Writer Tim Samuels explains why the modern man is struggling with his identity
Think about the blissfully snoring man you woke up next to this morning. Or recall the imprint on the sheets of the latest one who slipped away, hollowly promising to text. Now consider the sprawling one in a suit who invaded your personal space on the train this morning.
Men, you might well conclude, have it easy. Still masters of the universe (despite over 100 years of feminism), bestriding a world where they populate 95 per cent of FTSE CEO positions and over 70 per cent of parliaments; oblivious to glass ceilings; harnessing the wealth of technology to create ever more powerful ways of satisfying their insatiable sex drives.
But is it really that straightforward? If you scratch the veneer of bravado, men’s identities have never been as up in the air as they are in 2016. In fact, countless studies point to a silent modern crisis of epic proportions. Schoolboys who are more likely to suffer from ADD than girls. Rampant depression that’s now the biggest killer of men under 30. The young men so lost they swell the ranks of ISIS, the introverts who troll women on Twitter, the nitwits so angry they think Trump has the answers.
In fact, that Tinder guy who never texted is probably attempting to use sex to dull his inner feelings of failure and inability to embrace intimacy. Train-seat hogger is desperately working up his brave face before entering an office that is leading him towards early-onset heart disease. And you can bet your own partner is quietly wrestling with sky-high media-fuelled expectations. Have you stopped to think about the non-stop pressure on him to be a success at work (read earn eye-watering amounts to keep his status on today’s property ladder) and home (understanding boyfriend, killer chef, potentially hands-on dad, all while resembling a Men’s Health cover star)?
It’s not sympathy we want, though – just a little understanding that it’s a pretty tough time for men right now. And just as men should do everything they can to empower and support the women in their lives, there needs to be a bit more consideration about what we’re up against, too. When a man can’t be a man, he lacks purpose and it has big consequences for all of us: far-right movements feed off this frustration, male crime and mental disorders rocket, and, closer to home, men are too depressed to be the supportive fathers and partners they’d like to be.
The true state of the modern male can be seen in the raw moments during boys’ nights out at the pub, when taboos melt away and the same themes emerge. If these moments were Jeremy Kyle shows, the titles might be: I Don’t Have Sex With My Partner Any More But Still Want To Be With Her; I Thought I’d Be Doing Better At Work By Now; Sometimes I Don’t Actually Like My Kids; I Have No Time To Do What I Want To; I Haven’t Slept Properly In Weeks.
Men have never before had so little freedom to vent our testosterone, say what we want, and ultimately feel like men. And this is a problem. Today it results in lads wrapping cars around trees or taking sexual risks. My brother says he feels happiest when dangling off a mountain ledge or deep-sea diving alone. Why do you think legions of men are getting up at dawn to compete in Tough Mudder contests after a week chained to their desks?
Just think how bemused our great-grandfathers would be to see us enduring a 360-degree appraisal. In the past, work may have been tough, but at least men could revel in a certain freedom. Male Millennials face job insecurity and financial pressure, but without the tribal sense of belonging that used to come with factories, unions and religion or the more defined friendship networks enjoyed by women. Is it any wonder then, that on stag nights, when the break for freedom reaches its nutty apex and men are out in packs that inevitably, one or more will sleazily go AWOL for a couple of hours?
Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University have found that the camaraderie of ‘man time’ plays a core role in men’s long-term mental health. Today it’s all the more important given the culture so many men have to spend their days twisting their inner selves to fit into, one where the wrong type of compliment could land you in court for sexual harassment. Nothing affects a man’s mood like how he is doing in the workplace. Throw in an overly aggressive boss and you have genuine mental mayhem. One corporate guy I know feels nauseous before meetings with his line manager – a woman who tears strips off him, leaving him close to tears. Does he talk about it? Hell no. It’s no surprise many of us secretly hanker back to the Mad Men era – untouched by political correctness, technology and blurred gender lines.
Yes, there have been great strides – the freedom to be gay, express feelings and be an emotionally present dad. True, technology has created more opportunity than ever to binge on no-strings sex. But we still live in a world where monogamous relationships are the norm, which is at odds with our natural biology. If you look between the legs of our closest relations in the animal kingdom, on the spectrum between the small-balled monogamy of a gibbon and the rampantly promiscuous chimp with his whopping testes, the male human falls in the middle. In ape world, size matters, as an indication of sexual behaviour. And based on the size of our testes, we aren’t designed for monogamy.
As Dr Helena Cronin, from the London School of Economics, explains: ‘If you give a man 50 wives, he can have children galore. If you give a woman 50 husbands, it’s no help whatsoever to her reproductive success. So over evolutionary time, men had to compete fiercely for mates. Women didn’t.’
Many evolutionary psychologists, like David M Buss, concur that men have developed a more powerful desire for a variety of sexual partners than women. ‘The evolutionary logic is straightforward – men who succeeded in securing sexual access to a variety of women would have achieved greater reproductive success than men who did not,’ he explains.
In 2016, taming this inner ape is more challenging than ever due to the availability of casual sex. We now have exes on Facebook, porn polluting our brain with sexual feats that tend not to make an appearance on a Wednesday night three years into a relationship, single friends filling their boots on Tinder, and (quite rightly) sexually liberated women who aren’t shy in coming forward for a fling. Identity crisis, anyone? Like the monkey who covers his eyes to see no evil, a serial shagger I know cut himself off from all social media to avoid temptation after he got married.
OK, so fidelity is hardly a new constraint. Even our earliest ancestors couldn’t go around stealing whichever female they wanted – the tribe would have descended into chaos. And there is no doubt that monogamy is the best foundation for raising a family. But with nearly half of all marriages doomed to fail, the one-size-fits-all lifelong monogamy model just isn’t working for an awful lot of us and this is mainly because of men. Would it be healthier for some of us to ditch the rom-com mythology and see a fling as more of an animalistic act rather than a judgment on a relationship? (I say this having had my heart broken after being on the wrong end of an affair myself).
Extensive research has convinced me that it’s time to recognise that while women are grappling with glass ceilings, for men it’s more like glass cages. Trapped in bodies barely changed since caveman days, we’re living through the most absurd and unchartered time to be a man – and that’s not just a ‘man’ problem, it’s everyone’s problem.
So, perhaps tonight allow the man in your life that space to channel his inner hunter/gatherer, even if it’s just for a bit – before chucking the drying-up cloth at him and rolling your eyes.
Who Stole My Spear? by Tim Samuels (£12.99, Century) is out 5 May. Available from Amazon.