It’s International Men’s Day, and my Facebook and Twitter is full of people mocking and rolling their eyes at such a thing. There are 365 International Men’s Days a year! Poor diddums Jeremy Clarkson worshippers who think they need a special day because they are so freaked out by the existence of one International Women’s Day!
I am in total disagreement. Let’s not forget that this is International Men’s Day. Not the Men’s Day For British Men Who Wear Dad Jeans And Like Top Gear. So here is my attempt to rescue International Men’s Day both from my well-meaning friends and from the “Feminism has gone too far, men are now the oppressed ones” brigade.
Several years ago, I took a trip to rural Uganda with an international charity to see the work that they were doing with girls there. I discovered that sexual abuse of girls was endemic, girl children being systematically subjected to repeated rapes by strangers, friends and family members, and authority figures including their teachers. There was no discussion of sexual abuse of boys at all. Apparently in this culture of endemic sexual abuse, nobody had ever laid a finger on a boy. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, which hugely adds to the stigma of being a male victim of sexual assault. It seemed to me that if you were a boy who had been raped, the taboo was enormous, and there was nowhere for you to get help or advice. The crime that had been committed against you did not exist.
Last year I went to a conference about gender-based violence. All the discussion was of the sexual abuse of girls. When I asked what work was being done about the sexual abuse of boys, everyone looked at me blankly, and finally said that we weren’t there to discuss that, more girls are sexually abused than boys, and there’s only limited resources to go around. Basically, boys who’d been abused did not deserve help. Are we really happy to say that the abuse of boys doesn’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter?
Here is a piece about the sexual abuse of men in conflict situations. It makes for horrifying reading. The author argues that we are so busy thinking of women and girls as victims and men and boys as oppressors that a culture of silence exists around the issues that men face. Here’s an extract I draw your attention to just for the stats:
Recent research with NGOs working in conflict zones illustrates this. Of 4076 surveyed – only 3% of their literature made any mention of males, and often only in passing. At the same time global estimates suggest one in six boys and men will experience some form of sexual abuse in their lives, whilst increasing evidence within conflict zones identifies that up to a third of men have experienced and continue to suffer unimaginable and horrific sexual violence.
In absolute terms, this violence against men must stop. Additionally, when men and boys are subjected to such horrific crimes, and they have nowhere that they can turn to for help and support, is it not possible that some of them will go on to be violent towards other boys and men, women and girls? Where do we think violence comes from? Are violent acts committed by well-adjusted individuals who have experienced no trauma in life? Or is it possible that by helping men and boys who have been victims themselves, we will be able to allow some of them to express their pain in ways that are healthy, and not in ways that victimise others? Please note, I am not arguing that all men who have been abused go on to abuse others, but I do think that a society of healthy, happy men helps create a society of healthy, happy women, as long as one is not achieved at the expense of the other. Helping men doesn’t mean not helping women. If we do it properly, helping men can mean helping everyone.
We have one day that we can use to draw attention to these things, and others - bullying, gang violence, forced military conscription, conditions in prisons and more - which profoundly damage the world’s men and the people around them. Are we really going to begrudge the men of the world this one day?
While I’m here, let’s note that the day is not called International Straight Men’s Day, and in a world where in any number of countries homosexual men are persecuted and killed, maybe we can find some space today to draw attention to their plight? Or are gay men not really men?
Men and women are not separate entities living in isolation from one another. If we want a world where both genders are healthy and happy and safe, we need to be more honest about what happens to men. And that means stop laughing at the idea of helping them and providing support for them, and actually take these issues - and International Men’s Day - seriously.
I am reminded of this classic clip:
STRICTLY JUDGES, YOUR PADDLES DO NOT GO UP TO ELEVEN. NOR INDEED DO THEY GO UP TO FIFTEEN, OR TWENTY. YOU HAVE TO MAKE TEN HIGHER AND START EVERYBODY FURTHER DOWN IF THIS COMPETITION IS GOING TO MAKE ANY SENSE WHATSOEVER. Aside from Natalie who should probably be scoring tens already.
There are so many of them. SO MANY. I have started thinking of them in categories, which I fear is exactly the way the producers do: plucky older ladies rediscovering their youth through the medium of dance (Feltz RIP, Fullerton, Meaden), older man who will not rediscover anything because he is going out immediately (Tony RIP), pool from which the hilarious people’s choice gay / fat dancer who will be patronised for half the series, and then reviled for the second half, will be chosen (Hairy Biker, Mark, dear god please not Julien), front runner who will fall foul of the public for being too good and not sufficiently humble (Natalie), pretty girl who is a good dancer and who the public will like because she is not the best and she is sufficiently humble (Sophie), dark horse of the competition who everyone will pretend is a contender but isn’t (Susanna), shy girl on a Strictly Journey to rediscover her self confidence through the medium of dance (Rachel), sportsman who will overcome the huge odds of not being able to dance and having really muscular shoulders to become someone who is able to dance and still has really muscular shoulders, with help from overmarking from Len (Ben), filler who will be overmarked in desperation to keep them in and make the competition look like it has some jeopardy (Ashley, Patrick, Abbey).
We’re going with this until Christmas. Strap yourselves in.
Homesickness is a strange thing. New York is as beautiful as it was yesterday, its culture as rich, its people as appealingly crazy. There is nothing I can’t get here which I could get in London. You can even find digestive biscuits, in the Red Hook Fairway (an extraordinary supermarket on the waterfront, or, after Sandy, IN the waterfront, with an amazing view of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty) if you are willing to pay over $4 for a packet. I’ve explored the tiniest of percentages of what there is to explore. It is a beautiful day, summer just starting the slide into fall. But here I am, feeling sad, listening to Jarvis Cocker on 6Music and letting his familiar voice envelop me like an awkward Northern hug.
What is homesickness anyway? Here’s my theory: it’s the same old loneliness you feel anywhere, but without the comforts of the familiar to soothe you. When I am feeling lonely at home, I get into my bed with a much loved book, or I lie on my sofa with whatever box set I am halfway through, or I go for a walk around the streets near my home. But I don’t have my bed (I don’t even have my bed here, as the ceiling fan above it has come loose and the repairman isn’t coming until tomorrow, and I don’t fancy risking being minced in the interim; I’m sleeping in my housemate’s bed while she’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan.) I don’t have my books. I don’t have my sofa, or my box sets (can you have a profound, meaningful nostalgia for The Good Wife? I think yes. I have a genuine relationship just with Alicia Florrick’s wardrobe.) And the streets near my home from home are just streets.
Yesterday I spent the afternoon visiting a huge disused bank, which was taken over by a hoarder forty years ago and filled, room after room, with the things he has found - old furniture mainly, much of it beautiful, but piled to the ceiling, alongside anything else you can imagine, from a mannequin’s wooden arm, missing three fingers, to a disused sauna made out of the insulating parts of the walk-in fridge from the Playboy club. Over recent years some workspaces have been carved out amongst the clutter - designers, architects, filmmakers, writers, and a bio lab, which makes the whole place seem like a horror film waiting to happen. Picking my way through the chaos, I felt a creeping dark anxiety crawl in under my skin, as if the objects themselves had absorbed the restlessness of the mind which had accumulated them, and this had leached out, saturating the air around them, and was now seeping into me. Home is not the things which we choose to surround ourselves with, but the meaning which we give those things. But what if the things themselves then hold the meaning, and when we leave them behind we are left meaningless?
So I am going out in search of things to fill with meaning. Make part of this city home, so that when the loneliness comes - and it always does, here, in London, or anywhere - it can console me.
My friend invites me to an early morning yoga session on the roof of Soho House, in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan. Though the calendar says October, the weather says July. We are grateful to cool off in the pool afterwards.
Sunning ourselves on the poolside loungers, my friend tells me that since breaking up with his long term partner, he has been drowning his sorrows in a different pool, that of internet dating. I should try it, he says.
"No," I say. "I’ve done it several times, it’s not for me."
"You should reconsider your decision," says my friend.
I shake my head. “I hate the person it turns me into,” I say. “You have to be so judgemental. You can’t date everybody on the site, so you have to make completely arbitrary decisions about who to exclude, based on things that wouldn’t matter at all in real life, like how tall they are. I dismissed everyone who’d run a marathon. I just got so sick of reading about all the fucking marathons.”
"I’ve run two marathons," says my friend, and lets the pause sit a while. Then he says, "You’re too old for me anyway."
"I know," I say. My friend is six years my senior. "At 37, I’m only of interest to men in their fifties now."
"Of course, on the site, I claim to be 35," says my friend. He scrutinises my face. "You could pass for 29."
"But it’s a matter of record," I say. "As soon as they google me, they’ll know."
"You could use a fake name," says my friend. "Like my friend, X."
"Wasn’t X getting married last time I saw him?"
"So he’s divorced now?"
"Wait a second," I say. "What if I came to you, and I told you that I was online dating, and I’d met a great guy, and everything was going really well, and then I found out that he’d been using a fake name and was actually married?"
My friend shrugs. “I’d say it was par for the course, for online dating in New York.”
I will not be reconsidering my decision.
The New York subway is less a transport network, more a huge, temperamental, living creature, a subterranean Smaug guarding its precious treasure, that treasure being allowing you to get to where you’re going on time. Yes, we Londoners envy it running 24 hours a day; on the other hand, that does seem to be at the expense of it ever getting cleaned. But do dragons ever get cleaned? So look upon the sea of garbage and sewage that lines the tracks, admire the huge rats that live there, and feel, not disgust, but awe.
Your adventure begins when you try to find the entrance to the labyrinth which is the dragon’s lair, which, though it may be CALLED “14th St”, is no guarantee of actually BEING on 14th St. And anyway, there may be lots of stops called 14th St, and the trains therein all go different places, and if you go into the the entrance leading downtown but you need to go uptown don’t dream that you can just cross over and take the train going the other way.
Buying tickets is the next test on the hero’s quest. The ticket booth is guarded by fearsome operatives who will shout at you over the loudspeaker if you stray from the path of correct practise. They can only be pacified with gold, not credit cards. If you want to use your credit card you have to brave The Machine, which will do its best to thwart you by insisting on the input of the correct code. What is this magic code? Why, simply your zip code - by which I mean simply, if you have a zip code. Woe betide that you introduce a foreign credit card into this system. (See also: trying to pay for something with a foreign credit card on a US website, which is its own epic quest of thwarted desire.) But lo, I did tempt a guardian from her booth and she did reveal to me that the foreign interloper can use a special code of 00000 to overcome the strictures of The Machine. I suffered for this knowledge; take it and use it well.
And thus, into the bowels of the dragon’s lair you go, taking care to swipe your card just the right way, not too fast, not too slow, not too mysteriously wrongly in a miscellaneously offensive fashion, or your passage will be refused.
Brave traveller, you are through. Now for the next test. There will be no indication of when your train is coming, it could be seconds away, it could be hours. Your faithful subway guide will have told you that there are local trains and express trains that stop in different fashions on the same line, but beware the unannounced transmogrifying train, which starts as an express but transforms into a local, and vice versa. Keep your eyes on the stations as they whizz past you, and know this: the station names are writ bloody small on the platforms, and if the train is crowded and you can’t see out the windows you will just have to count the stops, which works when you know if you are on an express train or a local train, but… well, see above. The conductor will be of no use to you as he or she will only speak dragon, which means that all announcements sound like “dhwuiryweiurycbieurywcucrinw”.
And now we let the metaphor drop completely, because I want to share this observation with you: people on the New York subway do not cross their legs. Compare and contrast the London tube, where all women sit cross legged, though men in London and New York alike prefer to sit with legs wide apart so that everyone knows that their magnificent cock and balls need maximum room. I had a theory about how the open-leggedness of New York women was to do with the unapologetic nature of this city, I will take up the space that I am due and I will not squeeze myself small for your comfort; something to be admired, perhaps, even though it is bloody annoying because basically it means that two people take up space for three and you cannot squeeze between their defiant wide hips on the bench. But actually after a couple of journeys I realised that you get chucked around so much on the subway that you have to put both your feet down and brace. So much for my career as an anthropologist (MA Cantab. MSc.)
In any case, worthy pilgrim, you have reached your destination. Push your way out of the carriage, past the panhandlers, the homeless and the minor league black market salespeople with their boxes of gum who brave the dragon to make the labyrinth of the subway their home, do not hesitate lest you be yelled at by business persons who cannot be slowed down for even a second by your uncertainty or the dragon will eat them, remove the extra coat you had to wear in order to avoid freezing to death in the over-zealous air conditioning which tames the dragon’s fire, choose your exit - inevitably the wrong one - and rise up triumphantly into the street above.
Congratulations. You have survived. You are half an hour late. You are in New York.
Ran into John Turturro in the AT&T store in Park Slope. (Well, I say ran into him. It would be more accurate to say that he was just leaving the shop when I went in to buy phone credit, and then I chased him down the street.) I introduced myself as the author of Gods Behaving Badly and we had a happy twenty minutes chatting about the film, in which he plays Hades. It was a brilliant, glorious New York coincidence, and I am now a person who gets to chase movie stars down the street without getting arrested. Not all movie stars. But it’s a start.
Despite the fact that I have never entered a country fraudulently, I am terrified every time I go through immigration in case I somehow give off that impression. I know they are going to ask me ‘what is the reason for your visit?’ and I suspect the root of the problem is that I’m too much of a snob to bring myself to say TOURISM. I am a traveller, you are a tourist, he / she / they are in my way. So last night at immigration it went like this:
What is the reason for your visit?
How long are you in town for?
That’s a hell of long time to have fun.
They didn’t deport me.
So far the fun has taken the form of culture shock. I somehow find the culture shock in America worse than in, say, Mozambique (where my sister lives), because I expect Mozambique to be different whereas I expect America to be familiar. And then I get into conversations in the chemist, by which I mean drugstore, like this:
Do you have any cotton wool pads?
What’s cotton wool?
Oh, sorry, I mean those… round white things. Like a [checks label] cotton ball. But flat?
A disc. They come in a tube.
What do you use them for?
I use them for taking off my eye make-up.
[Lengthy pause while this bizarre behaviour is considered.] I think I’ve seen those before but I’ll have to check with a colleague.
The reason for my visit is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. For a writer, that’s work, but don’t tell immigration.