Regular contributor Liam Atterbury discusses the frequent mis-placing of important discussions around male suicide and mental health. You can see more of Liam’s work in Issues 02 and 04 of Boshemia Magazine, available from our online store.
Six months on from the death of Anthony Bourdain and the topic of male suicide still lingers on the tip of our collective tongue. Horizon has since produced an incredibly articulate and sensitive documentary on the subject of male suicide, and institutions such as Samaritans and Verywell continue to raise much-needed awareness through prolific research and writing. As I lay in my bed, trawling through my Facebook or Twitter feed, I can see that the issue of male suicide is still very much at the forefront of conversation, yet I cannot remember the last time I saw an article on male suicide that did not refer to it as a gender-based issue. This is, of course, because male suicide is a gender-based issue, and has a rightful place in discussions of such. However, the topic seems to be surfacing in the strangest of places, and as a weapon.
Across the country, in bars and pubs, salons and barbers, in online forums and on the threads of Reddit, Vox, Mumsnet et al, a conversation is being had in regards to gender inequality. This conversation necessarily leads to the hot topic of Feminism and the structural and everyday sexism that women are liable to face. In the past few months I have encountered this conversation (normally started by a man – do with that as you please) both during my horizontal late-night scroll sessions and in the real waking world. Each time I have encountered this conversation there has been a certain tipping point when issues of sexism and male privilege are brought up. Sometimes these issues come up organically, but more often than not they are wielded at the moment that men find themselves in the midst of a discussion they mostly cannot relate to (such as being regularly and brazenly groped in public spaces) in an attempt to derail the conversation and redirect it back to centre their own gender’s issues – issues which they can more easily identify with, even if only by association rather than own lived experience. More often than not, this associative issue is male suicide.
I cannot recall just how many discussions I have been involved in where a man has attempted to mitigate a conversation involving predominantly female issues with the tenuous introduction of the male suicide rate. Whether the issue at hand be sexual offences (20% of women say they have been the victim of a sexual offence, compared to 4% of men), domestic abuse (70% of victims are female) or the gender pay gap (the gap for full-time workers is “entirely in favour of men for all occupations” according to the ONS, 2018), I have found a frighteningly large number of men to bring the conversation back around to male suicide and, importantly, male suffering. Of course, male suicide is a gender-based issue, with men being, on average, three times more likely to take their own lives when compared with women. Be that as it may, a large proportion of men seem to be reserving the topic of male suicide not for nuanced and constructive discussion, but to moderate the nuanced and constructive discussion of issues that are not male-centric. The male suicide rate has become a Trump-Card-That-Is-Not-A-Trump-Card for men that find themselves in the midst of a conversation that involves matters which they are unable or unwilling to confront, explain or even concede.
This phenomenon retains the indelible stamp of male victimhood, but is indicative of the more under-handed, insidious ways by which male victimhood can operate. It seems that even men who claim to be feminists and that initially deny any semblance of victimhood, still, be it subconsciously or nay, validate gender inequality only through their own gender’s suffering and by the issues that other males face; males who cannot, in most instances, speak for themselves in these conversations. As a result, male victimhood becomes more than just an individual issue; it becomes associative. The idea of associative victimhood is extremely damaging when instances of serious suffering become qualitative and not quantitative in rhetoric. When men compare individual instances of female suffering to the macrocosmic question of male suicide, they enable themselves to qualify female suffering by their own personal, made-up standards. It is by this process that groups of privileged people can undermine the difficulties of the under-privileged by associating themselves with another group of under-privileged people. It is the equivalent of saying “I’m not racist, I have a [insert any non-white ethnicity] friend.” It is as if saying “men and women are equal because men have problems too.” Men do indeed have problems, but to say such a thing is to be blatantly and consciously ignorant of the facts, adverse to any pragmatic participation in the fight for gender equality. The process of qualifying and validating the suffering of an under-privileged group solely by the suffering of a privileged group (if it is qualified by the privileged group in question) can only serve to maintain the narrative and reinforce the status quo. It detracts from the whole idea of equality, the very idea that many of these men claim to be champions of.
Male suicide is certainly a serious issue that deserves discussion in its own right, as are issues of abuse, harassment and prejudice. To talk of these issues only in terms of one another, comparatively and qualitatively, is to detract from the gravity of each unique, individual case, and is a disservice to those who have suffered at their behest. Discussions of misogyny and sexism do not detract from the seriousness of male suicide, but, in the midst of conversation, on my phone, on threads, overheard on public transport, I have seen and heard male suicide being used to detract from the seriousness of misogyny and sexism, and that is a dangerous rhetoric we all must be wary of.
– Liam Atterbury