Female empowerment, success objects, and male mental health.

Here’s a chart I discovered recently that concerns me:

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1414751/

It shows a steady increase in the male teen suicide rate, while the suicide rate for female teens remains flat.

On my Twitter feed today, this article from Sophia Graham of the Mental Foundation responds to Mark Dawson’s editorial suggesting that increasing male suicide is linked to their relative less prominent role in society.

Mark says:

One explanation for this disproportion may be the growing empowerment of women and their increasing role in society.

Is an unfortunate side effect that men feel less secure, less sure of their place in a world where they were once more dominant?

Perhaps it reflects the work pressures on men – still usually the main bread-winner. Working males make up a significant proportion of the grim statistics.

Sophia is critical of Mark’s editorial. The headline reads ‘A response to the newspaper editor who thinks feminism may cause male suicide’ though Mark never mentions the term ‘feminism’.

Sophia makes a few points I take issue with:

  • Male suicide rates have always been higher than female suicide rates.
    • This is true – but male suicide rates are also growing. She doesn’t acknowledge this. Correction: in New Zealand suicide rates appear to be on the decline. The excel spread sheet linked from here from Stats NZ  shows a steady increase of suicide rate of both women and men of about 50% from 1985 to 1998 and then a steady decline since then.
  • She says his comments are dangerous. She makes the argument that Mark’s article contributes to the traditional culture of male stoicism.
    • I fail to see how this is the case. Mark’s article is precisely highlighting that one aspect of traditional masculinity is seeing men’s value as an economic provider, and that their changing role in society may lead men feeling disempowered and turning to suicide as a result.
    • Instead it’s Sophia that is reinforcing this gender norm, by shutting down an attempt to encourage looking at the the changing definition of masculinity and how that’s affecting men today. Sophia shames men for talking about their  response to currently defined masculinity by labeling it as dangerous and anti-woman’s empowerment.
  • She makes the point that ” male suicide rates are tied more closely to economic pressures than changing social roles”.
    • The source she cites does indeed mention the decline of traditional male industries as a factor in male suicide. However, the same source also makes a point that traditional conceptions of masculinity also play a role – one of those expressions of masculinity being providing for the family, especially amongst working class men.
  • She says that he shows a lack of compassion towards females who live with depression or anxiety.
    • Mark’s article was specifically talking about male suicide. Sophia’s criticism is a ‘whataboutism’ argument. Given that in New Zealand 3/4 suicides are men, it make sense to pay special attention to why men are doing it.

The one thing I would criticise about Mark’s article is where he says

[suicide is] one area where women don’t want gender equality

this is a cheap shot and is a broad generalisation that serves to paint an uncaring picture of women.

Overall – this was an incredibly disappointing response from the Mental Health Foundation. Instead of congratulating Mark for starting a discussion about this one particular aspect of mental health – she attempts to shut it down by labeling it as dangerous.

The Mental Health Foundation is an organisation that I respect and support, but this is one case of I think them doing exactly the wrong thing.

Sophia ends the piece with

I acknowledge your editorial contained some valid and interesting remarks on the how the pressures men face can contribute to suicide. It’s a shame these were left unexplored.

and to be fair – Mark’s article was quite short, all he’s really doing is saying ‘this is an issue that men are uniquely facing, and we need to do more to focus on it’.

But instead of taking advantage of a teachable moment – and articulating just what the factors and trends of male suicide are, she instead just the discussion as dangerous – without, in my opinion, really conclusively refuting it.

So here I go to further expound what I think Mark was getting at.

Sex objects vs success objects. 

The term sex object or sexual objectification has been used in feminist discourse to describe how society reduces women’s value to society as their function to provide sexual gratification.

This has been frustrating to women, where they’ve felt that their potential contributions to business, science etc has been marginalized because of this.

Using the same lens to look at men’s roles in society – we can use the term ‘success object’.

That is – men’s value to society is a function of their ability to win, to be an economic provider.

In our historic society with traditional gender roles this was easier to achieve for the man – even a single low skilled worker’s pay was enough to support a family.

However in modern times average guy’s ability to get this kind of role has disappeared, while the expectation that he can do this remains.

Research shows that despite women’s increased participation in the economy – educated women still prefer to marry men who earn than them. 

Pointing this out isn’t an argument against female empowerment. It’s argument for redefining masculinity in the modern era – and that involves allowing men to say ‘I feel pressure to earn a lot of money so I can attract a mate’. Perhaps then we’ll get a conversation about what society values in men instead.

But shutting these conversations down as dangerous or disempowering to women is not the right way to go. That only causes feelings of male disempowerment to fester unseen.


Why I don’t identify as a feminist (or an environmentalist, or a men’s right activist).


I don’t identify as a feminist, because I’m hesitant to identify as anything.

I support the personal empowerment of women, whether that’s becoming the CEO of a major company or choosing to be a stay at home mum. I support the free and safe expression of female sexuality, whether that’s pursuing casual sex, asexuality,  committed monogamous relationships, or any variant in between. I support access to birth control and abortions.

At the same time, I’m critical of some of the commonly touted feminist arguments. For example I believe the commonly cited US 78% median income gap argument shouldn’t be taken at face value.

I also support some of the concerns of what are commonly identified as men’s rights activists (MRAs). For example that men successfully commit suicide at rates higher than women (women actually make more attempts), and are more likely to be homeless than women warrants attention. I think the argument for the man’s right to a financial abortion is warrants consideration, without immediately being discounted.

I’m also concerned what can be considered shaming of male sexuality in the public sphere. For example I think there is a common cultural meme that in heterosexual sex the man is entirely responsible for the woman’s orgasm, and that a man coming quickly is a bad thing.

I also support various environment measures. I vote Green. I usually buy the carbon offset when I fly. I support carbon taxes / carbon trading schemes and think that meat and petroleum oil should be more expensive than it is. But I also don’t identify as an environmentalist nor a men’s right activist.

This post is about personal identity, and what it means to identify as something.

I do identify as a New Zealander, a Kiwi and a Pakeha. I do identify as male, and mostly straight.

But I don’t identify as a feminist, because I think the label means something beyond having a particular set of political values. I think the term feminist is more commonly used as a social signal.

I would argue that when assigning identities, we are doing one of two things:

  1. Applying an objective, if not always black and white, categorisation of things.
  2. Expressing a social signal to filter for a particular kind of person we want to associate with.

These identities are either self-assigned (eg. ‘I’m a feminist’, ‘I identity as pan-sexual’) or as a way of identifying others (‘That black guy over there’, ‘She’s a feminist’).

Simpler identities, like identifying as human, male, white, straight, a kiwi, a plumber fall in to this first category. Of course, there are always grey areas – is someone who moved to New Zealand when they were seven and have lived here for ten years a kiwi? (I would argue yes, though it’s more down to their personal identity).

Self-assigned identities that have political component, tend to fall in the second category. For example when someone says ‘I’m a feminist’, they’re saying more than ‘I have xyz political views’, there’s also the indication that ‘and this is a core tenant of my life’ or ‘and I want other people to know what side of politics I land on’.

Perhaps I have the wrong approach. Perhaps I’m assigning too much meaning to what ‘being a feminist’ means, beyond the view that there should be equal rights and opportunity between men and women.

But… I’m not convinced, I think this suggestion is disingenuous. The actress Meryl Streep attracted controversy, from self-identified feminists, when she said that she doesn’t identify as a feminist. That people are reluctant to identify as feminists clearly shows that identifying as a feminist has meaning beyond a black and white categorisation of political belief.

I would suggest that the term ‘feminist’ entails more baggage than any other political term. If someone one was labelled or denied the label as a ‘libertarian’, or a ‘conservative’, it would not attract as much controversy as whether they’re a ‘feminist’ or not.

Thus – I think that self-identifying as a feminist is a political act in itself, and in my honest opinion the act says ‘I’m going to err on the side of agreeing with popular feminist doctrine, without critical assessment’. This is not a stance I wish to take.

I would prefer to take an objective, measured approach, and then decide what political philosophies I agree with, than stake my claim as a particular brand, and subsequently adopt the corresposding political philosophies. Ultimately though, my politics do end up being progressive.



The rationality of suicide.

Meta note: This post perhaps is alarmingly darkly themed. I do suffer from suicidal ideation, but I don’t think that not writing or publishing this post will fix that. Instead, these thoughts are swirling around my head anyway – and so I figure they might as well come out on paper.  I’ve written before about what I choose to publish here, the dilemna being that there might be a social cost to myself for  publishing something, but the conclusion I’ve come to it’s better to write about things, than keep them bottled up.   The subject of suicide also contains its own risks – namely in that I wouldn’t want this writing to encourage someone else to commit suicide. If you are feeling that way, then I suggest calling a friend and talking to them.
If the feedback I get from this post is ‘This post is depressing and I don’t want to read it’ then yeah – I’d agree – I probably wouldn’t want to read it either – but there’s a certain satisfaction I get from writing it and moving on.
I’ll also note two weeks later, that at the time of writing I was simply having a bad day. Writing posts like these is one mechanism for dealing with upset emotions of the time and getting a sense of control of one’s life. From the perspective of a relatively happy mindset two weeks later looking at this post, I don’t think it’s a particularly bad post. Its a little incomplete. I don’t think it’s especially pretentious. The topic is a little indulgent sure, but the tone remains fairly rational.

In my perception, suicide is usually seen as a preventable tragedy in western societies.

On the face of it, this attitude makes sense – any premature death, whether it be by murder, car crash, illness or suicide, ends the potential of the person. There’s an opportunity cost to the rest of society – no more social experiences with that person, and that person can longer contribute value to society. The investment of education and socialisation of the person is lost.

However, when we look a bit closer, it’s not as clear cut as ‘suicide is always a tragedy’.

For example, many of use wouldn’t consider the suicide of various henious criminals a tragedy.  Adolf Hitler commited suicide at the point where the Red Army were invading Berlin. Many of us would suggest that the world would have been better off if Hitler had commited suicide several months earlier, as to avoid more deaths in what was an obviously lost war.

Glenn Mills, an Auckland man who intentionally infected seven people with HIV commited suicide the night before he was due to be sentenced for his crimes. Ariel Castro, the man who kidnapped and held three women for ten years commited suicide while in prison.

Some people feel cheated when these criminals kill themselves – arguing that they should live with what they’ve done. I don’t agree with this argument – justice should be about preventing further harm from being caused, and fixing things where they can, but not about subjecting someone to a life of misery. That concept of justice is unsavoury to my tastes.

The suicide of blameless people can also be considered rational as well. For example, the voluntary euthanasia movement has been gaining traction in recent years – advocating access to either assisted suicide or self-adminstered suicide products.

The argument for legal euthanisia is usually a quality of life argument – suggesting that it’s cruel to prolong the suffering or indignity of a terminally ill person, due the highly placed value of ‘the sanctity of life’.

Outside of the terminally ill, there are circumstances where a suicide might be considered reasonable. For example, lots of German citizens opted for suicide upon the approach of the Red Army through their towns – the alternative being raped and possibly murdered anyway.

All of these examples I’ve given are fairly extreme cases, and seem incomparable to the suicide of a young person in a first world society.

However, if we accept that there’s a level of suffering that warrants suicide, then the issue becomes grey – exactly what is the level of suffering that justifies suicide?

In the case of terminal illness, it’s easier to point out that ‘it’s not likely that your suffering is going to be alieviated in the future’. Compare this to mental illnesses like depression, where one might be unconsolably unhappy now, but the narrative given by support groups typically is that ‘things can get better’.

From the perspective of someone with mental illness, the cost benefit analysis could be reduced to something of a gamble – ‘Do I continue carrying on in the hope that things will get better, at the potential cost of continuing unhappiness, or do I opt out now?’.