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Conscious Men: Book Review

Okay, before I start this review, let me be upfront about the fact that I didn't do my homework ahead of time so perhaps my perspective started out a bit biased due to my expectations. I was expecting to love this book and hoping it would be just the thing to share with many of my male clients.

If there is one thing I have come to see with more and more clarity over time through both life, and my work as a therapist, its that conventional gender stereotypes are destructive to us all.  I used to think it was only women and gay men who suffered because of them, but really they do no one any good.  They lead to power imbalances and financial inequalities, relationship problems, violence, sexual dysfunction, shame, and stigma. I was raised to highly value gender equality and social justice but over time I have begun to see the current state of things in this area as worse than I once did.  Its not that things have necessarily gotten worse for women - although I would argue, in fact, that in some ways they have - but that I have become more aware of it.  If that's because I am now the mother of 2 girls, I am simply more mature, or because I see it play out in the lives of my clients, I don't know for sure.

In any case, my tolerance for misogyny and gender inequalities is zero.  I've said it before and I will say it again, don't call me a fucking LADY! I hate that word. I am a woman, thanks. I also hate how many parents - even relatively enlightened ones - treat their sons so differently than their daughters.  Girls are snuggled and called 'sweetheart' while boys are always 'buddy' and punched on the arm. It makes me want to hurl.  Even worse, is how people refer to boy babies as 'little man' almost right away as if it is necessary to instill in boys the idea that you have to develop the qualities as soon as possible that make you a 'real man.'  They are not little men, they are babies, just as girl babies are not actually little women! These things may seem trivial to you, but believe me, I see how even little things like this shape our thinking and behaviour about gender everyday! There are still so many double standards that exist it makes me nauseated and all these little things contribute to the overall perspectives we have on what it means to be a man or woman.  Frankly though, this has to change, and hopefully soon, now that we've brought the issue of trans folks into the spotlight.  Male and female are not discrete categories!

So how do traditional gender stereotypes hurt men? Well first, any man who deviates from these established norms often feels shame and if his differences are visible, there is often bullying and/or social exclusion.  Second, because masculinity is associated with strength, men are particularly reluctant to seek out help when they need it - which is seen as weakness - and, when it comes to mental health issues, they end up externalizing their feelings through violence, drugs and/or alcohol.

I could rant about this stuff for hours, but I'll spare you.  Well, only sort of, because I have a lot of ranting to do about this book: Conscious Men.  To be honest, based on the title, I thought it would be a self-help book for men to develop a more enlightened perspective on gender, and I think that's what the authors intend.  Perhaps I would have known I wouldn't agree with their perspective if I'd researched co-author, John Gray's famous book Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus.  Of course, I heard about it plenty, but never read it nor really looked into what the generally argument of the book is...probably because when it came out in 1992, I was not reading self-help or psychology books, I was in .  From the reviews I read, he does actually discuss some things in that book I agree with, but seems to think these things are immutable in men and women.  So its not surprising that the biggest criticism of the book is that it stereotypes men and women.  Frankly, this book does too. Big time!

I do applaud them for admitting their perspective applies only to straight men because the two authors, John Gray, and Arjuna Ardagh, are straight.  Basically, these guys provide various arguments in each chapter, which are also sprinkled with essays written by various men who write or work in the area of men's wellbeing.  Its actually some of these dudes who really had interesting things to say!

My first major criticism is that there is no research.  The entire thing is based on their own personal and professional experiences.  There is not one single reference or a bibliography. They do refer to a 2002 study (you can read the summary here) noting that genetic variations are associated with the different ways males and females tend to respond to stress. Women tend to seek out social support while men withdraw.  This is definitely a pattern I see among straight couples sometimes.  But not all the time!

Each issue they bring us as a barrier to being a "Conscious Man" is followed by examples and suggestions for overcoming them.  This is a strength of the book as it doesn't just describe the problem, it tries to provide solutions.

The book also has a section in each chapter for how a man's 'woman' can help him reach his potential as a 'conscious man.' (this type of language I find gross...I don't think of Adam as my man, and he
doesn't see me as his woman.  We are partners and the fact that we are a man and a woman is not of primary me it sounds very proprietary, which is obnoxious). 

They recommend women be very clear and direct with their needs and wishes and, yes, I agree, this is very important.  Women relate to each other with a lot of subtle cues and subtext, but men, less so.  Men usually are more literal and expect others to be this way too.  But in actual fact, its helpful for everyone to be clear with your communication, regardless of gender!

When disagreeing with his woman, the authors recommend the conscious man let go of having to be right.  This is good advice, but again, I would say it applies universally. 

This statement directed at women makes me ill:

"A man who talks a lot about his feelings, cries with you, or wants to process feelings with you, may feel really good to you: intimate, close, and safe. But we want to tell you that in our experience, such a man quickly becomes less attractive to a woman once she gets to know him."

While they do admit a man who does not emote at all is likely to be cold and lack empathy no matter how close you get, this statement is ridiculous.  Are there some women who may be turned off by an emotional man? Sure, but to generalize is absurd!

Later on they argue that if a man learns to feel, he risks becoming dominated and wishy-washy. WTF?

If you ask me, on the topic of physical violence, they are a little too gentle, explaining to men the physiological basis of anger and violence and then giving them alternatives: Growling, hitting a cushion or punching bag.  Um, okay I guess, but most physically violent men will need more than this book and a cushion, they'll need therapy!

At the very least, they recommend that women in abusive relationships get help.  Hallelujah!

Another thing that makes me seethe is their section on standing by your bro (i.e. bromances).  Dudes have to hang out with other dudes, because if you spend too much time with your woman, you'll become estrogen dominant.  Seriously?

I can acknowledge these guys have good intentions and they do attempt to explain why men should appreciate 'the feminine' and sort of encourage men to get in touch with their feminine side (but not too much!). But there are still far too many stereotypes and unsubstantiated claims in this book for me to really see it as having much merit.

The authors claim that how a man's mother treated him will affect his 'masculinity', how he responds to stress and how he relates to women. Sure, but the same is true of one's father or whomever one's caregivers were.  Any child that is abused or neglected or rejected is at risk of developing emotional issues but you can't blame moms for everything!

The general tone of the book is plebeian, which I suppose is appropriate since the only people will get anything out of this book are those currently living in caves.

So do I recommend this book? Only if you are a complete Neanderthal in which case these ideas may actually seem enlightened to you and there are a few bits here and there (like recommending you let go of homophobia, etc.) that could actually make you a better person. Otherwise, this is one for the recycle bin.

Disclosure: I was sent this book to review but all opinions on this blog are my own.


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