I’m 13 years old, and it’s late at night.
My mum has been drinking gin. She’s sitting at the end of the table crying. I ask her what’s wrong, and she begins to shout.
I don’t remember everything she said, but I remember some of the things. She said that she hated herself. She said nobody loved her. She wished she'd never had me. She wished she’d never had any of her children. She said she hated men; that men were responsible for everything that had ever hurt her. She said that men were like a cancer. She said that men were to blame for everything bad in the world. She said men couldn’t help themselves: it was in their nature.
I said, “what about me?”
And she replied by saying, “even you.”
She told her son he was evil. That he was wrong. That whatever he did, he could only end up hurting people. That he would only be able to cause the kind of pain to women that she was experiencing. And I believed her. It joined lots of other things that I hated about myself and became part of a stick I would beat myself with. My gender was poison. Everything was my fault.
Before I go on, I just want to signpost some things for you: this book will discuss violence, abuse, sexual assault, rape, systematic bullying, mental health issues and suicide.
Please feel free to stop reading now if those are things you don’t want to hear about today. As someone who has been hurt by quite a few words, I’d rather my words didn’t hurt anyone.
One word that describes me is ‘man’. People have often told me to ‘be a man’. People have frequently suggested I ‘man up’. I don’t think I’ve ever been described as a ‘real man’, but I am real, and I am a man. It’s my gender and, love it or hate it (and I’ve been known to hate it pretty strongly), it’s the one I was born with and the one that fits with what I feel I am. Which is a privilege as well as a deep pit of shame and self-loathing.
Throughout this book, I’m going to throw words at you. Some may not be familiar, but hopefully by the end of this journey, they’ll just be words, yours to use if they communicate something you want to say.
How to mansplain ‘mansplaining’? It’s a form of communication inflicted on women by men. It’s men explaining things to women that they already know. Often, it’s men explaining what the experience of being a woman is like to a woman, or a man explaining a woman’s area of expertise to a woman. Mansplaining isn’t part of a conversation: it’s an attempt to reframe it completely and take charge of it. It’s a thing that happens. I’ve seen it. I’m sure, at times, I’ve done it. It isn’t limited to men. Explaining people’s experiences to them is something people do to each other all the time. People whitesplain. People poorsplain. People ‘splain’ physical and mental health issues. I’ve been ‘splained’ to. Through the duration of working on this project, I’ve experienced quite a lot of mansplaining and also some womansplaining.
Some of you may be thinking: ‘not all men’.
If a teacher tells everyone to be quiet, and you’re a child who hasn’t been making any noise, do you say, “I wasn’t talking”? Or do you instead encourage your peers to stop making noise and ruining things for everyone?
‘Not all men’ is something men say to women who are complaining that men as a group do something to them. It’s an irritating and derailing thing to say. But it contains a truth within it because men are not a unified group of people. We are diverse. Some men are working class; some men are men of colour; some men are trans; some men are gay; some men are effeminate; some men are disabled. We are not all the same. Accepting the gender binary and the prisons it creates for us is not the answer. Not all men are like anything. But men collectively are socialised to act in certain ways. These things are both true.
The other response women often receive when they try and talk about their experiences is, “What about the men?”
And that’s really the question I’m going to be asking for the rest of this book. It’s a question that’s been asked by many people before, mostly by men, and mostly on the internet. It’s a question that’s asked so frequently, generally to the wrong people and at the wrong times, that it’s become a meme, a cliché and a real obstacle to getting any kind of an answer. I won’t give an answer in this book. I’m not sure there is an answer. I suspect it’s a question based on a false premise. I mean, what even is a man? The word ‘men’ is not a static thing. It’s a concept that shifts about, that means different things in different people’s mouths. When I talk about men and masculinity, I’ll primarily be talking about gender. Men as a socially constructed concept; masculinity as an ideology. Gender and sex are intertwined. Sex is a biological concept, and people often say it’s fixed or clear-cut. But biology is the name we give our evolving understanding of nature. A lot of modern biology looking at humans on a chromosomal level suggests the binary way we think of sex is wrong. There may be six or more sexes, but at the very least, there’s a lot of variety in how the three fully accepted sexes of man, woman and intersex experience the world.
I hope that I don’t reinforce gender or sex binaries in writing this book, but I suspect that in some ways I will. It takes time to change our understanding. It takes time to unpick. Simplification and generalisation are some of the things words do.