Modern Men and Masculinity

Gary Dowsett


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Matt Smith:

Are modern men having a sexual identity crisis? Do we know who we are? Are we primal hunters who bring home the bacon? Or is it really the clothes that maketh the man? I'm Matt Smith, I think, and you're listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

One researcher who's been asking these questions is Professor Gary Dowsett. He's a Deputy Director of the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. And his focus has been on the changing landscape of masculinity and sex roles. So how much has sex changed for the man since the Stone Age?

Gary Dowsett:

Men's sexuality is an area of problem and change at the moment, that we've had ideas over the years of men's sexuality as being very narrowly focused on physical pleasure, sexual penetration of partners--particularly women partners for heterosexual men--orgasm, and simple kind of notions of sex that are not related to intimacy and complexity. And that critique you can get from say, the bull in the china shop, which is an expression Australians use. And I think that kind of a notion is under-challenged. It's been under-challenged by women who say they don't want that anymore ever since feminism started, and probably long before, but I actually think men are re-thinking that.

And I suppose the research we've been doing exploring how far men have gone in re-thinking where sexuality might fit in their lives and how it might fit into relationships as distinct from sex, acts of sex, as distinct from sex and intimacy as part of relationships, is what we were trying to explore in some of the recent work. So that's sort of the heart at where it's moving to.

Matt Smith:

So it sounds like the starting point was almost a very mechanical way of looking at it?

Gary Dowsett:

In the sense that we had a long literature, both in feminist literature and critiques in the men's studies area, or the masculinity studies area, which is sort of a newer field of gender studies, but also in queer studies coming out of gay and lesbian theory, critiques of traditional masculinity, masculine sex roles, as some people call it, and traditional ways men think about sex and think about women as sex objects, in a sense. That critique is now 30 to 40 years old. We've had that background there before.

In some of the literature, there's still people who think that's the way things are. So you can read some of the popular psychology or popular culture books on men and they all start from 'men are in pain and we really need to fix their focus on their penises and get them much more interested in intimacy and sharing', and they're all doing studies on who's sharing the housework.

And all of that shows things are changing, but some people would say that change isn't very much and others would say the change is quite strong in different parts of the population--so maybe middle class, and educated man might have moved more towards double-career families with their partners working than people who still believe that wives should be at home in other parts of the population.

All of that's there in the literature. What struck me in reading things like popular men's magazines like Men's Health, one of the most popular ones in the country, is that the discourse was shifting.

The discourse was shifting towards re-thinking sex. It was still playing with masculine ideas or masculinist ideas, but it was also hinting at different ways for men to think about their bodies, how they're supposed to look after their bodies, how they're supposed to please women sexually, what they need to do to make sure that their partners are interested in them and stay interested in them.

And so there seemed to be this kind of urge for men to renovate their masculinity, including their sexual lives, but also their bodies. 'Go to the gym, look after yourself, look after your skin, get better dressed, learn to cook, please the little woman with that new deal and then you'll get laid afterwards' was kind of the message that was still a bit cast in masculinist terms. But there's an undercurrent of shift and change. Some people call it the New Masculinity, but I think that's a bit strong.

And what I was interested in is talking to a small number of men to see what that felt like inside an individual life. It was all very well to sort of read it out of magazines and have an academic discourse from broad surveys of housework and things like that, but I wanted what it actually felt like inside an individual life. So we just recruited a small number--10 men, some gay, some straight--and we just interviewed them about their relationship histories and their sexual lives within their relationship histories and asked them to talk about what that was like--"What do you think about that now?" or "What did you learn or where did you go to find information?"--essentially trying to find how much work the men were doing in the renovation of their sex lives, and was that going on.

And we found quite a varied amount of activity. 'Reflexivity' is the word some sociologists use where there's some thinking about the self and monitoring the self. You rate your behaviour as a man, your behaviour toward your partner, your behaviour in bed, the way you think about your relationship. We could see the men consciously working at that to different degrees at different levels.

The gay and the straight men were the same on some things, different on others. There was much more fluidity across the 10 men as to what they were thinking about and what they were focusing on than a classic gay and straight divide. But also the ages went from 20 to 40, so there was actually some fluidity across those ages as well. It revealed to us that at an individual level, the experience of change and renovation is quite a complex one.

Matt Smith:

Is it something along the lines of, now that men have a more open society, that they can actually discuss these sorts of things, whether that's affecting the change?

Gary Dowsett:

Well, that's an interesting one. One interesting difference between the gay and the straight men was that the straight men were all doing this almost entirely on their own. A couple of them had gay friends, gay male friends that they talked with about their relationships with their female partners, so they could kind of disclose to a gay buddy, but none of the straight men actually had a straight mate or mates that they talked about this stuff openly.

In gay culture, there is actually an open discussion amongst friends about sex lives and relationships in quite a level of graphic detail, as we now know, and in the gay press, etc. So gay men are moving through friendships and mates in their community and hearing this stuff discussed all the time. Should we be monogamous, should we be not monogamous, what about gay marriage--all those kinds of things in the conversations, in a sense.

But for straight men, we were surprised to find, even if they were reading a magazine or things like that, they didn't actually have a friendship circle of men to talk about these things with.

So the project of renovation was a bit of a lonely one for some of them. And that was a bit of a surprise, but I think an interesting one, because it sort of shows that maybe the problems of male friendship are something that we ought to be thinking about a bit more, that men obviously have male friends but what constitutes the ingredients of a male friendship?

It might need to be explored a bit more. Are men still frightened to talk about intimate and nervous activity, things that make them nervous, with their straight buddies? What do the St Kilda football players talk about with each other when they're involved in these kinds of scandals? I don't know whether there's a discourse there.

But certainly the men we talked to, if they were cheating on their partners, there was no one to talk to about that. If they were using the internet to watch porn when their female partner wasn't there as an extra sort of sexual fill-up in their lives, they told us in the interviews, but a lot of them said they'd never told anybody else about these things.

So the project looked a little isolated even if there was certainly evidence of hard work and quite a deal of renovation. These men had moved on from classic old misogynist Australian masculinity, that's for sure.

Matt Smith:

Are modern men less masculine?

Gary Dowsett:

That certainly didn't seem to be the case. I think the issue becomes thinking of masculinity as something fixed in time or thinking it's something that shifts in time.

So if you think about the Stuart Period, the Restoration Period in Britain, in the upper classes, I mean, upper class masculinity was characterized by the fop--the highly effeminate, the wigged and highly-dressed, with buttons and bows, heterosexual male. The fop was originally a heterosexual character but turns into a homosexual character about 150 years later in the plays and in the literature. But the fop, the dandy, these were heterosexual masculinities in their time. So masculinity has shifted and changed throughout history, and masculinity theorists are still working on looking at that now that we have this phrase ‘masculinity’ as a term that we can use to guide those studies.

What we're certainly seeing, I think, in Australian culture is that over the last 30 years, the succeeding generations of men from the middle of the baby boomers onwards have been thinking and shifting--not everybody and not all at the same pace, and if we'd interviewed men in their 60s we might or might not have seen evidence of change. But we kept it at 40 because this was just a small study.

But then maybe men in their 60s, who were the generation of the 1960s, who were the teenagers of the 1960s, and they went through the pill and free love and hippie days and all that stuff, maybe they're a lot more renovated than we think rather than being stodgy old masculine men like some people think older Australian men might be.

So I think there's work to be done in finding out how the changes in masculinity are moving through the generations. If you look at Gen X and Gen Y now--and some of our guys were Gen X and Gen Y guys--there's certainly shifts going on, and more rapidly than the older guys.

On the other hand, there's still things that are a bit the same. "Oh yeah, I've got to give her her orgasm first. That's what a good man does. But then I've got to get mine." There's still 'I'm a bit of a bloke and I deserve my turn, too' going on in here, but it has shifted.

Matt Smith:

Is modern masculinity affected by culture and advertising, or is it a reflection of it?

Gary Dowsett:

Well, it's all integrated together. I mean, these have cause and effect. They're basically synergies in some ways where they affect each other in certain ways. When you think about the dramatic shift in advertising that Calvin Klein introduced where he first started to eroticize ads for men's underwear in--what was it about? This is the late '70s, I think it was, somewhere round about there--he shifted the whole paradigm on men's clothing from that moment onwards.

It's interesting that Helena Rubinstein, the famous makeup company person, she had tried to do something in the '40s in New York with the men's store that sold men's clothing and underwear and cologne and aftershave, and she went bust. It didn't work. Like the '40s New York wasn't there yet.

But by the time Calvin Klein starts to do what he does in whenever it was--I think it was the '70s--he shifts the paradigm on how men start to think about underwear. Underwear is not something you go and buy a packet of the cheapy thing at the supermarket now. There's all this designer underwear you can go and buy, and now you've got to think about that because that's part of thinking about your body.

It is all connected together, but was Calvin Klein causing something? One of the things that Klein was doing was actually borrowing from gay culture, because he started to actually use gay imagery, but for straight men. Had gay men got there first?

Matt Smith:

The chicken and the egg.

Gary Dowsett:

Chicken and egg, exactly. We don't know. It's constantly moving. And, certainly, men have become not only an absolutely identified market for masculinity products--face creams, shampoos, body buffers, gym products, clothing. Men have become much more of a market.

It's no longer the women that just buy for the men. Men are identified as a consumer market of their own and have been since that time. Men are now actually forced to think about those things. So they then react back and put pressure back on the market for certain kinds of things. So it moves on.

Matt Smith:

What is the next phase of your study?

Gary Dowsett:

The masculinity one continues to tick over. It's something I've been working on almost all of my academic life, actually. I've been writing stuff on this for, God, 20 or 25 years. I think I did my first stuff on gender roles for boys in schooling in the 1970s. I've been interested in the whole area of masculinity for a long time and watching how the field shifts and moves.

And it's interesting how at the moment one of the big areas where this is moving the fastest is men's health, because we've just had the release last year of the National Male Health policy at the federal level. Victoria has just released a men's health strategy 20 years after we first started thinking about this, I might say. It's taken a while to happen.

But inside these policies now at government level, which are feeling fairly mainstreamed, if a little bit innovative, there's 20 or 30 years of work on masculinity underneath those things. So we're seeing some shifts at policy now, and I think it will be interesting to see how those policies bite on thinking about men in terms of the way the government thinks about men--the shift toward, well, paternity leave for men so that men can spend time with their kids--and a belief that it's important that fathers spend time with their kids--and how do we actually fund that as a society if we're going to do it like the Scandinavians do.

All of those practical things are products of this kind of research, this kind of thinking about shifting masculinities over time. It's going to be just like an ongoing piece of work for me.

My current work is actually on men's sexuality after treatment for prostate cancer, because it's often just written off as an area that men have treatments for prostate cancer and their sex lives are over, and we're currently interviewing men about how hard they're working to renovate their sexual lives and their relationships after the consequences of prostate cancer.

Looking at the men we've interviewed in this earlier study who were working at it, we're trying to find out in these newer studies how these men--and some of them are young; the last one I interviewed was 42--how these men are actually working at renovating their lives again, but this time as a consequence of a trauma that comes out of prostate cancer. So the theory is still there, the theme is still there, even if I’m shifting my attention to different issues.

Matt Smith:

There was a survey that came out late last year, and the results said that Australian men are losing their masculine tendencies. Less of them know how to build a shed, which I don't know when you'd get called on to do very often, or would know what's going on underneath the hood of a car or how to fix a tap or anything like that. They're more familiar with changing nappies and washing dishes. Do you see that as a worrying trend?

Gary Dowsett:

No. Look, I think there will always be men and their sheds, right? Sometimes your shed might be the computer. You just shut yourself away from your family on your computer just like you used to shut yourself away down the back in your woodworking tools or tinkering under the car. Men will always have places where they go to be on their own to do boys' things. And boys will always play with toys, whether it's computers or pornography or games or whatever it is.

I think this notion that these shifts represent a loss of masculinity, that idea is the problem. The fact that masculinity was something once, and we knew what it was, and now it's disappearing. Historically we know that it's never been one thing. There had been common things to the masculinities of different cultures, but we do know there are societies that are matrilineal. They're not patriarchal. And so those cultural forms all shift.

I think we're just going through another period in what's called 'late modernity' nowadays, in which modern man no longer needs, necessarily, to do all those kinds of things. I mean, these computers are where we spend most of our time nowadays. I do my work, my thinking work in books and computers and printouts. I take my car to somebody who knows how to do cars. I haven't got time, and I don't need to know anymore, how to get under the bonnet.

My father was a used car dealer. I do know something about cars, or used to once. If I went under a car and I'd look if I had a change of fan belt, I'd discover that most cars don't have them anymore. You know, that kind of thing. Do I need to know that? No. I have a dentist for my teeth, I have someone to fix my car.

I don't think the do-it-yourself culture, which is sort of what I think some people are thinking about when they talk about men no longer fixing their own taps, is disappearing, or it's being regulated so we now have to have certified plumbers do certain kinds of things and certified electricians--you don't fix your own wiring anymore, or you shouldn't.

That shift in culture and society, it's not a loss of masculinity. I think the masculinity that people are building is now a different thing. If good masculinity now means you've got to become a good chef, is Jamie Oliver not masculine?

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we have for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can send us an email at Professor Gary Dowsett, thank you for your time.

Gary Dowsett: