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Teaching Men and Boys to Understand How Some Performances of Masculinity Compromise Lives

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Last year Lisa Vetten and I co-edited a special issue of the journal Agenda. One of the papers that we received and published was by Professor Lindsay Clowes.  A really well-argued piece of reflection, it is concerned with the issue of teaching on the subject of masculinity. The paper has the title “The limits of discourse: Masculinity as vulnerability”. It’s a kind of paper that sticks in the head. I have read it several times. Clowes, a historian who teaches in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape, writes on, among other subjects, representations and experiences of South African masculinities and feminist pedagogy.

In the paper on masculinity as vulnerability she reflects on what it means that for many men and women “the idea that men might benefit from gender equity seems unthinkable”. She says that she finds that it is “extraordinarily difficult for most people to recognise how gender creates masculine vulnerabilities or how gender equity could benefit men”. You can read the abstract of that paper here.

I am reminded of this by this blog post from Southern Masculinities that reiterates these arguments. The post is about the presentation of the same ideas – “the possibilities and challenges of teaching Critical Masculinity Theory to young South African men and women in a context in which so many (most?) people understand gender equity as a zero sum game” – at a conference on African Studies in Ghana. Actually, it wasn’t just a conference. It was the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. And I was in the same panel where that paper was presented. Also, I confess I organised the panel and had to hear her presenting on the work. I did say the paper sticks.

What Clowes maintains is not widely shared by other feminists, or non-feminists or anti-feminists. As she says, many people think of gender equity, similar to other forms of equity, as a contest where if one party wins another must lose. I happen to have been reading a piece by Shamim Meer a few days ago in which I came across her directly opposed view. Meer has written some very instructive work on feminism. Much of it would be hard to disagree with. But then she has also claimed that “Problematic conceptualisations of women and men as equally vulnerable as a result of prevailing gender relations (and portrayals of men as being worse off than women) need to be challenged.”

Perhaps I don’t understand. Perhaps she has in mind patriarchal rhetoric which uses male vulnerability to defend male privilege. The fact is patriarchy renders men and boys vulnerable. They get killed in far greater numbers than girls and women. Does that not suggest the vulnerability of males alongside that of females? Males are disproportionately represented in all causes of death and disability. Is that not a clue about the costs of patriarchal gender regimes on men alongside the costs on women? That is a consequence of a gender order that tells men that they are only men when they pretend to be invulnerable. It is also a result of thinking that involving men in gender transformative work means women will lose.

The issue of boys and men’s vulnerability is one that has exercised me no end. It continues to occupy my mind. I have previously mused on why, in the face of the knowledge that young males get murdered more than any other group, and that many boys also get abused, do we continue as a society to act and enact policies as if males are invulnerable. I have asked why is there no ready acceptance that young males need as much protection and care tenderness as young females. I have troubled myself with why there is not even one government minister making a speech, at the least, whereby acknowledgement is made that particularly young black males need to be protected just as much young females.

Well, the answer is because, I have concluded, as a society we find it difficult to hold the seemingly incompatible ideas that young black males can be both victims and perpetrators, at once violators and violated. Instead we are more comfortable in positioning them as purely and only perpetrators.

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