My role


Why are men obsessed?

The question we never expected to ask on the MHF website...

Why are men obsessed with their health? Yes, you read that correctly: why are men obsessed with their health? Many health campaigners reading this will be thinking: 'obsessed? I'd settle for them being vaguely aware'. Nevertheless, it was this question that that the organisers chose to debate at the recent Battle of Ideas in London under the heading Playing Balls.

One of the speakers was Jim Pollard, editor of the Forum's websites and his introductory statement is reproduced here. The other speakers have also been asked to contribute before we ask you for your views. You may be surprised at what some people think of what you're doing.

Meanwhile a snap survey on malehealth, the Forum's website for the man in street is asking men themselves whether they think they're obsessed with their health.


Jim PollardWhy are men obsessed with their health? I've got news for you. They're not.

Men live on average five years less than women and there's huge class variation. A man living just down the road in Kensington and Chelsea will live to over 80, the average manual worker won't make 68.

  • Men are three times as likely to commit suicide than women. Suicide is the main cause of death in men under 35.
  • Alcohol and substance abuse is five times more common in men than in women.
  • 1 man in 8 is dependent on alcohol
  • Men are more likely to consume alcohol and consume illegal drugs
  • They are more likely to be overweight/obese
  • Men are more likely to develop or die from cardiovascular disease
  • Men make up 96 per cent of the UK prison population.
  • 3/4 of those male prisoners have 2 or more mental disorders
  • 90% of rough sleepers are men
  • 73% of adults who go missing are men
  • 84% of excluded pupils are boys

Yet for all that, men under 45 are half as likely to go to the doctors as women. Strange sort of obsession.

The question is what to do about these facts. We could just take a 'boys will be boys attitude' or you could think that there's something in there worth thinking about.

I started thinking about it when I had cancer ten years ago and wrote a men's health book based on the experience.

If you look at cancer, men are 20-30% more likely to get cancer than women and 40-50% more likely to die of it. For the ten most common cancers that affect both men and women, men are twice as likely to die as women. They're even more likely to die from the one cancer in the top ten that affects woman more — melanoma.

The Men's Health Forum not interested in bullying or nagging men. It's interested in outcomes and those outcomes as the statistics I've just given you demonstrate are not very good at the moment.

Relatively few of these statistics can be attributed to biology. They're social facts. Surely it is useful for policy-makers to explore the possible reasons for these disparities in the interests of equity. It also makes sense for men to know possible reasons behind all this so they can make their own decisions accordingly.

The MHF tries to improve men's health in two ways — by talking to men directly via malehealth which I edit — that's an educational role — and by persuading policy makes to change health policy — a campaigning or lobbying role.

The Forum been around since 1994 and has learned lessons from women's health campaigning. It is not, for example, in favour of prostate screening or mass testicular examination — two policies that have been mistakenly attributed to it by some other speakers in this debate.

Just to be clear what we do say about testicular cancer: the risk is very small. More men die from breast cancer than testicular cancer. So we're not in favour of screening, testing or encouraging boys to fiddle with their testicles all the time. However, one of the reasons for the very low death rate is that over 90% of cases are successfully treated. Catching it early helps which is why a little testicle awareness is useful.

One of the reasons I was interested in this debate is that there seemed to be an idea around that too much talk about men's health was somehow bad for us and would undermine our masculinity. This struck me as a patronising argument — the same sort of argument that was used in earlier centuries for not educating girls. I wanted to meet a man who felt his masculinity had been compromised by something I'd written or that the MHF had said.

In five years time three out of four men will be overweight. Should we not worry our pretty little heads about these things?

In what way is being aware of this risk a threat to anyone's masculinity?

  • In what way is persuading doctors to stay open outside normal working hours so men can go in more easily a threat to anyone's masculinity?
  • In what way is running a well man clinic or a drop in or walk in service (which have been shown to be more effective with men than appointment services) a threat to anyone's masculinity?
  • In what way is encouraging pharmacists to address men and men to use them a threat to anyone's masculinity?
  • In what way is running a clinic at a pub or workplace or train station from time to time a threat to anyone's masculinity?

I suppose better informed patients could be a threat to a certain old fashioned patriarchal form of masculinity. The educated and aware patient is a challenge to the hierarchical 'doctor knows best' medical model

Hospitals organised on a traditional patriarchal model with daddy doctor and mummy nurse. With aware patients you have patients now who don't want to play the children. They see themselves as adults. The only person whose sense of his own masculinity might be at threat then is the male doctor who doesn't like male patients challenging him with difficult questions.

I'm opposed to one size fits all health care. So's the MHF and now thanks to the Equality Act 2006 is the government. There is now an obligation on public bodies including the NHS to meet needs of both genders. Not by asking men to be more like women in the way they access health services but by allowing men to be more like men. No threat to masculinity there.

But I'm also opposed to one size fits all masculinity. A certain sort of masculinity about being strong, silent and doing your duty has long been encouraged in working-class men by their so-called betters — also men. Men are demanding something a little more imaginative now.

I'm interested in men's health awareness not obsession. I'd take a ticket to see Spurs play football over a digital rectal examination every time. The point is that if they knew what a digital rectal examination was most Arsenal supporters would choose to go and see Spurs too.

Now there are probably some men here who don't get that joke. You have to be interested in football to get it. But I don't consider you any less masculine for not laughing. Similarly the fact that I do know what a digital rectal examination is doesn't make me any less of a man, it just makes me a little better prepared for the day when a doctor tells me I need one.


The Battle of Ideas is run by the Institute of Ideas which emerged from Living Marxism magazine, the journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Page created on November 2nd, 2006

Page updated on December 1st, 2009