Tagged Men and Boys

The Challenges of Male Friendships

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Credit Paul Rogers

Christopher Beemer, a 75-year-old Brooklynite, is impressed with how well his wife, Carol, maintains friendships with other women and wonders why this valuable benefit to health and longevity “doesn’t come so easily to men.”

Among various studies linking friendships to well-being in one’s later years, the 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging found that family relationships had little if any impact on longevity, but friendships boosted life expectancy by as much as 22 percent.

Mr. Beemer urged me to explore ways to promote male friendships, especially for retired men who often lose regular contact with colleagues who may have similar interests and experiences.

After Marla Paul, a Chicago-area writer, wrote a book, “The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore,” about establishing meaningful friendships with other women, she was inundated with requests from men to give equal treatment to male friendships.

“A lot of men were upset because I didn’t include them,” Ms. Paul told me. “They felt that making and keeping friends was a lot harder for men, that close friendships were not part of their culture. They pointed out that women have all kinds of clubs, that there’s more cultural support for friendships among women than there is for men.”

In a study in the 1980s about the effect on marriage of child care arrangements, two Boston-area psychiatrists, Dr. Jacqueline Olds and Dr. Richard Stanton Schwartz, found that, “almost to a man, the men were so caught up in working, building their careers and being more involved with their children than their own fathers had been, something had to give,” Dr. Schwartz said. “And what gave was connection with male friends. Their lives just didn’t allow time for friendships.”

In their book, “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century,” the doctors, who are a husband-and-wife team, noted a current tendency for men to foster stronger, more intimate marriages at the expense of nearly all other social connections.

When these men are older and work no longer defines their social contacts, “there’s a lot of rebuilding that has to be done” if they are to have meaningful friendships with other men, Dr. Schwartz said in an interview.

From childhood on, Dr. Olds said, “men’s friendships are more often based on mutual activities like sports and work rather than what’s happening to them psychologically. Women are taught to draw one another out; men are not.”

Consciously or otherwise, many men believe that talking about personal matters with other men is not manly. The result is often less intimate, more casual friendships between men, making the connections more tenuous and harder to sustain.

Dr. Olds said, “I have a number of men in my practice who feel bad about having lost touch with old friends. Yet it turns out men are delighted when an old friend reaches out to revive the relationship. Men might need a stronger signal than women do to reconnect. It may not be enough to send an email to an old friend. It may be better to invite him to visit.”

Some married men consider their wives to be their best friend, and many depend on their wives to establish and maintain the couple’s social connections, which can all but disappear when a couple divorces or the wife dies.

Differences between male and female friendships start at an early age. Observing how his four young granddaughters interact socially, Mr. Beemer said, “They have way more of that kind of activity than boys have. It may explain why as adults they continue to do a much better job of it.”

In defense of his gender, he observed, “Men have a harder time reaching their emotions and are less likely than women to reveal their emotional side. But when you have a real friendship, it’s because you’ve done just that.”

He has found that “it’s important to expose yourself and be honest about what’s going on. If you reveal yourself in the right way to the right person, it will be just fine. There are risks, you can’t force it. Sometimes it doesn’t work — you get a don’t-burden-me-with-that kind of response and you know to back off. But more often men will respond in kind.”

Mr. Beemer has worked hard to establish and maintain valuable relationships with other men of a similar vintage. He joined a men’s book group that meets monthly, and after about two years, he said, “it became a group where the members really mean something to one another.”

He’s also in a men’s walking group that meets three times a week and gathers after each walk to share more conversation and a snack at a local cafe. When one member of the group had a heart attack, they visited him, cheering him up with the latest gossip and a favorite cafe snack.

“What sustains relationships over time is a regular rhythm of seeing each other,” Dr. Schwartz said. “It’s best to build a regular pattern of activities rather than having to make a special effort to see one another.”

He recalls “curing” a 70-year-old patient of his loneliness by encouraging him to join a bunch of guys who regularly dined and joked around at a neighborhood Panera Bread. “There are a lot of cafes in the Boston area where small groups of older men get together for breakfast everyday,” Dr. Schwartz said.

Dr. Olds said of her husband, “Richard has a regular group phone call with friends who live in different parts of the country. We program it into our schedule or it would disappear.”

Among other ways men can make new friends in their later years are participating in classes, activities, trips and meals at senior centers; taking continuing education courses at a local college; joining a gym or Y and taking classes with people you then see every week; volunteering at a local museum, hospital, school or animal shelter; attending worship services at a religious center; forming a group that plays cards or board games together; perhaps even getting a dog to walk in the neighborhood.

After my dentist’s wife died, he made several new friends and enjoyed lovely dinners with other men when he joined a group called Romeo, an acronym for retired old men eating out.

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The New Dads’ Club

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Credit Getty Images

When my wife, Courtney, and I were expecting our first child just a few years ago, I was astonished by the almost instantaneous community of expectant and new mothers that greeted her. Despite the fact that we’d just moved cross-country and didn’t yet know many people, she was flooded with sage advice and a deep sense of community.

It was impressive, and yet it often left me feeling like a bystander. As I watched the anticipation of these expectant mothers shift into weekly get-togethers with babies rolling around on blankets on the floor, I found myself envious and wondering: Where was the parallel universe of new dads?

Online, I found several hip publications on fatherhood — from the popular website Fatherly to Charlie Capen and Andy Herald’s widely read “How to Be a Dad,” and “Designer Daddy,” focused on “getting creative with fatherhood.” When our schedules aligned, my friend Peter and I would get vulnerable as we ran through the redwoods. We’ve had several unforgettable conversations about impossibly hard stuff like the loss of his first son and others on the pressure to strike that perfect balance with our wives — who both always seem to be one step ahead of us in this whole parenting thing. Yet nothing seemed to approximate the collective conversations that were happening among my wife and her new mom friends.

Economic and cultural shifts in the last decade have made fatherhood feel like uncharted territory in many ways. In the wake of the recession and the fracturing of the economy, many men, myself included, are less tied to a traditional workday as sole breadwinners. More than a third of American workers are now freelancers, according to an independent study commissioned by the Freelancers Union in 2014.

Many men are increasingly moving beyond the “bringing home the bacon” mentality, and instead prioritizing the careers of wives who make more money than they do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 28.2 percent of wives earned more than their husbands in 2014 (in families in which both wives and husbands have earnings). Back in 1987, when I was a kid, only 17.8 percent of American wives brought home more money than their husbands.

These trends are creating entirely new opportunities and challenges for fathers: finding ourselves engaged with aspects of caretaking that many of our own fathers never experienced, more distracted at work, or even less career-oriented in some cases, again, like mine. Men and women, in a sense, are at least getting closer to being equal partners in this journey; according to the latest Pew surveys on modern parenthood, 56 percent of mothers and now 50 percent of fathers say juggling work and family life is difficult for them.

After experiencing, often appreciating, and sometimes lamenting many of these dynamics for the first two years of our daughter’s life, I decided to try to bring some dads together to talk about our shared experience. I had a hunch that I wasn’t the only one yearning for a community and some deeper conversation on fatherhood.

I identified 28 relatively new fathers, mostly through my wife’s friends, and finally worked up the courage to invite them. A stream of responses to my email invitation came promptly and enthusiastically.

On a cool, Bay Area night, those two dozen eager dads (few of whom knew one another) showed up at our place with an enviable array of fancy cheeses, a homemade coffee cake, some Brussels sprouts smoked via some jury-rigged stovetop contraption, and no small amount of uncertainty about what the hell they were doing there. If all else failed, at least we wouldn’t starve.

Among us were both nonprofit and tech company workers, stay-at-home dads, a tattooed investment banker-turned-restaurateur, and a couple of writers, myself included. Most had one child; a few had two.

Nervously excited and visibly breaking a sweat, I explained my reason for bringing the group together: to give new fathers a chance to talk honestly about the highs and lows of their new identity, together.

Throughout our conversation, the mood in the room was fun and lively, but at other times it also felt almost sacred. Although there were many moments of group laughter, unlike so many typical gatherings of guys where there is often cross-talk and side jokes, only one person spoke at a time.

To get things started, I asked the group: “What has surprised you most about fatherhood?” (My wife, a skilled facilitator, had suggested it.) The answers were remarkably wide-ranging. “My own parents seem to care very little about my children,” one dad said. “Having a child has made me lose my career ambition,” said another.

For many of us, as much fun as it can be, being a father is all-consuming and omnipresent, blurring time and space like few other experiences. Some days, especially during those early sleepless nights, it’s hard to know which end is up. And yet these few hours of conversation every couple of months somehow manage to stay with me. I often find myself reflecting on things other fathers said in our groups, days, weeks or even months after the fact. Others have reported the same.

At the end of that first night, one of the other dads asked: “How often do you guys have conversations like this, with other guys? Once a week? Once a month? Once a year?” After the last prompt, finally a mass of hands started going up.

Guys like us, it turns out, are hungry for a place to talk with other men, particularly about how fatherhood is changing us, and changing writ large. Just as literature has long helped people see that our seemingly personal struggles are universal, being able to talk in this group offers a similar revelation. In an age of near-constant superficial virtual connection, there’s an enormous benefit in having a real life community to confide in more deeply and provide a genuine social network — especially for men and young fathers so often without it.

John Cary is the editor of “The Power of Pro Bono” and a strategist for TED.


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Talking About Male Rape

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Raymond M. Douglas

Raymond M. DouglasCredit

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Credit

In his new book, “On Being Raped,” Raymond M. Douglas, a professor of history at Colgate University, writes publicly for the first time about being brutally beaten and raped at the age of 18 by a familiar parish priest. The assault transformed and shaped his life. More than 30 years later, the trauma of the four-hour-long assault continues to have repercussions, and Dr. Douglas argues persuasively that rape is an experience that one can never really relegate to one’s past. Rape, he says, “is always now.”

I recently spoke with Dr. Douglas about his decision to break his decades-long silence about the assault, why he prefers the word “victim” to “survivor” when talking about sexual violence, and his hope of initiating a broader public conversation about sexual assaults on men and boys. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Q.

You’ve avoided discussing the assault for more than three decades. Why are you breaking your silence now?

A.

There wasn’t a specific trigger, but advancing age may have had something to do with it. I have been aware for many years that little has changed for men since the time of my attack. I am familiar with the women’s anti-rape movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and it was clear to me that what moved the needle of public perception about rape at that time was the willingness of victims to speak publicly under their own names about their experiences. In my mother’s time, rape was very much the “Great Unspeakable” for women. What changed that was people coming out and challenging the depictions of their experience. I didn’t see things changing for men unless they started doing the same thing.

Q.

Talking about the assault was so traumatic for you that you confided in very few people, and did not even tell your wife, whom you met many years after the assault. How did you prepare her for the book?

A.

We did have a conversation, and I did disclose to her. It didn’t come as a massive surprise to her, oddly enough. She said that she had suspected something of the kind for quite a few years, though she always assumed that it had been something that had happened to me in childhood, rather than early adulthood. That took her aback to a degree.

Q.

After the assault, you found out that there had been rumors about this priest for years and that there had been jokes about him having sexually assaulted other young men. Was his behavior an open secret?

A.

It certainly wasn’t [an open secret] to me. My friends knew him as a certain kind of, shall we say, boundary pusher. I don’t think they had the faintest idea just how dangerous he was. But I found out — and I was neither the first nor the last of his victims — that it went further than that. You need to remember the time and the place this occurred, and especially the time. It was a period where priests were quite literally gods anointed. They were the moral exemplars, the arbiters of good and evil, of what is acceptable conduct and what is not. They were not used to being contradicted and those who did challenge them were not supported – especially if you were an 18-year-old kid just out of school.

Q.

One of the most powerful messages of the book is that the trauma of being raped never goes away. Why do you think this is the case?

A.

In my opinion the real damage, the lasting damage, isn’t done by the episode as much as by the aftermath. Humans encounter trauma not infrequently. What’s different about sexual trauma is the type of social response one encounters from both sexes. I’ve spoken to people who have managed quite successfully to get over what were objectively pretty ghastly episodes of sexual victimization — much, much worse than anything I experienced. The common factor I’ve seen in those circumstances is that you find appropriate reactions on the part of others in the victim’s circle.

When you experience something as a big deal, and everybody else around you asserts with great certainty that no, it isn’t, or worse, that it isn’t even a thing, then trying to bridge that conceptual gap is likely to exacerbate difficulties with adjustment.

When you’re encountering denial, impatience, dismissal, contempt – which of course is something common to victims of both sexes – or when there is not even a vocabulary with which to describe the events to oneself, much less to others, the difficulties are increased exponentially.

Q.

In the book you tell us that you still have an aversion to being touched without permission and would prefer to sleep with the lights on. You say there is occasionally a “third person” in the room with you and your wife. Is your response typical?

A.

People respond to things like this in different ways. Some engage in a great deal of sexual activity, often risky sexual activity which can frequently lead to re-victimization. Another common way out is to withdraw into oneself. This was, as you know, my first sexual experience. It wasn’t of the nature to make me look forward to the next one with keen anticipation.

Q.

You talk about language a lot in this book, and say you prefer the word “victim” to “survivor.” Can you explain that?

A.

I strongly believe people should be able to call themselves whatever they like. But just as there are problematic overtones bound up with the word “victim,” it seems to me that there are problematic elements with the term “survivor.” It takes for granted something that requires demonstration. For both men and women, the suicide rate is increased very dramatically when people have undergone experiences of this kind. One can never be entirely sure that one has survived. I think most people who have had experiences like this would agree that years and decades afterward it still has the capacity to surprise them.

Our notion of trauma is a linear sort of notion: a bad experience, followed by a crisis, followed by re-normalization when you put it behind you, as the saying goes. I think most specialists would tell you that’s not really how it works in real life. Sometimes people are fine in the immediate aftermath and only have difficulties afterward. A lot of people have problems when they have children of their own, or when those children reach the age that they were when they were assaulted. Sometimes they get over some aspects of the experience and not others. I don’t think it’s ever safe to say one is ever completely past this kind of thing.

Q.

You say that you have maintained your Catholic faith, but have lost your trust in the leadership of the church, which never took action against your assailant. Is it difficult to walk this fine line?

A.

It’s very difficult, and that is reinforced every time I go to Mass on Sunday. The record of the church on this question is atrociously bad. It’s not on the radar screens of any of the major Christian denominations. This is something that we have a duty to do for our brothers and sisters, against whom we are sinning by omission as well as by commission.

Q.

Has any progress been made since your assault?

A.

At the time the very existence of male rape outside correctional institutions was largely and explicitly denied. This was a huge stumbling block for me at the time. I was assured that what I had experienced did not in fact happen.

Q.

You say your book is a first step to drawing attention to male-on-male rape. What must come next?

A.

I think we’re doing an abominable job of listening to men and boys who have been raped. When we notice their existence at all — which is a rare thing — we’re extremely prone to talk over them and to redefine their experience for them. We need more research that’s victim-centered. Our current understanding of what that experience involves is obtained from the crudest possible stereotypes, principally Hollywood films like “Deliverance” or “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s not merely because men and boys are not speaking about it. The question worth asking is: What needs to be done that would make them feel safe in disclosing their experience?

Second, we need somewhere for men and boys to go when this has happened to them. We don’t have that. If one of my female students came to me on a Monday morning and said that something terrible happened last Saturday night, I have a good idea where to send her for support. If one of my male students came to me, I haven’t a bloody clue where to send him.

Third, we need an integrated approach to the whole problem of sexual violence. Right now there are numerous bodies and agencies and victims’ groups, each with its own particular mission, but in my view this situation is not advantageous to anybody.

We can talk about the gendered aspects certainly, but in my view, the fight against sexual violence in all its aspects is a single fight that ought to unite people of all genders and sexual orientations. The basic elements are fundamentally the same.