A rethink of masculinity is helping men and boys to move away from narrow stereotypes and negative role models toward healthier, more diverse approaches. The ripple effect will be safer, more equal societies.
In an all-boys school in South Melbourne, a 14-year-old boy starts crying. For some years now he has been teased for his speech impediment and he’s had enough. Between tears, he shares his thoughts with his classmates, some of whom apologise for belittling him in the past. The workshop facilitator, an ex-football player in his early 30s, consoles the boy and congratulates him for having the courage to speak up.
Other boys in the room have their own stories to share – around self-esteem or trouble at home. One boy says his father had a heart attack three weeks ago. He hasn’t told any of his friends and, without knowing what’s been going on for him, they’ve been giving him a hard time. The facilitator raises the importance of communication and peer respect.
Such scenarios are playing out right now across Victoria. They are part of a movement that challenges traditional stereotypes of masculinity and says it’s okay, and healthy, for men to show vulnerabilities.
The #MeToo context
The ‘healthier masculinities' movement is gaining momentum. In Australia, it emerged in the wake of the Royal Commission into Family Violence and the staggering statistic that, every week, one Australian woman is murdered by her current or former partner. And it continues to run in parallel with the global #MeToo movement which has seen countless cases of sexual abuse and harassment brought to public attention, in turn giving women the courage to speak up after years of remaining silent.
In recent months, novelist Tim Winton has written about how ‘toxic masculinity is shackling men to misogyny’. Significantly, that ‘toxic’ masculinity not only affects women and children, but also boys and men themselves, driving depression and, at worst, suicide, the number one cause of death in men in Australia between the ages of 15 and 44 years.
Positive programs for men
The discussion can at times feel mired in negativity, but positive action is taking place, too. Indeed, there has been a proliferation of organisations running workshops and seminars that aim to expand representations of masculinity and dismantle rigid gender norms.
It is an invitation to explore their humanity more deeply and to share openly and honestly how they’re dealing with life.
Hunter Johnson, CEO of The Man Cave, a business that runs workshops with students, teachers and parents, believes that the key lies in giving young men the opportunity to ‘take off the mask’ and talk freely without the constraints of social expectations.
‘The real art of what we do is not making men wrong, not telling them how to live their lives or telling them to throw away their masculine traits,’ he says.
‘But it is an invitation to explore their humanity more deeply and to share openly and honestly how they’re dealing with life.’
Johnson, who won a 2018 EY Social Entrepreneur of the Year award, says his philosophy comes from his own experience of growing up and ‘drinking the Kool-Aid of the boys’ culture’.
‘I literally didn’t know there was another narrative, or an option to talk about challenges I was facing,’ he says. ‘I saw a lot of mates struggle with addiction, depression, anxiety, violence and suicide and I thought the mental health care system, and the domestic violence system, was very much geared around crisis management, a band-aid solution. This, on the other hand, is a preventative and proactive model.’
He says workshops often reveal profound insight when at the end, students are asked: ‘What does it mean to be a man?’
‘They come up with things like “to be strong emotionally, or to support the people around you, to be compassionate and kind”. And then we say, “that’s not actually being a man, that’s being a human”. And they get it. They really do.’
VicHealth’s evidence review
The effectiveness of these well-intentioned programs is being tracked by VicHealth in an evidence review.
Irene Verins, Manager of Mental Wellbeing at VicHealth, explains that to date, very little research or evaluation has been carried out in this area.
‘VicHealth has been very focused on preventing violence against women for 15 years or more and working in the gender equality space,’ she says. ‘We really want to engage men in this discussion, because ultimately, we know that promoting gender equality is obviously good for women’s health and wellbeing, but it’s also good for men’s health and wellbeing.’
VicHealth’s involvement follows on from a roundtable discussion last July, which brought together 30 stakeholders and explored definitions of ‘healthier masculinities for gender equality’.
Participants worked on identifying the characteristics of healthy masculinities, such as vulnerability, a readiness to have open conversations, and a willingness to express emotions. It was agreed that those characteristics can play out across a broad spectrum of attitudes and behaviours, from men who feel comfortable cultivating close friendships with both men and women, or who confidently take on roles as stay-at-home dads, to those who actively advocate for feminism.
The roundtable also discussed the idea of reframing masculinity in a positive light, rather than as a fixed state or as inherently bad. The trait of ‘strength’, for example, can be considered healthy or unhealthy depending on how, when and where it’s expressed.
‘Many social norms reflect rigid interpretations of what it is to be a man or a woman and these lead to men believing they have more power and more privilege than they should,’ says Verins.
‘These sorts of attitudes are what have become known as “toxic”,’ explains Verins. ‘Yet some types of masculinity can be extremely positive. We need to refocus definitions so that “healthy” is the default.’
Aggression carries a risk of self-harm
The take up of the plural term — ‘masculinities’ — supports the idea that masculinity can take many forms. Some of them are entrenched as clichés and stereotypes; others are more progressive.
Rigid stereotypes were recently explored in a study called The Man Box, released in October 2018. An initiative of Jesuit Social Services (JSS), the research looked at the behaviours and attitudes of 1,000 young Australian men aged 18 to 30 from a broad demographic spread that took into account location, work, education level and cultural background.
Michael Livingstone, Executive Director of the Men’s Project at JSS, says The Man Box is a research tool that has been used in the United States, United Kingdom and Mexico to evaluate how men are responding to a specific set of societal beliefs that place pressure on them to be tough, to conceal their emotions, to be breadwinners, to always be in control, to use violence to solve problems, and to have multiple sexual partners.
Many young men, probably over half, are feeling pressure to comply with societal beliefs.
The Australian findings were fairly encouraging, reports Livingstone, although a worrying number of men still act on social norms around power and control.
‘Most young men seem to be doing well and have healthy, respectful relationships and lives,’ he says. ‘But what we see in terms of the rules of The Man Box is that many young men, probably over half, are feeling pressure to comply with societal beliefs. Over half say they’ve seen or felt pressure to become the provider, or to have many sexual partners, for example.
‘Most young men disagreed with the traditional rules of The Man Box, but there was a fairly significant minority of about a third, who said they agreed with them. There were some rules that young men did agree with that were particularly worrying and those were around aggression and control.’
A key finding of the study is that men classified as being ‘inside’ The Man Box were both more likely to harm others – in the form of bullying, violence and harassment – and themselves. They are more likely to have thoughts of suicide, poor mental health, drink more and be involved in more accidents.
‘So what we are saying is that The Man Box comes at a cost, for people who are in the lives of young men in The Man Box, but also for the men themselves.
‘We feel this is something that really needs to be looked at and addressed. Similarly, we need to look at what’s working for the men who are not inside The Man Box and who appear to have relatively healthy, respectful, happy lives.
‘It’s a big vision – changing and working to create a more respectful, equal and healthy culture – and it will take time. There has been some progress, like very strong rejection of homophobia, among the young men who were surveyed. But there is still a lot of work to do around some other harmful norms.’
Breaking up rigid stereotypes
Patty Kinnersly, CEO of Our Watch, a national organisation that works to prevent violence against women, says that everyone has a role to play in breaking down rigid gender stereotypes. Social norms, she explains, can set up an environment of inequality.
Ultimately, this can lead to violence, with one in three Australian women having experienced physical violence since the age of 15.
‘We have to encourage our children to be their true selves and make their own choices, and not be limited by society’s construction of masculinity and femininity,’ Kinnersly says. ‘We have to call out disrespect, at all levels when we see it.’
She points out that not all men are on a level playing field and it is important to recognise the ‘structural barriers’ that affect some boys and men, making it difficult for them to take up caring and nurturing roles.
‘There are often ramifications for boys and men who don’t fit into society’s definition of manhood, including verbal and physical abuse, bullying and isolation, and even sexual assault, which would disincentivise anyone from going against the grain,’ she explains.
‘We have to encourage boys and men to identify and tap into the full range of emotions and behaviours they may have been conditioned to suppress, such as asking for help, feeling or showing vulnerability, taking up caregiving and homemaking roles, and calling out disrespect in all areas.’
Kinnersly adds that as well as feeling pressure from family or peers, boys and men are bombarded with messages that tell them to be tough and not weak. They may also experience cultural pressures to be in charge.
‘A lack of representation of women in decision-making roles, and a general undervaluing of caregiving and home-making roles, all get in the way of men adopting these more caring qualities.’
The importance of positive role models
Associate Professor of Sociology at Monash University, Steven Roberts, agrees that role models are critical when it comes to teaching young men how to break away from stereotypes around masculinity. This helps to create a positive discourse, rather than reinforcing attitudes that are potentially damaging.
‘The risk is that we too readily say masculinity is bad,’ Roberts says. ‘Important points are being made on this, but this discussion has to go alongside showcasing positive attitudes and more progressive and healthy masculinity.
‘An important part of the research agenda is not to just point out the men who are problematic, but to try and harness and amplify the voices of men who recognise the problems and the pressures of having to conform to particular stereotypes.’
He adds that there is often a generational divide between young men who are aware of stereotypes, and older men who are still role modelling unhealthy behaviours. This could be a father or grandfather, or it could be a sports coach who uses homophobic language in an effort to teach his players to ‘man up’.
‘We so often focus on young men because they’re the next generation,’ says Roberts. ‘But what is equally important is to consider those older men who are resistant to change or progress, who lack an open mind. They’re the gatekeepers here, because they’re role modelling.’
He points out that the #MeToo movement has shown that even seemingly ‘nice’ men can display problematic behaviours.
‘It’s not just terrible, bad men who demonstrate unhealthy masculinity practices,’ he says. ‘Virtually anyone can endorse these negative traits, because the values around what it means to be a man are so entrenched.’
Improving male mental health
One positive role model making an impression is Tomorrow Man facilitator Ryder Jack, who conducts workshops in high schools and sports clubs with young men aged 16 and up. Jack trained to become a facilitator under the guidance of successful AFL player Jim Stynes, who co-founded the Reach Foundation.
‘Jim taught us that a man can be a whole lot of different things,’ explains Jack. ‘He was obviously quite dominant and competitive on the field, but then he could access his emotions, let down his guard and be quite vulnerable, or switch out of that and be a boss, a CEO and a trainer.’
It was at the Reach Foundation that Jack also met Tom Harkin who went on to establish Tomorrow Man. The business now consists of around 10 facilitators who are passionate about allowing young men the opportunity to ‘practise stepping out’.
We need to be able to speak emotionally. We need to be able to let people in. Guys know it. They just need the right environment.
‘What we do is give guys the tool kit to be able to just be,’ he says. ‘We’re not there to necessarily give the answers, but to just get guys used to being uncomfortable, because the longer you sit in discomfort the more comfortable it becomes.
‘It’s about letting them know that there are great things about being a guy, but there are also things we need to improve in order to save lives, as extreme as that sounds. We need to be able to speak emotionally. We need to be able to let people in. Guys know it. They just need the right environment.’
The high demand for programs such as Tomorrow Man indicates that people are taking notice and prioritising men’s mental health. However, Jack says the area is still developing and research will help with this.
‘Thankfully, feminism has come such a long way and has great momentum,’ he says. ‘But I feel like men haven’t stepped up or evolved as much as the women’s movement. This leaves a lot of guys confused or defensive and we’re told all these things about what a man is supposed to be.
‘We try to create environments where guys can explore the type of manhood they want, and help them have a little bit more fluidity with their ideas, to know that courage isn’t necessarily being able to fight with physical strength. It’s being able to speak from the heart and take your armour off sometimes.’