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.