Sunday, 2 February 2014

Masculinity in Crisis

Dear Eileen,

Thank you for Anthony Clare’s On Men – Masculinity in Crisis (Random House, London, 2001 [2000], pages 262, SB Illus) which you were kind enough to let me read and which I now return.

Anthony Clare, in his book, is generally equivocal in his opinion of men in modern society. He is highly critical of them in some respects and yet he tends to be protective of them in what he perceives as man’s struggle against women, and his vulnerability in the face of the inexorable march of the feminist movement.

The first chapter of Clare’s book is entitled The Dying Phallus. His chapter titles certainly ensure that the book will appeal to those searching the popular bookshelves. It is essentially about the male role in the modern world. He is an excellent writer, clever and entertaining, but he clearly writes and entertains through the means of strongly held opinions and, not infrequently, through overstatement. This first chapter generalises about the male’s aggression and his propensity to violence, and his dominance over women and the family. Clare perceives women as being passive and being badly done by in society but I wonder if we shall have a better society when women adopt more of the male role and men adopt more of the traditional responsibilities of women. Will our society be an improvement on the traditional family group as we knew it in my early years?

The second chapter Why the Y? is an interesting account of the genetics of sex. It is quite esoteric in places and certainly exposes my ignorance of genetics. He deals very much with the role and effects of testosterone and of the androgens in determining structure and function, and in influencing the brain and the mental processes. He includes some sentences which may be meaningful but which are nevertheless stark such as ‘the relationship of testosterone and the penis is very complex’. In this sex orientated age, such writing would certainly hold one’s attention.

In chapter 2 he states that males have more testosterone in their circulation than females and that this may be one reason why men are more aggressive. It is not surprising that men are more aggressive and violent than females. Since the beginning of history they have been physically stronger nor is it surprising that women have played the role of the weaker sex. It is not necessarily a response to circulating hormones in the blood. To relate the high testosterone, which is at its highest in young men, to the increasing anti-social behaviour of this age group may be stretching credulity a bit far. This chapter is essentially one dealing with the relationship between hormones and such male characteristics as aggression. However, he deals fairly with the putative question of the link between testosterone and aggression, and he makes it quite clear that there is disagreement about the relationship and that contradictory findings have been reported.

I found the chapter The Waning Y confusing and at times contradictory, with many generalisations about men and women, and the changing role of the two genders in modern society. If I can understand the gist of what he is getting at, it is the effect of the profound and apparently inexorable deterioration which is taking place in the family and the extended family. He takes a rather self-conscious and ‘clever’ stance, stating that men are under increasing threat by the advance of feminism and that eventually the man may become irrelevant, at least in terms of procreation and childcare. He finishes the chapter with the following

According to some prophets of the human condition, if men do not engage in serious revaluation and reconstruction, they will become utterly irrelevant as social beings. Women can do without them in the workplace. Even more significantly, women can do without them in their beds.

Chapter 3 on Man and Violence includes a detailed analysis of the genesis of male violence. He believes that men are more prone to violence than women although he gives generous space to the views of others who believe that women are far from uninvolved and may equal men in certain circumstances such as within marriage. We certainly had our fill of viragos during the Civil War period who espoused violence against those who supported the Treaty and who encouraged the anti-treaty resistance. He mentions the concept of ‘doubling’ where men, otherwise gentle and humane, can behave violently as members of a group or movement. They feel thoroughly justified to commit the most barbaric and murderous actions against those perceived as the enemy. Witness the Nazi doctors and many other precedents of mass murder and ethnic cleansing. And what about the prospects of Bush and the American military/industrial complex? In group violence at least, there is a culture of honour associated with those people who respond to the threat of a perceived enemy, as we have seen in so many wars, and particularly in civil war. It is this aspect of violence, as well as paranoia which is an inherent part of the human condition, which makes it virtually impossible for humans to shed their propensity to react violently to opposition. As long as men have wars, so will boys be violent.

He deals in some detail with the reported increase in violence in children and teenagers. He seeks to identify the causes of such a disturbing trend in our modern world and he attributes it to psychological, social, existential and constitutional factors that account for disturbed boys and girls. The lack of loving, caring and supporting adults, drug and crime infested neighbourhoods, alcohol abuse, physical and sexual abuse within the family and elsewhere, and bullying contribute their share, and the lack of philosophical and religious beliefs to add meaning and a purpose to life must lead children into anger and aggression.

He emphasises that we are a society with an appalling hypocrisy which makes children responsible for their actions, ignoring the influence on young people of anti-social adult behaviour.  Children’s behaviour too often reflects that of their parents. The binge drinking among our young in Ireland, now apparently the worst in Europe, is a clear simulation of adult behaviour. It is also a symptom of the insecurity inherent in a materialistic and greedy society. The high prevalence of suicide in young people is also a symptom of insecurity and the emptiness of a secular philosophy.

Clare gives an excellent insight into the background of aggression. He notes the important contribution that organised sport brought to society for the first time in the 18th and 19th centuries. He underlines how the adverse effect of professional sport, with its passions, its money, its tribalism and its national exaltation, simulates modern war and all its evils. Winning is everything; sportsmen are aggressive; to lose is a catastrophe; it’s no longer a game; it’s war! The ideals of chivalry and fair play are no longer the outstanding norm.

We may know the solutions of current problems associated with materialism and greed but we do not give sufficient attention to the causes of these social evils. Perhaps it is now impossible to reverse the trends in our increasingly materialistic and destructive society. The independence of the individual in our democratic system is not always associated with a corresponding sense of responsibility. This latter factor may hold the seeds of the destruction of democracy. We in Ireland in recent years have experienced a burgeoning in our material acquisitions which we attribute, among other reasons, to our low taxation policies. But these policies lead to the neglect of our obligations to the less privileged in a prosperous and caring to society. By pursuing a compulsive advance in our standard of living without the priority of caring for every citizen’s welfare, we are simply amplifying a senseless materialism and consumerism. We need a taxation system which encourages family solidarity and the strength of local communities, and where the adult population gives first priority to the growth of a happy and secure childhood. Must we have bigger and more powerful SUVs on the road and must we go on holidays several times a year?
Before the great war of 1914-1918 many thought that war was inevitable to solve the increasing tensions which then existed in Europe. In Britain alone there was the turmoil of the suffragette movement, mounting labour troubles, and the apparently insoluble Home Rule conflict. Civil war and the breakdown of Parliamentary system were possible consequences.  A war might have a cleansing effect! Or was the sense of inevitability based on fatalism? Perhaps the same could now be said about the early 21st century. Only a highly destructive nuclear conflict may solve the fundamental problems now facing Nature and the human race.

Chapter six Farewell to the Family Man deals with the gradual disintegration of the family in the modern world, with divorce which has doubled in the last thirty years and with the increasing numbers of single parent families. He believes separation and divorce adversely affect children. He analyses the poor performance of children after their parents had divorced or if they are living with a single unmarried or deserted parent. The children of single parents, like the children of divorced parents, do less well than the children of two parent families, but the children of single parents, where the father has died rather than deserted, do as well as the children of two family parents. He attributes the poor performance of children of divorced parents to financial problems but also to the family background leading to divorce. As well as financial problems, there may be major psychological and sociological problems in divorcing families.

I would say the latter is the major factor, that dysfunctional families are prone to divorce and are also prone to having problem children. He describes the genesis of such problem children as being very controversial but it is clear to me that dysfunctional families, whether divorced or not, are likely to produce dysfunctional children. And the conflict between parents after divorce often persists, which also affects the children and supports the view that the dysfunctional element in the equation is important.

However, many divorces and separations occur without any ill effects on the children, as in my own case. I would attribute our good fortune to the fact that both Aileen and myself continued to be interested in the children and to have a say in their education and their future, and that we were both generous in our dealings with each other. Generosity in reaching a settlement is the single most important element of an amicable settlement and the greatest source of protection for the children afterwards. Just as the children of a family who have suffered the loss of one parent are not adversely affected, the children of a stable family where divorce is inevitable because of the incompatibility of the spouses, and where a generous settlement is arrived at, should not suffer any adverse effects.

In the Age of the Amazon he talks about the emancipation of women. He believes the contraceptive pill was a major factor in emancipation and the forerunner in the downfall of male dominance. The man plays little part in the practice of contraception, being reluctant to use the condom and being twice as reluctant to have a vasectomy. The matter of contraception is entirely in the woman’s hands. Chapter five also deals with artificial or non-sexual fertilisation in the forms of IVF, AIH and AID. He sees these as further evidence of the irrelevance of the male in the areas of procreation and the family. This is an informative chapter on fertilisation and also on problems of infertility. He finishes the chapter when he deals with cloning, again with a certain emphasis on the decreasing role of the male in the family and in the creation of children.

Clare does not refer to the adverse effects of our modern way of life in an economically and professionally driven society on the stability of marriage. With many women working, with the many opportunities of meeting people in the workplace and during travel, with easy communication, and with the shedding of religious and moral strictures on sex as a source of pleasure, it is inevitable that marriage as a permanent status in life is under serious threat. Marriage evolved over history to ensure the orderly distribution of property, to prevent sexually transmitted disease and to establish more orderly birth control. Except for those fortunate enough to live in perpetual affection and tolerance, financial considerations now remain as the only compelling reason to retain marriage.

Chapter 8, Men and Love contains many generalisations about men and sexuality, and about the degree of selfishness in male attitudes to heterosexual sex. Much of this may be true but he probably overstates his case. He links the male preoccupation with sex with a sense of power, aggression, social status and life’s accomplishments. Men have no interest in their partners’ wishes or in their orgasms, the main function of sex being to gratify a man’s physical needs. When I think of my own lifetime sex experience, I can say that I have no recollection of having sex with any woman who did not at least desire it and find it a fulfilling experience. Without my partner’s willing participation I could not derive pleasure from the act. The real satisfaction of sex, apart from the sensual gratification of the orgasm, was the loving and intimate bonding shared with one’s partner.

Clare talks about the male attitude to sex and its performance, and the male preoccupation with his penis, its size, function and macho symbolism. He goes so far as to accuse men of hating women, I suppose because deep down we resent our dependence on them for sexual gratification. His views are rather dismissive of men and their introverted attitude towards their sexuality. We may indeed be natural sex abusers! He mentions the major contribution Viagra is making to enhancing sexual performance among men, and particularly among the older population. For the active elderly it is little less than a social revolution.

I enjoyed the book. The author has been described as eloquent, intelligent and dispassionate by a reviewer. I would agree with this. His writing provides some new insights about western society, even if his many generalisations can lead to moments of uncertainty about his purpose and about solutions of his many discontents. I believe that little can be done to remedy the problems he perceives in our society without rejecting the materialistic philosophy which is driving the world towards ecological and human disaster.

PS:  I borrowed this book from my masseuse, Eileen Fitzsimons, with whom I have a very close but not intimate relationship. I first met her in the lift of the Hilton Hotel in Singapore in 1972 when, as President of the Irish Medical Association, I was attending the Commonwealth Medical Association as a guest of the British Medical Association. I immediately fell in love with her, a response to such meetings with members to her gender which was all too common during my later adult lifetime.   From the moment I met her my association was platonic but I fear that I neglected the meetings of the Association which were to continue for the week of my stay in the city. I spent more time in parks, rose gardens and places of entertainment than at meetings and lectures.

She was a lovely young flaxen blonde with an attractive smile, a soft northern accent and with the figure of an athlete, a feature I have always admired in both men and women. She was a stewardess in Quantas Airlines at the time. We have kept up a close association since then, particularly since she returned to Ireland about twenty years ago. Our conversation can cover many topics. She is particularly interested in complementary medicine and has strong and critical opinions about certain aspects of conventional medicines, with some of which I agree.

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