On a train journey from Watford back to my home in Brighton following a Saturday football match, the delay announcement came through to make travelers aware there had been a fatality on the tracks. As passengers began to discuss the situation it became apparent that assumptions had been made that it must have been a suicide and pondering why ‘he’ had done it. Sadly, in both cases those assumptions were correct and the truth was this was more than a familiar situation for regular travelers and commuters.
It is a fairly well known fact now that the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 is suicide. A young man is more likely to take his own life than die from heart disease, cancer or from a road accident, yet despite these staggering statistics the issue is still not being discussed anywhere near as much as it should be and from a sociological point of view it opens up a lot of questions about the issue of masculinity in the post-modern world. Although clearly a sensitive issue, male suicide is also one of those synoptic discussion points that can be explored across several topics such as culture, crime, media and health.
The starting point for high male suicide rates can be traced back to primary socialisation where there is still undoubtedly a different emphasis on how we allow our sons and daughters to show their emotions; from a young age boys are often taught not to cry, to be resilient, canalised into masculine toys and controlled through verbal appellations such as ‘strong solider’ as a complement or form of positive praise for not crying when upset. Much is made of how femininity is instilled into daughters from an early age, but it is also important to consider some of the gender expectations societies often place on sons through manipulation in their formative years.
Likewise, male suicide can be explored within the topic of the family as one of the most common reasons for the act is linked to the pressures of being the main breadwinner especially in poor or turbulent economic climates. Feminism often points to the pressures of the female role through terms such as the dual burden or triple shift but this often ignores the pressures that can come with the burden of being the sole or lead earner within a family. Legislation surrounding divorce settlements and child custody has also been cited for being chivalrous leading many males in their late 30s and 40s to find themselves cut off from their former family home. A study in 2015 from the University of Warwick, for example, identified that in 96 per cent of cases, parents who apply to court for ‘access’ to their children are men.
The issue of masculinity can be further explored through the topic of health and why it is that so many males who suffer from mental health issues do not seek medical or professional help. There still seems to be an expectancy for males to ‘man up’ in certain situations which means bottling the feelings with a stiff upper lip rather than release them or open up to another person about the issues they are facing. The comedian Robert Webb has at last opened up this debate about the damage of such terms as ‘man up’ in his book ‘How not to be a boy’ and notes that though we have made progress in allowing our daughters to take on traditional male characteristics, toys and behaviour, we are still some way behind in acceptance of our sons demonstrating traditional female traits.
These society expectations of masculinity are yet further enhanced through the mass media which continues to portray men as violent, sexually aggressive and unemotional; the seemingly never ending raft of super hero films maintains the expectations for males to be tall, powerful, brooding, physically strong and in control of their emotions. This is often linked to the idea of toxic masculinity and may also help us to understand why male crime rates are so much higher than females if we live in a society that expects males to display such characteristics. Would it be fair to say that males are sent mixed messages in terms of what is expected of them?
Whilst characteristics such as maturity, honour, respect and other gentlemanly traits are revered to an extent, many males are well aware that the bad boy image is often of huge sexual appeal to females. As Caroline Kent wrote in the telegraph ‘One thing that bad boys are not is boring. We are enraptured by their spontaneity, by the excitement and anticipation of being with them’* – it is no wonder many males are in a crisis of masculinity in understanding how they think they should act and behave.
To really understand suicide it would be naïve to look at one aspect of society or gender expectation but what is certainly apparent is that the combination of health, media, family and cultural issues which are all ingredients to an often fatal melting pot of factors contributing to the act we are hearing about far too frequently. It seems to me that although this is a hugely sensitive topic in which many of our students may be affected by, it seems even more concerning to not talk about this issue at all. To truly understand gender inequality we must consider issues from both sides of the fence. If we continue to bury our heads in the sand then the sad statistic of male suicide will remain at the alarming rate that it stands at today.
‘Why women can’t resist bad boys’ by Caroline Kent
Matthew has been teaching Sociology for 14 years and has taught in the UK, Kenya and Spain, he currently teaches at Bellerbys College in Brighton. Matthew runs the website and the Socio-Zone iphone app.