Jeff Hearn: being a man is not unequivocally valued

Professor Jeff Hearn has done research on men and masculinities for more than 40 years and at an international conference on men and gender equality held recently in Stockholm, Feministeerium had a chance to talk to him. We spoke about how men, who often have more power in society than women, still can find themself powerless and how the cover-up of sexual harassment may have bigger consequences than the original act. We also spoke about the impact of artificial intelligence on gender dynamics and power relations, about the future of work and other trending topics.

You have said that there are contradictions with what is valued in society. In which areas do you see these contradictions?

One contradiction concerns age – in some ways it’s very valued to be young, but it is also devalued. Something similar goes for being a man. Men are valued in many ways, for example, they have more power or a more dominant place in society. At the same time some ways of being a man may also be devalued, seen as perhaps victims or problems or simply dispensable. The obvious issue concerns boys’ and men’s dominance and status, which is routinely respected and reinforced. At the same time, some ways of being a boy or a man are more ambiguous, as with behaving badly in a classroom, bullying, quitting school early, leading the gang, and so on. Such things may give you status temporarily, locally, but might not give you status in society more generally. Contradictions are not just one-dimensional, and age, for example, is a very important example here.

How do these contradictions impact masculinity norms?

I don’t generally talk much about norms. For me it’s a bit old-fashioned word. It’s a debate from 60s and 70s that has become fashionable again. The issue is more about expectations, power and entitlements, and this may be confusing at times. Domination is a large part of that but not the whole story. I can’t speak for boys and young men very well, but probably a lot of boys and young men experience confusion around status and power. Are they top dogs, are they above girls and women? Actually it’s not what they might be feeling like. There has long been the recognition that when you have power or relative power, you might still feel powerless anyway.

There is something else going on that is linked to online and digital life. The classic pattern is that girls and young women spend a lot of time on their appearance, getting made up, even getting less sleep. But I think there is a significant number of boys and young men who are moving in that direction. They may be always available online and also have to keep up appearances. This is a change from much of pre-internet life, even if there has been a trend in that direction from the 1970s, but it has probably accelerated through the internet – being on display and keeping up social contacts and grabbing a few hours of sleep. But researchers are debating, as there are contradictory results on how this is affecting young people’s social life. There are surveys that show that people are having less flesh to flesh sex, they are maybe sexting or looking at pornography, but it’s a paradox, something I discuss in a short paper I’ve just written for the 20th anniversary of the journal, Sexualities [‘Where are the boundaries of sexuality? Hovering in a zone of uncertainty between sexualities and non-sexualities’].

The perception of power is very interesting. I also find it interesting when it concerns older men in power positions who feel devalued, like the slow train accident in the Swedish Academy regarding accusations of sexual harassment. How can it be that these men actually have the power and the money but at the same time feel really threatened by women and #MeToo?

There are reverse contradictions regarding getting older. I’ve heard women talk about becoming invisible when they get older, instead of being sexualized, which might be quite nice sometimes as a change from sexualization. But men – sometimes you are being respected, sometimes you are invisible. I feel quite a lot of ageism and I’m quite a privileged man. I have been cooperating with researchers in South Africa, Floretta Boonzaier, Rob Pattman and others, in which we talk about the unmarked crowd in the middle, 30-55 year olds. The middle group is invisible in the age discussion, but they are doing most of the ageism, both up and down. But yes, some of these older men feel confused in a different way.

I think it’s premature to say what’s happening with #MeToo. I have been amazed when some people talk about #MeToo as some new exposure. If you look at this historically and if you have the slightest interest in the issue, you see that there have been huge research and political activities in this field. Certainly in the 80s there was loads of research on sexual harassment. I’ve even seen people saying it is something new; this is rubbish.

But it is early to say what it will lead to. It depends on what will happen next. Also the campaign has taken different forms in different countries and different professions.

I have a feeling that #MeToo differs from the past in the sense that this time it’s not that much about rage towards the harassing men, as about rage against the enablers and the cover ups – the friends, colleagues, the organizations that made it possible to continue.

I think it’s also about that it began in a particular workplace context, that originally it was a workplace movement. There are whole books written earlier about the casting couch. The film industry is actually a workplace. And you are right, sometimes the cover up has bigger consequences than the original act. In some cases the cover up becomes the big issue, because it lasted and implicates others, often other men.

Let’s talk about technological development when it comes to cyber harassment, and bullying. What concerns do you have?

Jeff Hearn is a senior professor at Örebro University

In 2001, Wendy Parkin and I published a book called Gender, Sexuality and Violence in Organizations. We realised back then that we had to write about this thing called the internet, in relation to the global sex trade, for example. At the time it all seemed very novel. What has happened since then has been my interest. In 2017, Matthew Hall and I published a book called Revenge Pornography. It’s not the perfect title, but it’s a term you see in the news, so after a lot of discussions we decided to use it. Online violence and violation is the reality for a lot of young people and also some older people too. Physical violence is part of it, but probably the most common form of violence or violation young people experience is digital, it occurs online. And there are so many different versions of it. It has many faces. It could be only one line of text. It’s easy to bully just by sending texts. Which is different from bullying from when I went to school. Online violence has to be much more on the agenda of anti-violence policies and interventions. There is an overlap between offline and online violence, you can’t just only have a policy on grabbing and groping.

It is also difficult to hide from your digital life. I recently attended a meeting at the UN where there was a lot of discussion about the fact, that previously you could get breaks from bullying by getting away. You could go home from school or your workplace. But you can’t go away from your digital life, you can’t hide.

Exactly. And the content may reappear in five years’ time. Do you know the panopticon idea in organizations where you are totally surveilled, like in prisons? [The scheme of the design is to allow all inmates of an institution to be observed by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Ed.] This nowadays is like panopticon in reverse.

Like being naked in an area?

Yes, exactly. The content might be dispersed to friends and family anywhere in the world, and might reappear any time. Without being totally paranoid, we need to start thinking much more about this and develop at least an awareness of its dangers. You can do some things, but you can’t easily control what others are doing or writing online.

There are huge changes going on in the work sphere, especially regarding technology. Some men are losing, some winning. How will this impact the gender dynamics and the power relations?

In most of Europe there has been a shift regarding work away from manufacturing and agriculture towards the service sector. Many of these new jobs are different kind of jobs, precarious jobs, jobs that might be assumed that more women do. This shift been going on for quite a while now. Further technological development will probably be more complicated. Some of those new jobs will replace routine jobs, like cashiers, and other jobs often held by women. Many less skilled jobs will be replaced. There is also the outsourcing issue. Today you have call centres in India, so when you call your bank you may end up talking to someone in India.

Actually you might get to Estonia if you are Swedish…

Yes, you’re right. There is a set of theories, such as what is called Moravec’s paradox [high-level reasoning requires relatively little computation, while low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computations. Ed.], that in a slightly longer term artificial intelligence (AI) will become more relevant for middle-class jobs, jobs that have often been seen as men’s areas, even if they now include significant numbers of women. An example might be medical diagnoses, you could have AI learning quite complicated medical problems. AI may step in to solve also legal or financial problems. Large-scale legal work and financial transactions are much affected; already by the early 2010s automated trades comprised about 70% of the Wall Street stock market. So middle-class jobs may become much more precarious in the future than they are now and that might affect men who thought they were more immune towards this trend rather than the working-class people. I think that’s the next phase. Some people argue that in the medium term the human flesh and human body might become revalued again. It might actually become a very high status thing to get a real human massage by a skilled person. Such skills might become elite human skills. So different groups of men might become threatened in a different way. But technological change and its effects are clearly a hugely complex issue for gender and sexualities.