Men’s health: A critique of men’s rights and anti-feminist claims

Men’s health is an important social issue, and deserving of robust policy and programming attention. Unfortunately, the issue of men’s health is misrepresented by men’s rights advocates and ideologies.

Men’s rights advocates (MRAs) and anti-feminist men’s groups claim that men now are the victims in our society, of both women and feminism. MRAs claim that men’s health is a particularly important area of male disadvantage, that men’s health issues and shorter life spans are evidence of discrimination and oppression faced by men, and that women’s health receives unfair levels of attention and funding compared to men’s health. These claims are false. Instead;

  1. Men’s physical and emotional health is constrained above all by traditional constructions of masculinity (rather than by women or feminism).
    1. In many societies, the dominant construction of masculinity – in other words, the most influential representation of what it means to ‘be a man’ – is one which is damaging to men’s health. Men are expected to be stoic, self-reliant, tough, brave, vigorous, daring and aggressive (Primary Health Care Group, 1996).
    2. A series of studies have found that men’s conformity to these norms of masculinity is associated with poorer health, greater risk-taking, and lower help-seeking (Courtenay, 2000a; Mahalik, Burns, & Syzdek, 2007; Wong, Ho, Wang, & Miller, 2017).
      1. There is a range of evidence that men who endorse dominant norms of masculinity also are more likely than other men to have greater health risks and engage in poorer health behaviours (Courtenay, 2000a).
      2. Conventional masculinity involves the valuing of toughness and the denial of vulnerability. This means men also may be unwilling or unable to seek help and treatment when their physical or emotional health is impaired (Campbell, 1995). Men present less frequently to doctors, delay seeking health care, and comply less with health care advice than do women (Courtenay, 2000b), particularly if they conform to dominant notions of masculinity and perceive help-seeking as ‘unmanly’ (River, 2016).
    3. Traditional masculinity also is implicated in particular areas of men’s health and wellbeing. To give just two examples;
      1. Suicide: Masculinity is an important influence on men’s suicidal thoughts. In a recent US cross-sectional study of 2,431 young adults, “Traditional masculinity was associated with suicidal ideation, second only in strength to depression, including when controlling for other risk factors” (Coleman, 2015).
      2. Occupational deaths and injuries: Men in male-dominated occupations often are socialised to accept risks, dangers, and injuries, and these can also be normalised by the workplace or institutional culture. They often are expected to endure pain and injuries without complaint (Stergiou-Kita et al., 2015). In a study in two male-dominated workplaces, men who agreed with traditional masculine norms were more likely than other men to violate safety procedures and to not report safety problems to supervisors (Nielsen et al., 2015).
    4. In short, therefore, to address men’s health, we should not be attacking women or feminism as MRAs do, but seeking to change dominant norms of masculinity. Individual men are not to blame for men’s poor health. The problem is social, to do with the social determinants of health. And the evidence is that dominant norms and social relations of masculinity are important contributors to men’s poor health.
  2. More widely, men’s health represents the ill-health effects of patriarchy. In contexts which are more patriarchal (male dominated) and less egalitarian, men live shorter lives, as shown in both cross-national and US research (Kavanagh, Shelley, & Stevenson, 2017; Stanistreet, Bambra, & Scott-Samuel, 2005).
  3. The health of men is equal to that of women on a broad range of measures (Connell et al., 1999). Simple comparisons between men’s and women’s health neglect the influence of social disadvantage.
    1. If we look only at the statistical differences between male and female morbidity and mortality rates, then it appears that men suffer an overall health disadvantage. But sex difference statistics are skewed by particularly high morbidity and mortality rates for men from socially disadvantaged groups (Schofield, Connell, Walker, Wood, & Butland, 2000).
    2. Poor health among men often reflects social divisions and disadvantages associated not with gender but with class, ethnicity, race, sexuality and disability (Pease, 2009; Williams, 2003).
    3. Morbidity and mortality rates for men are also shaped by preventable health issues such as work injury and suicide, which have been closely linked to issues related to masculinity (Cleary, 2005; Nielsen et al., 2015) (Cleary, 2005).
    4. To improve men’s health therefore, we must also address forms of social injustice to do with class, ethnicity, gender and so on.
  4. MRAs exaggerate the extent to which existing health services fail to meet men’s needs.
    1. MRAs suggest that health services are not ‘male friendly’ as they oriented towards the needs of women (Salter, 2016), but there is little evidence to support this view To give two examples;
      1. Health services: Two thirds of medical doctors are male, and medical practitioners dispute the idea that services are not appropriate for men and instead point to the issue of men’s help-seeking (Salter, 2016).
      2. Help-seeking: Research suggests that suicidal men do not avoid help-seeking because they perceive services as feminising or supportive of women only. Instead, men’s help-seeking was impacted by the failure of services to explore the dynamics of masculinity and how this impacts on mental health (River, 2016).
  5. While MRAs blame women and feminism for the poor state of men’s health, in fact, women’s and feminist organisations have been important advocates for men’s health (Fletcher, 1996; Flood, 2004).
    1. Women have been pioneering advocates of men’s health. As Richard Fletcher, a veteran men’s health advocate and one of the most well recognised and widely published leaders in this area, writes, “Some of the key advocates for greater attention to this issue [men’s health] are women whose involvement has been generated by concern for close male relatives” (Fletcher, 1996)
    2. Unlike women’s health, the appearance of men’s health as a public issue was not driven by grassroots efforts and dissatisfaction with existing health care services. Instead, it was driven in part by women’s advocacy, investigation and promotion of awareness of men’s health issues.
  6. MRAs have done little to actually improve men’s health. And in fact, their strategies have been harmful to men’s health. For example,
    1. MRAs have failed to support the strategies which will make a genuine difference to men’s health. For example, although MRAs have highlighted suicide as a major health issue for men, they do not support research and interventions examining the impact of gender, even though it is widely acknowledged that masculinity is a key factor in men’s suicidal behaviour (Seidler, Rice, River, Oliffe, & Dhillon).
    2. MRAs have attacked women’s health in the name of men’s health, such as advocating for reduced funding to women’s health. This does little to benefit men’s health. As Flood (2004, pp. 276-277) argues,
      “Attacking services primarily for women is no way to gain services for men. Men’s rights advocates have attacked women’s refuges and women’s health centres, simultaneously while calling for either parallel services for men […] or services for both men and women.
      “There are at least four problems with such strategies. They focus on the wrong target, they antagonise potential supporters, they taint as backlash the need to address such men’s issues, and they are based on a simplistic “You’ve got it, we want it too” logic which may not provide the most appropriate services for men.
      “For example, when it comes to the poor state of men’s health, the problem is not women or the feminist health movement and the organisations it worked to establish. Instead, we should be tackling destructive notions of manhood, an economic system which values profit and productivity over workers’ health, and the ignorance of service providers. Women have been central to advocacy for and the promotion of men’s health. To try to build men’s health by taking away from women’s health is to shoot oneself in the prostate, and is a betrayal of the principles on which a concern for health should be based in the first place.”
    3. MRAs have often called for health strategies and services which are the mirror image of those established for women’s health. In this ‘us too’ logic, if there is a women’s health centre, there should be a men’s health centre, and so on. However, this approach will not necessarily provide the most appropriate health services for men, because it is motivated more by a knee-jerk logic of equality than by an informed appraisal of the kinds of services men are going to use and benefit from.


Note: Also see:

References cited

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Earlier versions

This article was first written in December 2017. Changes since then are tracked in the attached Word document.