Men, Children and Patriarchy

For a man to work with children, he must acknowledge that he is ‘marked’ and will be subject to far greater scrutiny, suspicion and supervision than would a woman in exactly the same role. Somewhere between men and children there is a line, and for those men who choose to cross it, for whatever reason, their motives will be questioned.

As part of my second year research project I have interviewed a number of men who have made this transition, by volunteering with children through a range of charities and projects. Through discussing their experiences and opinions with them, I have come to suspect that encouraging more males to get involved in volunteer work with children will not be as easy as I at first thought. In the behavioural prohibitions that shackle men to the gender binary, irrespective of the men’s rejection of the hegemonic masculine values, I find a latent control which functions as a conditioning force: the stigmatisation of men who work with children protects and sustains the patriarchal status quo, which posits care to be naturally and implicit feminine. Out of the very real risk of being considered a threat to children, the men in my study have had to condition themselves to go against their caring instincts, in order that their behaviour is not interpreted as sexual.

What must first be noted is that the men who volunteer with children are not your ‘average man’ in society. When asked to define the traits one must display in order to be considered masculine they paint a vivid and familiar image – sexist and racist jokes in the pub, competitiveness, virility, sports. The men who worked with children defined themselves away from that masculinity – they considered themselves not to have many of the values needed to be considered a legitimate ‘man’ in society, and they felt they were not missing out. They prided themselves on the fact that saw themselves as sensitive and caring – working with children posed no ‘threat to masculinity’ as they had already disavowed it.

They love working, playing and interacting with children. Many of the terms they used, such as ‘refreshed’ and ‘life-affirming’ suggested that they felt genuinely rejuvenated by the time they spend interacting with children. It allows them an escape from the stresses of the adult and the student world and they expressed the sense of calm they get from their volunteering work, even when it is, realistically, chaotic, loud and stressful.

However, they also acknowledged that it is not ‘normal’ for a young man to spend his free time playing with children – they mentioned how people thought it was ‘strange’. The word strange was used by most of the men, at some point, to describe how they think they are perceived for what they do. After thinking about it, I now think that ‘strange’, in this context, is one of the most damning stereotypes to be assigned. Strange implies an otherness and a difference, but it does not explicitly imply a valuation of positive or negative. To be seen as strange is to be identified as different, but no reason for this difference needs to be identified. As Goffman wrote, in ‘Stigma’, the man has ‘the sense of not knowing what the others are ‘really’ thinking about him.’

The sense of suspicion was identifed by all of the men. When asked about the public perceptions of men who work with children, in various paths, they each came to mention paedophilia – it is alarming that by spending an hour a week visiting a disadvantaged child, the volunteers leave themselves susceptible to being tarred with one of the most damning blemishes of stigma in our society. The suspcions alluded to invariably fell upon the sexual potentialities of the men.

The men gave examples where they had been shamed, humiliated, for displays of behaviour that were deemed inappropriate (meaning unmanly) – an example was a volunteer who was reprimanded for sitting on the floor when reading to five year olds, and was told it was because whilst on the floor he may be abusing the children. This presumption simply would not occur were it a woman, and it would certainly not be expressed. The effects of this humiliation were twofold – the males felt guilty, as though they actually had done something wrong and also it meant that men began to self moderate, so as not to be thought of as a potential sex offender.

The crux of this self-moderation is that men felt compelled to inhibit their proclivities towards displaying care and affection towards the children – out of the pressure not to incur the watchful gaze, the men are compelled to force a ‘proper distance’ between themselves and the children. The men moderate themselves as though they actually did pose a threat to the children.

Who benefits from the stigmatisation of men who want to work with children? Certainly not those men, who can neither be ‘masculine’ in the sense of hegemonic masculinity (because man = predator = inappropriate) not ‘feminine’ (because feminine = tactility = inappropriate). Instead, they must hover between the two, carefully moderating themselves so as not to incur the stereotype. My own perspective is that this equally is not beneficial for the children, who grow up exposed only to a polarised tableaux of gender identity whereby women are the caring, maternal and sensitive ones and men are distant and awkward.

So who does actually benefit from the stigmatisation? This can only be theorisation (so I welcome the comments of the community) but my own perspective is that the patriarchal system benefits from the stigmatisation of men who dare traverse the binary. By ensuring that ‘man’s work’ is conducted by males and ‘woman’s work’ by females, the patriarchal balance which posits the ‘naturalness’ of gender difference remains firmly in place as the status quo.


  1. Tom

    This situation is highlighted by how difficult it was to find a suitable image for this article. It appears (as far as image search is concerned) that the only time young men ever play with children is when they are on a different continent, or when posing for stock photos.

  2. Jonny Walker

    That’s interesting in itself – one of the participants found it particularly hard to comprehend the stigma as he had been raised in an Asian culture where everybody wanted to play with the children and it was perfectly normal to do so.

    And it’s funny with the picture we now have chosen – it seems somehow more safe for old people to interact and play with children as they are desexualised in the public conscience and are maybe not expected to work in men’s work any more (in retiring from work, they retire from the game of masculinity-formation and it’s constraints) – certainly in comparison to young men. I come from one of those bizarre Northern towns where everybody on the bus talks to eachother and it’s quite common to find old men (and women) chatting and joking with other people’s kids, which the parents are fine about. I would say that having to tune in your hearing aid to chat to kids is more acceptable than having to turn off your iPod.

  3. clementineb

    Very interesting article and absolutely true. Also I think boys who care about children are often thought of as homosexual, as if somehow sexual inclination towards men implied having ‘maternal’ feelings. I did a degree in Education, and very often people automatically inferred that all boys in my course were gay, which was far from the truth.

    In fact, when guys would like to play with children or show affection to them, they often have to hide it by pretending that they find ‘interesting’ the ‘psychological development’ of the child and ‘how they react to stimuli’ even though what they mean is simply that they think babies are cute and want to cuddle them, as anyone would – it’s fairly ‘natural’ to feel protective towards children. It seems perfectly normal for a woman to coo over a baby and say ‘how sweet!’ whereas guys have to justify that as an intellectual activity, saying ‘how interesting’. It’s absurd…

  4. Jonny Walker

    Really thought-provoking points Clementine. It’s incontestible that more homosexual males than average do work with children, but again, I would frame this within the gender roles that are formed along the binary. Homosexuality is widely characterised as an opposition to or a deviation from hegemonic masculinity and for gay males to be open about their sexuality, I think there are pressures to conform to a certain idea of ‘gayness’ that promotes a caring behaviour. This is something I chatted about with the men in my study – I was discussing with one of the gay men the idea of coming out as ‘gay’ being more difficult because of the word itself and the connotations it carries – this is more difficult than stating a sexual preference for men. Mainstream heterosexual culture has attached a baggage of derogatory connotations to homosexuality, both male and female, and so to ‘be gay’ implies many things that some gay males just are not – to the blinkered views of some I know back home, to ‘be gay’ implies a style of dress, a manner of speech, a social group, a radical (heathen) politics, a lack of intelligence – a really corrosive set of traits. I think working with children falls into the ‘remit’ of the homosexual stereotype because of the false conflation between male homosexuality and femininity.

    But it was your point about finding the ‘psychological development of the child’ that really struck a chord with me – scientificising what are normal emotions in order to ‘pass’ as masculine. I do a lot of work with children and I definitely end up framing it within a context of learning from the children. For one thing, I do study Psychology and am genuinely interested in the deveopment of the child, but I do think, looking back, I have probably used this occasionally to excuse myself of the more honest version of events – it’s just really fun to sprint around a field with kids playing frisbee.

  5. clementineb

    About the opposition between ‘it’s interesting’ and ‘it’s cute’ – I think it might linked to the long-standing tradition that men should repress ‘instinctive’ feelings, contrary to women whose ‘female instinct’ is valorised in society (conveniently, because it keeps them away from intellectual activities). Some psychologists assume that babylike features trigger feelings of affection and protection in anyone, whether male or female. But many men choose to repress this natural tendency because it’s socially unacceptable and doesn’t fit with hegemonic masculinity. So they might convert this instinct into intellectual interest because society has taught them to attempt to intellectualise everything. Women, on the other hand, have been encouraged from a very young age to express their feelings, and they don’t see any problem with saying that they feel an instinctive attraction to babies.

    These babylike features include big eyes, a small mouth, roundness, and a small size. What’s quite funny is that even objects that present these babylike features are said to trigger the same kind of feelings. Some cars are even designed ‘for women’ such as the Twingo or the Ford KA: they look like ‘baby cars’. And some men wouldn’t want to be seen dead in a KA, because they see these cars as too kawaii for them…

  6. alim

    Interesting article.
    I work as a teaching assistant, and as one of very few men in a primary school (the others being the caretaker, financial administrator and one teacher). At first reading this article I felt like actually I didn’t identify that much with the stigma from personal experience, and wonder if it is seen as less ‘strange’ to be paid to work with children than for men to do it in their free time?
    However, I definitely have felt the drive towards self-moderating behaviour that might be seen as too affectionate with the children – sometimes feeling slightly uncomfortable when the younger ones come and hug me (despite this being ‘normal’ and acceptable when they hug other teaching assistants).

    I also have enjoyed the younger children (up to age 5 or 6) assigning me different genders (and different ages), a common example is children referring to me as ‘Miss’ – possibly more because they don’t realise that ‘Miss’ is a gendered word, rather than confusion over my gender… Also i overheard one 6-year-old saying to his teacher ‘I have to go and read with that boy now.’

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