What does it mean to ‘be a man’?

And what does that have to do with violence against women?

These are two key questions that we need to ask, but it can be difficult to know where to start.

We know that while most men are not violent, the majority of violent acts (against women and other men) are committed by men. Men’s understanding of their gender is a key driver of violence. The key to change is to encourage critical analysis of masculinity in our boys and young men and to reinforce the healthy aspects of what it is to ‘be a man’.

From a very young age, boys not only learn what it means to be manly and masculine, but that they need to be these things in order to be accepted and valued. Some of the key messages that boys hear about how to ‘be a man’ include:

  • Be a winner: Manly activities are those that increase your wealth, social prestige, and power over others – including in romantic and sexual relationships.
  • Be tough: Men should be physically and emotionally strong. You can show anger, but not weakness, pain, fear or self-doubt.
  • Be a man’s man: Seek approval from other men and avoid all things feminine – never be seen conforming to any feminine norms.

We need to reconstruct masculinity so that men and boys can confidently express all parts of themselves, without fear of being shamed or losing status. We need to break open the box that currently defines masculinity so that men and boys feel free to show empathy and vulnerability, be nurturing and considerate and express their sexuality without fear of judgement.

The point is not to tell young men how they should act, but to create space for them to explore and define for themselves what it means to be a man – essentially suggesting ‘Being a man is whatever you want it to be – just try to be a good man who’s happy within himself’. So, how do we do that?

  1. Talk about what it is to be ‘a man’. Ask them what they think is wrong with rigid and ‘old fashioned’ gender roles, and highlight the broader range of possibilities. For example, men are intelligent... men are caring... men control themselves, not others... men are considerate... men are open-minded… men do take no for an answer!
  2. Compare role models. Stand healthy male role models (e.g. Antonio Banderas and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) beside less admirable ones (e.g. Chris Brown and Red Foo). Who are the men they respect or admire and how do they sit within or outside traditional masculinity models? Can they pick and choose the better aspects of their role models’ characters?
  3. Discuss the media’s portrayal of males. What is the simplified model of a man? The tough guy who won’t take no for an answer and who fights hard to get the money and the girl? What’s wrong with this model?
  4. Take a long, hard look at yourself. Ask what traditionally masculine characteristics they have adopted. Explore how, while they might not be violent or feel they disrespect women, certain attitudes and behaviours can lead to men as a group having more power than women or feeling they are entitled to something from women. Self-awareness leads to improvement.
  5. How does the ‘traditional man’ treat women? Talk about the traditionally powerful and aggressive man, and how his attitudes – like ‘men should take charge’ or ‘boys can’t control themselves’ – lead to promoting dominance and excusing violence.
  6. Be a champion of change. Suggest that the truly ‘strong man’ challenges violence against women and the attitudes that support it. Boys may feel they’re doing enough in opposing violence, but demonstrate there are ways they can be even better – whether it’s gaining a better understanding of the issues, actively discussing them with their peers or working/volunteering with gender advocacy groups. Getting them to visit The Line and its Facebook page is a good start!

It takes work to start these discussions but, apart from raising a smarter and fairer young man, you’ll be providing an example of a great gender role model who thinks critically and speaks up about what’s right – you.