What goes on inside our minds? Sex? Success? Those shelves that need putting up? ShortList’s Jim Butler investigates
Let me tell you about Stephen. Like yesterday and the day before that and the day before that and so on and so forth, Stephen woke up thinking about sex. He was out of the door on the way to his very important job (still thinking about sex, obviously) before his wife and son had even risen. The early bird catches the worm, after all. His dad taught him that. At the office, Stephen demonstrated all the attributes needed to succeed in business: he made tough decisions, displayed pragmatism and, essentially, got the job done (before thinking about sex some more).
As Stephen was the last to leave the office, he got home too late to read his son his favourite bedtime story. Such is the lot of a career-driven man. Even though his wife had also been at work, she had prepared a delicious meal for his return. Stephen’s useless in the kitchen. Pretty poor when it comes to anything domesticated, truth be told, with the exception of putting up shelves, knocking down walls, cutting the lawn and the like. Naturally. Stephen’s wife tries to tell him about her day, about his son, but he finds it difficult to engage in such humdrum conversation. Emotionally stunted, his wife calls him. He thinks she’s funny like that. He prefers to embrace traditional traits such as stoicism and a stiff upper lip: characteristics that built us an empire and won us two wars. Stephen goes to bed dreaming of Megan Fox. The thing is, Stephen’s not very nice, is he?
Thankfully, Stephen is a crude figment of my imagination. And yet, such out-dated caricatures and antiquated clichés still attach themselves to the idea of what it means to be a man. Google the sentence ‘what’s really on a man’s mind?’ and three of the first four results relate to the Sigmund Freud-inspired poster that adorns students’ walls up and down the land of a lady buried in a man’s head in some sly optical illusion. Someone, somewhere believes that men really are that predictable. And, even worse, boring. To misquote cultural provocateur Tony Wilson misquoting Hollywood legend John Ford, if it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, the legend always gets printed.
DESTROYING THE MYTHS
However, ShortList is now in possession of the truth — and so are you. In association with head&shoulders, we carried out an extensive survey of 5,000 UK men aged 16 to 80. In ‘What’s On A Man’s Mind’, one of the most in-depth surveys ever undertaken on British menfolk, we set out to discover just what matters to us right now, in 2011. And the results? Well, we’ve long championed the rounded versatility of the modern male, but even we were taken aback by some of the findings. Who knew so many of you fancied becoming house-husbands? And that you worry more about the state of your belly than your hair? As for sex: well, did anyone really believe that we think about all that squelchy business every seven seconds?
“I honestly believe that there’s never been a better time to be a man,” says psychotherapist and broadcaster Phillip Hodson. “In the distant past, men were cannon fodder; then they were forced into the role of breadwinner, whether they liked it or not. That’s what gave men the power over women: the industrialisation of the workplace and taking work out of the home. Now that we live in a post-industrial world, it’s much more interesting. There’s a better set of choices.”
This is clearly borne out by the results of the survey. As Hodson notes, it was traditionally assumed that men defined themselves in relation to the workplace. Status within wider society and at home was achieved by being a success at work. And while it would be a misnomer to suggest this wasn’t important still — after all, money provides the fuel for survival — when we asked what men thought gained them the most respect, being a good partner and a good father came out on top with 29 per cent and 24 per cent of the vote respectively. Having a good job came in third with 20 per cent.
Dr Esther Dermott, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Bristol, believes such a response is indicative of the wider shifts in society over the past few decades. Since the Eighties, in particular, it’s become much more publicly acceptable for men to talk about putting the family first and wanting to be a good husband, boyfriend and partner.
“We’ve definitely seen a rise in men who no longer regard building a career as the be-all and end-all,” she says. “In addition, discussing the contentious work/family balance has also increased. Fathers, for instance, are keen to be involved in childcare and being there as children grow up. Practically, this isn’t always possible, but the fact that we’re talking about these subjects means that there has been a huge sea change.”
Indeed, one of the most surprising answers was that an incredible 54 per cent of men claimed that provided there was enough money coming into the household, they would like to be a stay-at-home dad. This, coupled with 50 per cent of respondents stating that they didn’t think that men had to be the main breadwinner (a mere nine per cent felt strongly that they should maintain the hunter-gatherer role), reveals another radical transformation in UK society.
Three years ago, 38-year-old TV producer/director Michael took the decision to become a house-husband when his first child was six months old. In his eyes, the decision was simple. His wife earned more than he did and as a team it would have been absurd for him to put his foot down and insist that he remain at work just because he was male.“Although I was doing very well at work,” he reflects, “it wasn’t my life’s dream. My wife was doing what she wanted to do. It was quite an easy decision to make.”
And three years on? “It’s the hardest job that I’ve ever done,” he laughs. “We have two children now and it’s relentless, but, honestly, it’s so satisfying.” But what about his position in wider society? Does he feel emasculated? Does he feel less of a man among his friends? Do they mock him mercilessly once his other half is out of earshot? “No, not at all — it just isn’t an issue,” he says. “All of my friends are creative, slightly hippy ex-raver types anyway. I don’t think it’s ever been brought up. And all the mothers that I speak to at playgroup say that their partners would love to do it too.”
Both Hodson and Dermott agree that the current recession has played a major part in men re-evaluating their lives and the part that their employment plays in it. Dermott notes that during the last recession, at the end of the Eighties, men who stayed at home to raise their children still commonly referred to themselves as unemployed. Somewhat differently, today they proudly call themselves stay-at-home dads. “Jobs and careers are less permanent these days,” Dermott argues, “so men are looking towards those things that are permanent — and that’s being good partners and fathers. It’s just much more acceptable to be a visible father in 2011. Look at pictures of David Cameron with his baby. Look at every sportsman holding a baby. It demonstrates that men are engaged with that aspect of their lives. Indeed, it’s become so ubiquitous over the last couple of decades that we hardly notice it any more.”
This idea of permanence and laying down solid roots was what persuaded 43-year-old father of two Tom to recently give up his successful job in Oxfordshire and relocate to his wife’s native Cumbria. After having their second child, they needed more space and it had long been his wife’s desire to be closer to her family — not least to make full use of the support network that an extended family can provide. “There were monetary considerations, of course — our cash can go a lot further up here — but family was at the heart of it,” he answers. “My dad was never around when I was growing up and I was determined not to repeat that. I used to think that work was the most important thing, but once I’d had a family it was no contest. You can change jobs. Hopefully, you don’t change your family.”
Such equality between the sexes now extends to even that most vexed of domestic chores: housework. While our dad’s generation — and those preceding his, according to stereotypical folklore — wouldn’t have known one end of a feather duster from the other, we are now quite rightly expected to do our fair share (41 per cent of us, apparently). Only six per cent of men said that they weren’t expected to get down on their hands and knees and clean the toilet, while 24 per cent admitted that they were required to do half of the housework.
EVERY SEVEN SECONDS
Wait a minute, though — how does all that scrubbing and scouring chime with our supposed metrosexual ways? Who wants to be cleaning when we could be grooming? Well, it appears that we can have it both ways. Men spend, on average, nearly 33 minutes a day thinking about their personal appearance. Unsurprisingly, this rises to almost 44 minutes for single men.
If that doesn’t sound a lot when you compare it to 177 minutes a day thinking about work or 50 minutes thinking about sport, it’s still more than the time we spend thinking about our dear mums (30 minutes), dads (21 minutes) and politics (nigh on 16 minutes). As for celebrities, that cult would seem to have had its moment in the sun and is now languishing in the corner being thoroughly drenched: men spend only 8.6 minutes a day pondering the latest escapades of Katie Price and chums.
And while we think about our stomachs, perfect or otherwise (the main concern for 29 per cent), or hair (25 per cent), let it be known that rather than trying to make the most of what Him (or, in the spirit of equality, Her) up there gave us so as to please — or snare — a significant other, 54 per cent of men are interested in their personal appearance for themselves only.
Andrew, a 28-year-old advertising executive, finds it surprising that anyone would be shocked to discover that he spends a considerable amount of time thinking about the image he conveys to the world. “Of course I take pride in my appearance,” he says, incredulously. “My job dictates that I have to look smart, but there’s more to it than that. I want to look good. When I look good, I feel good. My dad has always asked my mum what he should wear, and she’s always booked his hair appointments, but I’m interested in fashion and style for fashion and style’s sake.”
He’s also not stunned to learn that men spend the most time thinking about their stomachs. He cites recent health warnings about the dangers of having what his girlfriend calls a “muffin top” as being a factor in this shift, as much as the proliferation of pictures of men with perfectly ripped abs and fully-developed six-packs. “I’m never going to look like Daniel Craig in those trunks,” he jokes (we think). “But that doesn’t mean I don’t put in some time and effort playing five-a-side football and going running. I don’t even think it’s vanity, either — more like common sense.”
As for the elephant in the room, we’ve left sex until last. It’s often said that us knuckle-dragging Neanderthals think about the act of sexual intercourse every seven seconds, which, when you think about it, is almost as much as we breathe. Even Charlie Sheen doesn’t think about it that much. In reality, we think about it, on average, every two hours and 16 minutes. It doesn’t take a great leap of faith to discover that single men think about sex more often than those of us with partners, but even then it’s still only every two hours and five minutes that our minds begin to wander to the bedroom.
Even more pleasingly, we place greater emphasis on our partners getting satisfaction than ourselves. Phillip Hodson thinks he knows why. “Not every man gives joy in bed — some are plain piggy,” he argues. “A few stare deeply into a woman’s eyes only to admire their own reflections. But I’d say that the majority of men strive to provide their partners with the very best of sensual experiences in the hope of being invited back for more.” So what have we learned about the male species? Well, that despite years of reductive column inches, we do know what’s important. By accident or by design, we’ve stumbled upon a simple truism that life is much more pleasurable when it’s governed by choices that we’ve made, rather than had dictated to us. That’s why it’s great to be a man in 2011: we can, within reason, be who we want to be. It’s about time we all acknowledged that.
See more results from the ShortList and head&shoulders ‘What’s On A Man’s Mind’ here
Images: Dan Matthews