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Dear young men: The old stereotypes of what it is to be a 'man' are a load of rubbish

Whether you want it or not, you’ve inherited the responsibility of creating a new answer to the ancient question of what it means to be a man

David Cain
Sunday 05 October 2014 20:26 BST
Teenage kicks: negotiating his school years left the author picking up coping strategies from his equally confused peers
Teenage kicks: negotiating his school years left the author picking up coping strategies from his equally confused peers (Peter Beavis/Getty Images)

I want to tell you what I wish I’d been told, as I bumbled through the awkward years between 15 and 25.

This whole letter might sound self-important, coming from a 34-year-old who writes mostly about how he’s just beginning to get the hang of adult life. Maybe it is, and you can take it or leave it.

All I know is that when I was negotiating that stretch between junior school and full adulthood, I could have used some guidance from men who were old enough to be done with that phase, but who were too young to be my dad.

But I didn’t have that, so like most of us, I picked up my strategies from the similarly confused young men around me. Even though that’s pretty normal, in terms of instructions on how to be a mature and respectful adult it’s hard to do worse than that – so I hope I can offer you a bit of insight which you might not find among your peers.

You’ll still have to choose who to believe and who to ignore, I just want to offer a different voice than the ones you may be hearing. Some of what follows applies particularly to straight young men, because I’m pulling it from my own experience, but I think the principles behind it are pretty universal.

You will constantly have people telling you, both implicitly and explicitly, that you have to be a man. What that even means, in the 21st century, I don’t quite know. It certainly has a less specific meaning than it used to, and that’s a good thing. Machismo was never a good fit for many of us guys and it clearly doesn’t make the world a more enlightened place.

Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people (Alamy)

Still, if you are male, you will be forced to relate to this increasingly irrelevant concept of “being a man” in some way or another.

Even though we humans are (thankfully) moving on from seeing ourselves as two distinct kinds of creatures, there’s nothing wrong with being a man and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with doing traditionally “manly” things. Don’t be embarrassed by them. If you want to watch football on Sunday, or train in mixed martial arts, or grow a handlebar moustache, or buy a pickup truck, make no apologies. No, there’s nothing wrong with masculinity – until it’s used as a gauge for measuring and excluding people, whether they’re women or other men, or people who don’t identify as either.

Regardless of whether masculinity appeals to you, either as something to embody or to simply admire in others, understand that it’s purely a matter of personal taste and has nothing to do with personal value.

Don’t worry about how your sexual experience (or absence of it) stacks up. At about age 14, boys feel like they have to start bullshitting about their sexual exploits in order to survive. The pressure on these kids is just too great for them to speak frankly about it. Ignore what everyone says about their sex lives. They are lying, all of them, at least a little. And the kids who are actually doing it in their tweens probably aren’t doing it very well, and they’re probably not people you’ll want to trade places with in 10 years.

Forget the word “virgin” as a descriptor for both yourself and others. It’s an archaic, irrelevant word, meant to stigmatise and shame people. It oversells a person’s first sex act as some grand, transformational experience, which supposedly vindicates a young man and spoils a young woman. It’s an obsolete, religious, judgmental word. Let’s leave it behind.

Get good grades and make some friends, but don’t worry about being cool (Getty Images)

Failing to “fit in” at school is a good thing. It means that there’s some element of individuality in you that will not be squashed. God help you if your self-esteem peaks in high school. Nobody knows who they are at that age anyway. People start to get an idea of what’s important to them and who they want to be in their late twenties or early thirties. Just try not to cause too much damage in the meantime. Simply survive those awkward years. Get good grades and make some friends, but don’t worry about being cool. Successfully achieving coolness in high school is like being knighted by Ronald McDonald.

All young men will encounter the “seduction community” at some point. Beware. While there is some genuinely well-intentioned dating and self-improvement advice to be found there, so much of the discussion is absolutely riddled with misogyny. It isn’t always overt, but it’s always there. If you start referring to women as “targets”, you crossed the line a long time ago. Think of women as being just like you, rather than some other species. You don’t learn to approach women, you learn to talk to people. Those forums are filled with young men who never learnt how to talk to other people. When you’re 30, come back and read this stuff. It will make you sad.

If there’s a real secret to “seduction”, here it is: always be building a life that turns you on, represent yourself as honestly and straightforwardly as you can and have conversations with a lot of people. That’s it. Connections will happen. If you’re bad at those things, give yourself as long as it takes to get good at them. You have time.

On the matter of “sluts” – there are none. Nobody is a slut. The number of sexual partners a person has had, or is rumoured to have had, is a) none of your business and b) indicates, by itself, absolutely nothing about the character of that person. If you want to know what kind of person someone is, talk to them. If you believe in personal freedom you cannot believe in sluts.

Throughout your life you’ll encounter sexist attitudes, even from your favourite people. Much of it will come in the form of what you are supposed to do, think and say, in order to be a man. And unless you’re not paying attention, you’ll almost certainly discover some of these attitudes in yourself. Sexism isn’t confined to bigots and wife-beaters. It’s too common, too normal for that. It is often subtle, unintentional, even well-meaning.

Failing to “fit in” at school is a good thing (Getty Images)

You have a responsibility here, whether you want it or not. Some of the very normal expectations that will be placed on you as a male – to distance yourself from femininity, to be tough and stolid, to laugh at certain jokes, to use words like “slut” without irony, to deride ambitious or non-traditional women, to dominate and emasculate other males – are keeping even the most enlightened parts of this world less hospitable for women than for you. Learn to recognise and violate these expectations. Don’t be another dead billiard ball, passing this nasty energy on to your peers, and eventually your sons. We need new norms, and creating them will take the help of defiant and thoughtful young men. That’s you. The problem of sexism isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a matter of ensuring personal freedom for everyone regardless of sex.

And a lot of your pals (and even your heroes) aren’t going to help in this department. Most of them will be embarrassed to talk about it, because they’re too afraid of saying something that will disqualify them from successfully being a man, based on their current strategy.

If you believe that you should have the freedom to pursue happiness within your rights, it’s only sensible to believe in that freedom for everyone, and that means making sexism your problem too, even if it never seemed like it was. At the root of it all is our lingering capacity for violence – the unfortunate biological reality that even a physically unremarkable man can knock out the average woman, if he thinks it will help him more than it will harm him.

So from the dawn of humanity, whenever there has been a disagreement between a man and a woman, both of them knew from the start – no matter what kind of reason or sense either side brought to the table – which one must eventually back down. Unlike the woman, the man could expect to get his way without having an intelligent argument, without considering the needs of others, without being right at all, without any sensible reason for things to go his way.

This expectation – that power over others is a viable, noble path to happiness – lingers in the way we talk, in the way we define manhood, in the expectations males place on each other. This is especially influential on high-school and college-age males, because they do not yet feel like men and they believe that they’re supposed to. The forces of civilisation and education are very slowly discrediting this stone-age approach to life and dismantling the power imbalance that has grown around it.

For us to get there, young men need to understand as early in their lives as possible that men have a long history of getting their way for no good reason. This advantage comes, of course, at the expense of fellow human beings, and we need to learn to be aware of it and eliminate it wherever we see it.

Is it your fault? No. But whether you want it or not, you’ve inherited the responsibility of creating a new answer to the ancient question of what it means to be a man. The old answers are no good.

David Cain’s blog can be found at

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