"I wish I’d come to terms with pain and heartbreak so much earlier than I did": Jordan Stephens on tackling toxic masculinity
|I’m part of a generation that is having to break inherited cycles. And it’s really difficult.”
Jordan Stephens isn’t perfect – he’ll be the first to tell you that. He hasn’t always treated his girlfriends as well as they deserved and he’s been known to use unhealthy methods to plaster over his pain. But over the last few years he’s been working on himself, challenging his inherited toxic masculinity, trying to do better.
In October 2017, The Guardian published an article he wrote entitled ‘Toxic masculinity is everywhere. It’s up to us men to fix this’ and, since then, Jordan’s been following his own advice. The last year has seen his anti-stigma mental health campaign #IAMWHOLE campaign gather momentum. Through it he launched the inaugural Music 4 Mental Health concert, a massive fundraising event held at the Roundhouse which featured performances from Ed Sheeran, Anne-Marie, Nothing But Thieves Professor Green and Hussain Manawa, as well as a podcast, WHOLE TRUTH, which has seen him talk with the likes of Matt Haig, Miquita Oliver and Scoobius Pip about their mental health journeys.
Jordan knows he doesn’t have all the answers, but through WHOLE he’s asking the right questions. Ahead of his appearance at Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre this Friday, I got in touch with Jordan to have find out how he’s created this community, and what we can all do to encourage connection.
Hi Jordan! So, what does toxic masculinity look like to you at its core?
I use the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ to describe certain patterns of behaviour that are encouraged by certain parts of our society, many of which are a result of a lack of guidance from the men around us. To me, hyper-masculinity, or toxic masculinity, describes an overabundance of attributes that we might view usually as “masculine”. These kinds of attributes are essential in moderation – masculinity is such a powerful, important energy – but lots of the most iconic, inspiring people have a balance of stereotypically masculine and feminine energy. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
When we’re talking about an overabundance of masculine energy, that can be along the lines of hyper-stoicism – that really underpins everything I speak about – to over-competitiveness. Achievements over connection, over-confidence over competence. That’s what I want to look at. There’s also this continual unconscious misogyny and homophobia which is very much still about – you know, I grew up with kids being called ‘gay’, and the phrase ‘suck my dick’ is still held up as the worst possible insult in certain masculine contexts. I think that in itself points to the fragility of the male experience, which is something that isn’t being dealt with by enough men in our society.
Absolutely, and I guess it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy amongst groups of people who believe that this kind of masculinity is serving them well, who don’t see it as a problem.
Yeah, there are definitely a lot of men out there who see the rise in outspoken feminine energy over the last few years and don’t know what to do with it, who feel threatened by it. Masculinity and femininity aren’t necessarily gender specific, but men bear the weight of the responsibility to learn and change and teach their children how to do better. I’ve done lots of feminist panels and talks but what’s funny is that the men who I want to be there to hear the talk are often not the ones who turn up. So I’m trying to keep my awareness more towards the average man, as opposed to the understanding feminist, if that makes sense?
Yeah absolutely, and its not an easy thing to make happen. That’s why events like Music 4 Mental Health are such a great idea - the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ might be divisive to some, but nothing brings people together like a concert.
Exactly. For me music has always been a means of escape. I was in a situation as a teenager that I felt I wanted to get out of, socially, financially, the whole thing. The feeling you get when you hear an amazing piece of music is second to none, but it’s all about that balance. Music is a weird, magic force that’s totally undeniable. As a force for change it’s amazing – there’s nothing more powerful.
What do you think can be done to break down those barriers on a more individual level?
There are a couple of steps I think. A really important one for me is to encourage men more widely to start championing other men who are breaking down the hyper-masculine norm. I met a guy recently who you might think by looking at him ascribes to the hyper-masculine way of thinking, big, muscly very confident, good looking boy, and I was hearing stories about how this person sends voice notes to all of his friends telling them how much he loves them and how proud he is of them, telling them to have a good day. I find a little story like that so inspiring – I want to hear more about those men who open up like that because I don’t think they get the recognition they deserve. You know – the friends, the dads who are working to understand the vulnerability of their children, what they need emotionally, finding a balance of respect and emotional responsibility. I’m part of a generation that is having to break inherited cycles. And it’s really difficult.
Yeah, I’m really inspired by what you’re doing because I absolutely do recognise that confronting your own unhealthy patterns is hard work and you’re being really proactive in doing so. Was there a specific moment that inspired you to take control of the situation like this within your own life?
It was a break up. It’s that simple really. I’d destroyed every intimate relationship I’d been in. I would just implode, break my own heart and the girls’ heart. I wasn’t happy with it, and so I just tried to sit in the pain rather than be destructive. I’d taken that path – of getting mashed up to forget it – a lot of times before, and it was even suggested to me by grown men as a way of coping with the pain. But that time I sat in it, and that’s when I wrote the Guardian article. That’s what started it for me. I suppose I’ve always been interested in mental health as well, and I was brought up by a very strong woman so I think that’s informed my personality in a lot of ways. From a really young age I’ve always questioned everything, and that includes questioning why there are such rigid ideas of what makes a guy a guy.
How could a boy or man who’s struggling with those rigid ideas use your organisation WHOLE to find practical help?
On a practical level, going on to social media and searching the hashtag #IAMWHOLE will bring you to a community of people who are talking together. The podcast, WHOLE TRUTH, is also great because it’s full of all kinds of people being outspoken about their mental health. They’re places people can go to feel less alone.
And finally, what advice would you give to a young person struggling with the enormity of their emotions?
Don’t be scared of pain. I wish I’d come to terms with pain and heartbreak so much earlier than I did. In my experience, boys feel that kind of pain early and intensely, and it can be really scary. But the fact that you’re in it, feeling it, can only mean you’re getting stronger. There are things that have happened even in the last year which might previously have absolutely torn me apart, but which I now allow myself to feel and let go of a lot more quickly. It’s not easy, but it’s a healthier process. If we could all work on that process, we might not feel so reactive.