changing world around them

Behold the man in crisis. Beset by economic woes, unsure of his place in a world where gender roles are being upturned, falling further and further behind academically, his knuckle-dragging behaviour, unacceptable risk-taking and propensity for violence render him unfit for purpose in the 21st century.

That, it seems, is the accepted wisdom these days. For every article or piece of research that shows it's a great time to be a man, you'll find 50 making the contrary argument. "Men Are Obsolete" blares Time. "Losing out at work, sidelined by IVF . . . is the male of the species now redundant?" wonders the Daily Mail.

The fall of man is a popular subject, but is it true? Gender identity is less binary than many think, and constantly subject to a changing range of outside influences. British sociologist John MacInnes argues that masculinity has always been in one crisis or another, and that its current tensions arise from “fundamental incompatibility between the core principle of modernity that all human beings are essentially equal (regardless of their sex) and the core tenet of patriarchy that men are naturally superior to women and thus destined to rule over them”.

Few men – in western societies, anyway – will still assert publicly that they believe in the natural superiority of men.

That doesn’t mean our social codes aren’t permeated with patriarchal assumptions. Or that there isn’t unease among men about the real-life consequences of patriarchy’s decline.

But privilege is not just vested in gender. The disappearance of manual jobs has had a disproportionate impact on working-class men. The higher you go up the social ladder, the more male dominance persists.

Perhaps the most profound shift is that, while women continue to earn less than men, they are already far less economically dependent on them; as a consequence, the definition of a man as provider and protector is already hopelessly out of date.

If the market value of physical labour is dwindling towards zero, how does that affect the way we think about “strength”, once one of the traditional defining attributes of masculinity?

You can see a lot of contemporary culture as a reaction to such changes. The over-inflated superheroes of popular cinema, the ever-increasing obsession with male body shape and the easy availability of unlimited hardcore pornography all represent different forms of displacement through (often enforced) leisure activity.

Even the current US presidential contest can be seen as a working-through of male fears of emasculation, while online communities such as the “gamergate” movement – an “anti-political correctness” campaign characterised by harassment and misogyny – reveal hitherto hidden shallows of homophobia and self-pity.

None of this reflects particularly well on those of us who only have a single X chromosome. After all, maleness is still the default setting for humanity. People of consequence are still deemed male unless otherwise stated. The vast majority of the world’s most powerful people are men. Big boys don’t cry – get over yourselves, lads.

However, contemporary feminism poses questions for men, questions that can be troubling and difficult to answer. What responsibility, if any, do we as a gender bear for acts of violence and intimidation carried out by some men against women?

And is violence itself something which is innate – particularly among young men?

Are some of the other “high-risk” or “irresponsible” behaviours associated with men also important and valuable parts of our identity? And how can we discuss valid questions about men’s rights without descending into a zero-sum squabble?

These are some of the issues addressed by our panel below, based on their own diverse personal experiences of being a man in Ireland in 2016. Intriguingly, the question that caused the most difficulty was the most basic: what defines a man?

On what a man is: ‘I could murder, kill, rape’

Broden Giambrone (a trans man, in his 30s): I grew up as a girl, and am now a man, so I have thought a lot over the past 20 years about what it is to be a man. And my short answer is, I don’t know. Gender is like sand in your hand; as soon as you start identifying something it falls out. You go, “Oh, well, men have penises.” OK, well would you cease to be a man if your penis got blown up in the war or in an industrial accident? No. Well then it’s chromosomes. Well, who knows what their chromosomes are anyway? And there’s a whole set of different types you can have. Is it hormones? OK, well people have varying hormone levels throughout life. That can’t be it. Every time you kind of name something that you think might be associated with being a man I think you can very easily find that in a woman, or not in every man, or whatever. So you’re kind of left with . . . I don’t know.

What I knew unequivocally was that I was not a woman. So, in some ways those are the two options: you’re a man, or you’re a woman. And for me, over time, man felt better. It fit me, it made me more comfortable. So I kind of just made my peace with that.

And then there’s a growing cohort of people who say, “I’m not a man or a woman. None of these words mean anything to me and I’m something beyond that.” So this idea of gender is something we’re going to have to keep interrogating.

As I get older and more comfortable in my skin, I would be less attached to the term “man”. I’m human, I’m a person. I live my life the way I do.

Tony Bates (clinical psychologist, in his 60s): I think being a man is being a human being, actually. We have systems in our brain for aggression and attack and we have systems for fear and we have systems for intimacy that seek relationships and self-soothing and all those things. And all these systems are working, but slightly in opposition. As a man I have to come to terms with the male version of that.

I’ve had more therapy than most people have had dinners, and I’ve never gotten over anything. But I’ve learned to make space for all of those things and they’re all part of me.

I could murder, I could kill, I could rape. I’m no different to guys who have done those things. I know that’s in me. And I feel it’s in all of us, in a lot of human beings. But I don’t and I haven’t and I don’t intend to. But I don’t see myself that different from other men who seem to behave in an abominable way. Put me in a different context, a different set of circumstances . . . I know that that’s there.

Rory McNab (college graduate, in his 20s): Traditional masculinity is supposed to be an assertion of strength. Being a man in the 21st century is sort of a backlash against that, buying into more feminine things. Being a man today is reconciling those opposites, becoming more accepting, more emotionally open, being able to talk about mental health and other issues.

John Leonard (writer and film-maker and former Dublin GAA footabller, in his 30s): One of the things I’ve learned, because I’ve been on certain patterns of addictive behaviour, is that you have a story in your head irrespective of if you’re a man or a woman. Whether it’s ingrained into you from your parents, your grandparents or school or your peers, that story is retold, and you tell it to yourself every day. But you can change that story. That was the key to me being able to get sober, stay sober and reinvent myself as a man.

I am now, to a small degree, like a role model for certain younger males and females. But that’s only because I’ve changed the narrative I had been telling myself. And I think that may be the key to where we are as males in Ireland in 2016. We have an ability to recognise that what we’re doing may not be the best way to live life, and we can change it.

On men’s changing identity: ‘Growing up, I knew exactly where I stood’

Gerard Craughwell (Independent Senator, in his 60s): I grew up in a family of 11. Black was black, white was white, blue was blue, pink was pink. Men were men and women were women. You knew exactly where you stood. I was set in my ways and very happy with the world. And I was comfortable with the notion that there was homosexuality in the world. And I was comfortable that I wasn’t one . . .

Tony Bates: For my generation too, men were men and women were women. If someone was a “homo” it was unmentionable. We didn’t really think they existed; it was just an insult we threw at people. And we were all messed up about sex. I was in a Christian Brothers’ school and to come out of that black and white world into literally a rainbow world, I think made us feel very afraid.

Identity used to be like a permanent, pensionable job: something that was given and you had it. Now it’s anything but – a fluid experience. In some ways that’s very good because we don’t get attached to one way of being.

In my generation people tried to find their identity in adolescence and once they knew who they were, they then worked at being in a relationship, finding intimacy. And when they had that sorted they produced something with their life, and then after that they began to move into wisdom. Or despair.

This was the map for growing. That map has been torn up.

Rory McNab: In university the LGBTQ society has a lot of workshops about sexuality and gender and it’s one of the foremost issues around campus. I’m very recently out of college and I feel I’ve been in an echo chamber of the same opinion. I haven’t encountered too much dissent to the view that sexuality is a spectrum and there’s a whole range of identities. There is a feeling of “us and them”, like old Ireland has a different outlook than you.

Broden Giambrone: I grew up in Toronto, with very progressive parents. I grew up as a girl, but there was a real openness in terms of what that could look like, and I really benefited from that. I played a lot of sports, I played with my brother, we played with Lego.

Things were more unisex and ungendered in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, with kids, things are very much gendered. It’s very difficult, if somebody is having a baby, to buy them a non-gender present. The discussions we have around gender are still so black and white.

Gerard Craughwell: After I got elected to the Senate, the Gender Recognition Bill came up, and something inside me gave way. I can’t quite describe it; there was just a sudden sort of release that maybe everything isn’t black and white. And I determined at that stage I was going to break with all of my strongly held views and that I was actually going to research the Bill, though it was with great trepidation.

When the Bill came to the Seanad, every man in the place disappeared. One guy said to me “Are you not coming?” And I said “No, this is a very important Bill.” “But that’s for the women,” he said. There was a touch of “What do you want to get involved in this for? Aren’t you very happy being a man and shouldn’t you just leave that sort of thing to other people?”

That attitude would worry me now.

On male violence: ‘I’ve been stabbed, beaten people up’

Hugh Linehan: Some female colleagues suggested questions for this session, and one asked: why do young men kick each other in the head when they go out at weekends? Somebody else wanted to know: has anybody in the group ever punched somebody? I have to say I have, once.

John Leonard: I was getting the train in today and there was a group of school kids standing around. As I was getting closer all I hear is “You f**king faggot”, “F**k you. I’ll bate the head off you.” They’re all friends, smoking, and that was the way they were interacting. When you’re young and there are lads who are a little bit tougher or louder, they can influence a lot of people very easily. But obviously we’ve got certain ways we’re made up biologically. We’ve got certain amounts of testosterone, we do things . . .

I’ve been in many, many fights. I’ve been stabbed, I’ve beaten people up. But the thing I’ve learned is to stand back and recognise that what you’re doing is wrong or to recognise that you do it because it’s slowly trained into you.

Gerard Craughwell: On my first day in the British army, I arrived into a dormitory and a guy came over and said, “That’s my bed,” and punched me right between the eyes. When I fell back I was kicked to pieces. I picked myself up, and moved to another bed. And the guy said to me “That’s my bed.” I learned very quickly I had to show that even if I was going to be beaten to a pulp, I was not going to take another punch without throwing one back.

There’s a certain amount of that goes on in a play-type situation for boys. And at some stage the balance moves and one or two of those kids will realise that physical brutality gets them what they want. These brutes go through life as brutes. And some of these people transfer that type of attitude from the schoolyard, into the workplace, into family life and beyond.

But I think if you go behind it, fear drives an awful lot of it. I’ve stood in the front line of riot squads and felt invincible. Why? Because I had a great big four-foot baton and I had a shield. And that feeling of invincibility was not because I knew I was tougher than anybody else, it was driven by the fact that I was petrified out of my life. Fear has a huge part to play.

On violence against women: ‘We are all part of the system’

Rory McNab: When accusations of violence towards women are brought against men, there is always somebody who says “Oh, I’m not violent. I have complete respect for women”. That’s probably true but you also have to accept cultural ownership over the fact that you’re a man and you’re a part of this whole system. Even if you aren’t actively doing anything bad you can help to change it to stop other people doing it.

Frankie Gaffney (mature student and novelist, in his 30s): Growing up I was always told – treat women well, you have to be romantic, treat them like a princess. And then when I started dating as a teenager, the reason female friends gave for breaking up with fellas was because “he was too nice”. And that’s the cold, hard, real world of gender interactions. I grew up in a fairly rough background and you’d see it was your man in the six-series BMW that was supposed to have shot someone, he was never short of a girlfriend.

Broden Giambrone: I came of age perceived as a girl. Later when I transitioned and I was walking around as a man, I was walking down the street and it was dark and there was a woman walking ahead of me. She kept turning her head to look behind her and then I realised it’s me that she is looking at because she sees this guy walking down the street. For her, my proximity as a man on a dark street was something very real to her day in, day out. As a guy, walking in Dublin at 4 o’clock in the morning, it’d be a bit like, I’m going to get punched in the face from somebody drunk but I’m not worried that I’m going to get raped or sexually assaulted or harassed. I think that is a very big difference in people’s experiences.

Men obviously get sexually abused and suffer sexual violence, but it’s such a prevalent part of women’s experience. But of course as well we should be talking about the violence men face day in, day out. And that shouldn’t be dismissed as nothing either. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

On men’s issues: ‘In my community men are targeted more than women’

Rory McNab: Anybody going into halls in Trinity now has to take a set of consent classes. And there’s a big debate about the idea of consent. There’s a certain backlash against it and people saying that it’s patronising to tell a group of 18-year-olds about sex. But you can never be too careful or too informed about it.

Frankie Gaffney: A lot of what’s out there in the “manosphere” is really reactionary, objectionable. There are massive, serious areas of inequality and serious issues for men and they’re all taken up by these terrible, homophobic, macho, awful people. I’d like to see much more awareness around this from the people who care about equality. Because I find a lot of what they say ranges from shutting down people in an online discussion, saying, “Yeah, well you’re a straight, white male, what would you know?” I find it not just insulting but sinister.

What I would like to see is people who are advancing male equality and men’s rights but are not opposed to other people’s equality. And I think at the moment that sphere is being left to people who actually actively oppose equality for other people.

In my community there is inequality, and men are targeted much more than women. Statistically men do longer sentences for the same crimes. In Ireland the prison time they do is a hell of a lot harder, the women are in purpose-built prisons and the men are in Victorian hellholes with five or six people to a cell. It should never happen that there’s that level of horror imposed on someone because of their gender.

On stereotypes: ‘I tend to be slightly hypochondriac’

Frankie Gaffney: It was once the way that a woman who had lots of sex was described as a “slut” and a man who had lots of sex was a stud, but I am not sure if that’s true for my peers. On my Twitter feed or Facebook, you hear “f**kboy” [womaniser] being thrown around as an insult. And if any of the lads was to turn around on Facebook and call a girl a “slut” they’d be lambasted

Hugh Linehan: A thing that infuriates many women is the fact that men feel impelled to fill the room with the sound of their own voices, the phenomenon known as “mansplaining”. A female colleague wanted me to ask this group: “How it is that men know everything?”

Gerard Craughwell: She asked the quintessential question. Fair play to her. It has taken years for us to develop this depth of knowledge, so it has. And if we were to impart that to her now we would in some way weaken our own position. So I’m afraid she’s going to have to go through life without the answer.

Hugh Linehan: Another wanted to know: how long does it take you to tell someone else when you’re not feeling well? Is the answer “quite a long time”?

Tony Bates: I don’t think that’s true. If I’m not feeling well, I say I’m not feeling well.

Rory McNab: I tend to be slightly hypochondriac. So I’d be just straight down to the doctor as soon as anything goes wrong. Final thoughts: ‘Mostly I’m not thinking about being a man’

Tony Bates: There are stereotypes that I get very tired of. The men I know are very open about things that are not working out so well. I know traditionally it wasn’t easy to talk about stuff, but I think that’s changed.

As a grandfather and dad I see myself having a pretty equal role to a mother or grandmother. I wheel the pram and change the nappies and the whole lot. But I still think I bring to children, grandchildren, something different from my wife, who is a better parent, a better grandparent than I am, but different. I’m delighted I’m different.

I look at my father, and I look at me. And I feel his life was much more limited. He was in the army all his life. He left at 58 and his life ended. I’m 64; I’m just about to start a whole new career. He was very brilliant but he had to retire. He took to drinking. And just gave up.

Redefining ourselves is difficult, because we carry in us the DNA of our dads and grandads and their habits and attitudes. And I think we’re having to struggle with identity because we’re having to let go an awful lot of what was deemed to be acceptable.

I don’t live my day and my life thinking I’m a man. I mean there’s moments I’m aware I’m a man. But mostly I’m not thinking about being a man.

Hugh Linehan: Perhaps you’ve just answered the question what being a man is. Because women have to think about being a woman. Perhaps being a man is that you don’t have to think.

Profile of participants

Hugh Linehan, who chaired the panel, is Culture Editor of The Irish Times. He is in his 50s.

Tony Bates is a clinical psychologist and founding director of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health. He is in his 60s.

Broden Giambrone is chief executive of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland. He is a trans man (assigned female at birth) in his 30s.

John Leonard is a writer, film-maker and runs the website soberpaddy.com. His memoir Dub Sub Confidential recounts his experience of child abuse, being a top GAA player and addiction. He is in his 30s.

Rory McNab, in his early 20s, has just graduated from TCD and is editor of oxygen.ie, a website for students.

Senator Gerard Craughwell is an Independent politician and former president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland. Now in his 60s, he has been a teacher, lecturer, business owner and soldier.

Frankie Gaffney, in his 30s, grew up in Dublin's inner city. His father spent time in prison, and he himself was on the edges of the city's underworld before entering TCD as a mature student. His first novel, Dublin Seven, was published in 2015.

* If you would like to add your voice to this series, email howtobeaman@irishtimes.com

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