Can Men Ask For Safe Space?

In my circles, it’s commonplace for women to express greater comfort around other women. Is it socially acceptable for a man to say he’s more comfortable around other men?

In class recently, we watched a video of a group counseling session. At one point, a male group member said he had difficulty trusting the group. When pushed by the facilitator, he noted that he had an easier time trusting men than women. This particular group had three or four male participants and ten or so female participants. In context, he was saying he found it easier to be emotionally vulnerable with men. I have noticed that many people feel more comfortable discussing personal, upsetting matters with others of a certain gender.

During the discussion, one woman in my class made a dismissive remark about that moment in the video. Basically, she made a joke to the effect that she felt uncomfortable when he said that, that perhaps he disliked women, and that she would have wanted some distance from him. Another woman chimed in along the same lines. They shared a laugh.

These comments got under my skin. As a man, I am used to women saying they prefer the company of other women sometimes. I completely accept it. Many women have had bad experiences with men, while others just feel another woman will be more likely to understand them. At the crisis hotline where I volunteer, I don’t work a single shift without a woman calling and asking to be transferred to a female volunteer. It doesn’t offend or upset me in the least–I know it has nothing to do with me.

I acknowledge that because of the very different social positions of men and women, female-only space and male-only space are not the same. To take just one important example, women are much more likely to have experienced violence from a man than the other way around.

Still, in a mental health context, it is imperative that we take individuals’ unique needs seriously. The fact that men and women have different experiences on average means nothing about the needs and experiences of a specific person. Men are less likely to receive mental health treatment; I attribute this to a masculine imperative around not asking for help. If an all-male environment makes it easier for some men to do this difficult work, I think we should encourage it.

It really bothered my that my classmate inferred that the man in the video disliked or disrespected women. What he said was that he found it more difficult to trust women. Note that he didn’t say, for example, he found it difficult to trust women with important responsibilities. He said he found it difficult to trust women he’d just met with his emotions and struggles.

I can relate. When I was in counseling recently, I asked for a male counselor, because I knew I’d feel more at ease. The only time I have been in group counseling, it was a group reserved for trans men. I love women, I respect women, I have wonderful close relationships with women, and I am an ardent feminist. But when it comes to the rather odd situation of sharing my personal struggles with someone I just met, I feel more comfortable with other guys. It’s easier to speak frankly about private and difficult topics. It’s easier to share challenging emotions. I feel less need to downplay bad things, to use inoffensive language, to look like a strong, tough dude.

“Safe space” is a concept we usually reserve for an oppressed group. While the gender system does privilege men over women, it’s not a simple case of one class of people unilaterally oppressing another. The gender system does profound, specific violence to men as men. Emotions and intimacy are huge, crucial areas where gender norms harm men. This happens in ways most women probably don’t understand.

So I think that, in mental health services, men should be able to ask for safe space. Maybe, just maybe, it will make men more willing to seek help and more able to really use it when they get it. These spaces harm no one and might really help some.

The appropriate response for women who hear men express these preferences–especially women who are aspiring mental health professionals–is not derision or laughter. It’s not taking it personally or as some kind of larger comment about women. The appropriate response is compassion.

Advertisements

3 comments

  1. Grace Annam

    I agree. Certain groups of men should have access to men-only spaces.

    “Safe space” is a concept we usually reserve for an oppressed group. While the gender system does privilege men over women, it’s not a simple case of one class of people unilaterally oppressing another. The gender system does profound, specific violence to men as men. Emotions and intimacy are huge, crucial areas where gender norms harm men. This happens in ways most women probably don’t understand.

    Men, as a class and without qualification, are clearly not an oppressed group. However, that doesn’t meant they don’t sustain damage. They sustain less damage, on the whole, and different damage, but it’s still damage.

    People who have experienced trauma and who need help with it, on the other hand, are an oppressed group. By definition they can’t go it alone, and in a culture which venerates self-sufficiency and independence, people who need help get re-traumatized in myriad ways, small and large.

    When men need help dealing with trauma, of course they should have the best possible environment to get that help, and sometimes that means a place in which, for a limited time and space, they have the privilege of being able to air and share their own perspective and their own injuries without the judgement, spoken or implicit, of people who don’t share those experiences.

    The problem, of course, is that some men’s spaces have been used historically, and are used currently, to maintain power structures which deny women equal access to economic opportunity. In a world where success often depends on whom you know, and how relaxed you are when you know them, men’s clubs, for instance, serve to systematically privilege men over women.

    Clearly, there is a line somewhere between male-only support groups in a mental health context and male-only middle-to-upper-class exercise clubs. I think “in a mental health context” is a pretty safe place to draw that line. When evidence surfaces that men have been networking their business opportunities in that context, then we would need to re-evaluate.

    Grace

    • rimonim

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Grace! I agree–there is a history of male-only spaces as a tool for consolidating power, and that’s a problem. All-male therapy groups should not be part of that pattern. The only thing I would add is that when there are male-only spaces in a mental health context, the men are often people who would never have been welcome in those “good old boys” spaces, anyway. Group counseling is more affordable than individual counseling, and is often used with court-mandated clients. So oftentimes the men in such men’s groups are going to be low income, of color, and in some contact with the criminal justice system. Not the kind of people the country club would even hire, let alone welcome as members.

  2. Pingback: Sunday links, 3/23/14 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s