Author Caitlin Moran (Photo by Dominik Magdziak Photography/WireImage)

What’s the matter with women?

Perhaps they should be more like men

Artillery Row Books

What’s the matter with women? The litany of disquieting mental health statistics is almost endless, but let me list a few. Women are three times as likely to experience mental health problems as men, and they are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety. For young women, it’s even worse — they are more likely to feel lonely than young men, and they have skyrocketing mental health issues linked to social media. It gets no better as they age: women are more likely to be depressed than men when they work long hours, when they are bosses, when they are married, when they become parents and in later life. Most seriously, women are more likely than men to experience suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide.

What About Men?, Caitlin Moran (Ebury, £22)

What’s the conclusion that we must draw from this disparity? Clearly, it’s that men have better emotional coping strategies than women, and therefore women have much to learn from men in this regard. Perhaps talking to others less about their problems could be one answer — after all, 40 per cent of men (the sex with fewer mental health problems, remember) won’t talk about their mental health with anyone. Or perhaps what’s needed in conversations amongst friends is less emotional support and more cutting banter? That’s how men (the psychologically healthy sex) talk to each other after all.

Maybe the problem is too much talking itself? Perhaps instead women should do more of that very 21st century male hobby, lifting? Or play more online video games? Maybe team based activities are the cause of better male mental health: women should think about joining more fantasy football leagues and board game clubs. Then again, maybe what we really need is to get back to a more traditional approach: ladies, try going fishing with one of your closest female friends, but make sure to hardly speak to her for the entire day, except for a few sparing comments on how the fish are biting. This sort of activity as a form of male bonding has stereotypically been seen as mostly baffling to women, but perhaps it’s this unwillingness to open their minds that is holding women back. Give it a try! The possibilities are legion — in fact, I’m already envisaging a whole series of female-focused inspirational books and TED talks: “Talk Less, Lift More”, “It’s Kind to be Cruel” and “Salmon and Silence”.

Having read the above, you’re probably thinking, “This is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read.” To which I say, exactly. So why then do we continually get laughable commentary claiming that men will only solve their problems by adopting stereotypically female emotional coping strategies, an argument that is fundamentally no different?

The latest example of this genre (that which prompted me to write this article) is Caitlin Moran, who is promoting her new book, What About Men? on the subject of “what’s gone wrong for men — and the thing that can fix them”. Moran is well intentioned, and the first half of her promotional essay makes her project seem promising. She asks men about their problems, and she does identify several valid ones, such as loneliness, underachievement in education and overrepresentation amongst substance abusers, the homeless, victims of murder, the unemployed and those who lose custody of their children in divorces.

She also correctly identifies the soft-focus problematising of masculinity that makes up much social commentary on sex and gender issues these days. However, after this promising start, she concludes that the answer to all of these problems is … “Feminism. What men and boys need is feminism.” OH. What specifically do men need? To talk more about their problems, instead of bantering. More think tanks, charities and hashtags. Men need, supposedly, an equivalent of the “Yass, Kween!” or the “dancing girl” emoji.

After a promising start, her conclusion is routine: what men need is what women do. If this doesn’t even seem to be working that well for women, as the statistics at the beginning of this article show, how well exactly should we expect it to work for men? Moran notes ruefully that women “organise the fuck out of International Women’s Day, whilst International Men’s Day still gets less attention than International Steak and a Blowjob Day.” Which of these men’s days, appropriately celebrated in the life of an individual man, would actually be more likely to improve his mental health?

Just because you care doesn’t mean you understand, or that your prescriptions will help

Moran is an exemplar of a certain class of female writer who sees herself as highly empathetic, but who generally fails a basic test of empathy: to imagine oneself in the shoes of someone very different. The key here is the difference between affective/emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Writers like Moran may well be very high in affective empathy, i.e. sympathy and compassion for others in response to their suffering, with an understanding of their emotional state deriving from similar experiences. This can be seen in the fact that she has chosen to write about these issues at all. However, she and other writers like her massively fail at cognitive empathy, the ability to understand another perspective or mental state of which one may have no personal experience or intuitive understanding. These two types of empathy are not necessarily correlated, as this paper describes — “strong empathizers are not necessarily proficient mentalizers”. Furthermore, “in highly emotional situations, empathic sharing can inhibit mentalizing-related activity and thereby harm mentalizing performance”. Just because you care doesn’t mean you understand, or that your prescriptions will help.

Cognitive empathy failings are behind much of male-female incomprehension more broadly. They’re behind men who assume women live in a paradise due to their easier access to casual sex, and they’re behind women who assume that if a man sleeps with her, it must mean he has emotional feelings for her. The other culprit behind these misunderstandings in the present day is our blank slate intellectual culture, which maintains that men and women are fundamentally no different, but also, somehow, the female way is better. It’s the combination of these two factors that give us Moran’s kind of “feminism, but for men” prescriptions.

In reality, we know what contributes to good male mental health. It’s not necessarily the exact same things that work for women, and it’s certainly not going to be a more enthusiastic celebration of International Men’s Day. Meaningful work or hobbies, strong friendships (which do not necessarily have to involve a great deal of explicitly emotional content), a good romantic relationship, and being needed and valued for what they do by those around them. Any efforts to improve men’s mental health must either focus on giving men tools to achieve these things in their own lives, as the much maligned Jordan Peterson aims to do, or they must focus on changing society to make the achievement of these goals easier and more natural.

For the next writer repeating this genre of mistargeted advice, please ask yourself first, would your response to the crisis in female mental health involve suggesting that women need more silent fishing retreats? If not, why not?

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