Recent sociological literature has highlighted how sleep involves both naturalistic and social-constructionist concerns, and is an irreducible and multifaceted phenomenon (Williams 2002, 2005, Meadows 2005). For example, Kroll-Smith and Gunter investigate the new ‘truths’ being told about sleepiness whilst acknowledging that sleep is a ‘brute fact’ and ‘essential for human survival’ (2005: 346). Similarly, Williams embraces the significance of biology whilst suggesting that issues of sociological import include the temporal dimensions, social patterning and ‘doing’ of sleep (2002: 173). There are, for example, ‘contingent influences on the meanings attached to sleep’ and the ways in which sleep is ‘commonsensically conceived will relate to an individual's social location and economic function’ (Taylor 1993: 468). Taylor suggests that those who see sleep as a leisure pursuit are liable to have attained a certain socio-economic status, whereas ‘hard-working peasantry’ are more likely to view sleep as respite from labour (1993: 468).
Although this body of work has convincingly illustrated that sleep is not simply a ‘perceptual hole in time’ (Dement and Vaughan 1999: 14), and has ‘woken’ sociologists up to the possibilities sleep offers (cf. Williams and Bendelow 1998), omissions can be noted. First, apart from Hislop and Arber's (2003) study of mid-life women's sleep, and Rosenblatt's (2006) study of couples’ sleep, there are few empirical studies that apply the sociological lens to our dormancy. Using a mixed-method approach to investigate the nature and social context of mid-life women's sleep, Hislop and Arber conclude that the manner in which sleep is done reflects the way that people do activities in their waking lives (2003: 709). Secondly, men's sleep has yet to be systematically explored. This paper aims to begin to address these gaps.
From masculinities and men's health to masculinities and men's sleep?
Popular culture appears to equate being male with a lack of regard for sleep. For example, the New Statesman suggests that ‘there is a macho culture of sleeplessness – sleep is for wimps who can't take the pace. The tough and the motivated like to brag about how little sleep they need’ (Appleyard 2002). Similarly, within his novel The House of Sleep, Jonathan Coe has one of his main characters (Dr Dudden) state that:
Napoleon was a light sleeper too. And Edison. You’ll find it's true of many great men. Edison despised sleep, we’re told, and in my view he was right to do so. I despise it, too. I despise myself for needing it (Coe 1997: 176).
This popular equation of sleeplessness and machismo resonates with more sociologically informed arguments. According to Courtenay, the resources available for constructing masculinities (in the West) are largely unhealthy (2000: 1397). Dominant men are required to undertake socially masculinised, physically risky behaviours. Thus, it has been suggested that men see health as women's business and responsibility, men know little about men's health, men tend to keep quiet about their health problems, and men tend to deny themselves a self-monitoring role (as doing health promotion is ‘female’) (cf. Cameron and Bernardes 1998). Within this paradigm, men are seen as unlikely to know much about sleep and are considered ignorant of health messages, such as those posted on the US National Sleep Foundation website:
Getting enough continuous quality sleep contributes to how we feel and perform the next day, but also has a huge impact on the overall quality of our lives. Getting enough sleep refers to the amount of sleep you need to not feel sleepy the next day. If sleepiness interferes with or makes it difficult to do your daily activities, you probably need more sleep. Although sleep experts generally recommend an average of 7–9 hours per night, some people can get along with less while others need as much as ten hours to feel alert the next day. Sleep requirements vary over the life cycle (National Sleep Foundation 2007).
In addition, within this paradigm men are construed as having little regard for, and taking risks with, their sleep, In essence, sleep becomes a tool used to demonstrate idealised forms of masculinity and to assume positions of power –‘relative to women and less powerful men’ (Courtenay 2000: 1397):
Men are demonstrating dominant norms of masculinity when they refuse to take sick leave from work, when they insist that they need little sleep, and when they boast that drinking does not impair their driving (Courtenay 2000: 1389).
Yet, there are points of debate here. For example, Riska (2006) re-examines the ‘male as victim’ thesis which underpins much of the above discussion. She suggests that the victimisation argument is represented by two interpretations, both of which point towards men's lack of agency: the first suggests that the behaviours men engage in to prove traditional (that is white, middle-class, heterosexual) masculinities, influence their life expectancy. This argument identifies a ‘dark side’ to masculinity; a side which leads men to engage in life-shortening behaviours. The second interpretation of the health costs of masculinities highlights how men are ‘trapped’ because of primary economic responsibility. As Riska suggests, here the traditional (white, middle-class, heterosexual) male role is seen as oppressive, as ‘modern men want to change, but they are trapped in a narrow economic role in the public sphere and with few opportunities for human growth and for participating in the care of their children’ (2006: 15). Riska (2006) challenges both of these conceptions; emphasising instead how masculinities have been medicalised and ‘dealt with as unmarked by gender’ by the medical profession (Riska 2006: 22, see also Rosenfeld and Faircloth 2006).
Recent research which has focused on men's everyday experiences certainly calls into question the accuracy of ‘victimisation’ models or, at the very least, suggests some form of change. For example, Robertson (2003) notes that the historical suggestion that men do not take their health seriously can no longer be sustained (see also Williams 2003: 60). Rather, men face a dilemma between showing they do not care and realising that they should care and, as a result, caring for health needs to be legitimised or explained in some way by men (Robertson 2003). Men's ‘need’ to show indifference to health sits in direct conflict with the late modern requirement that ‘good’ citizens manage their own health and minimise risk taking (the ‘don't care/should care’ dichotomy). As Robertson states:
it is not just caring too much about health that puts hegemonic identity at risk. Not to take enough care with one's health, particularly through indulging in excess, also moves one away from hegemonic ideals. It suggests irresponsibility and lack of control, which then becomes representative of transgressive (male) behaviour (Robertson 2006a: 184).
In similar vein Mullen (1992) suggests that men perform ‘balancing acts’. Drawing upon data pertaining to mid-life men's perceptions of the health effects of their occupations, Mullen suggests that tobacco and alcohol are often used as a means of coping with the self-perceived strains and pressures of work. Although the men in his study were aware of the negative effects of smoking and drinking, they ‘often saw themselves as involved in a trade-off between conflicting priorities’ (Mullen 1992: 82). In essence the men were consciously attempting to ‘balance both sides of the dichotomy’, between control and release or between moderation and excess, in order to maximise the possibilities for good health. Lifecourse events, such as marriage and fatherhood, may play a key role in this balancing act; drawing ‘people towards responsible conviviality’ (Mullen 1993: 177 quoted in Watson 2000: 39).
Adding to this, Watson (2000) suggests that men have to ‘manage ambiguity’ between how they define others’ health and how they engage with their own health. He proposes the ‘male body schema’. This schema involves four different modes of embodiment: Normative embodiment, which is closely related to body ‘stereotypes’, Pragmatic embodiment, which relates to the idea of having a ‘normal everyday body’, (Watson 2000: 119) and Experiential and Visceral embodiment. Experiential embodiment is the primary site for experiencing emotions or the ‘blood tingling’ after a work out, and is the space in which the social and physical boundaries of the body touch. Visceral embodiment relates to the ‘unseen’, ‘body you are born with’. Here reside perceived ‘biological imperatives’ such as genes and ‘losing your hair’, or bodily behaviours you can do nothing about. According to Watson, in defining healthy and unhealthy others, men focus heavily on bodily form. Yet, on an individual level, the focus is on pragmatic embodiment; that is on having a ‘normal everyday body’ (Watson 2000: 119) and with maintaining a ‘healthy’ functioning body (Robertson 2006b). Men are concerned with sustaining a ‘fit’ between achieving everyday tasks and having the right amount of physical fitness to achieve these tasks (Watson 2000: 122). It is the incompatibility of the tools used to evaluate others’ and their own health which prompts the need for ‘ambiguity management’ (Watson 2000: 121).
What this leaves us with, then, is a series of questions: (i) Do men know little about sleep? (ii) Do men have a negative attitude towards sleep? (iii) Do men take risks with their sleep? And (iv) can these behaviours be situated within discussions of masculinities? This paper attempts to answer these questions. After outlining the methods used, the paper turns to describe the core assumptions underpinning men's discussions of their sleep. From here the paper offers a description of men's attitudes towards sleep and unravels aspects of risk-taking through a focus on driving whilst sleepy. Finally, in the discussion, we return to notions of ‘victimisation’ and masculinities.
Two further points need to be noted here: First, the discussion of ‘victimisation’ and masculinities is offered tentatively. The under-explored nature of men's sleep requires distance to be kept from generalised statements, especially those concerning dominant forms of masculinity. In this respect, the paper spends more time describing and unpicking men's relationship with sleep; we follow Hearn's (2004: 61) agenda for research on men which includes the suggestion that ‘we may consider the description and analysis of men's various and variable everyday, ‘natural(ized)’, ‘ordinary’, ‘normal’ and most taken-for granted practices to women, children and other men and their contradictory, even paradoxical, meanings – rather than the depiction of the most culturally valued ideal or the most exaggerated or over-conforming forms of men's practices’ (emphasis in original). Secondly, the men under consideration here are all white, mainly middle-class and would describe themselves as heterosexual. These men reflect the ‘traditional’ masculinities referred to throughout the discussion above. As such, these men's understandings, attitudes and risk-taking can be directly situated alongside the arguments outlined.