When Stag Dos Go Wrong: Excuses for Toxic Masculinity in the Observer

This morning, a friend of mine drew my attention to an article in the Observer, in the Men’s Health section, promisingly titled ‘When Stag Nights Go Wrong‘. ‘Is it just me,’ she asked, ‘or is there a glaring omission in the list of things that can go wrong on stag dos?’ Why yes, Wendy, there is. Wendy (for twas she) gave me permission to exercise my irritations (which I suspect chime with hers) on this blog, and so I shall.

The article begins with a sad story. In 2016, a young British man on a stag do in Ibiza died, in police custody, after a plastic truncheon was pushed into his neck, asphyxiating him. The cocaine and ecstasy that prompted him to jump, ‘frightening and hallucinating,’ from his hotel balcony and into the street where the police apprehended him, contributed to the asphyxiation. Horrific, and as the author of the article, Sirin Kale, sympathetically observes, made more horrific by the fact that many people seem to have dismissed the evidence of police brutality precisely because this was a young man, on drugs, on a stag-do.

An alarming number of young men die on such trips, Kale continues, for reasons ranging from alcohol poisoning to drink or drug-fuelled accidents, to, erm, completely unrelated and unforeseeable events such as heart attacks. I have to say, if I were the sister of a man who’d had the bad luck to die of a heart attack, I’m not sure how I’d feel about his death being lumped together with the story of a group of young men who thought it was really funny to stand around a telegraph pole chanting to egg on the groom-to-be to climb 30 feet into the air while pissed out of his mind.

But what’s really irritating about this article is the way it attempts, with pseudo-anthropological bullshit, to justify these stupid exhibitions of toxic masculinity. The language is cod-military, halfway to presenting the various men interviewed in the piece as role models. Kit is described as a ‘veteran’ of more than 20 stag dos, as if we might expect him to appear in combat fatigues and just back from Vietnam. We’re required to ask ‘tough questions’ about the meaning of life and death (but all the while, ‘sipping’ drinks and maintaining a manly display of humour in the face of peril). We end on the sort of high note that practically causes the credits to roll in front of a panoramic sunset: the bereaved Stag whose best man’s death was described at the beginning of the article declares his new stupid hobby: racing moterbikes. “I don’t even know why,” he explains, with oh-so macho inarticulacy, “People say it’s stupid, but life is short.”

Lest you think the article is all about glamorising the behaviour it purports to worry about, be reassured there is a sociological angle to explain it all. Dr Thomas Thurnell-Read is wheeled out from his position as lecturer in cultural sociology at Loughbrough University. The stag do is a ritual, witnessing the momentous change from unmarried man to married man, and “The cultural urge to mark that transition causes all the hedonistic and ostentatious behaviour you see on stag weekends.”

Of course it does. The ‘cultural urge,’ that is. Not the men themselves. Indeed, there’s plenty more mansplaining where that came from. It’s quite clear, from the article, that the stag dos we’re talking about involve, at the very least, the sort of antisocial behaviour that is an almighty pain in the neck to everyone else in the vicinity. Oddly, drugs and alcohol are mentioned in a casual tone that suggests they’re merely to be expected (“Obviously, he was under the influence of alcohol quite heavily, as anyone would be on a stag do”). But one thing is conspicuous in its absence from the article. There’s almost no mention of women. Not the brides (for whom, presumably, these men go through with the whole thing in the first place – unless, it’s hinted, male bonding is actually rather more important than a mere chick in a white dress). Nor (god forbid) any other women. That wouldn’t be part of the bro code, you see, to describe what Dave and Jonty paid for in the strip club, or gangbanged in the hotel, or catcalled in the street, or just were fucking rude to in the pub while she brought them drinks – because it’s women, often, who’re employed in what we’ll euphemistically call the ‘service industries’ that populate the sorts of places where pissed-out-of-your-skull stag dos happen.

Women aside, then, the justification for all of this behaviour has to be found. It wouldn’t be right, clearly, to suggest that there are hoards of young men travelling to foreign countries to do drugs, get pissed, and cause criminal damage, unless there were a reason. That, the article suggests, might be ‘victim-blaming’. You know, that trendy thing that the women keep claiming in relation to something called rape. It’s probably totes appropriate to excuse what’s going on here, too.

What’s also appropriate, it seems, is a line of argument one can imagine swelling the hearts and biceps of the most gormless MRA-in-training ever. ‘Many cultures,’ we are told reassuringly, ‘have rituals by which boys become men. In Brazil, male initiates to the Sateré-Mawé tribe plunge their arms into gloves full of stinging bullet ants. Afterwards, they are welcomed by the tribe, as men.’

So too, Steve from Leicester has drunk 16 tequila shots and paid 300 euros for a Polish prostitute to go down on him in his hotel room, and now he, too, is a real man.

The racist imagery of ‘tribal’ culture – so much more purely masculine, so much more primal – is pretty popular with stag dos, so far as I have seen. I’m trying to imagine a parallel article on the subject of the increasing incidence of brides plumping for pre-wedding labiaplasty: Like the women of Somalia, Brits are expected to demonstrate their femininity through a complicated and often costly ritual. Sarah is having her mons pubis surgically reshaped, just as Somali twelve-year-olds undergo infibulation in a remote desert location [I’d write, in a backgroom in their parents’ suburban house right here in the UK, but that doesn’t have the same ring, does it?]. After, they are welcomed into the tribe as women. Can’t see it on the Entertainment pages? No, nor me.

Before the Owen Jones disciples of this world start shouting that FGM is a distasteful example and women are their own worst enemies – that’s the point. What the article completely ignores is the fact that there’s a fundamental asymmetry in the practices we ascribe to ‘masculinity’ and to ‘femininity’. What these men are doing on stag dos (both what the article stresses, such as drink and drugs, and what it delicately omits even to suggest) is not happening in isolation. It’s part of a wider culture of toxic masculinity, where we’re supposed to celebrate the acts of vandalism the article passes off as ‘laddish behaviour,’ because damaging things is the mark of a real, true man.

Reading this article, in its section on Men’s Health, I couldn’t help thinking of the self-centred apologetics of men like Tim Lott, or indeed our own Owen Jones. For them, masculinity is an intensely fragile identity, constantly embattled by the modern world. Men do suffer from toxic masculinity, of course. Indeed, most violence against men is carried out by other men. But there’s a particular type of man who claims as issues of ‘men’s health’ practices that are, patently, also or primarily damaging to other people who are not the nice, privileged, British men in question. Analyses of toxic masculinity have become very popular, because they have become a way to concentrate on the manifold sufferings of men, without ever identifying the wider structures of harm in which those men perpetuate violence even as they suffer from it.