Yesterday I happened upon a review of a Channel 4 Documentary called Safe At Last – ‘Inside a Women’s Refuge’. The review moved me to actually watch the programme last night. It was not an easy watch, to be honest. What got to me most of all was the sheer scale of it all – apparently the national refuge helpline gets over 230 calls every day. It was a real eye-opener, to put it mildly.

It was clear to me that there are no easy solutions. The Guardian review said:

Such a programme shouldn’t be necessary, of course. Fundamentally, because men shouldn’t be isolating, coercing, abusing, beating, strangling, raping and threatening to murder the women they live with. But we know they do, have done and – unless things change in ways greater and more dramatic than perhaps anyone can envision – will continue to do so. Let us accept that as a brutal given.

That abuse happens is a ‘brutal given’. There are no easy answers – but, is there something which could point us in the right direction?

A few weeks ago Gillette launched an advert – ‘the best a man can be’ – which encouraged men to be better when it comes to sexual harassment, i.e. to treat women with respect, and encourage other men to do the same. This resulted in a backlash – which was probably over-the-top, but there was something in it.

I think there is a huge amount of concern at the moment about ‘toxic masculinity’ – the kind of behaviour illuminated by the #MeToo movement, and in the documentary. The problem is, sometimes it seems that all masculinity gets tarred with the same brush. Sometimes the way people discuss it veers close to: “Well, that’s just what men are like… what do you expect from them?” I think you can see that a little bit in the quote above (“Men shouldn’t be…”).

Over the last year or two I’ve seen a number of people say that the solution we really need is more feminism. It seems to me that these two things – toxic masculinity and feminism – are linked. Feminism, in its modern guise, wants to promote women and women’s rights – much of which is to be applauded. But it has little to say positively about masculinity – instead the focus lately is on toxic masculinity. But toxic masculinity – as I understand it – is saying to men “stop it, reign it in, curb your impulses – so you won’t be the monster you really are underneath.” (Interestingly, I don’t think many people have been talking about toxic femininity, although let’s leave that aside for now).

In other words, women are being promoted and lauded, while men are seen as the problem and commanded to do better. Women get a free pass because they are the victims, whereas men are the problem. (I’m sure I’m over-simplifying here, but this is the way it often comes across to me. And I’m certainly not suggesting that women are not victims.)

I think this solution is a recipe for disaster and there are no surprises that it’s not working. Feminism, at least in its modern form, is partly about undermining and eradicating the differences between men and women. ‘What men can do, women can do just as well.’ There is no need for a man to be the breadwinner, there is no need for a man to be the head of the household, etc. The traditional roles of men and women are out of the window.

The problem is, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. There was good which came with a traditional masculine role as well as bad. And what is happening is that many men have seized the opportunity to relinquish responsibility – something I see tragically around here in the number of single mothers. I think a lot of young men now live in a sort of perpetual adolescence – they don’t have the need to grow up by taking responsibility for a family (even if they have children…)

Where are the positive role models for men? Where are the voices telling men not just to stop the bad stuff but positively to take responsibility, be a strong man, care for women and children, etc? This is one reason I think Jordan Peterson is so popular – he’s one of the few people who is saying those kind of things.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years is that you can’t change people simply by telling them to ‘stop it’. You have to give them a better vision, something to aim for. Role models are part of it (surely part of the problem is a growing number of children growing up without fathers). But in general it’s far better to show someone what they should be doing rather than simply telling them what they shouldn’t. Men need to be shown how to be men, rather than told how not to be!

Where does Friend Zone come into all this? So much of the time, I see and read things which just make me think our society is so lost when it comes to men and women. We all agree there is a problem, but no-one really seems to have the foggiest idea what to do about it. We need to re-learn what it means to be men and women, we need to re-learn the goodness of being made male and female.

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

This is a lesson which is hard for our society to hear: it’s not all men’s fault. In fact, part of the problem is a culture which locates the problem primarily with men – some men, at least. We desperately need to recover the Biblical vision for both men and women. And we need a Saviour who is capable of forgiving our failures and restoring in us the image of God which has been marred.

This is where I hope that Friend Zone can play a small part. Over the last few years I’ve come to realise that I don’t simply relate to other people as a person – I relate as a man. I’ve become increasingly aware of the way that sex and gender plays into our relationships. And I’ve also become increasingly amazed at how God has made men and women to complement one another and the joy it can bring when those relationships flourish.

There are deep issues in society, and it may well be the case that abuse is a a tragic ‘brutal fact’ which will always be there to an extent. But perhaps if more men and women can learn to be friends, that would be a small step. And perhaps if we as a society can learn to embrace the realities of the way that God has made us, and encourage men and women to grow into those, it would make a real difference. There are huge challenges – but God is great and there is no end to what he can do.

Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
no deeds can compare with yours.
All the nations you have made
will come and worship before you, Lord;
they will bring glory to your name.
For you are great and do marvellous deeds;
you alone are God.

Psalm 86:8-10