The trouble with boys: is masculinity in crisis?

Saturday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Cinema 3, Barbican Therapy Culture

The dynamics of gender relations have shifted rapidly over the past few decades. The days of traditional, fixed social roles for men and women have long gone. But while girls are making extraordinary gains, boys seem to be left behind.  Statistics show that boys lag behind girls when it comes to starting school with basic literacy skills. This disparity follows them through to the end of compulsory education, where girls are far more likely than boys to leave school with five good GCSEs. Boys are also reading less than girls and, when they do, they are far more likely to read material well below the expected level for their age. The gap extends to university, too. The number of girls applying to university is a third larger than the number of boys, with the chief executive of UCAS describing boys as ‘a disadvantaged group’.

Some commentators worry that boys’ relative lack of success in education is feeding into rising levels of violence, sexual assault and mental-health problems among young men. Concerns persist over gang violence and over young men carrying knives. In the US, the Sandy Hook Massacre and Isla Vista killings spurred more discussion over the phenomenon of the angry young man setting out on murderous rampages.

This is against a backdrop of concerns about the media that boys are consuming: are violent TV shows and video games a bad influence, creating an aggressive ‘hypermasculinity’ for boys to aspire to? Concerns over media, and specifically the internet, abound in the realm of sexuality. Parents worry that their children are able to access pornography so easily and in such extreme variety that it warps their sons’ perceptions of sex. We fear that boys have unrealistic expectations of sex, which they project on to their partners; in extreme instances, rape cases involving young boys allude to the influence of pornography. Educationalists point to the need for guidance and advice to help boys negotiate their relationships to help ward off the bad influence of pornography.

There are reasons to be concerned about the state of boys’ mental health, too. Suicide remains the leading cause of death among men under 35, and some fear that the traditional masculine image of ‘bottling up’ one’s emotions helps contribute to boys’ mental-health issues. Do boys have any healthy models of manhood left to help guide them?

From this, the picture looks grim for boys. Is it too gloomy? Are boys in as much trouble as we think they are? Are they in need of more positive male role-models to show them the way? Has feminism gone too far, generating a crisis of masculinity among young men, or not far enough in stamping out the negative side of traditional male behaviours? On the other hand, is it even correct to look at these issues along gender lines? Are such problems better explained in other ways?

Listen to the debate:

Christopher Beckett
client and operations manager, Elite IB; former pastoral support worker, Wymondham College

Becky Francis
professor of education and social justice, King's College London;

Lindsay Johns
writer and broadcaster; (non-residential) Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University

Professor Angela Phillips
Goldsmiths; author, The Trouble With Boys: parenting the men of the future

Dr Cheryl Hudson
lecturer in American history, University of Liverpool

Produced by
Dr Cheryl Hudson lecturer in American history, University of Liverpool
Sally Millard co-founder, IoI Parents Forum
Recommended readings
Stop Worrying About Girls versus Boys, Public Education Sucks for Everyone

There is no ‘war on boys’ by the school system, everyone is being ignored in state schools not on gender bias. Girls are just naturally better learners and people claiming a crisis of masculinity are using this to blame feminism.

Cathy Reisenwitz, Cathy Reisenwitz blog, 22 May 2014

There’s no crisis in masculinity, only a narrow definition of men

‘Meninism’ that’s right there is now a male equivalent thanks to twitter. However there is no crisis of masculinity only a small sect of males that are being described although men do face struggles and need to confide in each other.

Damien Ridge, The Conversation, 31 January 2014

Macho Culture: Killing Men, Killing Women

Macho culture can be named responsible for a great deal of injustices to males themselves and to the actions that accompany the culture which can harm women, the crisis of masculinity is not a male exclusive problem.

Ross C Hardy, Man Cave, 6 November 2013

My 'crisis of masculinity' and how feminism set me free

The crisis of masculinity should be talked about and recognised as the myth it is, feminism is the cause you should support even as a male-feminist. To worry yourself about the gender inequality on the other side of the spectrum is not worth your time.

Samuel CL Jones, New Statesman, 20 May 2013

How tackling the 'crisis of masculinity' creates a crisis for feminism

There is a tense discourse between feminist and pro-masculine organisations. Feminist groups see groups that campaign the crisis of masculinity as damning their cause especially as this pro-male aspect is infiltrating feminism in the labour party.

Glen Poole, Guardian, 15 May 2013

Save the male! Britain's crisis of masculinity

New studies suggest the ‘boy’ is intellectually inferior to the ‘girl’, until the age of child birth when males finally succeed their female counterparts. This is regularly passed off as feminist achievement, or ‘just one of those things’, however this is brutal inequality.

Isabel Hardman, Spectator, 3 May 2013

Rise of the metrosexual

The ‘Macho Man’ archetype is dying as males, especially the youth, are becoming more and more image conscious. The trend is spearheaded by celebrities and marketing tactics.

The Age, 13 March 2003

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