The topic of how young males become men is a frequent topic in popular writings on masculinity, in contrast to academic discourses that rarely raise the issue. Popular writers such as Steve Biddulph in Australia and Sam Keen in America, assert that in Western societies young males are left to themselves to become men by chance. As part of an ethnographic study of fourteen young and mid-life Australian men’s perceptions of a dominant model of masculinity, participants were asked when, and how they believe that they became a man. The experiences of these males are compared, and related to what three streams of literature on masculinity: academic discourses, popular writings and Australian research and commentaries have to say.
KEY WORDS: masculinity (dominant values and social practices), man – adult male, passage to manhood, psychosocial aspects of fatherhood.
Over the past decade there has been a steadily growing academic and popular literature about men and masculinity in America, Australia and Britain. Academic sociological studies seek to examine masculinity at the social and collective level: defining masculinity as a power relation, they usually have a limited tertiary educated audience, and are pro-feminist in orientation. Popular discourses are aimed at a very broad reading audience. Many of the popular works discuss masculinity from the perspective of Jungian psychology, the men’s movement or personal experience, often reporting on certain groups of men’s psychological experience of masculinity. The topic of how young males become men is a frequent topic in these writings, in contrast to academic discourses that focus upon male power, violence and the dominant form of masculinity (called hegemonic). It is often acknowledged by academic writers on men’s studies, that feminist scholarship on the socially constructed nature of gender has played a positive role in making traditional masculinity visible, and indirectly to fostering the growing critical literature about men and masculinity (Benyon 2002, 54; Buchbinder 1994, 15; Murrie 1998, 169).
As part of a qualitative study of young and mid-life Australian men’s perceptions of masculinity, participants were asked during an interview with the researcher, when and how, they believe they became a man (in their understanding). The responses of the participants are examined and then compared to what three streams of literature on masculinity, academic discourses, popular writings and Australian literature have to say.
The researcher undertook an investigation of 14 Australian-born males’ perceptions and experiences of a dominant cultural model of masculinity, as part of an exploratory, comparative study of young and mid-life men, (entailing 7 males from each group). Aged between 20-26 and 35-45 years, the participants are from the beachside suburb of Dee Why in Sydney, and the rural village of Bowral southwest of the city. They are second generation Australians (the one exception being a young black male of immigrant parents), mainly of a lower middle class background in terms of occupation and educational qualifications. Of the young males, only two presently have relationships with female partners, all present as heterosexual. Four of the mid-life men are divorced, two are single and one is recently separated. The participants represent males who have received little attention in the academic and popular literature on masculinity, which has mainly focussed upon middle class and professional men (Edgar 1997, x; Pease 1996, 106).1
Participants were recruited through purposive (non-random, snowball) sampling, entailing the researcher handpicking suitable males keen to take part who met certain criteria (Blaxter et al 2001). The sampling was conducted by placing notices in local newspapers and sports club bulletins, the use of a ‘gatekeeper’ figure, as well as subsequent word-of-mouth recommendation from interviewees.2 During a phone conversation with the researcher, potential participants were informed about the study, including the requirement that they have lived in the local area for at least 10 years and be Australian-born. Participation was then on the basis of mutual agreement. The recommendation of a ‘gatekeeper’ figure was particularly important in accessing interviewees in Dee Why, where recruiting young males was difficult. Several potential interviewees said that they were not interested or failed to turn up for the interview.
Qualitative research seeks to understand people’s behaviours from their own frames of reference, using a variety of methods. It entails an interpretive approach to the subject matter, and it is often conducted in natural settings (places where people spend their time) (Denzin & Lincoln 1994, 2). The research design for this study used multiple methods: case study methodology, life-history, in-depth interviews, and participant observation to provide empirical data, and utilised a phenomenological approach (Plummer 1983; Denzin & Linclon 1994, 2; Berg 2001, 225).3 The interviews were held at places of the interviewee’s choosing, at their home, or public places such as cafes and pubs. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the use of an interview guide rather than a fixed schedule of questions, to provide a conversation-like atmosphere, and allow interviewees to respond in their own words (Patton 1990, 280). This is the strength of qualitative research. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed, the data was coded, and analysed using an analytic induction approach, with themes and patterns emerging from the material (Patton 1990, 40). Case records were prepared for each participant, and then cross-case interpretive analysis was conducted, comparing and contrasting common themes and patterns. The researcher sought to probe the participants’ perceptions and experiences of the dominant model of masculinity and, when each became a man in their own understanding. The semi-structured interview allowed the interviewer the flexibility to probe their comments. The interviews usually lasted about 60-80 minutes, and illustrate how the participants construct their ideas of how males become men. Two follow-up interviews were conducted with a young and mid-life male as a means of multiple data source (triangulation) to improve reliability.
Whilst facilitating men’s experiential workshops over a three-year period in Canberra and California the researcher asked many men aged from 20 up to 60 years, when did they become a man? What was striking was that invariably, each man struggled to answer. Not one could immediately recall a momentous process or circumstance, which marked a personal transformation to perceiving himself and being acknowledged as a man, an adult male. The opportunity to empirically examine when and how males believe they each became a man arose during the researchers’ doctoral study.
It has been observed that many young Australian males appear to enjoy an extended adolescence until age 30, which can entail postponing marriage, children and other social responsibilities until that age (Tacey 1997, 102). So, when and how does a young male become a man? What are the major markers of this transition, and do males recognise it? Is it our first experience of sex with a woman? Or getting a fulltime job? Does it entail enduring a physical trial as suggested in popular Western literature and often by sports journalists? In the popular discourses becoming a man is a topical issue.
Popular writers believe that in western societies, young males are left to themselves to become men by chance. Keen observes that primal societies have rituals and ceremonies that mark young males’ transition to becoming a man. He explains that in such societies becoming an adult male is a conscious and public occasion, intended to foster a new sense of self. The rite of passage involves a physical trial intended to severe the attachments to boyhood; to foster a rebirth to a new identity. But, Keen warns that initiation fosters conformity (1991, 29-32; Bly 1990, 80). Kipnis suggests that at present, the only rites of passage available to male youths are the cult of the sports hero in which they learn to endure pain in return for glory (1991, 163-4). Discussing the experiences of members of his American men’s group, Kipnis mentions work, combat, independence, alcohol, sex and fathers’ approval were markers of their transition from boys to men. He says, each individually, initiated themselves as men by such experiences. The Australian family therapist Biddulph, says boys are seen as becoming men when they turn 18, but he contends boys in men’s bodies are visible everywhere (1995, 172). He does address the issue of becoming a man, and suggests that from the mid-teens, boys need mentors, trustworthy adults who care about them, who can help them move gradually over some years into the larger adult world (1997, 28-30).
Jungian psychologists Sanford and Lough state that adolescents are left to themselves or form gangs to find ways to secure a sense of being men (1988, 47). They outline four dimensions of a young male becoming a man. The social dimension includes: finding a place in the social order, achieving financial independence and developing a social identity. Psychologically, a young male must establish a distinct ego identity, separate from his parents. Becoming a man also means undergoing the physical changes of puberty, and spiritually, it means establishing a relationship with his inner self and the divine order (1988, 34-43). Sanford and Lough contend that American culture fails to guide and initiate adolescents of all backgrounds into becoming men (manhood), leaving them to do it on their own by trial and error over many years (1988, 43).
Academic sociology identifies a dominant model of masculinity: the measure by which all men are judged, the cultural idealised form of masculine character that embodies male power: hegemonic masculinity (Connell 2000, 69; Hearn & Morgan 1990, 12; Sabo & Gordon 1995, 18). This dominant model of masculinity is associated with toughness, competitiveness, determination, self-sufficiency, aggression, the celebration of exemplars, success and the subordination of women and homosexuals (Buchbinder 1994, 12; Connell 1990, 94; Kimmel 1994, 124). Sporting heroes are seen to represent the masculine cultural ideal (Messner 1992, 150; Connell 1987, 215). Becoming a man, in terms of a memorable social ritual is little addressed in academic literature. However, Messner identifies institutional sport as a masculinising site for male youths, where boys learn and acquire the dominant norms of traditional masculinity, such as toughness, competitiveness, and emotional stoicism. Drummond suggests organised sport offers a rite of passage for boys (1995, 287). Both observe that through sport boys learn to endure pain, and the importance of achievement. But in fact, these researchers are referring to a lengthy socialisation process, not a memorable social ritual or deliberate, conscious process marking an indelible transformation of masculine status. Nor do they explore the character or consequences of such a transition.
Academic research shows that institutionalised sport provides a key site for the construction of traditional masculinity amongst boys and young males (McKay et al 2000). But academic discourses have little to say about how young males become men, the attention is upon how males actively construct their gender identity by learning socially and historically contingent male gender scripts which incorporate male power and superiority (Sabo 2000, 3). Such writers contend that male initiation, rather than helping establish an expansive sense of personal self and adult male status, reasserts male power over women reproducing traditional masculinity and its norms (Kimmel & Messner 1994, 283). Buchbinder asserts that the interest of Bly and others, is simply nostalgia for the loss of the tribal masculine in industrial societies and represents a fascination for the exotic (1998, 45). However, Seidler is rather positive about Bly’s work. He does highlight drawbacks, not least that ’Bly can be easily misconstrued as anti-feminist’ (1997, 150). But Seidler agrees that young males in Western societies are not initiated into a sense of personal self that marks a transition to manhood (1997, 98). However, he claims that whilst males may need to be initiated into the world of men to reclaim their emotional lives, ’we are also initiated into our manhoods in relationships with women and children’ (1997, 99). Seidler concludes that initiation has several aspects, and that initiation of young male into a refashioned masculinity, must encourage men to be at ease in both the domestic and public worlds, as women already are (1997, 101).
It is an anthropologist Gilmore who has undertaken a cross-cultural study of meanings of manhood; that is approved ways of being an adult male in several societies (Gilmore 1990, 1). He observes that ideas of manhood, as a ’special-status category of achievement are widespread in societies throughout the world ... but ... are not universal’ (1990, 4). He argues that ’manhood’ as an achievement, is evident in the popular culture of English-speaking societies, as well as modern primal cultures. He concludes that in most societies manhood is a critical threshold, a prize to be grasped through tests and trials, an exclusive status, beyond mere maleness, a status that only a few can achieve: ’the big impossible’ (1990, 220). So, in many human societies there exists a pressured form of manhood that requires men to perform and achieve in the social struggle for scare resources. Yet Gilmore observes that ideals of manhood also include self-sacrifice and a form of nurturing to protect kin and community (1990, 220).
The topic of how young males may become men is little addressed in the Australian literature, which includes academic research, social commentary and popular psychology.4 In his popular critique of men’s life narratives, Webb suggests the cultural norm is for a young male to become a man by successfully enduring a physical trial. He refers to the trial of ’the lad’ in Banjo Patterson’s poem, The Man from Snowy River, who successfully chases brumbies over a steep cliff (1998, 8). Webb also comments that unlike most males, soldiers vividly recall their first experience of combat as when they believe they became a man (1998, 82). Jungian psychologist O’Connor suggests the aim of traditional initiation was to help young males acquire a sense of masculine identity, the death of boyhood identity, and confidence in their masculinity (1993, 30). Tacey similarly regards male rites of passage as devised to facilitate a transition from identification with the mother, to an acquired identification with the father and paternal society, which he notes is an important feature of psychoanalytic theory (1997, 99). He observes that initiations are often conducted at men’s retreats, using a mix of primal traditions to meet what he suggests may be a transpersonal need (1997, 102). But he warns that male initiation is also a form of indoctrination into culturally accepted social behaviours and attitudes. Tacey recognises that boys must change into men, but in the absence of a culturally accepted, spiritually-inspired vision of manhood, such a transition is not possible (1997, 127). He believes that presently every man is left to his own pattern of initiation; ’solutions will have to remain personal and individual until we enter a new phase of collective spiritual wisdom’ (1997, 130).
All the interviews were held in public settings such as cafes or at the homes of the participants, where they could be comfortable talking privately with the researcher. To help put participants at ease, the opening topics cover their favourite adolescent sports and their current pastimes. After about 45 minutes the researcher asks each interviewee, ‘when did you become a man?’ The response is striking and universal. All seven young males physically react. They laugh nervously; often they lean backwards in their chairs, and roll their eyes. (Defining ’man’ was left to the participants, how they individually understand the term). The question triggers a notable, involuntary physical reaction, yet none comment on, or even acknowledge their apparent unease.
All except Alex, quickly reply that they have no idea when they became a man, and after further thought state they do not yet see themselves as being a man, mostly because they have few social, financial, asset or familial responsibilities, nor apparently are they ready for them just yet. Then slowly the question triggers some of them to think about defining what it is to be a man. It is only Terry, who immediately starts talking about how to define what being a ’man’ actually is; and his first thoughts focus upon sexual maturation. All the others fail to discuss their own ideas about what it is to be a man: it is as if being a man is taken for granted, seemingly an inevitable consequence of ageing and sexual maturity, but this is never articulated or explained.
Interestingly, Terry and Tim allude to not wanting to be a man. They imply they regard social expectations regarding ’what it is to be a man’, as imposing constraint and conformity, but this remains unexplored as they struggle to clearly articulate what it is they actually mean. Tim and Dominic suggest being a man is about establishing and standing up for ones’ beliefs, and meeting life’s challenges. But the character of their responses indicates that they have not thought deeply about what it is to be a man. Whilst they do suggest it means standing for one’s beliefs, this idea seems triggered by the discussion, and more of a cliche rather than a well considered, thought-out viewpoint that they can clearly justify and explain. The questions stimulate their ideas about some social markers of how young males become men.
Several signal posts are mentioned: the federal legal entitlement to vote at age 18, sexual maturation, playing competitive sport against older men, the first experience of getting drunk or having sex, the first fulltime job, buying a house and getting married. Alex and Toby imply becoming a man is a process of maturing with age, rather than time or event specific, but can say nothing more about the transition to male adulthood: which appears as a vague, nebulous process, with no socially approved direction or even interest from older men.
Three of the young males have full-time jobs, one is a university student, others have casual work as a waiter or shop assistant. They are in their early-mid twenties: despite being legally entitled to vote at 18, having played masculine-oriented sports, or having experienced sex, or full-time career work, and for some having left the parental home, none believe they have made the passage to being a man, that is, entered into male adulthood. Their responses reflect uncertainty, contradiction and even bewilderment: all except Alex do not yet regard themselves as ‘adult males’. So, despite having experienced some of the popularly mentioned markers for becoming a man, none have been personally significant. None of these young males have so far, experienced a personally memorable circumstance that indelibly marks their personal transition from young male to a man, (a male who meets socially approved ways of being an adult male and who perceives himself as an adult).
All the interviewees say becoming a man is not a matter they have given much thought to (presumably assuming it is something that just happens as they get older). Aged 23 to 26 years, these young males are still in the dark about when or how each will become a man (that is, an adult male), in today’s Australian culture. For all these young males becoming a man is an uncertain, vague process, with no evident social markers or passages. They say they have no idea how a young male becomes a man. They are unable to discuss becoming a man, as perhaps entailing both a long-term process and certain common social markers, such as the legal entitlement to vote at age 18. This passage appears to be a matter that apparently they and the social culture have not considered important. As Alex says, ’I haven’t given the issue much thought.’
Furthermore, these young males have not received any socially approved education about what it means to be a man, in terms of Australian culture and social norms. All mention that they had never before discussed such matters as masculinity, or the social expectations about how men are typically expected to behave, or ’being a man’ with an older man.
All of the mid-life males are working in well-paid jobs, such as a landscape gardener, electrician, or are self-employed. Four of the men are fathers. The only married man (Patrick) has recently separated; all but one of them has a female partner. As with the young males, adolescent sport is also an opening topic for the interview: all but one were keen sportsmen at that time of their lives. After about 40 minutes the researcher asks, ‘when did you become a man?’ All are visibly taken aback. Some lean back in their chairs and take a deep breath, some laugh nervously, others roll their eyes or pause:
Asked about their transition to male adulthood, all hesitate except Jon. They struggle to reply. A few admit that it is a challenging question. They have no immediate recollection of a memorable situation that marked when each of them became a man. Initially some suggest puberty, sex or having children. Work or marriage is not mentioned. After some thought, the four fathers say that they personally became a man at the birth of their first child. Now, in retrospect, they see this as when they unquestionably became a man, although they did not realise it at the time. James (who has no children) also seems inclined to this view. There is a gradual (not immediate) recognition by the mid-life men, that fatherhood and providing for family is important to manhood. Yet there are two divergent views, three fathers are categorical that fatherhood was the marker, but three others talk about becoming a man as a process, not specific to an event or time. As a group, their replies are conflicting; becoming a man is seen as both a process and event, linked with fatherhood. Unfortunately, they are unable to clearly elaborate or explain their ideas or the contradictions in their views.
For Ashley becoming a man is not a matter he has given much thought. He initially suggests it is a process, ’an evolution’, but then later adds a more specific, contradictory suggestion about attraction to one’s female partner . He never reconciles his contradictory ideas. His comments are off-the-cuff ideas, hastily thought out, lacking conviction:
Although Ashley observes that some cultures do have rituals to mark the transition to male adulthood, how or when he became a man, apparently, does not seem to have been important for him either as a topic, or to his personal sense of self. His intriguing suggestion about it being a ’developing consciousness’ is left unexplained.
Their responses show becoming a man is not a matter that these mid-life men have given much thought to. It is as if they assume it is something that just happens, by age, without any effort or attention, or unconsciously and incidentally via fatherhood. Most appear to define being a man as someone, who is socially recognised and sees himself as an adult male, by virtue of being a father willing to meet the responsibilities of family and children: a provider, guardian and partner (but not necessarily husband). But such a perspective is never clearly articulated, nor possibly overtly recognised by them. Whilst praiseworthy, it incorporates only a small range of experiences that are available to males. Ashley, who is unmarried, is the only one who gives some idea of his definition of a man, suggesting it is about values and attitudes:
None of the mid-life men can immediately recall a personal situation that indelibly marked their becoming an adult male. None can say they have become a man through a memorable circumstance or process they personally experienced, which transformed their sense of identity, self-perception or socially approved status. Nor did their culture provide a commonly accepted reference for such a transition. For virtually all the mid-life men, becoming a father marked their unconscious transition to being a man. The realisation that they were responsible for another life, was clearly an unforgettable turning point Patrick describes his realisation:
For these mid-life men becoming a man (the transition to male adulthood) was an accidental transformation. Only as they reflect on their lives with the interviewer, do they recognise fatherhood as their social and personal markers. The men’s replies suggest that how one becomes a man, and indeed what it is to be a man, are not matters they have considered personally important, but have taken for granted, as they are unable to explain or even discuss their ideas and thoughts, particularly the idea of it being a process. Nor can they coherently explain what it means to them to be a man.
During adolescence it is arguable that popular culture, transmitted via peers, institutionalised sport and media images was the most potent influence on the ideas and understanding of masculinity, for both the young and mid-life men. During adolescence, school peers and participation in institutionalised, competitive sports were key influences on ideas about masculinity for all the participants.
Both the young and mid-life men either struggle or are unable to coherently define and explain what it personally means to be a man, an adult male. Other than commonplace clichés, what it personally means to them to be a man (an adult male) is a matter that few have given much thought, in terms of values and social practices beyond physical biology. Only after some thought and discussion with the researcher, do the mid-life men suggest being a father and provider as a key part of what it is to be an adult male, which however, is not often mentioned by the young males.
For all the males, there has been no memorable moment or process in their lives, physically personal to them, marking their passage to male adulthood. All the males in this study have been left to become men by accident by themselves, however they can. The young and mid-life men’s replies show becoming a man, is a matter they have actually given little attention to. For both groups it is as if they see becoming a man as something that just happens by way of ageing, with no conscious effort, or for the mid-life men, a by-product of fatherhood. No one had experienced a personal, memorable rite of passage that fostered a transformation in self-perception and social status to that of being an adult male (a ’man’). For these males, it could be said becoming a man is and has been an unguided process for them, and paradoxically something most have not given much considered thought to! It is apparent that males of both age groups have been left to their own patterns of transition and initiation: and rather surprisingly fatherhood figures as a prominent yet contradictory marker. The passage-transition to being an adult male is a nebulous puzzle.
The process of becoming a man, and what it means to be an adult male in terms of values, is a matter that the participants and seemingly mainstream Australian culture has given little positive and thoughtful attention. None of the participants received a well-considered, positive cultural education about the various dimensions of masculinity, either sanctioned by the social culture or from older, venerable males. Indeed, for all the young males the interview was the first time that had discussed masculinity and its social expectations with an older male. Masculinity is a matter they received no formal, life-affirming guidance about.
The males in this study cannot with certainty and conviction, define or discuss what it personally means to them to be a man. For them it seems that what it is to be a man principally focuses upon biology and maleness, and to a lesser extent fatherhood. Their conceptions of masculinity focus upon its physical and biological aspects. The participants seem unable to coherently explain physical strength, toughness, work-employment and excessive drinking as dominant social practices and values that reflect some of the social dimensions of masculinity. Arguably, their struggle to explain what it is to be a man, reflects the absence of a positive, empowering cultural vision of what it means to be a man in contemporary Australia. But it would also suggest considerable cultural uncertainty as to what it is to be a man in present-day Australia, following three decades of rapid social change, the redefinition of gender roles and the impact of various kinds of feminism (Mackay 1994).
For the young and midlife men in this study becoming a man has been left for each individual to make do in the best fashion he can. It is apparent that males of both age groups have been left to their own patterns of transition and initiation: and rather surprisingly fatherhood figures as a prominent, yet contradictory marker. Perhaps, this uncertainty about how males become men, may be a contributory factor in what psychoanalytic perspectives suggest is the typically tenuous and fragile character of masculine identity, which they argue is constantly engaged in a struggle with the feminine (often projected on women) because of the unresolved oedipal rejection of the mother by the boy child (Segal 1997, xii; Kimmel 1994, 27). Furthermore, could such uncertainty about becoming a man, also be a factor in what both academic and popular writers suggest is the constant pressure men experience to have to prove their masculinity (Kimmel 1994, 122; Betcher & Pollock 1993, 251; Schwalbe 1996. 65).
The experience of both the young and mid-life males of this study about how and when they became adult males, supports assertions by popular writers that in western societies masculine development is left to chance, certainly that the passage to male adulthood is for most, an unguided and individual transition. It is arguable that for the participants, mainstream culture has failed to deliberately inform, guide and initiate them into the social status and self-perception of being a ’man’, and exactly what it is to be an Australian man in terms of values and social practices. For the males of this study, their masculine development has been left to chance, subject to the unchallenged influence of the practices of popular and male peer culture such as getting drunk and the mostly unrecognised implications of fatherhood.
There is a pressing need for positive cultural education about the social dimensions of masculinity, that identifies the dominant values, beliefs and social practices, such as physical strength, toughness, competitiveness, risk-taking and success that characterise the dominant cultural model. Such instruction would also include the importance of distinguishing maleness (male biology) from masculinity (gender), that is the socio-cultural practices, values and ideology associated with males and females at particular time and places.
Sections of the so-called ’men’s movement’, in both Australia and America have for some time, been conducting retreats for fathers and sons that recognise the need for formal transitions and positive instruction about masculinity. The Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association, conducts a ’pathways to manhood’ project. Young teenage boys learn life-skills (such as cooking), undertake physical challenges, and the importance of life-enhancing values and respect for women. They spend time with men, variously aged from 35-70 years, who seek to enhance the boy’s self-esteem, as well as being welcomed to the life-journey of masculinity (MHWB 2001). Whilst a very small-scale, short-term project, it is a positive sign that some mature age men are keen to work on the lengthy task of guiding boys and teenagers through the lengthy transition towards male adulthood, and in the process refashioning traditional masculinity. This education emphasizes positive, healthy elements of masculinity, which contrasts with the predominance of much negativity about masculinity in Western culture, and the prevalence of a deficit-model of men so noticeable in academic discourses.
What is clearly evident is that masculinity has been taken for granted by the participants, as stated in the academic literature (Buchbinder 1994, 1; Benyon 2002, 56). This is most evident in the problems the participants have trying to explain how young males become men, and what it personally means to be a man; reflecting these as matters they have not given much thought. Many of their comments reflect common observations that being a man is often conceived simply by virtue of sex and biology, as noted by both the academic Benyon and Australian researchers (Edgar 1997, 25; Dowrick 1991, 83; West 1996, 61).
Sport played a major role in the teenage lives of most of the young and mid-life males in this study. Academic works show that institutionalised sport provides the major setting for young males in Western society to endure physical trials and tests, which are often seen as means of transition to manhood. Involvement in competitive sport was a key factor in the participants learning such values and social practices as being physically strong, competitiveness, determination and enduring pain, that characterise traditional masculinity, as Messner (1992) and McKay (2000, 1991) have observed. Yet, the participants’ comments reveal that neither physical trials, nor long-term participation in physically competitive sports, or even outstanding success (one participant was a member of a surfboat team that won a State championship), provided a personally memorable transition to the status of being a ’man’. There is no support amongst the participants for Drummond’s suggestion that organised sport offers a rite of passage for boys, nor Kipnis’s similar suggestion that being a sports hero offers a rite of passage. Ashley, who is a sports coach, does imply several aspects to becoming a man, such as establishing a social place through his occupation as a sports coach. But he never elaborates. He mentions that not long before the interview his father watched him coach for the first time. He does admit that his fathers’ explicit approval of his vocation, as being personally important for him as signalling, ’you’ve done okay’. In this he clearly echoes Kipnis’ comment that father’s approval was an important marker for members of his American men’s group.
Becoming a man is a matter that has been taken for granted by all participants. Many of the young twenty-something males somewhat surprisingly say that they do not yet regard themselves as men, but they are unable to explain this beyond comments about still enjoying ’mucking around’. This does appear to reflect Tacey’s observation of an extended adolescence for many young males continuing until age 30. Neither the young or mid-life males mention commencing work or their first fulltime jobs, nor their first sexual experience or leaving the parental home, as providing a definitive passage from male youth to being an adult male for them, unlike suggestions by the popular writers Kipnis and Keene. Fatherhood is the only social dimension to becoming a man that most recognise, yet not one that the young males commonly mention. For the mid-life men fatherhood marks the passage to being an adult male, even those who do not have children. Yet the mid-life fathers only recognise their transition to male adulthood (and fatherhood), in retrospect; they admit that were not aware of such a transition at the time. The mid-life men’s passage to being a man was not a personal, physical experience, in distinct contrast with some of the traditional primal cultures that Gilmore examines, a reflection of the differing social cultures. What is apparent is that males of both age groups have been left to their own modes of transition, which the mid-life males have unconsciously taken, unlike the young males who remain puzzled about the entire matter. The experience of both age groups supports Tacey’s suggestion that presently in Australia to become a man, every male is left to his own personal pattern of initiation (1997, 129).
With respect to the transition from young male to man, the experiences of these participants are notably different to those identified in both the academic and popular literature. There is no definitive mention by these participants of the common passages to male adulthood often presented in the popular discourses, such as work, first sex, sport success and participation, leaving the parental home, violence or physical trials. Nor are the psychological dimensions of becoming a man, highlighted by Sanford and Lough, such as developing a social identity and establishing a distinct ego identity even alluded to. The importance of fatherhood to the mid-life men, granting them both the personal and socially approved status of men is a distinctive feature of the study. Yet surprisingly, fatherhood is not a factor that the young males commonly mention. This most likely reflects the differing age, marital status and family responsibilities of the two sets of males.
Most likely, the differences with the literature are attributable to the participants’ cultural, socio-economic class and educational background. There is evidence here of masculinity being viewed and constructed quite differently by these mostly lower middle class participants from the perspective both reported and presented in the major discourses, which have been mostly based upon professional-managerial men and academic researchers (Pease 1996, 105: Horrocks 1994). Masculinity is invisible to these males or simply about muscles. Virtually all of them have not critically thought about or questioned masculinity in terms of its social dimensions, unlike the American men’s group that Kipnis (a psychotherapist) was a member of. The differing conceptions of masculinity supports the concept of variations in masculinity among differing groups of men presented in the academic discourse, attributable to age, class, ethnicity and other factors (Kimmel & Messner 1995, xxi). But the experiences of the two age sets of males also reflects Edgar’s comment that now, ‘masculinity is a highly disputed concept’ (1997, 33), with differing perspectives evident among various groups of men. This finding raises an important point, who decides what masculinity is popular or academic writers or?
Qualitative, case study research is concerned with exploring phenomenological meaning, how people understand and give meaning to their lives from their own frames of reference. Although few in number, the participants represent a broad range of ‘masculine identities’, mostly single, heterosexual, rural and urban, young and mid-life males of a lower middle-class background: and many of the mid-life men are divorced or separated fathers. The in-depth interviews show the contradictions and uncertainty these males have experienced with regard to ‘becoming a man’, which was the aim of this exploratory study. The experiences of these (mostly) second generation Australian-born men are in no way seen as generalisable to Australian men, yet they provide supporting evidence for the contention that masculine development is presently left to chance in Australia and other Western cultures. For instance, until they spoke with the researcher, the mid-life men had been oblivious of the psychosocial consequences of the male voyage to fatherhood, especially providing and protecting kith and kin as constituting key elements of a man’s social role and personal identity, and a passage to manhood for many.
That masculine development is apparently left to chance seems to apply, not only to the puzzling transition to manhood for young males, but also to other elements of the male life-course. Notably, none of the mid-life males either mention or even seem to recognise the various stages of the life-course, what Levinson calls the ‘seasons’ of a man’s life’, and that they are approaching or have entered what he terms the third stage, middle adulthood (ages 40 - 65),5 Further, these mid-life men seem oblivious to the possibility of a significant transitional and turbulent period associated with self-identity, occurring in their early forties what Levinson, Sheehy and O’Connor identify as the mid-life passage when they may face the issues of loss of youth, satisfaction with work, and their own mortality (Levinson 1978, 330-335; Sheehy 1998, 34; O’Connor 1981, 18). There is virtually no mention by these mid-life men of any of these matters. Certainly these are not issues that they have even alluded to with the researcher.
As noted, many of these men have admitted that they were oblivious of the psychosocial implications of fatherhood for some time: they would surely not be unique. The participants comments reflect research by O’Connor and Webb about men’s tendency to be outwardly focussed, concerned with performing, achieving and how they are seen by others in the world, often at the cost of their inner world of emotional intelligence (self-awareness, recognition of feelings and self-reflection). The experiences of males of both age set, support the comment by Tacey that Australian men ‘urgently require psychological insight into the psychodynamics of their masculine male journey’ (1997, 198). It may well be through the incipient field of men’s health with practical programs appealing to men of all backgrounds, such as dealing with relationship separation and loss, that such psychological insight might slowly emerge.
’When did you become a man?’ is not an easy question. The researcher sees it as an important question for men, one he should also answer, especially in a phenomenological study. The question includes some underlying dimensions, not immediately apparent. It requires one to consider what it personally means to be a man, as well as what is important to one’s life.
For the researcher, becoming a man has been both a long-term process and a specific event. The event entailed being ritually and respectfully welcomed into the ’world of men’. Aged in my late 30’s, the researcher was socially acknowledged as ’a man’, by a group of supportive men, at a men’s retreat in northern California. These were a group of warm-hearted, liberal males, interested in an expansive-nurturing masculinity (rather than traditional masculinity): men with whom the writer felt at ease. The memorable ritual symbolises the writer’s socially approved passage to male adulthood. The event also fostered a sense of greater ease among men, the researcher no longer felt a constant pressure to compete and prove oneself with other men. But the contradictory nature of becoming a man also involved a mostly unconscious process taking some years: a personal path of significant trials, leaving behind a well paid, unsatisfying job, facing unemployment, little income, a relationship separation, unclear future and recurrent anxiety. It entailed for over seven years developing a meaningful vocational role as a men’s writer-researcher, which now provides the researcher a sense of social identity and a place in the world.
The researchers’ experience tallies with Tacey’s proposition that currently each male is left to his own personal means to become a man. Significantly this occurred around age 40, within the turbulent five-year transitional phase Levinson and O’Connor identify as the mid-life passage (Levinson et al 1978, 15; O’Connor 1981, 15). This personally suggests to the researcher than despite the responsibilities of fatherhood, manhood as a special, achieved status, may for many only commence at the beginning of the second-half of a man’s life-course, in the forties after a period of personal trials and tests of whatever form and nature, not confined to the family setting.
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