At the time of writing, the world’s media is focused on angry women who have had enough of misogyny in families, across organisations and in our public institutions. This has come to a head in the abduction and murder of a young, white, professional woman in London by a member of the Metropolitan police. This was the latest in a long line of crimes against women, many ignored because they were not so newsworthy.
Despite decades of female emancipation, employment and enfranchisement in the West, there are still boys who grow up believing in the superiority of men and what this means about being ‘strong’. Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor for the North West of England said that all the rapes he had prosecuted were motivated by a desire to control (The Guardian, March 17, 2021). This is also evident in the way men speak about women as objects, and in the verbal and physical harassment that many endure both on the street and in organisations. The #MeToo movement has brought this behaviour into the limelight as never before. It is exacerbated by the numbers of young men learning about sex by watching internet porn.
Toxic masculinity is not only deeply harmful for women, it is also hurting men and significantly undermining their own wellbeing. Suicide is the highest cause of death of men under 45 in many countries[i]. Many men have not learnt to manage relationships or stressful situations well. They may feel it is ‘unmanly’ to talk about their feelings or consider it beneath them to take on roles traditionally seen as ‘female’. This inevitably presents problems in modern households and workplaces. Our society privileges work responsibilities over family responsibilities, with the expectation that when children need care it is mothers who will provide this. This will only change when both parents are afforded equal importance in families, and women gain equal opportunities in the workplace. Where this is already happening, fathers are more connected with their children, with all the positives that this offers.
We know that healthy relationships are the crux of our happiness. When they fall apart this inevitably contributes to untold misery. Family breakdown can be devastating for fathers, who may lose contact with their children, or have no idea how to relate to them during access time. Unemployment can also leave men without a sense of purpose. Some may resort to alcohol and other drugs to numb the pain – often in the guise of sociability. Lonely men without real friends they can talk to is likely to be a hidden epidemic in our society, linked to poor mental health.
Men themselves are not the problem – I am fortunate to be surrounded by good men, brothers, partner, friends and son. It is toxic masculinity that is the problem. There are some clear and obvious solutions but they need political will alongside men taking a lead. A 14-year-old boy phoned a radio program recently asking how he and some friends could develop the confidence to confront the way some of his peers were talking about girls. I wondered what had prompted his courage and how we might get more of it.
We need pay attention to how we bring up boys, so that they have broader perspectives of how to be in the world, especially encouraging them to talk about issues that really matter, and have the relational skills that foster positive, open and respectful communication. We need to ensure they grow up to be responsible, caring and able to handle strong feelings. Children come to understand how to ‘be’ male or female from all the images, conversations, playthings and messages that surround them, including on the internet. This can be overt or subtle but has a profound impact on gender identity and all that this means. Raising awareness can lead to better outcomes for everyone. This needs to begin early in life, but by middle childhood at the latest. Social and Emotional learning (SEL) in schools is critically important: This can address, in a safe and supportive way, how young people think about themselves and other people and what this means for their interactions as well as their own wellbeing.
The following activity is from Circle Solutions for Student Wellbeing 3rd Ed.
Growing good men
Learning outcome: to raise awareness and reflect on gender linked identity and behaviours.
This activity is for boys from upper primary through secondary and is best facilitated by a male facilitator. Working In groups of 3-4 students are given the following questions one at a time. What does it mean to be a good man? Imagine what you would like people to say about you at a significant birthday in the future.
What does it mean to be a ‘real man’ in our society? What is acceptable, what is not? Where are these messages and expectations coming from?
Invite the groups to share their responses and write these up for all to see.
Silent statements. Ask students to change places if they agree with the following statements:
- Boys and young men are getting confusing messages about how they should be.
- Being a ‘tough guy’ does not feel right sometimes
- We have choices about who we become
In different groups of three or-four, students discuss the following:
- Are some boys wearing imaginary masks to stop others seeing what they are really feeling and what they want and need?
- Is it OK for boys to talk about how they feel? What happens when they don’t?
- What support do boys need?
Groups report back their responses to the Circle – especially to the last question.
This cannot be a stand- alone activity. Misogyny needs to be addressed at every level in a school as well as in families, organisations and institutions. This includes the language that is used, the way interactions are modelled, expectations of relationships, how decisions are made and how equality is fostered. The benefits would be significant – for everyone.
Some of this blog is taken from the chapter on Childhood in Creating the World We Want to Live In: How Positive Psychology Can Build a Brighter Future (2021), published by Routledge.
[i] Canetto & Cleary (Eds.) (2012) Men, masculinities and suicidal behaviour. Social Science and Medicine Special Issue, 74(4), 461–636.