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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Male Lib is Nothing to Be Scared Of

(First appeared in Sweden’s SvD newspaper17/06/2017; published here in English with permission) 

The ‘crisis of masculinity’ is really a form of male emancipation argues Mark Simpson

Back in the late 20th Century, when I first began writing about masculinity – which seems an epoch away now – everyone knew what masculinity was. Or rather, what is wasn’t. And what masculinity wasn’t was very, very important. As a man, your balls depended on it.

Masculinity wasn’t sensual or sensitive. It wasn’t good with colours. It wasn’t talkative, except about football. It wasn’t passive. It wasn’t nurturing. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t feminine. And it certainly wasn’t gay. Masculinity was uniformity – difference was deviance.

Yes, I’m grossly stereotyping here. But that’s exactly what cultural expectations did to men.

And yes, masculinity could also be stoic, altruistic and heroic – but these ‘positive’ masculine qualities, which of course we’re all terribly nostalgic about in this selfie-obsessed century, were also based on repression. Being a man was much more about ‘no’ than ‘yes’. If you said ‘yes’ too much you might as well be a woman – or gay.

Because everyone knew what masculinity was – or wasn’t – hardly anyone talked about it. Apart from feminists and gays. Anyone who used the ‘m’ word was a bit suspect, frankly. And I was very suspect indeed – especially when I insisted that the future was metrosexual. Masculinity was supposed to be taciturn and self-evident not self-conscious and moisturised. No wonder I was laughed at.

More than a decade and a half into the nicely-hydrated 21st Century, everyone is now talking about masculinity. There is also a great deal of media chatter, from both ends of the political spectrum, about a so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ – and a tendency to suggest that today’s generation of men are in a bad way compared to their forefathers, and also compared to women.

I couldn’t disagree more. There has never been a better, freer time to be a man. Which is precisely why we’re actually able to talk about the ‘m’ word. Yes many men, particularly older men who grew up with a model of masculinity that isn’t working for them any more, do of course face new and real problems in our rapidly-changing world – and sexism is, as the word suggests, a two-way street. But today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’ is basically the crisis of a man whose cell door has been left ajar.

In a sense, masculinity has always been ‘in crisis’ – a degree of hysteria was in-built because it was about living up to impossible, nostalgic expectations. Even the Ancient Greeks were worrying that men weren’t what they used to be: Homer’s Iliad is essentially a love letter to the ‘real’ men of the Bronze Age – heroes that made Iron Age men look like proper sissies.

Today’s men are probably less in ‘crisis’ than they have ever been before because those impossible, ‘heroic’ expectations have largely fallen away, and along with them the masculine prohibitions. Even that reactionary trend for lists of ‘man code’ ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ is just another sign of this. If you have to spell them out in a prissy list then they’re really not working any more. They were supposed to be completely internalised.

Everyone is asking ‘how to be a man’ now because no one really knows the answer. Which is actually great news! Rather than something to worry about. It means that everything is up for grabs. Men today are beginning to aspire to what women have been encouraged to aspire to for some time now – everything.

Repression, once the bedrock of masculinity, is definitely out of fashion. After all, we live in a hypervisual, social me-dia world where expression is the lingua franca. If you don’t express yourself you don’t exist. Today’s young men are mostly much more interested in being and feeling and sharing than in denying and hiding. They have tasted the forbidden fruits of sensuality, sensitivity, taking an interest in their own kids (if they have them), being good with colours, or having a prostate massage, and want more, please.

In fact, for the younger generation most of these masculine ‘transgressions’ are now pretty much taken for granted. Metrosexuality – the ‘soft’ and ‘passive’ male desire to be desired – is the new normal. Products, practises and pleasures previously associated – on pain of ridicule – only with gays and women have been more or less fully-appropriated by guys.

The most obvious, flagrant example of this is what has happened to the male body. No longer simply an instrumental thing labouring in darkness, extracting coal, building ships, fighting wars, making babies and putting out the rubbish, it has been radically and sensually redesigned to give and especially receive pleasure. It has become a pumped and waxed brightly-lit bouncy castle for the eyes.

Today’s eagerly self-objectifying young spornosexuals – or second generation, body-centred metrosexuals – toil in the gym in their own time to turn their bodies into hot commodities that are ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ in the online marketplace of Instagram and Facebook. Which is certainly needy, but also very generous of them. Young straight(ish) men today have taken the gay love of the male body and buffed it up – and want to share that love.

There is no crisis of masculinity – but rather, a long overdue crisis of the heterosexual division of labour, looking, and loving with which the Victorians stamped most of the 20th Century. Freed from the imperative to be ‘manly’ and (re)‘productive’, men have blossomed into something beautiful. A word that until very recently was absolutely not supposed to describe men.

Obviously the rise of feminism and gay rights have helped changed men’s attitudes. But perhaps the boot is on the other foot. Men in general are much less hard on gay men and on women now because they are no longer so hard on themselves. In a sense, women and particularly gays existed to project all men’s own forbidden ‘weaknesses’ into.

Nowadays, having been allowed to discover the pleasure they can bring, men want those ‘weaknesses’ back, thanks very much.

Sexing the Brain: Neuroscience vs. Neurosexism

What are little boys made of?
“Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of!”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!”

This popular kids nursery-rhyme, and the popular notion that men and women are different species from entirely different worlds, may have to be re-written in the light of recent findings.

Several books recently have taken a scalpel to ‘neurosexism’, or rather the neuroscience of ‘innate’ and ‘inborn’ – or ‘hardwired’– differences between men and women. It seems that most of what we have been told about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains over the last few decades is, to use a highly technical term, bollocks.

It turns out there is little or no sound scientific evidence for the sweeping claims that have been made about sexed brains – even if they make for easy headlines for copy-editors and provide endless material for lazy stand-up comics. In fact, the very notion of a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’ is misleading. Shockingly, it turns out that the human race, in all its billions and billions, doesn’t actually resolve itself into just two kinds of people. One made of snips and snails and the other made of sugar and spice. One from Mars, the other from Venus.

Yes, there are some differences between adult male and female brains, but these are not, it seems, so much inborn in the way we think of anatomical sexual difference as being inborn – there’s little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains. Instead they’re the result of our highly ‘plastic’ brains adapting to the culture and expectations they are born into. Learning the syntax of sex and gender.

Having read one of the most publicised books, Dr Lise Eliot’s (ironically titled) Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I can report I thoroughly enjoyed the way she methodically dices and slices the mounds and mounds of dodgy neuroscience papers that have gone before her, like some kind of white-coated Ellen Ripley figure. It’s always a thrill to see scientific scepticism in action – especially in a particularly egotistical field such as neuroscience that seemingly just can’t resist making several whopping great tendentious claims before lunchtime. Neuroscientists sometimes come across like a real-life Pinky and The Brain, but more ridiculous.

Eliot’s argument is that small physical and temperamental differences between the sexes at birth are exaggerated by cultural attitudes – and by bad science based on cultural attitudes, providing a depressing feedback loop. She certainly makes a forceful case for it, showing how so much of the data in this area has been cherry-picked or unreasonably extrapolated from studies on rats. Essentially, for the vast majority of children, how they are raised and educated and the cultural expectations they are born into are of much greater importance for their psychological development than the amount of testosterone they were or were not exposed to in the womb.

But perhaps what is most interesting is that while she might be characterised by some (though not as far as I’m aware by herself) as a ‘feminist scientist’, if only because she’s female and a scientist and taking on gender stereotyping, she’s not so much riding to the rescue here of girls, as boys.

The biggest losers as a result of latter-day ‘neurosexism’ aren’t the girls who are discouraged from being physically adventurous by their over-protective mothers, or tacitly persuaded that maths isn’t for them, but the boys who are talked to less than girls, left on their own longer and not expected to be interested in books. We can glean an idea of who is really losing out in the figures which show that boys are falling further and further behind girls at every level of education. It’s not so much that education has been ‘feminised’ as some would have it, it’s that education has been branded ‘not for boys’ by bad science and even worse popularisations of it.

The notion/prejudice that girls are ‘hardwired’ for communication and boys’ for aggression is doubtless very unfair indeed to girls – but it’s downright abusive for boys. Our assumptions that boys as a ‘species’ are ‘naturally’ much less empathetic than girls, less social, less literate, less sensitive – less ‘human’ in other words – are a self-fulfilling prophecy/nightmare.  Snips and snails…. Boys are, in effect, being ‘hardwired’ into failure by adult prejudice – and scientific hogwash.

Neuroscience has ended up saying some very strange, very damaging things about boys. Leading neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he’s the cousin of the other one) actually argues that autism is ‘an extreme form of maleness’, caused by exposure to high levels of prenatal testosterone. Put another way, he’s in effect arguing that ‘normal’ maleness is a mild form of autism (rather like most of the novels of Nick Hornby). Dr Eliot does a particularly nifty job of dispatching this argument, concluding that far from being some kind of excess of maleness, we still just don’t know what causes autism.

But my favourite part of the book was this anecdote, used to illustrate how five-year-olds tend to define and enforce gender in a manner entirely consistent with the ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’ nursery rhyme:

Psychologist Sandra Bem cites a perfect example of such gender-defining stereotypes in the experience of her own son, Jeremy. She and her husband had gone to great lengths to raise their two children in a gender-neutral way, so when Jeremy announced one day that he wanted to wear hair slides to nursery school, she simply put them in his hair and let him go.  Expecting him to be teased, she was surprised that he said nothing about it when he came home that day. Later, however, she learned from his teacher that Jeremy had indeed been hounded by on boy, who kept asserting that Jeremy must be a girl “because only girls wear hair slides.”

“No,” Professor Bem’s well-taught son had countered, going on to insist that he was indeed a boy because he had “ a penis and testicles.”  To prove the point, Jeremy even pulled down his trousers.

But the other boy was not persuaded and replied: “Everyone has a penis; only girls wear hair slides.”

Given what Dr Eliot reports here about many of her colleague’s work, it’s difficult not to conclude that the ‘only girls wear hair slides’ bossy little boy is going to grow up to be a neuroscientist.

Gay Men As Bad As Women (But Not As Bad As Psychobiology)

by Mark Simpson

(Guardian CIF, Sunday January 6, 2008)

It’s official. The scientists have finally proved it. Gay men are as bad as women.

Or as the Daily Mail puts it in a somewhat unnecessarily long headline: “Gay men are as bad at navigating as women“.

The Daily Telegraph headline was a little more direct: “Women and gay men are ‘worst drivers‘”.

Actually, this wasn’t what the researchers into spatial learning and memory at Queen Mary’s (no, really, that’s actually their name) College claimed at all, but I say why allow the facts spoil a good headline? Or Jeremy Clarkson column?

What the researchers did actually claim however was that both gay men and women appear to “share the same poor sense of direction and rely on local landmarks to get around”.

That would be cottages and shoe shops, I suppose.

According to the Mail, a study of 140 straight and gay, male and female “volunteers” by Queen Mary College, London claims to have found that “gay men, straight women and lesbians navigated in much the same way and shared the same weaknesses.” For South American Chardonnay and men’s buns, perhaps?

But hang on a minute. And lesbians? What are they doing lumped together with gay men and straight women? I thought that if gay men are women trapped inside men’s bodies, lesbians were supposed to be trapped inside an articulated lorry cab with their feet on the dashboard smoking roll-ups.

But as you read on it dawns what this sophisticated psychological test was really assessing. “The Queen Mary team, led by Dr Qazi Rahman, used virtual reality simulations of two common tests of spatial learning and memory developed at Yale University.”

Ah, so they played computer games. Not very good computer games, by the sound of it:

In one, the Morris Water Maze (MWM) test, volunteers were placed in a “virtual pool” and had to “swim” through a maze to find hidden submerged platform … The other task, the Radial Arm Maze test (RAM), involved finding “rewards” by exploring eight “arms” radiating out from a circular central junction. Four arms contained a reward and four did not, and participants had to avoid traversing an arm more than once.

Well, maybe it’s because I’m gay and dizzy, but you’ve lost me already. I want to log on and hunt for meaningless sex for hours via my scores of online profiles. You can keep your rather tedious reject Xbox game.

There may well be generalised differences between men and women when it comes to driving or other spatial based activities, such as computer games (men seem to play them rather more than women, though often with straight men this appears to be a way of getting away from women). And these may well have some relationship to sexual orientation, though what we mean by sexual orientation is a question in itself – after all, bisexuals are not mentioned in this survey. But it doesn’t appear that this study has shown it – instead it has merely shown up some cultural prejudices (e.g. that Telegraph “worst drivers” misleading headline).

Even the findings of this study appear to confirm gay men’s role as confusers of assumptions about gender. The leader of the Queen Mary team is quoted as saying: ‘”Gay people appear to show a “mosaic” of performance, parts of which are male-like and other parts of which are female-like”‘. So in other words, gay men watch porn, leave toilet seats up but also do a spot of dusting.

Perhaps though the disoriented gay men in the study weren’t gay men at all, but pissed-up fruit flies escaped from another scientific study published this week, which claimed to show that alcohol produces “homosexual tendencies” in male fruit flies. The researchers claimed the amorousness the flies showed one another after repeated exposure to alcohol is a model for how alcohol lessens inhibitions in humans.

I suspect this is one claim that isn’t terribly controversial.


It has been pointed out to me since this piece appeared that Dr Quazi Rahman, the man behind the study which claimed to have ‘discovered’ similarities between gay men and women’s brains, is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’. If only snarky commentators like me could learn to be as objective as psychobiologists.

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