Kate Monro asked men to reveal what made them the men they are and what being a man meant to them / Alamy

Kate Monro has interviewed men aged from 18 to 87, in the hope of revealing something about the arc of masculinity over the past 70 years, and the challenges that men have faced during that time

Kate Monro on her project to invite men to talk about their inner lives

Walking in London a few years ago, I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of a huge man – leather-clad and wearing a faded Motörhead tee-shirt, seemingly blending in well amid the tattoo parlours of Camden. That is until I looked down. Trotting delicately by his side was a small chihuahua. This man seemed to me to be emblematic of change.

Masculinity has come a long way since my grandfathers' generation of the mid-20th century. Men of that era had a relatively clear-cut path to manhood. Until National Service was abolished in 1960, there was a chance it might have involved armed combat. Meanwhile, with little means of controlling their fertility, women were largely tied to their roles as childbearers and homemakers. Everybody knew what they were doing.

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Kate Monro: 'Masculinity has come a long way since my grandfathers' generation of the mid-20th century'

Collecting testimony for my 2011 book about virginity loss, I discovered that my expectations that men would make reluctant interviewees could not have been more wrong. It was as if I'd thrown them a liferaft. Their replies went way beyond the subject at hand. As we discussed heartbreak, rejection, insecurity and love, I felt them stepping far away from the emotional reticence we deem "male".

I wanted to dig further into this area, to peep behind the curtain once again and ask men to reveal their inner worlds – what made them the men they are and what being a man meant to them. I've interviewed men aged from 18 to 87, in the hope of revealing something about the arc of masculinity over the past 70 years, and the challenges that men have faced during that time. True to form, my men did not hold back.

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Ollie Marsh, 24

TV researcher, London

Here's the thing about masculinity: I love playing sports but I hate these weird initiations that people have to do in order to be masculine, to prove that they are a lad by downing so much alcohol that they throw up. I don't see what's masculine about being sick or talking in very lavish terms about how you're going to pull someone – and then passing out.

I was brought up in a houseful of women and I've always found them easy to talk to. My mum is very much the alpha female and although she stayed home and Dad worked, they ran the household together. This had a huge influence on how I view masculinity.

Modern-day masculinity is a balancing act. I've heard in the same conversation a girl say, "Oh this guy's not texting me back. He's being so distant", then complaining when he's too keen because he's getting back to her straightaway. If you're too…feminine I guess, then you're almost putting yourself in the friendship category. I wouldn't describe any aspect of my character as feminine. I'd just describe it as not masculine.

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Chris Melia, 87

Retired, London

The old feller always said, "Whatever you do, look after your sisters". That was our task in life, to make sure the females of the family were OK and when you got to a certain age, your father would say, "I've looked after you, son. It's time to get out and face life now". At 18, you became a man.

I started earning pennies when I was seven or eight, spud-picking. You'd get sixpence and the rest would go into running the finances of the family. The work ethic was the first thing I learnt from my dad. He was badly wounded in the First World War but he carried on working until he was 65. Even then they had to give him a job sweeping the roads because wouldn't stop. He'd make a few bob fist-fighting too. He didn't need the money but he was a hard man, there is no doubt about it. He cooled down completely after our mother passed away and he took over the role of the family – and he was very good at it.

I always say, as soon as you dropped out of your mother's womb, you put your fists up and started fighting. You never cried. Unless you got knocked down by a car or a horse. If you'd had a belt in the ear, it might bring a tear to your eye. But apart from that, no, a man doesn't cry.

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Chris Packe, 41

Man, Sussex (he doesn't like labels)

I went into investment banking when I left university: full of children in men's bodies. And not many women. Maybe a few but treated oddly, like, "She's a woman, but we'll get round that". I found that disgusting, but I wasn't mature enough to say anything. That's what I'd like my son to understand. That it's not what people say or do, it's how they make you feel that makes an impression. I think that is by far the most powerful lesson we can teach.

I get to know the boys in my daughter's class and I care about how they grow up. Partly because I want mature boys in her vicinity but I also feel a responsibility for them. I think it's important that someone who isn't necessarily their father does care about them. So something I do is take small groups on outdoor adventure trips.

At first I did the trips with just boys but the girls started saying, "What about us?" Because girls need to learn what to expect from a man too. To have high expectations. I'm not saying that I am that man but I aspire to be the sort of man that a young girl can look at and say, that is what is acceptable. Someone who disproves some of the crap you hear about men in the media.

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Chris De Faria, 32

Hairdresser, London

I wanted to install a shower recently. I looked at the cost and it was shocking so I went on to YouTube, looked up basic plumbing, and I did it myself. Because I err on the gayer side of gay, people wouldn't necessarily anticipate me handling a task like plumbing. When I tell people I'm a hairdresser, they go, "Ah," and expect it. When I told them I did some plumbing at the weekend, they went, "Oh, good on you! How did you manage that? Was the bath panel not a bit heavy for you?"

My parents split when I was young. My father was a bit of a drunk. I think there was a lot of doubt in me as to what a father figure should be. You find yourself looking at popular culture. You look at the telly; you look at your friends' fathers and you start to develop an idea. I got the impression that responsibility wasn't of paramount importance, and that it mainly lies with the matriarch.

Mostly I looked up to my older brother. To a degree it was unfair to have that pressure on him. But being the oldest, it was a necessity. He is a really good man.

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Hud Saunders, 54

Writer, London

Having a child at the age of 22 was a moment that changed my idea of what it was to be a man. For the first time I had to think about someone outside of myself. I liked being a father. It felt natural and I wanted to embrace that sense of responsibility. I think a real man embraces his feminine aspects and is a nurturer, a protector and as an elder you become a wise man and pass the knowledge on. A real man isn't interested in trophies and winning competitions and amassing fortunes and dominating and being powerful.

Grayson Perry pops into my head as a man who has comfortably created his own version of manhood, which includes dressing as a woman and being OK with that. How brilliant that he can do that and be brave in that. I think people like that are amazing. Because we are not narrow beings. We are very wide. We are part of a huge spectrum, and mainstream media doesn't always honour that. It doesn't celebrate our diversity as men or women but this is what needs to be done.

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Dami Alaran, 28

Entrepreneur, London

From a young age, you have this weight put on your shoulders to be Superman. You can't have doubts. You have to be this gargantuan figure of what the male is and it's a lot of pressure. The media tells women and men that you're not good-looking enough; you're not the right weight. Men believe that stuff the same way women do. They just don't admit it.

My father died when I was three so I had very little understanding of how men worked, which was weird and awkward. Two things made a difference. One was playing sports and the other was church. Church taught me that a a man takes responsibility and makes decisions based not only on himself but on the people around him – and that is difficult because, as a man, you have your ego. You want to be No 1.

My mother taught me about things that men are supposed to do. She showed me that it is possible to work hard, that your yes is yes, your no is no. But she couldn't teach me about masculinity. A woman cannot. It's impossible. A man has to do that.

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Jack Morri, 28

Stay-at-home father, Hitchin

I come from a family of policemen but I'd never been passionate about my job. Whereas my wife loves work. She's really driven so we came to the conclusion that when we had a family, I would stay home. I'm so much happier now. At the weekends we get to enjoy each other's company because I've done the cooking and cleaning. It's blissful actually. It's more work than I thought but I'm glad I started now as our first child is due soon.

It has crossed my mind what we'll tell our children because even though I never particularly wanted to be a policeman, I do remember feeling a sense of pride when I got to tell my mates what my dad did for a living. I wonder how my own kids will feel but my job was never in my heart.

What makes me connect with my own sense of masculinity? When I'm fixing or building something. Digging holes is particularly brilliant. We went on holiday recently. Everyone built sandcastles but I dug a massive hole. It was so big that the entire family could stand in it. It was awesome.

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Stephen Burrows, 51

Healthcare worker, Manchester

Back in the day, football was the place for men to bond in ways that maybe they've forgotten. I remember the first game I went to. I was knocked out by the sheer power and passion behind it. After that, I've not ever been able to let it go. It's the enjoyment of feeling free, of loosening the chains and releasing frustration. It's the ability to celebrate and sing and always be part of a large group with the occasional hug if a goal is scored. It's the only time you're going to watch a competition with 20,000 other people that (mostly) doesn't involve bloodshed and violence. It's peacetime's best alternative to war for most men.

Our old manager often referred to his players as "people that you'd like alongside you in the trenches" and there is a lot of that feeling. It's a battle and you get to feel the camaraderie of people fighting alongside you. There are lots of comparisons with football and war for men.

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Pete Aves, 49

Musician, Salisbury

As an actor I've just been playing the role of a flamboyant gay man and I've no problem with that. The increased visibility of gay culture has had a positive impact on the concept of masculinity. Mostly because men don't feel that they have to be as repressed as they used to be.

Gender roles have often been defined by economics, and in my situation that was definitely true. My wife was earning a salary so I stayed at home to raise our twins. The other mums acknowledged I was doing the same job as them, but I did encounter some hostility from those I would term "professional mothers" when confronted by a man with not one but two babies who looked relatively clean and well-fed. Like how could he possibly do that? Men were more like, "Good on you, mate".

Raising children is rewarding but it's hard work. I socialised less; I became isolated. One thing about masculinity is that men tend to take on a heavier workload than they are capable of. I was bringing up the kids and renovating the house but when my wife offered to help I would turn her down because I felt I could do everything. She probably felt her input wasn't being sufficiently heard and to some extent she was right. I'm not saying this kind of role reversal can't work but it didn't work for us. I would do it again but I'd do it differently.

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Titus Kojder, 48

Off-line editor, London

My dad was a charismatic, intelligent man but he drank. So there we were; my mum and two sisters, against this raging crazy man and it felt dangerous. Like all men are dangerous to women and I took that to heart.

Subconsciously it was easier to become a victim than ever risk being a victimiser myself. I remember being asked by one of the girls I slept with at college, "Why do you let girls use you like this?' But my desire worried me. Like, "Did I make her do that? Or did she want to do that?" Ironically, feminism in the 1980s was all about acknowledging female desire and here I was trying to be a man, trying to be OK with my sexuality and desire and not always succeeding. It's only latterly that I've thought, I need to give myself a break. Because it's very internalised, that I hate men, hate my dad, so that means I hate myself, right?

I'm down with the bearded tree-huggers. I'd like to be the guy who's able to be strong without being cruel, to be in charge without dominating, and that's what I want for the future of masculinity.

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Thomas Luke Anchell, 36

Musician, County Cork

I have no doubt about my masculinity but other people find it hard to take, like, "Oh you're marrying a woman and you're bisexual? How does that work?" I had difficulties when I was younger, too. I wasn't out and I was always the most obviously non-masculine person in the room. It's the over-thinking and feeling that made me stick out. I really feel for people, and this isn't always seen as masculine.

Our relationship from day one has been marked by people joking because my fiancée is very feminine but sometimes people don't see that from the outside. They think she's more masculine than me. I think we understand each other precisely because we are both so different. She's not a girly girl and I'm not a manly man.

I'm not sure I'm ever not connected to my masculinity. I have a strong sense of self. The empowerment of pleasing someone sexually is a big part of that, especially in my relationships with women. Men and women are so different it can validate your sense of masculinity when you're able to please a woman. More generally when I'm able to help anyone, there is always a voice in me saying, "I feel like a big strong man helping this person".

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Max Dee, 18

Artist, Essex

I'm in the middle of being a boy and a man. Personal things made me grow up quicker. I had to put on a brave face when I was diagnosed with depression. I learnt something about masculinity then because although my dad really sympathised, he couldn't express a lot of emotion. But that's what men are like.

I like to be honest about how I feel and it's helped me when I've been able to do that. It starts early as well. If a girl falls over, she'll get comforted, whereas a boy might be encouraged to be brave. I don't think it's the fault of the parents. Its just the way they've been sculpted by their parents.

I think men want to be masculine for women. It's instinct. We're animals. We have manes, like lions. Masculinity is our metaphorical mane and we're battling each other to try and win the prize. I feel at my most masculine when I'm with my girlfriend. It's the very intimate moments that make me feel the most like a man.

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Ray Savage, 65

Investigator, East Sussex

I ran The Heavy Mob, the anti-riot squad, breaking up fights between mods and rockers in 1960s Brighton. I saw the squad run by my supervisors and mentors first and I vowed to run it slightly differently, with compassion and tolerance, without any form of brutishness because there was no need for it.

My dad was a decorated D-Day veteran. He was an honest, loving man. Not without scars of course. He'd grown up with a war. His form of masculinity was strength, to be dependable. I went back with him for the D-Day 60th anniversary. It was awe-inspiring and gut-wrenching. His last words to me were were, "All I ever tried to do is to help people".

Men are threatened by the evolution of women. If anything, women have compassion for where men have been and what's been put on them, that men have suffered abuse too. To me, that's one of the roles of modern man, to support women in their power, because by combining our abilities, that's what will make things change.

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Paul Apps, 51

Community Leader, Eastbourne

My dad was the youngest of 14. He sang in a band with his back to the audience because he was shy. That's how he met my mum. He took a fancy to her at a gig. He was a crap dad but I was gutted when he died. I spent a lot of time searching for the attention of older men when I was younger.

I'm involved in A Band of Brotherss, a charity established by men committed to positive social change. There is a piece of work we do – it's emotionally intense and it culminates in screaming and shouting and what it comes down to is that everyone needs to be loved and touched and told that everything is going to be OK. That's a primal need in all of us, including men. Women used to do my head in, all the questions and thinking about things that I didn't want to think about. But I didn't understand that it's OK to have emotions. People might look at me and see a man, but I don't need to be defined by my gender. What matters is to be an authentic individual and to treat everyone – men and women – with respect.

Kate Monro's books include 'Losing it: How We Popped Our Cherry Over the Last 80 Years', published by Icon Books

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