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Men and Masculinities
Mental Health

Men’s loneliness is a feminist issue in Men Without Men

In many Western nations, recent data show that men are reporting higher rates of loneliness and isolation than ever before recorded. In the United States, 1 out of 4 men have zero close friendships in their lives, while in the United Kingdom, this rate is 1 out of 3. At a recent Clayman Institute talk to the Faculty Research Fellows, Postdoctoral Fellow Angelica Ferrara discussed her forthcoming book, Men Without Men, which examines the state of men’s friendships and men’s loneliness from a feminist perspective.

Ferrara, a developmental feminist psychologist by training, has long been interested in tracking the ways that patriarchy imbues itself into our everyday lives and notions of self. As a doctoral student at New York University, Ferrara studied the development of feminized and masculinized speech patterns in adolescents. In her research, Ferrara found that girls who had previously described their thoughts and feelings clearly would start to become emotionally inarticulate around the ages of 13 and 14, adopting instead what Ferrara calls a “feminine language of feigning not-thinking” (using phrases like “I don’t know” and “I guess”). Ferrara observed a commensurate process occurring in boys, who, as they got older, would refrain from discussing their emotions through the employ of what Ferrara calls a “masculine language of feigning not-feeling” (using phrases like “I don’t care” and “whatever”). By tracking how these feminized and masculinized phrases become infused into language over time, Ferrara’s dissertation developed a model that predicts depression and quality of friendship in youth based on their use of such language.

After completing her PhD, Ferrara revisited her research transcripts to attend to the shifting ways in which her male interview subjects spoke about their male friendships. Whereas they had previously spoken at great length about the importance of these friendships in their lives, Ferrara observed, along with her mentor Niobe Way, that as the boys got older, they began concealing and downplaying the significance of their friendships. These interviews formed the basis for Ferrara’s current book project, Men Without Men, in which she considers how and why such loss occurs in male friendships and how male desires for close, emotional friendship persist with age.

In Men Without Men, Ferrara frames men’s isolation as a product and project of patriarchy, arguing that the very qualities that patriarchal masculinity emphasizes are at odds with the things men most need to thrive. Patriarchal virtues of stereotypic masculinity – like hyper-independence, stoicism, strength, control, and rationality – inhibit the forming of friendships between men. Consequently, this manifests into severe forms of social isolation, which result in increased suicide risk, depression, stress-related death, and (for men specifically) increased rates of domestic violence and incarceration. Ferrara argues that the impact of men’s loneliness also falls on wives, girlfriends, and mothers in the form of expanded emotional and intimate labor. Ferrara’s preliminary research implies that women can often take on the roles of therapist, event planner, social concierge, and best friend for the socially isolated men in their lives. Yet many men and boys resist this pattern of isolation and paint a new vision for what types of relationships might be possible among straight men, and Ferrara will be visiting then as her book develops.

In Men Without Men, Ferrara frames men’s isolation as a product and project of patriarchy, arguing that the very qualities that patriarchal masculinity emphasizes are at odds with the things men most need to thrive.

Men Without Men makes a timely contribution to what is an increasing media interest in the state of men’s friendships. However, such media coverage circulates what Ferrara identifies to be a sort of “moral panic” about the state of men’s friendships and relies upon false, gender essentialist notions (such as men being more solitary creatures by nature) to prescribe inadequate, shallow solutions. Such notions of men’s friendships are based in the same patriarchal virtues of masculinity that prevent men from being able to meet their social needs in the first place.

Alternatively, Men Without Men asserts otherwise by taking as its premise the following core points: all people require meaningful, close friendships to sustain their emotional and mental well-being; men hold an innate capacity for emotional intimacy which they exhibit clearly in boyhood; men’s desires for emotionally intimate friendships with other men endure with age, across culture, and throughout history; and finally, men’s friendships are a feminist issue.

On this final point, Ferrara takes guidance from the work of bell hooks, who advised: “It is a fiction of false feminism that we women can find our power in a world without men, in a world where we deny our connections to men. We claim our power fully only when we can speak the truth that we need men in our lives, that men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not, that we need men to challenge patriarchy, that we need men to change.” In Men Without Men, Ferrara takes up such feminist work by conceptualizing friendships as a critical site where feminist skills are built. Friendships are “the most robust space where we learn critical emotional development skills like reciprocity, how to listen, how to express solidarity with someone else, how to show care,” she told the audience.  By focusing on the healing of men’s friendships, Ferrara envisions Men Without Men to contribute to a politics of hope about men. Through its focus on friendships, Men Without Men, shows us how such change is made possible through the intimacies we practice in our daily lives.