Tomorrow (November 19) is International Men’s Day, an annual effort to focus attention on such issues as men’s health, our contributions to family and society and those social problems which disproportionately affect the male gender. This year’s key theme is perhaps the biggest and starkest of those: male suicide.
But despite these seemingly laudable aims, since its first appearance in the 1990s International Men’s Day has proved a controversial addition to its much longer established counterpart, International Women’s Day on March 8, which actually predates the First World War believe it or not. Every year the same arguments rage about IMD: should it be celebrated at all, opponents ask? Isn’t every day international men’s day?
This rather trite denunciation – which is bound to make multiple appearances on Twitter this week – is based on one frequently unquestioned assumption: that men are pampered by society and have no real problems to speak of.
As a society we tend to value certain qualities in men: success, confidence, strength, power. We see executive boardrooms, law offices and government ministries full of men and make the reasonable-seeming assumption that if men rule the world then they don’t need any help from anyone.
Meanwhile, we’re equally comfortable with the undermining idea of women as potential victims in need of special help: quotas, shortlists, research grants, government initiatives – the list goes on and on.
We are so used to this powerful men vulnerable women dichotomy that the idea that men might face problems specific to their gender or be victims in some situations is still an uncomfortable and challenging idea for many. Attempts to raise awareness of such issues are frequently met with deep suspicion, accusations of whining or misogyny, or simply dismissal.
But as the International Men’s Day campaigners point out, some uncomfortable facts simply don’t tally with the conventional picture of privileged manhood. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Meanwhile, the gender gap in university admissions is at a record high – in favour of women. Men die younger on average and are much more likely than women to be the victims of violence, end up homeless or be killed or injured at work.
Family law can bring conflicting male and female perspectives into sharp relief. Many wealthy men throw their wives’ lives into turmoil by suddenly announcing plans to divorce them. And of course they get what they want. But then, months or years later, lawyers report, when the tears have dried and the dust has settled, a surprising number of these men find themselves wrestling with guilt. They withdraw, they start to drink too much, they miss their children.
Meanwhile, more often than not, their erstwhile wives have moved on with their lives, surrounded by their children and supportive friends.
That is, perhaps, still the most widely held image of divorce: the wealthy, caddish husband deserting his hapless wife, a woman who needs the protection of a chivalrous family law system to ensure her welfare. Of course such divorces do happen but the picture is often far less black and white. Something like two thirds of divorces are actually initiated by women and not all those soon-to-be-ex husbands are wealthy. So imagine this: you are married to a stay-at-home mother. One day she announces out of the blue that she wants a divorce. There is nothing you can do to change her mind. A family court judge gives her occupancy of the family home and default care of the children. You of course have to pay both spousal and child maintenance and keep paying the mortgage because she has no earnings. With little left from your average salary, you can only just afford to rent somewhere else for you to live.
And then you sit there in your cheap flat and realise that, through what may be no fault of your own, you have suddenly lost your wife, your home and the joy of seeing your children every day (or indeed ever). But in spite of this devastating loss, you may have to keep paying for all three for years to come.
It’s a pretty bleak picture – and precisely the one faced by many divorced men.
So by all means, let men have their day. I have no patience for the us against them rhetoric that so often characterises discussions of gender in the 21st Century.
Of course women face many challenges and issues of their own but acknowledgement of men’s problems does not detract from those in any way. Life is hard for everyone in different ways. It is not, and never has been, a zero-sum game, in which, for one gender to ‘win’, the other has to lose.