Sixteen-year-old Gus was shocked when one of his female school friends told him she feared for her safety while sitting next to a man on a train.
It was something he had not had to face, due to his gender. But learning that many girls and women did not share his sense of security was a life-changing experience for the Melbourne schoolboy.
“I think about it all the time now. I sit there and think about how hard it would be to not feel safe in doing most things,” he says. “It would just make it so complicated and stressful all the time. I just want women to feel safe.”
Secondary school students in a workshop run by The Man Cave. Credit:The Man Cave
Gus is one of many teenage boys across the country grappling with the recent national debate about sexual assault and harassment, including in schools, and the broader conversation on consent and the behaviour of boys and men. The debate has been prompted by the rape allegation against politician Christian Porter, which he denies, the testimony of former parliamentary staffer Brittany Higgins and the online petition started by former Kambala student Chanel Contos.
But as the issue simmers, questions remain about how to engage boys and men in this conversation. Is it possible to have a much-needed moment of reckoning and reform that changes their behaviour without a subset of them feeling under siege? And what are the risks of not getting the balance right?
Well intended but inappropriate
When Brauer College in Warrnambool asked its male students last month to stand up in an assembly, they were told it was “a symbolic gesture of apology for the behaviours of their gender that have hurt or offended girls and women”. After a backlash, principal Jane Boyle admitted the exercise had been “well intended” but “inappropriate”.
At Melbourne’s Parkdale Secondary College, a council youth worker giving a talk about privilege, pronouns and “intersectionality”, asked year 11 boys to stand if they were “white”, “male” and “Christian”, and then, according to a report in the Sunday Herald Sun, told them they were responsible for being “privileged” and “oppressors”. That too caused a backlash and an apology from the Kingston Council.
Hunter Johnson, chief executive of the Man Cave, a non-profit organisation that works with boys aged 12 to 16 to foster healthy masculinity and positive mental health, says boys will switch off from messages about consent and harassment if they feel they are being personally attacked by terms such as “toxic masculinity”.
Johnson says he has spoken to about 500 schoolboys like Gus in recent months and the response has overwhelmingly been that they want things to improve. But he warns that perceived criticisms of their sense of identity could lead them to become “enraged and reclusive”, which ultimately could actually make women less safe.
“You don’t want to have this false dichotomy of men versus women,” says Russell Hooper from advocacy group No To Violence. “You want to be more engaging and collaborative and actually have men be part of the solution.
A recent petition on consent education has revealed thousands of stories of alleged assault at Australian schools. Credit:Edwina Pickles
“This isn’t about men leading this debate, but the least they can do is listen and support the experiences of women.”
Melbourne teenager Jason Smith* says social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram are filled with posts of women calling out men, using generalisations and stereotypes. He wants to say the right things, but fears being “taken the wrong way”.
“I definitely think that this needs to be an open discussion from both sides so that we can all be educated,” says the young tradie, “but the way it’s presented can be taken as an attack on men.
Boys can feel silenced by the debate, or frightened to join it for fear of saying the wrong thing.Credit:Getty
“It shows up as though toxic masculinity is something that every man lives with, instead of this being an issue that, as a society, we can resolve together. The hard part is knowing your boundaries of what you can say without causing backlash, or for someone else to take things in a way you didn’t intend. So you feel a bit silenced, not knowing what you can and can’t say.”
Swinburne University researcher Christine Agius says that, at the extreme end of male defensiveness, lies potential danger, because “anti-gender sentiment is often a gateway to more extremist views”.
Agius recently conducted a joint study mapping right-wing groups in Victoria, which warned that in these dark corners of the internet a sense of “aggrieved entitlement” is stoked, along with a false perception that “the system” – such as the courts, the media, or political institutions – was stacked against men.
‘You feel a bit silenced, not knowing what you can and can’t say.’
“These extremist groups seem to be offering young boys or men a way to express their frustration, their ideas about relative deprivation, and how society and women and other groups are doing better than them,” Agius says. “It’s quite well known that in the far right you have a lot of anti-feminist, misogynistic views.”
The link could not have been more starkly illustrated this week, when members of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Network chose to campaign at the Parkdale school at the centre of the “white, male, Christian” controversy. In the words of their social media post, they “threw up White power stickers as a message of solidarity to the White boys and girls at the school which [sic] have to put up with this disgusting indoctrination”.
Another far-right activist stormed the Kingston council chamber and verbally attacked councillors.
The Man Cave’s Hunter Johnson wrote recently in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that young men often felt pressure to project strength, to never be seen as emotionally vulnerable – to “man up”.
“We hear the painful confusion in young men living by the masculine stereotype society has set for them, only for everyone around them to shame them for doing so,” he wrote. The answer was to give them the opportunity to talk openly about these complex and emotionally nuanced issues.
Matt Tyler, executive director of The Men’s Project at Jesuit Social Services, says part of the solution involves talking about healthy and unhealthy models of manhood without shying from the fact violence, sexual assault and harassment is “a man’s problem, as in most instances the perpetrator is male”. It is also important to intervene early and to understand some of the underlying drivers of violence.
His group recently conducted a major national survey of Australian men aged 18 to 30, which found that belief in stereotypical masculine norms among men was closely associated with the use of violence. According to the study, this had a much greater influence on negative behaviour than other factors, such as their education, occupation or ethnicity.
‘I think there are some boys finding it hard, but as long as … boys are educated rather than attacked. I think that’s really important.’
The Men’s Project now works directly with schools and role models such as teachers, faith leaders and sports coaches to engage students in discussions that “promote healthier masculinities, improve attitudes and ultimately prevent violence”.
“Of course, not all men use violence, but all men do have a role to play,” Tyler says. “We deliberately work with role models, because the messenger on this stuff really matters. If you’re able to work school by school, sports club by sports club, community by community, then you’re able to have conversations in a way that I think is very different to what you might see on social media.”
A higher standard
Michael Flood, an internationally recognised researcher on masculinity, agrees that silencing or blaming men can often be met with resistance.
“We need to appeal to the positive in boys and men, inviting them to hold themselves and each other to a higher standard,” he says.
But “we should not be afraid to criticise the sexism and violence that some men – too many men – perpetrate”.
Fifteen-year-old Ziggy is one of many boys keen to be part of this national debate. But he admits some of his peers find the issue challenging. Nonetheless, he is optimistic that boys’ attitudes are shifting.
“I’ve got some close girl friends who tell me stuff about how they’re scared to walk down the street, and I never thought of that and it never crossed my mind,” he says.
“Empathy is absolutely important. It’s important for us just to listen. Like when my mum talks to me about it, it’s really easy to listen and take in.
“I think there are definitely some boys finding it hard, but as long as it’s done in the right way and boys are educated rather than attacked. I think that’s really important.”
*Jason Smith is not his real name.
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
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