Readers might be aware that there are a number of areas when men compare poorly with women in terms of disease prevalence and outcomes, rates of suicide, and overall life expectancy. I talk about some of these factors in my earlier post on men’s health.
Many factors contribute to this situation including aspects of male physiology, a propensity towards greater risk-taking in leisure pursuits, and working longer hours – sometimes in more dangerous occupations. Other individual factors include things like attention to diet and exercise, and receptiveness to seeking/receiving medical treatment.
Let’s try to split all the factors contributing to men’s poorer health outcomes into two groups, comprising those things that individual men can exercise significant control over versus those things that they can’t.
At the outset we must recognise that there is clearly a huge range of individual variation within male and female populations in relation to these factors with further variables like degree of education, income level, and age for example. Thus there are limits as to the extent that we can make meaningful generalisations about “all men” or “all women”. Further, in the case of some factors over which one might think people do have control, the extent to which an individual actually can exercise personal choice, is very limited in some cases. An example of this would be a poorly educated man choosing to engage in a risky occupation to support his family.
So what of the factors that most individuals don’t have any control over? Well one that springs to mind are decisions made by governments, health agencies and drug companies (for example), that determine funding priorities/subsidies/etc for medical research and treatment. To give an example, the fact that the death rate from prostate cancer is higher than for breast cancer might be more indicative of the disproportionately greater funding for breast cancer research and treatment than the extent to which men “take their health seriously“.
And yet despite the above, all too often the focus of campaigns and articles about men’s health seems to be an implied or overt suggestion that men’s health problems are of their own making – that if men weren’t so silly/lazy then everything and everyone would be better off.
For now I’ll just mention a few examples, with more perhaps to be added later.
I came across this article about a men’s health campaign fronted by well-known actor Samuel L Jackson. Jackson was visiting the UK to promote a new male cancer campaign called ‘One For The Boys’ that hopes to “change male mentality”. Apparently men in the UK are 60% more likely to get the cancers that affect all sexes and 70% more likely to die from these cancers.
The campaign is based on the premise that the higher incidence of cancer in men is caused by men neglecting their health. “If only men would only stop being so dumb and talk about our health then we’d stop dying from cancer in greater numbers.”
The author of the article disputes both the validity and appropriateness of this message, claiming that a major reason for the different rates of cancer between men and women is greater expenditure of research and treatment in relation to women’s health.
The author would prefer a more positive message for men, and suggests something more along the following lines:
“Listen brother, every man’s and woman’s life is precious so why are we putting less time, energy and money into fighting cancer in men? It doesn’t make sense to me. Is it any wonder that more men than women are dying of cancer every single day? Are you okay with that? I’m not. So here’s what we’re going to do. Us men, all of us, we’re going to get together and make sure we start putting more time, energy and money into fighting male cancer, cos that’s the only way we’re going to beat this goddam, mother***ing disease. So who’s with me? Are you with me brother? Are you with me?”
The author closes with: “Now that’s the kind of good man narrative that I’d be happy to be part of, and it could apply to any of the issues that men and boys face.”
Fast forward to February 2015 and Ice-T has established the Male Awareness Foundation (MAF), which appears to be in a similar vein. MAF is described as a non-profit organization whose mission is to reach men and boys where they live, work, play, and pray with sickness prevention messages and tools, screening programs, educational material, advocacy opportunities, and patient referrals.
Now the following media story may appear relatively benign, and the research was no doubt well-meaning, but male-shaming remains nonetheless quite apparent. On 6 October 2014 an item appeared on the television news entitled ‘Men at risk of mental health problems‘.
I subsequently wrote to the Australian HQ of the ‘Movember’ organisation to query whether the ‘problem is that men don’t take their health seriously’ angle for the story originated with them or whether the media created this angle of their own volition. I received the following reply the next morning: