The Saturday Essay: Idle, sad and baffled by sex. What's wrong with men?

Men, renowned for their ability to get stoned, drunk or to be sexually daring, appear terrified of themselves
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The Independent Culture
What in God's name is wrong with men? Our prisons bulge with them. They wreak havoc on roads for all their reputation as gifted drivers. Drugs, alcohol, Aids, gambling, single-parenthood - the statistics consistently confirm that when it comes to antisocial behaviour, risk- taking and social mayhem, men win gold. Yet for all their behaving badly, they do not seem any the happier. The rise in the number of young men killing themselves across much of Europe has been termed an epidemic. For the old, the situation is no better. For every six elderly women in 100,000 who kill themselves each year, 40 elderly men take their own lives. And the suicide figures are viewed as the tip of an iceberg of an even larger epidemic of male depression, an epidemic hidden only because men are either too proud or too emotionally constipated to admit to their feelings being out of control. Men, renowned for their ability and inclination to get stoned, drunk or sexually daring, appear to be terrified by the prospect of revealing that they can be - and often are - depressed.

Perhaps it was ever thus, and all that is happening now is that men are coming out of the emotional closet. Or maybe there is a genuine rise in male dissatisfactions. There is no shortage of suggested causes. Top of the list is the growing assertiveness of women. The fact that men still outnumber women in positions of power across the globe, are paid more, and still glower downwards through the glass ceiling, serves only to obscure the extent to which the very foundations of all this patriarchy is being steadily eroded. In every education authority in England and Wales, girls are outclassing boys - in primary schools, through secondary education and right into the universities. In the European Union, 120 women have university degrees compared with every 100 men. And on leaving school, women's prospects exceed men's, not just here but in other European countries, too. In Germany, for example, between 1991 and 1995, twice as many men lost their jobs as did women. In West Germany, women even gained 210,000 jobs, while men lost 400,000. Young men are more and more aware that the basis on which their superiority and power have rested over the centuries is evaporating in a flatulent, self-deceiving puff. Many are reacting with a mixture of aggression and self-destruction.

And if changes in education, training and work are not sufficient to demoralise the average man, there is the dismal public soap opera of man's relationship with his penis. For one thing, he appears unable to keep the damn thing under control. This affliction even affects the most powerful man in the world! He, who has been entrusted with pressing or not pressing the nuclear button, cannot keep the same hand from the zip on his trousers. In Britain, ministers of state, who exude a pompous self-satisfaction with the political power they wield, are regularly revealed to be randy goats unable to resist a shapely thigh or a heaving cleavage. And there is no respite from exposure to the darker side of male sexuality - the relentless media revelations of rape, paedophilia, sexual violence committed overwhelmingly by men against women and children. Innocent men, rather like the relatives of torturers or Gestapo agents, find themselves apologising for crimes they have not committed - but for many, the very fact of being a man is itself the mark of Cain.

At a recent meeting in my old Alma Mater, University College Dublin, Germaine Greer declared that underlying much of the dynamic between men and women is "the fear of the unknown female, the contempt of the known female". She is right, I believe, but her analysis needs to be taken further. Why are men so fearful? What is fuelling the contempt? Might the fear, the contempt, be related to a deeper anxiety concerning their own sexuality? I realise that here I am treading on dangerous ground. Put a foot wrong and you risk being accused of blaming women for men's inability to control their sexual inclinations. That is what many men believe, and some even act on it. Women are feared, despised and sometimes even destroyed because of what men perceive women do to them. Male sexuality is unpredictable, capricious, dangerous; but the male is tempted to project all this and more on to women - and many do just that.

It is, of course, true that women, by their very presence, remind men of the precarious control men exercise over their own sexuality. Given the extent to which men make a fetish of being in control, any suggestion of a lack threatens the very essence of what, to many men, being a male is all about. What made much of the discussion of Bill Clinton's sexual behaviour fascinating was the extent to which the hoary old Garden of Eden myth that men fall because women tempt them is still alive and flourishing, even within the breast of many a robust feminist. Many men, and many women too, blame the seductive Monica for leading poor old Bill astray, a pathetically predictable and inadequate analysis enthusiastically seized upon by those men who, rather than expose the nature of male sexuality, its relationship to power and aggression and control, to a genuine, rigorous and honest analysis, retreat into a self-pitying and ultimately depressing moan about the difficulty of being a sexual man in a dynamic relationship with a contemporary woman. Men, particularly young men, do seem discomfited and threatened by what has happened to the self-confidence and the self- esteem of women and many, characteristically, prefer to project the blame for their own misfortunes back on to women than to accept that the change in women necessitates, indeed demands, a corresponding change in men.

Greer mischievously taunts men for our preoccupation with the size, shape and erectile potential of our genitalia, dismissing our prized manhood with Sylvia Plath's concise description as - "old turkey neck and gizzards". Men, particularly young men, are still disconcerted by mocking references to their genitals. The Full Monty quite explicitly drew an analogy between the male inadequacy consequent on the loss of a job and male anxiety concerning genital potency. Men must share, bond, emotionally relate; must reveal themselves, if they are to be fully human, went the movie's message - and then, the ultimate male cop-out, everything was indeed revealed to the cinema audience at the finale - save "old turkey neck and gizzards"! Germaine Greer is wrong if she attributes the male preoccupation with the shape, size and erectile potential of the penis to inordinate pride. It is founded on an incorrigible fear - not the Freudian fear of castration so much as the Adlerian fear of ridicule. Are we up to it, ask today's men anxiously, fretting at their social skills and shrivelled cocks; are we up to competing, succeeding, achieving, conquering, controlling, asserting, pontificating, as well as getting it up?

And there is the unavoidable reality that, unlike the female orgasm, a male erection cannot be feigned. The obvious visibility of the male genitals, their state and size, aroused and unaroused, are readily measurable and comparable. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the arrival of Viagra is accompanied not merely by much dodgy humour and double-entendre but by po-faced yet panicky political discussions about the bankrupting of health finances due to a stampede by men to get their hands on the latest "old turkey gizzard" stimulant.

And when Greer declared in The Female Eunuch that the male perversion of violence is an essential condition of the degradation of women, that the penis is conceived of as a weapon, where was the male response? How have men answered the accusation that the male sexual drive is blindly aggressive, egotistical, narcissistic, destructive? With a few admirable exceptions, we have responded for the most part by behaving in precisely those ways - aggressively denigrating, ridiculing and dismissing the feminist analysis as so much emotional tosh.

And all that the little Y chromosome accounts for - the male strength, stature, muscle power, attributes which in a world of iron and steel and coal, of shipbuilding, labouring, lumberjacking, soldiering provided men with their justification and their self-importance, count for damn all now. This very week has been full of reminiscences of the Great War, a war distinguished among many things by the terrible losses sustained by European manhood. It marked the end of war as an overwhelmingly male preserve. Today, citizens, male and female, as well as soldiers, die in armed conflict, and women have insinuated themselves into the military of many countries. Men no longer die for anyone but themselves, and chivalrous masculine sacrifice for domestic hearth and helpless women is the stuff now only of Bogart movies, Merchant/Ivory costume dramas and, irony of ironies, the year's most successful film, Titanic.

There is hardly anything that can be done that can't be done by a woman. So what, say women, not unreasonably given the age it has taken to establish such a state of affairs. So what indeed. The problem is one for men, and particularly for those men - and they have been the majority - who have defined their lives, their identities, the very essence of their masculinity in terms of work, and have prided themselves on the work that only they could do. Men's mess is compounded by the male inability, refusal or reluctance to engage in any serious analysis of the extraordinary impact that the industrial and scientific revolutions have had on their notions of masculinity.

And then there is the problem of men as husbands, men as fathers. The second millennium is ending with man's claim to a role in procreation, let alone a key role, under serious threat. The rise of single- parent families is a reflection of both male inadequacy and male redundancy. Increasingly, women are asserting that they can do it on their own. They don't need fathers for their children. The development of assisted reproduction, including techniques such as IVF, AID and surrogate motherhood, and the highly political and questionable argument that single parenting is as good as two parents, raise the question: whither the role of the father? Conception, pregnancy, delivery and child-rearing seemingly can be perfectly well accomplished without the active participation of the male. Once so proud of his penis (poor old Freud even believed women envied it), man now finds he has been reduced to the role of support seed-carrier as woman occupies centre-stage in the creation and nurturing of new life. Not surprisingly, there have been those who have seriously suggested that the only way men can regain a reproductive, a biological role of any significance is if they can be assisted by science to have babies themselves!

In a courageous piece, written earlier this year, Fay Weldon declared that women need men as partners and fathers, and that life without them isn't all that much fun for most women. It is a risky argument as it goes against the conventional feminist thesis concerning the redundancy of the male. But we men cannot depend on the Fay Weldons of this world to make our case. We have to make it ourselves. In Anatomy of Desire, his recently published, provocative and fair exploration of the nature of male and female sexuality, Simon Andreae concludes that for all the numerous alternative ways of arranging human sexual relationships, the union of one man and one woman, for better or worse, "is still as sensible and realistic a way of trying to optimise human relations and contributes to the greater happiness, peace and stability of mankind as any of the myriad alternatives". If he is right, and with regard to heterosexual men I believe he is, then I believe that within that perspective many men can begin to rediscover the point, purpose and satisfaction of being a male in the first place. A century ago, a peevish Freud, perplexed by the seeming epidemic of hysterical, depressed, lethargic and dissatisfied women, asked, "What do women want?". A century later, it is not women's wants but men's that mystifies us.

Dr Anthony Clare is currently writing a book on redefining masculinity, 'The Dying Phallus', for Chatto and Windus