Stephen Burrell: a compassionate masculinity


In imitation of the podcast Now and Men, which Dr Stephen Burrell co-hosts with Sandy Ruxton, both of whom are researchers in Durham’s Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRViA), I began my interview with Stephen by asking him about how he became involved in feminism. For sixteen-year-old Stephen learning about feminist theory for the first time in his A-Level Sociology class, feminism provided a framework to understand himself and the world around him. He shared with me, in a level of articulation characteristic of the whole interview, “[g]rowing up as a boy, I didn’t feel like I fitted in with a lot of the expectations about masculinity that I was seeing around me[…]. Feminism really helped me deal with that, and also to become aware of the fact that I was a man in a patriarchal system, and all the privileges that bestowed upon me.” At the same time, Stephen’s family and friends provided an environment through which to explore these feminist ideas, reporting, in particular, that he was fortunate enough to have had several men in his life who have shown him “healthy, caring, [loving], non-violent ways of being a man”. 

Having studied at Aston University as an undergrad, Stephen came to Durham for his PhD in 2019 and attempted to set up a discussion group for men. Called ‘Yes All Men’, the group was created on the premise that “it is so important for men to talk to each other about these things – and support each other with our emotions, and about how we can be allies – in a way that we aren’t taking away from women having these discussions.” Following this, Stephen points out, “men aren’t having these conversations, are they?” even though it is as much for men’s benefit as it is for women. Stephen stresses that “men are suffering, because of these narrow ideas of masculinity.” The lack of engagement from men is the reason ‘Yes All Men’ failed, and, Stephen believes, the biggest barrier to his academic work.

“It is so important for men to talk to each other about these things”

Another barrier – both to engaging men in these discussions, and to his own work – is the feeling of shame men in a patriarchal society feel. For Stephen, it is possible that this shame will never truly go away because, the more we engage with feminism, the more we learn we have to be shameful for. He claims that, even as a man working on promoting feminist discussions, he also experiences this.  Stephen explains, “sometimes it feels like maybe my work gets more attention than some of my colleagues, not because it is any better – quite the opposite – but because by being a man, maybe especially working in this space, we get special attention for our work, and an undue amount of praise, because, you know, ‘oh my god, a man is talking about feminism, that’s fantastic’”. Stephen stresses that everything he is doing now has already been done by women for decades, and, in fact, that he and Ruxton were encouraged to set up the podcast by Professor Nicole Westmarland, the Director of the CRiVA. 

It became apparent that I was guilty of doing exactly that, of celebrating the work of a feminist man over a woman. In fact, as I was writing this article, within a week of International Women’s Day, I became cognisant of the fact that the two people I had interviewed for Palatinate were both men. Even as a feminist, I had failed to champion other women in my pursuit of writing. However, Stephen’s response to being asked how he supports the women in his life mollified any danger of an existential crisis on my part. He reflected, “I don’t want to say that I have all the answers, because none of us are perfect, but maybe that is part of it, realising we’re all going to make mistakes, and we’ve grown up surrounded by patriarchal ideas and norms and ways of being, and that takes a lifetime to unlearn, especially when you’re surrounded by that culture all the time.” Learning about feminism does not suddenly diminish the patriarchal forces acting upon us, which is why, according to Stephen, we must be “constantly and critically reflecting on our behaviour” so to hold ourselves accountable. When I asked Stephen whether pursuing this line of work had made him reflect on his past behaviour, he admitted it had, and pointed out that, “that’s why it can be very uncomfortable, right?”. He encourages men to sit through these feelings of shame and discomfort, to reflect on any defensiveness that may arise, and to use them as motivation to work towards a society in which men not need feel any guilt.

“..we’ve grown up surrounded by patriarchal ideas and norms and ways of being, and that takes a lifetime to unlearn”

Though his passion and sensitivity came through in every aspect of our interview, Stephen really came into his element as our conversation turned to men and the environment, which is where his academic focus currently lies. Addressing how to engage men and boys in a more caring relationship towards the planet on the one hand, and being actively involved in the CRiVA, I asked Stephen how these two things intersect. He told me, “I think something that is really central to how we define masculinity is the idea that men should be separate from other things, we should be independent, we shouldn’t need the help of others, we should be self-reliant and invulnerable.” While this not only underpins “why men are really struggling, in terms of mental health, and loneliness and isolation”, the idea that men are separate from others fuels their capacity to be violent, since, Stephen argues, it is “easier to be violent towards other people and other living things if you do see yourself from being separate from them, and above them.”

Stephen and Sandy Ruxton’s podcast Now and Men is an accessible way to hear men talking about some of the biggest challenges facing men in the twenty-first century, and can be found on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and many other free platforms.

Image: Kristoffer Trolle Via Wikimedia Commons

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