Men and boys are not the problem. Many of us are lucky enough to have partners, sons and brothers who are all ‘good’ men. They believe in gender equality, have high levels of emotional literacy and are kind and thoughtful.
Toxic masculinity is, however, a problem in many societies. This is not only evident in cultures where men are positioned as superior, with more rights, freedoms and opportunities than women, but also in families where men have expectations about how a woman should behave that affirm male dominance. The escalation of family violence, and the recent law against coercive control in the UK, indicates that this is not uncommon. But it is not only women who are at the mercy of toxic masculinity, so too are men.
Being a ‘real man’ is often associated with keeping difficult feelings to yourself, being fiercely independent and not asking for help. Mates talk about ‘safe’ subjects such as drinking and football rather than what is going on in their lives. There has to be a pretence of success in all areas.
Overtly heterosexual, showing affection may be seen as soft or ‘girly’. The relationship between fathers and children may be authoritarian, where paternal control stops men getting close to their children. ‘Real’ men are tough, powerful and stoical – except that often they are not.
In November 2020, the Mental Health Foundation estimated that one in eight men experience depression, anxiety or other mental health difficulty – though this may be an underestimate as men as less likely to seek help. Three times as many men as women commit suicide, with males between the ages of 25 and 49 most at risk.
When relationships break down it is often men who lose contact with families and resort to whatever will numb the pain: alcohol, drugs or violence. One of the helpful things in the last decade, strengthened by the pandemic, is that men who are well regarded by other men are at last standing up to say mental health matters, they feel down at times and that it’s good to talk.
Addressing toxic masculinity
So how can we address toxic masculinity, and grow ‘good’ men who have healthy relationships, talk about things that matter and develop better ways to understand and manage their feelings?
The best way that boys can learn to value their masculinity, without needing to be in control of others, is to be surrounded by good role models. Fathers who share the care of their infants, do household tasks, show they respect women, are affectionate and talk about feelings establish values and expectations from the start.
Positive role models are not just those in the family but also men with a public profile, especially those with reputations that boys look up to. Gareth Southgate, the England football manager, hugs his players, tells them it’s OK to lose and stays calm in a crisis. The rapper Stormzy talks about his own battle with mental illness, shows generosity in funding scholarships for young black youth and is overtly respectful to women. Robert Webb, comedian and writer, is questioning old-school masculinity in his book How Not to Be a Boy.
Education has a role to play, not only in providing positive role models, but also in giving boys opportunities to discuss and reflect on ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a critical component of a good education but has often been side-lined by an over-focus on academic knowledge and skills (Rethinking Learning, UNESCO/MGIEP, 2020).
The best way that boys can learn to value their masculinity, without needing to be in control of others, is to be surrounded by good role models
Regular SEL lessons, reinforced in everyday classroom interactions, are more likely to be successful when they give pupils the opportunity to develop a language for emotions, discuss important issues without divulging personal information and reflect on how they want to be in the future.
The evidence is clear; healthy relationships are the crux of our long-term wellbeing. Learning about how to establish and maintain good relationships, deal with difference and manage conflict well gives everyone a chance of a much happier life.
One activity worth considering is to discuss in groups the difference between ‘good’ men and ‘real’ men and where these messages are coming from (Circle Solutions for Student Wellbeing, Sue Roffey, 2020). For the safety of girls and women, the future of families and the mental health of men, this needs a much higher priority in education.
Positive psychology is a strengths-based, solution-focused approach to issues. Rather than addressing deficits, it explores what can be built on – in this case a new positive masculinity. This means identifying traditional male traits and channelling them into ways of being that enables boys and men to feel pride in their gender. Here are a few:
- Working in teams for the good of the group: Sport, especially team sport, is a mainstay of male interest (though many women are equally passionate about it). Teams don’t win if they are full of individuals trying to control the ball and keeping this to themselves.
- Caring for the family: Although men have traditionally been the breadwinners, this is not so often the case in western societies. The value of taking care of the family is, however still there. We need to appreciate the multiple ways of caring that do not rely on a pay cheque.
- Male heroism: This used to be the focus of men in battle. But there are so many examples of men pushing themselves to the limit. Overcoming obstacles and making contributions to the wellbeing of others can be given the same honour. Boys can be encouraged to follow suit by taking on risks that can be mediated by good judgement. Connect adventures with these positive male traits.
- Repositories of knowledge: Many men have a wealth of knowledge about specific areas but don’t necessarily have opportunities to share that with others. The use of social media, to meet with others who are interested in the same subjects and want to learn from each other, is a way of maintaining both social links and a sense of pride in what they know.
- Use of humour: There is something very specific about male humour which is about ribbing each other – a form of teasing that is seen as affectionate between friends. Sometimes misinterpreted, this can be the bedrock of long-lasting relationships that, although qualitatively different from female friendships, have a similar intimacy and the same value.
Men’s behaviour is toxic when it is about control, violence and/or misogyny. Men need to feel good about themselves in a myriad of different ways. Changing a toxic culture means changing conversations. These need to happen everywhere, in school, at home and in the media.
Bridget Grenville-Cleave is a positive psychology consultant and Sue Roffey is a psychologist and academic specialising in whole child, whole school wellbeing. They are co-authors of the book Creating the World We Want to Live In.