THINKING ABOUT ANTI-SEXIST WORK WITH YOUNG MALES FORTY YEARS AGO

In my effort to articulate my feelings about my dear friend and comrade Malcolm Ball’s death, I referred to our initial meeting at the old Leicester Polytechnic. I’d been invited to talk about a piece I’d written, ‘Anti-Sexist Work with Young Males’. Originally scribed in 1981 a shortened version had featured in the National Youth Bureau’s ‘Youth In Society’ but the full paper had to wait until the summer of 1984 for its emergence in Youth & Policy, number 9. Stimulated by this memory, my many conversations with Malcolm and the fact that once more in the wake of the tragic death of Sarah Everard the nature of masculinity was on the front pages [for a day or two, at least], I revisited the article. I’ve decided that with all its flaws and weaknesses, my own discomfort with some of the analysis and its dated emphasis on youth sub-cultures, it’s worth sharing afresh to see if it’s of any relevance today. I’ve resisted for the moment prefacing its appearance forty years on with an interrogation of its failings. As it is it’s a long haul, 9,492 words! I see that nowadays it’s the norm to suggest an approximation of the time needed to read the writing on offer. However I know that I read quickly, even shallowly, requiring often a second assay. I’m no judge. Thus I can but say, I hope it’s interesting enough to hold your attention over a glass or few of what you fancy.

ANTI-SEXIST WORK WITH YOUNG MALES

The last fifteen years have witnessed the continuing revival and developing political influence of the Women’s Liberation Movement.  The question of Women’s subordination introduced once again onto the political agenda has been prioritised in the minutes by the renaissance of feminism, despite the efforts of men to have this embarrassing item demoted to any other business.  Struggles against the State have secured some legislative concessions.  Feminism’s crucial insistence that ‘the personal is political ‘ has established sexual politics as a primary area of debate and concern.  Within the educational site of social relations, the pronounced upsurge in feminist theory has influenced the form and content of at least some social studies and social science courses.  ‘The problem without a name’ (1), women’s oppression, has forced its way out of anonymity to become part of the curriculum of Higher Education.  However even here the problematic of incorporation and adoption has haunted the feminist incursion into the traditional male academic world.  And  at primary and secondary levels within schooling the extent to  which an understanding of male/female power relations has begun to shift the practices of the classroom is open to both debate and exaggeration.  Interestingly one marginal section of educational provision, pejoratively referred to as ‘a Cinderella Service’, namely Youth Work, has seen the reactionary ramparts of its conservative practice subjected to stress with the breakthrough of feminist ideas and practices organised through ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ initiatives and Girls’ Projects (2).  Despite its apparent multiplicity of motivations (philanthropic, paternalist, religious, militarist, liberal et al) the dominant theme of youth work’s perspective remains the policing and control of working class young men with a subsidiary concern regarding the societal induction of middle class young people.  Given this suffocating scenario, women youth workers have caucused to consider this overall mismatch between a male-oriented provision and the needs of young women themselves; to reflect on the gulf between liberal rhetoric’s concern for the individual and the reality of an authoritarian, misogynist practice; and to explore the development of a feminist praxis based on the insights of their theory and interlinked explorations in the field.

To the male retina, one of the most disturbing aspects of this range of interventions into the masculine world of youth work has been its declaration of the need for autonomous work by women with the girls – its separatism.  Mixed provision, particularly a product of social democracy’s strategy of comprehensive equality, has been finally defined as good and natural common-sense.  Thus on this level of policy, the advance of Girls Work is viewed suspiciously as a regressive aberration from an established harmony of mixed normality.  Val Marshall’s (3) eloquent argument for the rebirth of the girls club movement, as a means of creating space free from male influence to foster the flowering of a feminist youth work strategy, has been interprted as proof of the wild-eyed extremism of these dangerous women.  The crude argument goes as follows: ‘We have fought so long for a coming together of the sexes within an educational setting and now these man-hating lesbians are trying to divide us from one another, perverting our daughters in the process.’  In Wigan, where I formerly worked, officers claimed that their youth work approach was in no way sexist, whilst in the very same breath produced reports and programmes riddled with both male pronouns and male assumptions.  The Director of Education argued that to include in a job advert a reference to the building of a non-sexist youth work practice was in itself sexist.  Advocates of a non-sexist educational perspective were ridiculed at each and every opportunity.

The threat to men from the feminists in youth work reveals itself at the gut-level of our personal politics.  The day-to-day sexist chauvinism of our ‘public’ and ‘private’ dealings with our male and female colleagues starts to be increasingly exposed.  Our male professionalism is illustrated to be a facade, behind which the spectre of our patriarchal privilege begins to be revealed in all its oppressive detail – the sexual harassment of female clerical staff and the solidarity of the shared sexual innuendo, which bonds the most elevated of male principals with the hierarchy.  This paper is an attempt to contribute to the debate about the role of progressive men in this limiting masculinist script.  Is our contribution to the redrafting of the play to be taking the ‘walk-on’ parts of token males making the right noises off-stage in the creche?  Or should we rewrite our lines and act differently?  Or does such a seizing of the authorship mean hogging the whole show yet again?  Part of what I shall be trying to articulate in this essay is a criticism of this rather tired Goffmanesque metaphor about playing ascribed parts in a pre-ordained script.  It will be my contention that male youth workers do need to examine precisely what they are doing with each other, with their young male ‘clients’ and with the women with whom they work and live.  I will argue that these interactions are not the products of mindless programmed behaviour patterns (some form, for instance, of brain-washed sexist conditioning) rather they are sets of social practices rationally undertaken for one sense-making reason or another.  In this important sense our male actions are thus accessible to influence and change.  Our principal task at this specific moment is to begin constructing alternative ways of working with our fellow male workers, and with the young men in our youth centres or on the streets; ways of relating which do not ceaselessly contribute to the strength and longevity of the male imperative, but which actually oppose the exploitation of more than half the world by the lesser half.

A Local Melodrama

       “This sort of thing is an insult to femininity” (4)

To move from the merely rhetorical to the practically personal marks a necessary stage in the unfolding of my argument.  How come I think I have something to say about the creation of a serious masculine response to the questions posed by feminism, in this instance, for the supposedly person-centred welfare world of youth work?  An unrelenting test of my posture is the history of the modification of my own practices.  At this point I want to describe some of the problems posed for myself as the Training Officer of a Local Authority Youth Service (5) by the awakening of Girls Work in the area.  Spurred on by the news of the NAYC’s pioneering work (6) and the unremitting struggle of scattered women’s groups, the Training & Development Unit, for which I was hierarchically responsible, decided to go ahead with promoting its own ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ week in January 1980.  The two full-time and six of the part-time female workers , supported seriously by a few of the male staff, and more importantly by the local women’s group, organised workshops on sexuality and sex-role stereotyping, commissioned a play from another native feminist grouping, invited an acrobatic and musical theatre troupe; and arranged a number of all-female discos.  Tension pervaded the week’s activities and some of its sources could be found in the following areas:

(i) The uneasy relationship between the organisers and the male hierarchy, whose attitudes ranged from a lukewarm token support, through sulky non-co-operation to downright hostility, summed up in a senior officer’s refusal to comply with a request from the women that no male should attend the weekend’s sessions, except if offering assistance in the creche or kitchen.

(ii)  The contradictory attitude to both male and female  full and part-time workers to the initiative – many men, but also  a substantial number of women were obstructive, constantly jibing, “But what about the boys?  What are you doing for them?”  At the time our angry response was that the young males had far more than their fair share of the Youth Service’s facilities, so why all this fuss about one week’s activities for young women?

(iii)  The young men themselves, when excluded from their club, were at best irritated, at worst heavily aggressive.  One of the all-girls’ discos was run in an atmosphere of siege warfare.

(iv)  The ‘supportive’ male workers lacked any coherent strategy towards the frustrated lads or the sceptical youth service staff that spoke positively from an appreciation of the contradictions of the situation.  Whilst being ready to act as facilitators when needed i.e. providing transport, preparing food, looking after children, we had given little thought to the task of coping with the lads.  Indeed ironically we finished up asking ourselves the same question as the one we had been taunted with earlier: “Yes, but what about the boys?  What do we do with them?”  Our position in practice had been to support the struggle against sexism as being the women’s task.  We were in sympathy, but it was not actually our problem!

In one particularly harrowing episode for me personally, I finished up in a tense and bitter confrontation with lads I didn’t know, which verged on the physically violent.  As the argument raged over their exclusion from the centre on their Weight-Training Night, my voice and my hand were among the first to be raised.  Quite clearly I remember thinking in the midst of the fray, that the simplest way out of the mess would be to side conspiratorially with the lads’ sense of indignation on the basis that after all what was the use of getting so worked up about silly women anyway.

The offer of such a brotherly hand of misogynist solidarity could (would) have been the signal for a relaxing of the ‘aggro’ and the sign for the beginning  of a dialogue premised on our superiority to the women and the girls inside.  In the event the tension dissipated only through the favours of a fast freezing evening, which led the lads to seek warmer pastures in the pub.  They left the scene in cold hostility towards my bluffing macho stance.  I had even ‘blown’ the possibility of going for a pint with them.  Hardly the stuff of a developing anti-sexist youth work practice.

Immediately after the events of the week, the difficulties unearthed prompted an initial response that future anti-sexist ventures should be ‘mixed’.  Such a co-optive compromise suited many of the workers, releasing us from the need to analyse what had been going on.  Only later was this capitulation reversed in the light of one female detached worker’s continuing relationship with a girls’ group, a council-estate based women’s group (7) and the embryo beginnings of a part-time women workers’ organisation.  All of these endeavours pointed to the enormous value of autonomous work by women within the Service.  And the few men still struggling, at least on the level of ideas, were acknowledging the inadequacy of their position and their need to foster an understanding of the implications of a ‘separatist’ approach with the lads.  It became gradually apparent that without the parallel developments of anti-sexist girls’ work and anti-sexist boys’ work we possessed no material base for building cross-gender enterprises.  Thus despite continued  widespread and distorted misgivings, Girls’ Work within the Borough is being slowly consolidated.  The matter of investigating and devising alternative strategies for work with the boys has been posed, but only tentatively confronted.

Searching for an Understanding

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (8)

Faced with this problematic, to where might the concerned and confused male youth worker turn for insight and guidance? Within youth work’s own gender-blind and/or gender-biased tradition there is little succour.  Male youth workers have failed to formulate any opposition to the persistence of their own sexist practice.  In fact the opposite is rather the case – there is a rich tradition of training for manhood; of turning boys into men, running from the Scouts through the Boys’ Clubs to the Outward Bound movement.  We cannot be surprised at the presence of this deafening silence.  The very notion of examining one’s own political privilege is personally threatening.  An analysis of patriarchal relations id conspicuously absent from the curricula of full or part-time youth work training courses.   Even within the avowedly radical outpourings of the male writers on youth cultures and youth subcultures, the question of sexual division has been rendered marginal.  So whilst Mungham and Pearson (9) do emphasise the carelessness of much unitary oriented writing about ‘youth’, allowing that young people are differentiated by class, occupation, education, ethnic origin and finally gender, they, together with Hall and Jefferson (10) are most notable for their lack of attention to the centrality of male/female power relations.  However the genre’s empirical observation does provide us with a vein of valuable material which needs to be resifted in the light of our recognition of its gender blindness.  All the descriptions reveal much about the ‘maleness’ of both researcher and researched: Mungham on the cattle-market atmosphere of Saturday night at the local ‘Palais’; Pearson on the defensive chauvinism and aggressive scaredness of ‘Paki-bashing’; Clarke on the collective ‘mob’ community of skinheads; Corrigan on the spheres of resistance to schooling of the ‘Smash Street Kids’; and Hebdige on the dispossessed style and unity of black ‘rough and tough rudies’. (11)  Within Willis (12), rich sources of details are to be found in his transcripts of interviews with those ‘learning to labour’.  One section, briefly but graphically articulates the objectification of young women, the fear of the female body, the lascivious tales of conquest, the lads’ sense of superiority, their “knowing masculinity” caught crudely in Joey’s classically chauvinist “I don’t know, the only thing I’m interested in is fuckin’ as many women as I can if you really wanna know.”(13)  Only Brake (14) among the male sub-culturalists begins to respond stutteringly to Angela McRobbie’s challenge to the sub-cultural ‘celebration of masculinism’ and its ignorance of ‘the culture of traditional femininity’  or of the alternatives created by young women themselves.  In a recent article aimed at ‘settling accounts with sub-cultures’ McRobbie (15) underlines bitingly the ‘silences’ within Willis and Hebdige on the resilience of the divisions within the sexes; their failure to address the savage hypocrisy of male attitudes to women ; and the absence of ‘a full sexed notion of working class culture’, which could begin to comprehend  the complexity of the ensemble of social relations.  She argues persuasively for a feminist re-reading of sub-cultural texts, which places on the table central issues sidestepped by their male authors.  Following this important lead, it is also necessary and useful to suggest a re-reading of these ‘classics’  from a self-consciously male perspective; from a masculine viewpoint, which places men themselves clearly into the reality of the gender struggle and which seeks to explore ways of opposing the spectre of male domination and female subordination.

In a crucial sense such a lifting of the mists from around the myth of masculinity, such an enterprise of radicalised comprehension will have to be grounded in that site of social relations so palpably ignored by male sociologists, the family and the sphere of domestic life.  Few men have spoken to the conflicting themes surrounding the social construction of the heterosexuality of both adolescent females and males – being ‘straight’ has been taken as given – or have begun to situate the transition of young women and young men as ‘employee/employer’ into the domestic economy of reproduction – the division of labour within the home being taken for granted as social fact. 

There have been psychoanalytic-based efforts to extend our understanding of maleness as in Paul Hoch (16), whose attempted synthesis of Freud and Marx strives to uncover ‘the mask of masculinity’, locating working class machismo as repressed homosexuality.   And at least the Men against Sexism movement has begun to open up the area of males talking about their sexuality in a language not consumed by sexual aggression and sexual domination.  Within this literature we can appropriate fertile descriptions of the male bonding process; rape within marriage; accounts of male childhood; the heterosexual hunt and homosexual ‘cruising’. (17)  Grappling with this range of material on an intimate level is required if we are to confront being male.  Yet the guilt-ridden idealism, which so often permeates its pages, needs to be transcended if we are to construct ways of being with young men that do not in themselves lapse into a pseudo-religious strategy of confession and conversion.  The young men of my acquaintance are unlikely to suffer long a pious preaching perspective that exhorts them to mend their evil ways.  For the problem with much of this literary output (even Stoltenberg (18), who influentially proposes the notion of a ‘heterosexual model’ in which men are the arbiters of sexual identity for both themselves and for women) is that it slides on the one hand to biological determinism.  Man is reduced to being innately evil and exploitative.  Or on the other to a kind of masochistic moralism – guilt grows in the genitals.  In the former all hope is lost in a sea of biological pessimism, in the latter a retreat from the world would seem to be in order.  Neither constitutes a viable optimistic alternative faced on an evening-to-evening basis with a group of young macho males.  How are we to move forward in a purposeful way with our feet, both metaphorically and materially, on the ground?

Before more directly facing this daunting dilemma, it is worth noting that the theoretical tension around male myopia has filtered into the world of youth work itself.  This has happened both as a result of the critical emphasis of  female sociologists such as Tricia McCabe and Mica Nava, who have talked about youth work itself as a site of struggle and as a consequence of the actual shifts in practice prompted by the Girls Work movement.  Thus Phil Cohen, reflecting on his analysis of the dynamic contained in working with young people, allows that his original work should have been subtitled ‘Growing Up Masculine in a Working Class City’ (19).  He tries to explain the lacuna in his paradigm by reference to the impossibility of his developing analytically useful relationships with young women and to his implication in and manipulation of the dominant macho norms within the young male groups.  This collusion distorted his appreciation of the ways in which young men and women were constrained by gender stereotypes and blinded him to the contradictory function of masculine ideals.  However despite this admission, as McCabe (20) points out, he goes on to subsume yet again women’s subordination under the general heading of capitalist oppression.  To add insult to radical feminist injury, he dismisses youth and women as “by definition ‘non-class’ agents” and collapses young women into a homogeneous category of ‘youth’.  On a political and organisational front, Nava charges him with “conflating ignorantly feminist attempts to win some separate youth provision for girls with political separatism” (21).  To his credit though Cohen does acknowledge that male radicals must take on board the issue of male power within the adolescent milieu, but in despair asks,

How do we tackle the chauvinism of working class boys in a way that does not simultaneously undermine the cultural sources of their resistance to Capital and the State and intensify their sexual anxieties?” (22)

McCabe’s rejoinder is that chauvinism is precisely the source of their resistance.  Now it is not necessary for McCabe to be absolutely correct in her conclusion for the barb to strike home accurately and painfully into the male ego.  The whole width of the male front resisting capitalist exploitation is not entirely predicated upon a parallel and compensatory subordination of women, but this does not detract one jot from the feminist insistence that men oppose the pervasiveness of patriarchy’s perversity.  We need also to examine more carefully why Cohen sees challenging the sexism of working class young males as leading almost inexorably to their demise at the hands of the capitalist imperative and to the deepening of their sexual trauma.  The reality of the complexity of the lads’ mode of resistance and their intertwined relationships with young women is more contradictory than this fatalistic picture supposes.  I have worked with young men and women involved together in a struggle against their bosses at work in which, gradually and painfully, efforts by management to set them at each other’s throats were resisted, and through which real gains were made in terms of how they acted to one another, both in the workplace and on the streets.  So too the implication of Cohen’s question is that there exists some unsullied male sexuality which may be besmirched by the creation of sexual neuroses through a process of confrontation with the interfering youth worker.  Does this mean that in the presence of lads who verbally and physically abuse young women I must stand mute for fear of upsetting some delicate sexual balance?  Clearly in the context of male heterosexual aggression it is difficult to empathise with an idea of male sexual apprehension, but there are many other instances of male sexual insecurity which do not have their roots purely in the male control of women.  It is to these moments of contradiction that we must attend, whilst also confronting openly sexual violence and to hell with the risk of subsidence in the sexual minefield. 

In terms of the continuing debate about the relation between patriarchy and capitalism, it is not possible here to strike up an engagement with the argument.  However it is important to reiterate that the focus of this paper is on the problematic of women’s oppression and the gender struggle.  Hopefully by moving forward from a masculine standpoint a theory-in-practice (about working with young men) which is conscious of the sexual division of production and reproduction, it will be possible to contribute in a small way to the unravelling of the dialectic of gender, race, class and age.  Within youth work it is time for the men to take responsibility for the present sexist state of affairs and to act to do something about the situation.

The Reality of Youth Work

     “Men’s houses ……….. Are the arsenals of male weaponry.” (23)

So what is the actual nature of day-to-day youth work practice?  The Youth Service itself is heterogeneous in terms of its organisational forms, its differing statements about aims and objectives and its varying styles of interaction with young people.  To add to the confusion myths abound about what really goes on – the Youth Service is infamous for its juggling with attendance figures and its rewriting of history and herstory within its reports to all manner of committees.  Yet it is possible by scratching beneath the surface of the widespread rhetoric about preparations for membership of a participative  democracy to identify the majority of youth work as being contained within a conservative character-building integrationist model, whilst scattered pockets of client-centred practice strain towards a liberal pluralist paradigm. (24)  And this practice, conservative, social democratic, or even radical, together with whatever resources, is focussed dominantly on young males.  As Nava observes, youth work aims largely to exercise some form of supervision over the leisure time of working class youth and aims to ‘cope with’ oppositional cultures and potential delinquency, being concerned principally with the ‘failed’, ‘inadequate’ and ‘disadvantaged’.   Indeed as I have tried to show elsewhere, liberal youth work’s renaissance in the 1960’s was grounded precisely in the belief that social democracy had triumphed over the vicissitudes of capitalist development and that the task for youth workers was to sweep up those individuals unable to respond to the endless spiral of available opportunities.  And these individual threats to social harmony would almost certainly be male in gender.  Nava illustrates how because historically girls present less of a ‘street’ problem than boys, the forces of the Youth Service are directed to a form of control of young males, which in its very manner plays upon, utilises and buttresses male chauvinism. (25)

Such an analysis corresponds accurately to the phenomenon of ‘mixed’ youth clubs, which are usually ‘boys’ clubs with a fringe female presence.  The facilities of the youth centre are in male hands – the girls left to organise the coffee bar or rendered ‘invisible’ in the toilets. (26)  Members of staff often do little to disturb this status quo, accepting it as being the way of the world and being themselves motivators in encouraging male-oriented competition and activity as the raison d’etre for the club’s existence.  Even the weekly disco, partially an opening for the girls to enjoy their own physical expertise, is shadowed by the sense of the surrounding male presence and the inevitable sexual overtures of the heterosexual hunt.  Male leaders, fancying themselves as real hard men, stand on touchlines around the country’s sports fields,  indulging their machismo by encouraging young males to ever-rising standards of manliness, naked aggression and violent skullduggery, all in the cause of winning: “don’t be a puff, you chickened out”,; “get stuckin, you cissie”; “kick his balls in, you soft cunt”.

A substantial portion of my own face-to-face experience hinged around the almost desperate need to win acceptance from and gain acceptance from and gain access to the young men’s groups.  And the passport for entry was to prove that I was even more of a man than the next man!  To this end I told even dirtier, misogynist jokes than they could remember; I colluded as I drove the minibus in our orchestrated leering at female pedestrians; I conspired to seek their approval of my supposed sexual successes, being termed ‘a rum bugger’ by them, a considerable boost to my parochial prestige; I played sports with them and was seen to be a hard competitor.  In short I was an eminently successful youth worker, praised for developing relationships with ‘difficult young customers’ and admired for my persuasive social education techniques.  I would be asked how I got these lads to discuss social and political issues – what was the basis of my good practice?  My answer would be couched in terms of trust, sensitivity, an anti-authoritarianism of a contradictory hue and, above all, to do with “being one of the lads, being on their side”.  In retrospect, the cruel irony is that the opening up of the dialogue with the lads about politics was rooted in a wilful ignorance of that most profound feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’.  My youth work practice slid ineluctably towards a fetish of the masculine, an incorporation with the lads in a set of mutual attitudes and practices that were the curriculum of an education for manhood.  That there were gulps and hiccups in this process is also clear.  We found being hard all the time, impossible and much more besides, but I shall return to this hopeful contradiction later.  For the moment I do not want to duck the conclusion, that the mass of male-inspired youth work practice remains masculinist and misogynist in its intent and its consequences.

Grounding an Alternative Praxis

Before attempting to sketch some possible ways of struggling against the prevailing sexist tide in youth work, we need to ground our understanding of male/female power relations, particularly with regard to the specific period of young women and men ‘growing up’.  It is fundamental to recognise that patriarchal power is based in the material circumstances of men’s control over women’s labour and women’s sexuality.  This male domination is organised through a grid of social relations and a network of socially constructed practices – exemplified by the male grouping of solidarity, be it at work, in the pub or in the Masonic lodge – that support men in the exploitation of their women.  The adolescent male stands at a specific stage in the growth of this system of male collectivism, that is itseld dynamic and incomplete.  Thus youth work is concerned during a transitional period (‘adolescence’), a process of enfranchisement during which two essential themes unfold.  Firstly, the social construction of the young men’s sexuality into the compulsory mode of heterosexuality is accelerated (27) and secondly they are prepared for their forthcoming position as husband/father (patriarch) in the familial home.  In young men’s relationships with young women these two unwinding threads are inextricably interwoven.  For the male this period may be seen as an education for patriarchy – an endless effort to get his end away, whilst searching for his ideal partner of dependable and dutiful domesticity.

Adrienne Rich, author of the pivotal ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’

Thus for the young man, the heterosexual model is the God-given goal.  Through a social process, which includes increasingly the political content of male bonding, patriarchy (in the form of living men’s real practices rather than as some reified abstraction) confers power and privilege upon those born with male genitalia.  The young male is initiated into the knowledge of a sexual programme which lays down guidelines about how penises should work.  The agenda of this ‘pogrom’ acknowledges three stages: Objectification; Fixation; and  Conquest (28), culminating in the ultimate victory, ‘the fuck’: “the hard cock, the vaginal penetration, the tense pelvic thrusting and the three second ejaculation”. (29)  In this learning of the tactics of sexual terrorism, the woman is reduced to a faceless passivity.  Compellingly, the sexual act is overlaid with the requirement to have power over and possession of the female partner.  

Within the young men’s groups in which I have worked, the male bonding curriculum and its supremacist vocabulary of ‘cunts and tits’ held an uneasy but dominant control over our male-male social intercourse.  Whatever we were actually doing at any one moment – listening to records, climbing mountains, going to the match, having a pint – the sense of our collaborative mission to learn more about ‘how we did it’ and ‘how we could get it’ was always bubbling near the surface of our relationships.  After all in the last analysis ‘we’ were after ‘them’.  The insidious grip of this ‘battle of the sexes’ perspective revealed itself repeatedly in the violence of our sexual anecdotes and fantasies.  And the importance of competition in this male world became inseparable from the ways in which we perceived women and their possible usage.  As one young bloke often remarked to me upon the feeling inspired by scoring a goal, “it’s nearly as good as a fuck”, whereupon he would clench his fist and tense his forearm in the male motif for an all-consuming enormous erection.  Male phallic-centred sexuality, aggression and power become congruent.  Rape is the logical and inexorable outcome of the celebration of might and right.

The institution within which rape is legally impossible, the sanctuary of male prerogative, is marriage.  My own experience in working with largely working class young women is that matrimony is viewed as a necessary and inevitable destination which at least holds out the promise of increased autonomy compared to the parental home.  Given its imminence, this preordained nuptial  resting place inhibits the girls’ choices prior to the wedding and often suffocates the young women’s potential on passage through its portals.  For the lads too, it is an uncertain prospect, but in general they do foresee being ‘the master’ and argue that it will not cramp their style.  The male clique in the pub will rank males according to the amount of control held over the wife, just as the lads reflect this in their scorn for  those mates who are ‘under the thumb’ (30).  Christine Delphy’s analysis locates the family, formerly ‘a haven from a heartless world’, as the site of women’s oppression with the husband appropriating the unpaid domestic services of the wife/mother (31).  Indeed this sexual division of labour asserts its stranglehold prior to matrimony.  Several of the courting couples at the youth club were practising a routine in which the girls’ genuineness (love? sense of duty?)  was examined through her willingness to accept laundry and cooking duties, especially over the weekend.  The lads’ part of the experimental bargain was to have enough money to take the girl out to the pub, the disco or the pictures.  In Willis one young male defines his expectations and his success in finding the appropriate mate within the grudging admiration of:

“I’ve got the right bird.  I’ve been going with her for 18 months now.  She wouldn’t look at another one.  She’s fuckin’ done well, she’s clean.  She loves doing fuckin’ housework.  Trousers I bought yesterday, I took ‘em up last night and her turned ‘em up for me.  She’s as good as gold and I wanna get married as soon as I can.” (32)

It is the compelling force of this master/faithful domestic servant scenario that continues to invade the young male’s focus on the marital condition.  Sex aside (and that could be had ‘on the side’) such a catch as the domesticated  young woman described above is not to be missed from the male point of view.  This girl is everything a man could want from a replacement for his mother.  In spite of the effects of feminism on social relations over the last decade and some weakening of the servicing function accorded to women, working class young men and women (in particular?) continue to operate within a set of options predicated on a male wage earner and a female baby-producing family house-worker (whether or not she works outside the home too).  Even where some shifts in the allocation of domestic tasks has taken place the embracing arch is still one of male privilege.  Indeed the gnawing problem is that the expectations heaped upon the young woman are even greater than before.  And a fall from grace, a failure to accommodate all the varying pressures upon her can lead quickly to violent male expressions of frustration with a situation gone sour.

Much more work needs to be done on extending our understanding of heterosexuality’s social construction and the ‘forces’ and relations of production within the domestic economy as we seek to fill out our comprehension of the male/female power relationship and seek to construct strategies of change.  However, it is this paper’s proposal that even this rough grasp of adolescence as a period of preparation for heterosexuality and marriage is central to sorting out a ‘fix’ on the possible parameters for a radical practice with young males.  How can male youth workers intervene in a cycle of oppression that often has as its finale domestic violence?

In and Against Patriarchy

The basis for an anti-sexist masculine strategy needs to be grounded both in the theoretical and practical appreciation of the fact that male power is, in no sense, absolutely monolithic.  In trying to take on board the general reality of male supremacy, it is easy to slide into a universalist and ahistorical view of patriarchy which renders its oppressive relations eternal and inviolate.  Clearly it is necessary to historicise our analysis.  In 1981 this must lead to rooting our understanding in the development of feminism in the 80’s and its consequences for patriarchal structures inside and outside the home.  The female initiatives of the last decade have set in motion specific tensions within the dominant system of gender relations and its important to mark this turbulence as the direct product of historical human activity.  Structures are not functionally all powerful.  Women are acting to change the circumstances in which they are born and in which they are forced to live.  Their oppositional practices have sent tremors through the patriarchal facade.  Radical men must learn from the endeavours of the Women’s Liberation Movement and begin their own struggle against sexism from within the enemy camp. As we go about our daily contact with young men and with each other, we need to start exploring our common experience of the contradictions in masculinity – the rubs, the advantages, the disadvantages of the male identities on offer.  It is essential to identify the ways in which we experience the constraints and limitations of traditional  maleness; to articulate our disenchantment with the ideal of the male supremacist ‘Action Man’; to note the suffocation of our sensitivity towards one another; to admit to being frightened; to acknowledge our ignorance and our insecurity as a prelude to and as  a part of sharing our worries and doubts with the young men with whom we relate.  I am not plucking these generalisations about being male from some liberal, rhetorical mid-air, for these doubts about the sacredness of manhood are contained in the following quotes from recordings of my ongoing work with both ‘adult’ and ‘adolescent’ men:

“I’m only 17 and a bloody failure already ……..laughed at because I’m not strong enough, not hard enough to be a man”.  (Youth club member)

“I was cock of the school, a real tough nut.  Always in scraps of one kind or another.  But you know I had nobody I was close to, a proper friend.  There were just kids who wanted to be like me and they hated me really.”  (35 year old volunteer community worker)

“Why is it the only time men dare touch one another is on the soccer field?  I’d really like to get near to some blokes, but they keep you at a safe distance……it’s sad……and as I’m crap at football I never get hold of anyone!”  (18 year old on a Social Awareness Weekend)

When we go away to matches, I piss myself sometimes I’m so scared.  And then on the way home we make up all these stories about who we’ve done over and how many of them there were.  Really I’ve never fuckin’ hit anyone……I just watch for the time to run like fuck!”  (15 year old member of Bollton Wanderers Supporters group)

“I know so little about women, it’s not fuckin’ true.  But you have to pretend you’ve done this  and done that or they call you a wanker…….when I’m with a girl I’ve not a bloody clue and I’m supposed to fuckin’ know it all.”  (16 year old youth club member)

But in terms of our youth work practice how do we concretise the process of prising open the multitude of cracks and strains in the seemingly cohesive cement of the ruling masculinist ideology?  How do we get in touch with and pick up upon the emotions contained in the statements made by men in the preceding paragraph?  An immediate concern for us is the foundation of our coming together as men, our joining of hands as oppressors.  In direct contrast, women’s groups have been formed precisely on the basis of bringing together into collective situations the oppressed individual female.  Crucially an opposition to the isolation of individual women has been built through the formation of women’s groups.  Similarly in youth work, feminist workers have striven to create spaces within which girls’ groups could be nurtured.  This is not to argue that there are no young women’s groupings outside of the feminist intervention, but is to remark that the paucity of separate spaces for young women and the closing down of their collective choices has made working towards building autonomous girls’ groups is a powerful political strategy for female youth workers.  Men do not face the same scenario of deprivation.  Indeed there is rarely a shortage of young men’s groups within which to operate.  On the whole these collectives are preformed and the persistent problem, mentioned earlier, is one of gaining access to these gatherings.  For the male youth worker the dilemma is not one of creation, but is primarily one of subversion.  The young men are already organised and are united on the basis of their maleness and their presupposed biological superiority to women.

I want to propose therefore that we need to situate two general strategies to be pursued by male youth workers attempting to resist and change the male imperative. 

(i) The defensive mode operates on their territory in their groups.  As has been illustrated, joining in brotherhood with the young men is fraught with implication and collusion.  In engaging with other men around this question, my own dilemma is that I begin to shift slowly my ways of being with the young men in an anti-sexist direction only from within.  That is I had been accepted initially on traditional grounds, especially on the basis of my sporting prowess ( I had been in the early 70’s an international athlete and wearing my Great Britain track top was a jingoist-sent passport to conversation).  Given this legitimising backstop, I was now allowed to create a personal ‘style’ which they suffered, laughed at and half-admired because of its slightly non-conformist, ‘gay’ eccentricity.  It would be valuable to unearth the approaches of men not so able to wheel on stage the macho credentials of the 500cc motorcycle or to run on court profuse with masculine sweat.  How have they succeeded in fostering relationships without being so credibly and obviously a ‘real man’? 

Whatever though the terms of acceptance, it is difficult to carve out a non-sexist headway in the climate of Friday night ‘boozing’ at the pub, Saturday afternoon chanting on the terraces, or Sunday morning actually kicking one another on the football field.  In this environment of restricted possibilities, it would be idealist to propose anything but a range of responses and techniques that coax, cajole and confront the sexism of young males (and of ourselves!), but which have to be utilised with reference to the fluctuations of the specific situations in which we find ourselves.  Thus there will be moments of confrontation, but on their ground more often instances of a principled compromise.  Yet there is oppositional space around the chinks in the masculine armoury and the male worker should be ready to seize any chance to move into the openings created by the lads discussing the size of penises, homosexuality, masturbation and the Yorkshire Ripper on those occasions when a male’s frailty and sensitivity is ridiculed by the group.  But the task in this arena is principally one of keeping an alternative perspective on the agenda and watching for opportunities which can be taken up outside the group itself, perhaps even in a corner of that very pub the same night, or more probably on a separate occasion.  In the groups within which I worked, once accepted, I was allowed to disagree with the collective norm whilst retaining my honorary membership.  There is no ‘pure’ line of attack available, but by moving in and about the contradictions within the group dynamic, ‘floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee’, it is possible to be a challenging irritant to the group’s dominant practices, and more specifically to be on hand to support individual males stepping outside the status quo.  Fundamental to the authenticity of this enterprise is the necessity for the male worker’s history to be available to the group, the need to have oneself and one’s own contradictory practices written clearly into the dialogue.  I do not propose this as some soul-searching exercise in guilt-tripping, but as the vital link between our practices and those of the lads.  The anti-sexist initiative is our joint struggle.

But in advancing this proposal we must beware reality.  Too rosy a picture of the possibilities will lead quickly to a frustrated pessimism with the whole enterprise.  Workers need to keep a realistic hold on what will be an uphill task.  A typical Friday night at the pub is intensely contradictory.  It is likely to include pissing people off and being abused for being a social bore – ‘you’re always harping on about the same things.  Men are men and you’ll never change that’; will involve being accused of being homosexual, prompting an agitated discussion between virulent anti-gays and those adopting a more tolerant stance; will find the worker having a snatched five minutes with the panic-stricken lad whose girlfriend is pregnant, leading to fixing up another meeting; will see the worker playing a game of darts through which he can offer an alternative to the win-at -all-costs/to lose-is-a-tragedy brigade; will find him immersed in a row about why the group’s got to have some ‘aggro’ with the Chelsea fans the following afternoon; will lead to him questioning the lads about why they play the Space Invader all night and only acknowldege roughly the presence of their girlfriends after closing time.  The situation is problematic for the male worker, but it is also unbearably rich in its contradictions and its educational potential.

(ii)  The offensive, active mode of working with the young men shifts somewhat the terms of our relationship and seeks mainly to operate in the spaces outside of their own specific groupings.  Often this freer, more flexible site of interaction, one less overpowered by the group norm, is available only with individual lads, but it can be created by taking the young men to a change of habitat at weekends or during the holidays.  In proposing individual work and the use of residential experience, we appear to be underpinning two cherished cornerstones of Youth Work’s person-centred approach.  Yet, whilst not wishing to throw away the insights and sensitivities of the person-oriented perspective, it is necessary to transcend the individualism, the apoliticism and underlying moralism of this much proselytised but little practiced Youth Work stance.  We need to  remind ourselves that the liberal Youth Work rhetoric of the past twenty years wished away gender, racial and class divisions and in its elevation of the classless, raceless and genderless individual as the object of its intervention failed conspicuously ro address reality.

In seeking to explore with individual young men how we might move our sexist stance, we need to begin the task of comprehending human action in a way which locates its social origin and which situates the possibility of changing human action in the phenomenon of collective resistance and struggle.  It is not, as in the Rogerian counselling (beloved of youth work trainers) about finding individual responses to the spectre of ‘bad’ ideas in our heads.  This is to suggest, following Seve and Ashcroft (33), that rather than acquiesce to a scenario of men as ‘socialised or cultural dopes’, drowning in a sea of macho values, we need to examine the ways in which men develop sets of social practices, generally consistent with their levels of power and prerogative.  In the domestic situation this means that men, despite differences in power levels at work and in other social spheres, construct ways of being in this specific situation, which match the dominant ideas and practices around being a husband, a father, the breadwinner.  But they do not develop this position mindlessly, it is chosen rationally as making the most acceptable sense of this setting, despite the felt contradictions and weaknesses in the role adopted.  Given the absence of alternative and oppositional ‘sets of practices’ about being male, being a father, men settle in the main for a traditionalist position.  Yet this decision to act in certain ways as a man is not a product of behavioural brainwashing, but is a rational, albeit an oppressive choice which represents the key to change.  A view of men as actors, whose practices can be altered in the light of alternatives, prevents us lapsing into a pessimistic view of men as either biologically evil or as ‘socialised’ beyond the pale.  It allows us to understand why some men, drawing on their access to oppositional lifestyles or acting out of contrary collectives, have developed relatively sensitive and egalitarian relationships, whilst a majority of males remain more overtly oppressive.

In my individual work with young men these dilemmas have surfaced in a variety of ways.  The most consistent contact I have had with young males was during a period when two previously homeless lads lived with me.  Late at night, having shed the macho conscience from our shoulders, the lads and I shared experiences about their burgeoning sexuality, our fears of relating to each other and to women, our sense of having to prove ourselves as men.  In this climate, we floated many thoughts about how we would like things to be and this was am important stepping stone, but it remained inherently idealist.  It continued to wish the world to be different.  Gradually I learnt the importance of rooting our discussion about being different in the reality of our material circumstances.  If we were serious about change, we had to investigate the constraints on our present practices.  We needed to find ways of shifting the limitations on our actions, so that we could change in a real and positive sense.  What became obvious was the necessity to root this desire for transformation in the strength and the solidarity of being together, and to situate this movement of change precisely in the expression of being different together as men – being frail, being emotional, being more honest, being less competitive, being more co-operative and supportive.  I would not want to exaggerate the quality of this experience of ‘being different’, but I do not want to lose a hold on the positive and purposive aspects of our relations.  In this particular case, prompted by my politics, separate individual work moved towards a collective of five men, connecting male with male; towards recognising that individual prejudices and fears were social and collective at birth and that struggling with the contradictions of masculinity needed social and collective resistance and action.

This example illustrates the gap between how young men act within and without the gang.  The ideas and practices of the group do not represent the totality of the ideas and practices of each individual young male.  Inconsistencies abound and given an area of neutrality, it is vital to start investigating anti-sexist strategies in the sphere of groupwork.  Away on a weekend, a programme of single-sex activity and discussion can be more openly threatening to the dominant values of chauvinism.  In suggesting such an enterprise, it is necessary to break with a mainstream groupwork approach predicated on catalysing harmonic relations between individuals abstracted from social relations.  To this end we need to begin from an analysis that recognises people as divided from one another by the power relations of gender, class, race and age, and by a host of linked further sub-divisions.  In working with one group of young men, rather than hiding the variations between them (in terms of education, type of home, method of transport, football team supported, type of music enjoyed, style of dress, etc.), I pursued an exercise through which we placed on the table the gamut of our motley differences and through which we explained and examined our division from one another.  In then putting onto the agenda the gender division, it became more possible to recognise its social origin and its debilitating effect on relations between men and women.  Certainly a groupwork perspective serious about opposing sexism must be grounded in the reality of a gender-divided social structure.

But these are but tentative proposals.  In actuality there will be a complicated interplay between the offensive and the defensive, the group and the individual, the public and the private, their territory and ours.  But we will only unravel the strands of this complexity in practice.  The urgent need at this moment is for radical males to propel the enterprise and the launching pad has to be the establishment of an anti-sexist male network of oppositional solidarity, than can motivate and strengthen local and national initiatives.

This recommendation in itself begs many questions.  Radical men have often failed to respond seriously to the demands of the Women’s Movement, seeking succour in a politics of adoption and token support; taking refuge in patronage and co option.  But wanting to transcend this strategy of subordination by moving to a recognition that the gender struggle is our struggle, men are forced to deal with a welter of contradictions.  For instance, are we merely bent on building a Men’s Movement, which will manoeuvre to take control of proceedings?  Is our strategy destined to be a sophisticated device in the maintenance of male privilege?  Given that the majority of resources within Youth Work are focussed on young males, on what basis do we argue for further, alternative, experimental initiatives directed at young men?  In response to the latter query, it has been suggested that Work with Boys should not be started in any area unless Girls’ Work in that district is already off the ground and in a process of consolidation.  Similarly, it is advanced that Boys’ Work advocates should not seek funds from limited experimental work sources, thus draining away possible finance for Girls’ Work, but should be arguing for the diversion of monies from traditionalist practice.  Clearly these are  amongst the many thorny problems to be faced by a pioneering group of would-be sexist men.  However the crying need at this juncture is not to be bogged down in producing a perfect political position prior to actual activity, rather it is to initiate, albeit imperfectly, a strategy of opposition to gender oppression and exploitation.  It is to act ina manner which is not parasitic upon the Women’s Movement.

If we do not make a start upon this project, the future looks gloomy.  Many feminists view suspiciously any moves towards joint endeavour.  The only way through this impasse is for male youth workers to begin transforming the notion of a non-sexist male praxis into an actual ‘set of practices’ open to observation and criticism, which lay the foundation for any future negotiations with female workers.  Amongst some of the steps we could be taking are the setting up of area and national forums to open up the issue amongst male workers; the development of male worker groups on local patches with a clear brief to examine and share the experience of trying to shift their face-to-face practice; the running of complementary and parallel weekends/weeks with the lads on sexism alongside the Boys Rule Not OK programmes organised by women; and the introduction into full and part-time training courses of the issue of male domination/female subordination and its implications for work with Boys (as opposed to simply its consequences for work with Girls!)  Obviously  the theory and practice of a genuine anti-sexist male youth work approach is at its embryo stage.  At this moment it is premature to try to forge links between anti-sexist males and feminists except on the simple basis of keeping some lines of communication open.  To propose discussion about anti-sexist mixed work without any evidence of a real stand by men against their own sexist practices is likely to be a divisive disservice to the growth of a radical youth work praxis, which opposes the oppression and exploitation of women by men and which looks to change the material basis of inequality and injustice.  It is time to take our responsibility for the present sorry state of affairs into our own hands.  Herstory will judge us. 

Postscript

Since writing this piece, I have shared its argument with men and women in Youth and Community Work.  It has been sharply pointed out that the paper is ridden with white assumptions.  Ironically, given my critique of male sociologiists for their marginalisation of gender, my own effort to understand sexism ignores the social relations of race.  The stuttering analysis presented above is grounded in my work with white working class young people and in my own whiteness.  Its shortcomings are obvious.  In focussing on the relations of gender I have been accused of ‘forgetting’ class.  I would defend my attempt to analytically prioritise the possibility of an anti-sexist male strategy.  However, I do accept that ‘the theoretical moment’ of suspending the interconnectedness of reality is immediately suspending the interconnectedness of reality is immediately challenged by the inevitable contradictions of practice.  This is how it must be.  Certainly in my own dealings with men I have worried that the absence of an interrelated comprehension leads some males to a position of self-centred, indulgent liberalism.  For men, the tension is between a genuine striving towards a revolutionary critique of masculine practices and the tempting possibility of arguing that feminism has gone ‘over the top’.  The former requires consistent and serious self-criticism.  The latter heralds the end of personal scrutiny, disguised as the need to produce a more sophisticated analysis.

Some tentative progress has been made around developing contacts between would-be anti-sexist men.  A conference was held in early 1983, out of which two regional groupings of men (London and Midlands) were formed.  A newsletter is on the edge of existence.  In Leicester, where I now work, a fragile bunch of male workers is meeting on a regular basis to examine practice.  It would be heartening and helpful to hear from individuals or groups struggling against sexism, especially as it might be possible to connect them up with fellow strugglers.

I am indebted to many people for being prepared to debate the paper, but in particular my thanks go to Steve Bolger, Julie Hart, Janet Hunt, Marilyn Lawson, Angela McRobbie, Mica Nava, Roy Ratcliffe and Andy Smart for their criticism.  A special note of gratitude must be expressed to Jalna Hanmer for both the warmth and sharpness of her encouragement.

Apologies for the poor quality of the references neither Marilyn nor I could bear to type them out!!

If, by chance, anyone refers to the piece, the acknowledgement should read:

Taylor, T. [1984], ‘Anti-Sexist Work with Young Males’ in Youth & Policy, Summer 9