men, masculinities and gender politics


Where do you find positive models of changing men? In the complex lives of older men.


In all those men’s groups that I was a part of in the 1980s and 1990s in the U.K. there was one question that kept on rearing its head :
‘Where are the positive models of changing men that can help us in our present struggles?’
At that time there weren’t many constructive answers to that question. I also think the group members possessed some idealised fantasies and day-dreams about the possibility of masculine correctness and right-on-ness that made them groan about their own contrasted inadequacies.
The group members were mostly youngish or middle-aged and they certainly didn’t want to look for answers to the question from what was staring them right in their faces-the lives and experiences of older men. What partly blinded myself and other men from seeing these alternatives were their fears and anxieties about linking themselves with their perceptions of old age-namely, bodily disintegration, decay and death. It was through their fearful denial of older men’s experiences, as well as social marginalisation and stigmatisation distancing the old from the young, that prevented them from learning about different, contradictory but constructive models of changing, older men.
Admittedly the meanings of old age for men are fragmentary, plural and shifting but there is also a continuing confrontation with embodied, masculine selves that can’t be ignored, unlike other stages of the life course. This restless confrontation comes from physical and mental changes and disruptions that are centrally important in shaping altered, adapted masculine selves in later life. So what we might have learned from these experiences back in the 80s and 90s and today are about some of these altered ways of masculine being. They include : new forms of caring masculinities( in the U.K. a rough estimate suggests that there are 1.2 million, older, male spousal carers against 1.6 million older, female, spousal carers) ; new forms of grandfathering ; learning to live with bodily and sexual failures(especially from erectile dysfunction) and exploring fresh ways of being sensually intimate rather than just penetrative sex ; understanding the complicated mixture of loss-both destabilising threat and new opportunity.
One particular example from my own personal history that relates to these issues is about the difficulties of learning to self-care as an older man, something that most of the men in the men’s groups weren’t very good at doing. I’ve been grappling , over the last four months, with considerable anxiety and panic connected to my collapse in early August and, yet again, I’ve been learning to look after my bodily and mental health as well as being a pensioner activist.
The last meeting of my ageing men’s group was to be held in Leicester. Normally the four of us who live in Nottingham go by sharing a car but this time I was left isolated because none of the others were going to the meeting. Although I’m haunted by my fear of railway stations (through my past experiences of racing against the clock and going up long staircases in a dizzying panic) I decided to go to Leicester by train by myself.
In the past, myths of manly self-sufficiency and defensive avoidance of associating myself with ‘weakness’ and dependency inhibited me from self-caring. But this time I asked for help from my wife, Bren, and from a member of the ageing men’s group who lives in Leicester-a group member called Dan. So encouraged by a caring email from a friend who knew about my panic attacks on railway stations, I arranged to be met on the Leicester, railway platform by Dan and, embarrassingly, I also asked Bren to accompany me to the ticket office and down to the Nottingham railway platform so that I could feel more secure while waiting for the train together.
I felt tense and slightly light-headed but ,warily, I managed my fears and anxieties supported by a collective network of caring. The train was late and there was a signal failure on the way to Leicester(which didn’t help my state of simmering panic) but I was met by Dan and we walked along the platform to the lift and then on to the group meeting without too much emotional flutter.
What I learnt most from this experience was the dawning recognition that in order to look after myself and others as a vulnerable man, I had to change my old habits of masculine pride and autonomy and begin to challenge the received accusations of ‘weakness’ if a man asks for support and help