Manhood in Crisis? Masculinities in Late Twentieth Century Britain

Session Abstract : This panel explores masculinities in late-twentieth-century Britain, with a specific focus on sex, sexuality and the body. Whilst we know much formations of masculinity in Britain between the 18th and mid-20th centuries, and have benefited from the elaboration of a number of convincing archetypes and narrative models (soldier heroes, domestication, Oxbridge men, temperate heroes, the flight from commitment), it is as yet unclear whether such models and narratives can be applied to later periods. Speaking to the conference theme of “brokenness”, this panel therefore intends to open a conversation about “images of man” (George Mosse) and masculine subjectivities in Britain since the 1970s, a period during which masculinity was routinely framed as in a state of fragmentation or “crisis”. Can the idea of masculinity-in-crisis be historicised? Given the endurance of sexual and gender inequality – of, indeed, nearly all the old structures of heteronormativity and partriarchy – what work has this idea performed and what has been seen to be at stake? Was masculinity lived as a crisis, or only imagined as one? By which processes and with what effects were older models of “normal” masculinity broken apart in late modernity, and to what extent did its pluralisation of masculinity present for some a space of possibility and others one of anxiety and fear? How, finally, was masculinity renegotiated in the era of feminism, sexual pluralism and globalisation? Through papers exploring debates in the 1970s about male porn consumption and its effects on personal and social wellbeing, attempts in the mid-1980s to redefine contraceptive responsibility as part of a functional masculinity, and the complex personal experience of male body norms and cultures in the 1990s and 2000s, this panel offers some preliminary answers.

Session Chair: Amy Milne-Smith

Paper 1 Abstract : Dirty Magazines, Clean Consciences: Men and Pornography in the 1970s

Ben Mechen, University of Birmingham

How have the sexual dynamics of masculinity been reshaped in the age of pornographic reproduction? How has the mass consumption of such imagery by men been understood, challenged, justified and lived? Taking 1970s Britain as its case study, witness to the parallel expansion of both a domestic trade in the sexually explicit and the sphere of sexual politics deliberating its effects, this paper examines the ways in which porn consumption came to be articulated as a force that corrupted men (and did violence to women), or else contributed to men’s growth as fully-realised, self-accepting sexual subjects.

The pornographic boom of the 1970s, which saw titles like Penthouse reach a circulation of 400,000, coincided with the growth of the Women’s Liberation Movement and later the anti-sexist Men’s Movement. Setting feminists’ identification of a harmful post-pornographic masculinity—violent, expectant, objectifying—alongside the fears of the burgeoning conservative right, the paper first considers how individual acts of porn consumption became read as part of a new microphysics of a) patriarchy or b) moral degeneration.

The paper’s second half moves from the discourse of pornography to questions of experience and subjectivity, piecing together the self-articulations of the male porn consumer from public submissions to a 1979 Committee on Obscenity and the autobiographical letters collected by “dirty” magazines like Forum. What can we learn about the intertwined histories of masculinity, sexual politics and the sexual self from this elusive, even suspicious, figure? The paper concludes by investigating male consumers’ frequent attempts, in the light of feminist and moralist critiques, to frame an alternative post-pornographic masculinity, drawing its internal stability and composure—and so men’s non-aggression and moral uprightness in the world at large—from the embrace of images that addressed and aroused their desires; a masculinity that would be improved rather than damaged by dirty magazines.

Paper 2 Abstract : Mutuality Reframed: The British Family Planning Association’s ‘Men Too’ Campaign, 1984-1985

Katie Jones, University of Birmingham

This research explores the content, motivations and implications of the Family Planning Association’s male involvement campaign and the understandings of the histories of gender and sexuality in modern Britain that are produced via critical engagement with it.

Recent media reports on current medical trials of the ‘male pill’ have stirred public debate around why male hormonal contraception remains unavailable in the twenty-first century. To begin to understand this debate, it is useful to historicise the role of men in contraceptive-decision making and broader attitudes towards men, sex and contraception. Men had long been excluded from institutional family planning. Since its formal inception, marked by the opening of the first birth control clinics in 1921, for much of the twentieth century voluntary organisations – namely the FPA – dominated the scene. These were almost entirely female-orientated, perpetuating the existence of gendered cultures of contraception in which men frequently felt excluded from clinics, forcing them to obtain ‘protectives’ from commercial outlets. However, the 1980s heralded a turning point. In 1984, the FPA launched its campaign to encourage male involvement. The key objective of ‘Men Too’ was to advocate the benefits of shared responsibility and ‘joint’ contraceptive-decision making, and men were actively encouraged to attend clinics to seek advice. The campaign was active for over a year, culminating in a national conference held in London in March 1985 entitled ‘Men and Sex’.

Using the FPA’s extensive archive, this paper will demonstrate how this experimental campaign ushered in new attitudes towards men, sex and contraception, echoing critiques of masculinity voiced by both feminism and men’s movements in this period. This campaign can provide understandings of the changing expectations of men in relation to contraceptive decision-making, family planning and their perceived sex role more broadly by the mid-1980s. It advocated values which had not previously been associated with ideal, normative, and ultimately heterosexual masculinity, implying a retreat from a domineering and often impulsive male sexuality, by encouraging prior negotiation with a partner and conscious pre-planning, something contraception often – if not always – demands.

Paper 3 Abstract : “There for the Grace of God go I!” Male Body Image and British Masculinities in the 1990s and early 2000s

Paul R. Deslandes, University of Vermont

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the British press and British print culture were replete both with discussions of masculinity and with diverse images of the male body. During these years, the term ‘metrosexual’ was coined, new men’s magazines emerged, and queer body aesthetics entered the mainstream with even greater force than they had in the past. While I have established elsewhere that these preoccupations with the male body and with male beauty were not, in fact, new but rather part of a much longer tradition—dating back, at least, to the rise of photography in the 1840s—it is clear that contemporary commentators, like Cosmo Landesman (writing in the Guardian in 2000) saw the turn-of-the-century as a point of dramatic transformation and a moment for greater masculine introspection about gender.

This paper will explore male body image and the relationship between body aesthetics and British masculinities by examining the lived experience of British men and their physical and psychic relationships to their bodies in the 1990s and early 2000s. More specifically, it will draw on responses to the National Lesbian and Gay Survey and directives of the revitalized Mass Observation Project to examine the relationship of British men to popular culture as well as their attitudes to a diverse array of topics including body image, weight, hairdressing, and tattoos. In examining these responses, my goal in this paper is to explore not only the aesthetics of gender but also the diversity of masculinities (and their interrelationships) in late twentieth-century British society. This paper will examine shifts in male body image and masculine relations by highlighting how individuals negotiated fissures in gender roles and gendered expectations, new understandings of sexual identity, and the proliferation of body images in an era of rapid cultural, political, and economic change.