The Male Room: Samira Ahmed quizzes Olly Mann on the politics of gender

No stone is left unturned in this candid discussion about “manginas”, sex toys and patriarchy

Olly Mann and Samira Ahmed (RT shoot Gary Moyes, EH)

A lot has happened since the first series of The Male Room – Radio 4’s male equivalent of Woman’s Hour – aired 14 months ago. The Harvey Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, the BBC equal pay row, and, the day after Male Room presenter Olly Mann and I meet, the Presidents Club scandal erupts. Whamagt timing.

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Mann’s warm charm works wells at 11.30 at night. At 36, married with a two-year-old son, the experienced broadcaster/podcaster is the right age to relate to 20-somethings and be trusted by older men with different attitudes. Olly Mann, I realise, is a man whisperer.

Most feedback, including from women, has been supportive. But a self-deprecating moment on the last series came when Mann read out some of the trolling that had come in from what he calls “the male advocate” lobby. “I hadn’t heard the word ‘mangina’ before,” recalls Mann. “It’s like ‘snowflake’, which is used by a certain proportion of the male lobby to suggest you’re not really a man.”

There’s the first challenge, I suggest. If the show is supposed to represent real men’s views, does The Male Room – with its discussions of anxiety and inadequacy – risk conforming to the liberal Radio 4 middle-class bubble? Should it put more of that male anger on air?

“What we have to do is talk about the causes of it. I think the first series did shine a light on why some men don’t feel there’s a space to talk about, say, paternal rights. People who’ve come out badly in a divorce and get angry. So rather than just saying, ‘Come on and be angry,’ I think it’s right to ask, ‘Why are you feeling like that?’”

Olly Mann and Samira Ahmed (RT shoot Gary Moyes, EH)
Olly Mann and Samira Ahmed (Radio Times shoot – photo by Gary Moyes)

Are any topics off-limits? He pauses. “No.” What about porn or prostitution? “If we had a ten-episode run we’d definitely do it. But if one episode is Weinstein and the Valentine’s Day episode is dating, it would be quite nice for the third to be about fatherhood or fashion.

“Actually, now is the perfect time to have the dating conversation. Because the most popular way to meet someone now is using dating sites, where all you have to go on is someone’s appearance. And that consensual objectification is happening at the same time as we are saying, ‘Don’t judge women based on how they look when they’re in the workplace. Don’t comment on how they look, don’t think about how they look, because you’re in the workplace.’ I suspect that people in their 20s and 30s are on board with that conversation, but I think for some older men it’s just baffling.”

Ah, older men. I bring up a bewildered-sounding John Humphrys on the Today programme discussing sexual harassment in Parliament and proclaiming the “risk” that single MPs would be terribly nervous asking an unmarried assistant “out for a proper date or maybe eventually asking them to marry them”.

Mann is more sympathetic than many MPs and journalists were at the time: “I heard John Humphrys saying that and I thought, ‘You’re right, marriages have been forged by people flirting in the workplace,’ but what you need is the sensitivity to know when that attention isn’t welcome. Although now, because of social media, there is a danger that if you flirt a bit clumsily, even if you climb down at that point and realise your behaviour is inappropriate, the person you do it to is more likely to put on Twitter or Facebook that, ‘This creep did this at work today. What a slimeball!’ That’s not necessarily the healthiest way to deal with things, because it does feed the feeling that there’s a war going on. And there isn’t. It’s just about being decent, isn’t it?”

Olly Mann and Samira Ahmed (RT shoot Gary Moyes, EH)
Olly Mann and Samira Ahmed (Radio Times shoot – photo by Gary Moyes)

It is indeed. But modern gender politics is increasingly complex. I offer more potential programme topics: the experiences of transmen; gender-neutral public spaces such as loos; sexting; and what some people fear is the criminalisation of teenage boys.

“Yes,” Mann says, enthusiastic about all of them, and mentions something called “fap/ nofap”. What? “It’s an online forum for a subgroup of teenage boys who are giving up masturbation. Essentially it’s a purity ring.”

I’m learning more than I expected. What about realistic “female” sex robots? Mann counters: “Here’s something that won’t get printed in Radio Times. There is a market for male sex toys [so-called “flesh lights”] of no gender at all. It’s basically just a tube you put your penis in. Is that more or less unsettling for women?” OK. I didn’t know that. So, vibrators, I ask. Do men feel emasculated by vibrators? “I think they do. And women claiming vibrators as an empowering thing has been going on since I was a teenager. It wouldn’t be at all weird for me to turn on Loose Women and see them sitting around and joking about it. It would be unthinkable to have four men sitting around on daytime TV talking about flesh lights.”

Mann feels that’s fair, because, unlike women, “men have spent hundreds of years talking about their sexuality”. Which leads me to: “Is ‘patriarchy’ a word you would ever use on The Male Room?”

Guests might, he says, but “I’m just keen that people don’t have to look in a dictionary. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is another one.”

What’s the limit on how often people are allowed to say “toxic masculinity”? “Once a show is probably about right.” We both laugh. The Male Room could do with more than three episodes to solve all this.

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The Male Room is on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 11.30pm on Radio 4