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To Be a Man Means... What, Exactly?

 
Matt Fuller | May 23, 2023

If you had to grab a pen now, how would you finish this sentence?

“To be a man means...”

No, really. Try to finish the sentence before you read any further. Don’t feel awkward if you’re uncertain what to say—most people struggle. It’s actually pretty difficult, isn’t it?

One journalist recently spent a few weeks asking 16-year-old boys in the UK that question. The responses varied:

“You mean Yorkie bars and steel factories, that sort of thing?” Joel

“Doing what you believe to be right.” Jesiah

“You stand up for yourself, but you also stand up for others.” Sonny

“It’s mainly about fitness and strength.” Matt

“The stereotype’s been put in our heads that we’re supposed to be strong, not meant to allow any emotions, but I don’t agree with that.” Corrin

“The feeling of a lot of people my age is that to be a man, you have to be able to fight.” Ty

“I think many boys my age are stuck, unsure.” Clement

“I think a lot of mainstream politicians are afraid to really touch on masculinity, in case of maybe saying the wrong thing. And I can understand that. It’s a very difficult thing to talk on. But I think there does need to be a place to be able to say that masculinity’s a good thing. That masculinity can be admirable. Otherwise, we’re just, sort of, just stranded.” Joel

Sort of Stranded

That’s a shrewd comment from 16-year-old Joel! A lot of young men are indeed “sort of stranded”. In a recent survey, only 2% of men aged 18-24 said they felt completely masculine. Among those over 65 it was 56%. Yes, it’s only a survey, in which “masculinity” was not defined, and so it was a highly subjective self-evaluation. But clearly there are a lot of young men who, like Clement, are “stuck, unsure” about what it means to be a man.

That’s quite a change in a few generations.

No wonder so many men are stuck and unsure about what masculinity should look like. Are we meant to strive for masculinity at all?

In the last decade, the cultural mood music of the West has increasingly argued that masculinity is basically bad. A lot of people—men and women—have been hurt by or are angry about their own experience of masculinity. Enter “toxic masculinity” into the search box on Amazon and over 1,000 books will come up with that as a title or theme. In researching for Reclaiming Masculinity, I’ve read a few of these books, and they often contain a sad story of an abusive or absent father and a distant or unemotional or violent form of masculinity. Often there’s anger at the model of masculinity that has been presented to the author. It is clear that something has gone wrong, and a lot of men have abused their strength, leaving a lot of emotionally wounded wives and children, colleagues and friends. It’s in that context that the American Psychological Association has also now declared that “traditional masculinity”—defined as stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—can be “psychologically harmful”.

I’m sure that a “traditional masculinity” can sometimes be harmful, and I am certainly not here to defend the abuses of the past. And I also want to argue that there’s a difference between that definition of “traditional masculinity” and what we could call “biblical masculinity.” But the type of masculinity the APA defines as traditional and harmful deserves defending for a moment. To say that some traits can be harmful if indulged excessively is not the same as saying that they always are. As I write this, we’re approaching November 11th: Remembrance Day. In the UK, the majority of the population are wearing poppies to commemorate the sacrifice of those people who gave their lives to defend our country and its values. Chiefly, those people were men, and we honour and give thanks for their stoicism and aggression during armed conflict. Clearly, then, these traits are not always bad. Competitiveness can be useful in driving innovation. If I’m in a building that’s on fire, I’d like the firefighter to assert some dominance and order me around. So-called “masculine traits” can surely be good or bad, beneficial or abused, depending upon the context and how they are used.

#Shame

Nevertheless, there have without doubt been exposed in recent years some ugly expressions of masculinity that we should recoil from. There are indeed many men who should be ashamed of their behaviour. Perhaps we need to be slow to assume that we should not be included among them in some way and to some extent.

In the West, the #metoo movement has shone a spotlight on utterly unacceptable and disgraceful forms of sexual assault and harassment by dominant males. Many of the stories that have emerged have been appalling. In the UK, the Everyone’s Invited website, which hit public consciousness in March 2021, presents a vast collection of stories about teenage girls being sexually assaulted and abused by teenage boys. It is genuinely shocking, with, at the time of writing, over 50,000 testimonies of abuse. It’s an emotionally traumatic website to read. It led to accusations of “rape culture” in numerous schools, with some schools being mentioned in 170 testimonies of abuse. It led to many parents wondering how on earth “their boys” could have behaved in such a way. Understandably, a vast amount was written about what men should not be like, and the cry went up, “We need to educate men how to behave”. The problem was, I didn’t read much by way of positive curriculum.

I did, however, read of one school assembly in Victoria, Australia, in which all male students were told to stand up and apologize for the behaviours of their sex that have hurt or offended girls and women. Although the school principal later admitted that this was inappropriate, it reveals a cultural climate in which it can seem like a good idea to get a whole room of boys aged 11-18 to apologize, simply for being a male. They were essentially being told, “All men are culpable, all men are responsible, and all of you are potential offenders”. No wonder so many men are stuck and unsure about what masculinity should look like. Are we meant to strive for masculinity at all?

I was struck by the humorous honesty of one middle-aged male journalist, who wrote:

“What does it mean, then, to say we should educate men? ... With my daughters I know what the positive message is. ‘You can do whatever boys can do and more.’ With boys though? I’d be lost. And I’ve been one for a while now. You’d have thought I’d have figured it out.”

How would you advise him? Should we be telling our sons, and ourselves:

1. “Be more like girls”

2. “There is no difference between boys and girls”

Or can we find an ending to the sentence, “To be a man means...”?

This is an extract adapted from Reclaiming Masculinity by Matt Fuller. In a straightforward and empathetic way, Matt gets beyond cultural confusion and stereotypes as he examines what the Bible says is distinctive about being a man. He outlines a positive vision of biblical masculinity and shows what that might look like in real life today.

Matt Fuller

Matt Fuller is the Senior Minister at Christ Church, Mayfair in central London. Before working as a minister Matt was a secondary school teacher teaching history and politics.

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