Is this man confused?: Feminism and social pressures are confounding the modern male. True or false? Simon Midgley reports

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'I AM not at all confused about how I relate to women,' says Roger Brent, a single 22-year-old merchant banker. 'Men are men and women are women. Men are the dominant sex still: they have to get a job, build the career, produce the money and provide the stability. I would never share the housework, even at weekends: that's a woman's role. I would want to spend time with the children, but I wouldn't be prepared to give up my job or go part-time. New men were just a fashion fad in a few magazines.'

Rowan McIntyre, a 24-year-old mature student at City and East London College, says he is not confused either, but his reasoning is somewhat different. 'I have have no problems knowing how to relate to women: I don't treat them any differently from men, and I expect the same from them. Maybe I have just grown up accepting feminism . . . I used to live in a flat with my girfriend, and did all the cooking and washing up and that sort of stuff. I enjoyed it. I would be quite happy to stay at home and look after the kids. I think a partnership is what it says - you both do your bit, basically.'

Neither Roger nor Rowan sounds especially like a man struggling to come to terms with his identity as a male in post-feminist Britain. Yet perhaps they are untypical? Earlier this month, after a spate of date rape cases had appeared to suggest that some young men are no longer able to tell when a woman wants sex, Simon Armson, chief executive of the Samaritans, said that one of the reasons why more and more young men were committing suicide was that they were indeed deeply confused. Young men were being torn, he said, by the strain of trying to be gentle, open and supportive new men while fulfilling the traditional male role of being aggressive, assertive and high-achieving. 'The new man seems to be a confused young man; he is not quite sure how he is supposed to behave, respond or relate in different relationships. There's a confusion of identity I think. On the one hand, he feels, 'I am about to become a man, and therefore my instinct tells me I am going to be macho, I am going to be a hunter.' But he is aware that there are expectations for him to be a different sort of person: a gentle, soft, caring sort of person.'

ANYONE seeking to probe further into this tricky subject, will discover that little research has been done on the suicidally confused new man, and evidence is sketchy and anecdotal. As far as academic research goes, the experts are, well, confused. The idea of the traditional macho role being in conflict with the quiche-eating new man persona has, according to Dr Raj Persaud, a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, 'a certain sort of intuitive appeal. It's a very attractive speculation, a very prevalent idea at the moment, but there is very little research evidence to back it up.'

Dr Steve Taylor, a lecturer in medical sociology at King's College Medical School, agrees that 'most people are very interested in this, and they do look at the rising male suicide rate as the symptom of some sort of underlying change that is causing deep confusion. There is a kind of common-sense view - but I don't see how it can be tested scientifically.'

Dr Charlie Lewis, a developmental psychologist at Lancaster University, is sceptical that men are so confused by the pressures of having to be a new man that they are killing themselves. There are very few new men around, he says; and there is no evidence to suggest that we are 'witnessing huge social change, and that men are becoming incorporated into domestic and societal roles, which have traditionally been the prerogative of women'. Anyway, the idea of the new man is not new, he adds. There were plenty of cuddly, affectionate and sympathetic men around in previous generations: in 1828, William Cobbett published Advice to Young Men and (incidentally) to Young Woman, a collection of papers celebrating the virtues of caring and expressing emotion. Equally, Dr Lewis says, a 'pretty awful tension' has always existed between the macho and the caring ideals. 'Most people who feel they are new men are probably more confused about the contradictions in their own lives than they are about relating to the other sex.' Their uncertainty is more likely to arise from being unemployed or strapped for cash, he says, and therefore unable to fulfil the traditional male role of breadwinner.

Ian Goodyer, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cambridge University, is even more scathing. 'I don't know if there's a tension between male and female roles. It all sounds a bit airy-fairy to me,' he says. He suspects that if young men, who traditionally make friendships and gain a sense of identity from work, are unemployed, they may feel that they have no friends and no one to confide in. But are men having an identity crisis? 'The biological issue of identity crisis has been around for thousands of years, since we came out of the trees. Men have always had difficulty in knowing how to approach women. Men are absolutely useless at social skills and at approaching women. Most of us, when we have trouble in approaching women, don't go off and kill ourselves. We go off and get pissed.'

WITH scientific evidence of youthful male angst so hard to come by, there seemed to be a case for trying the non-scientific, dip-stick approach. So last week, Real Life conducted its own small-scale survey of male attitudes. The men we spoke to ranged in age from 21 to 25, and live in London, Cardiff, Portadown and Birmingham. The questions included: Is it important for you to be the breadwinner? Would you mind if your partner earned more than you? Are you competitive? Is it important to you to have a good physique? Would you share the housework or look after the children? Are you confused about how you relate to women? Do you find it difficult to talk about your feelings?

Kevin Mears, 23, is an illustrator from Cardiff. He is a house-husband who cooks, cleans and looks after his baby son while his artist wife works. Yet he doesn't feel like a new man. 'The idea of a new man is a caricature. Perhaps my generation has changed slightly, but it's a very gradual thing to happen,' he said. Rowan McIntyre, the mature student, also rejects the term: 'I don't like the expression new man at all really. It's about being a fair man rather than being a new man.' Pat Wood, 24, a newly married policeman in County Armagh, does not think he is a new man, either: 'It's better not pretending to be something that you are not,' he said. 'I am only a simple man. I can never understand a woman.' However, although Pat does not rate himself as 'new', his attitude to being a breadwinner is not the traditional one. 'It wouldn't matter if my wife made more money than I did,' he said. 'She's better qualified. She's the one who spent three years training to be a nurse.'

Most of the other men agreed that they would not feel threatened if their partner earned more than them. 'I don't think it's particularly important that I should be the breadwinner,' Kevin Mears said. 'It's just that we need a breadwinner.'

An exception is James Osborn, 23, a graduate about to start a public relations job. Although he is single at present, he said: 'You feel you should be the one who should provide. Not so much that you are the boss, but that you are like a father figure to your partner.' Not being the main earner would also bother merchant banker Roger Brent. 'It would be a measure of my own success,' he said. 'Financial power is important.'

Few interviewees appeared to be conscious of any real problem in the way they related to women. James Osborn, however, is sceptical about 'career women'. He worked for for a few months for a marketing company staffed mainly with women. 'They were so aggressive, so competitive, they were almost like men. The only normal people there were the secretaries, and they were kind of looked down on a bit as being bimboish,' he said, adding: 'I would never go out with a woman who was more intelligent than me, never . . .' He also remembers feminists from university as being 'very aggressive'.

Simon Weeks, 22, a management consultant, also thinks of feminists as 'short-haired women shouting for their rights'. He said he still values the traditional wining-and-dining rituals of courtship, but that it is a lot harder now because women are less inclined to be courted. Single, but seeing 'a number of people', Simon thinks that as a consequence of Aids, the recent well-publicised date rape cases and feminism, it has become increasingly difficult to know when to take the initiative. 'Whereas before you might have relied on one green light, you may wait for two or three green lights now before you push your luck. Women are less approachable. More and more women go to a club just to dance rather than to meet somebody. They are less inclined to jump into bed with people they don't know.'

This, however, is not the experience of Birmingham dispatch rider Russell Oram, 21, who said that on the whole he thinks women give quite clear signals. He added that it is also quite common for women to try to pick him up.

Rowan McIntyre believes that it has indeed all become 'a bit hazy'. However, he thinks that the basic rules of human relationships have always been the same. 'You don't force your views on somebody else. When that starts to happen, things are bound to go wrong.'

Kevin Mears admits that 'I have never exactly known how to go about making advances,' but explains that this is because 'all the relationships I have ever had have been friendships first, then developed from there'. He is dismissive about men who misread sexual signals: 'I think that's fairly feeble. I don't see how they can.'

Among the men we talked to, on the whole it appeared that those who were the most traditional in their attitudes to work, women and the home - and, by implication, most hostile to the values of new men - were the ones most likely to be experiencing problems in relating to modern women. Even so, none of them appeared to be suffering any great trauma in this direction (or none they were prepared to admit to). Meanwhile, men like Kevin Mears and Rowan McIntyre - who have absorbed some of the caring values without shedding many of the traditional male roles - seem most at home in the company of females and most at peace with themselves.

Small male crisis, not many confused?

(Photograph omitted)

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