What is it to be a man? It’s a question that has endured through the ages and has changed a number of times. In an age where women’s rights, safety and equality are very rightly being focused on, men are having to check their own behaviour like never before. Now, what it means to be a man and the whole concept of masculinity is a very important aspect of our lives as men.
In the UK, the subject of how men interact with women has been prominently featured in the media following the kidnapping and murder of a young woman by a male police officer. Demonstrations were held and the “grope and rape culture” that appears to exist in society there, was examined. Many women came forward with stories ranging from “jokey” sexual innuendo through to groping and rape, especially in schools, universities and the workplace. It appears to be a bigger problem than anyone can imagine. Looking at the comments section, a lot of comments from men tried to suggest that many women “misunderstand” men and there is no harm in “a bit of banter”. The opposite may well be true. I doubt the majority of men can understand what it is like to be a sexual object while you are trying to study or do your job.
When they do complain, women often feel that their complaints to the police or on campus go unheeded and are then left with dealing with it themselves. Often, these attacks on campus, especially are carried out by groups of young men who target and isolate a young female. What can be done is a question that has many answers but one possible solution is to educate boys about respect and boundaries from an early age. Why isn’t this being done as a matter of course, one might ask? Boys are often under pressure from peers and society to be the “hunter” and teenage boys are often judged by their peers on the amount of sex (real or not), they have had. In this quest to make boys masculine, (whatever that means in today’s world) are we creating a lack of respect for the opposite sex? Whatever the solution, a woman has the right to feel safe and do and be anything she likes without the threat of harm and violence.
According to a report published in the London Times, experts believe that boys should be taught about “respect, boundaries and consent” in school from the age of ten in order to change violent and sexual attitudes towards women. Deana Puccio, set up a New York based organisation RAP (Raising Awareness and Protection) after being a district attorney prosecuting sex crimes stated: “Young men don’t suddenly wake up at 18 and believe this is the way they should behave because it starts early and continues”. She went on to say: “I have seen it in my career, sexual violence escalates. No man suddenly wakes up and decides to abduct a woman”. She also called on men to put peer to peer pressure on other men to behave properly: “If you are an active bystander and passive, you are complicit”. Puccio also is pushing the idea of convicted men touring schools and campuses to discuss the subject of misogynistic behaviour and the mistakes they made. In the UK, in light of recent events, the culture that leads to violence against women is to be investigated by a new committee, The Women and Equalities select committee will recommend changes to law and education. A good first step.
A charity, Beyond Equality, works with boys as young as 12 and men of all ages and puts the emphasis on “rethinking masculinity”. It runs workshops for boys and young men and is hoping to increase the 35,000 men reached last year to 100,000 in the next year. It aims to train another 5000 male “allies” to work in communities to “disrupt” sexist stereotypes and social expectations around gender. The aim is to improve equality and safety for women.
Daniel Guinness, managing director of Beyond Equality, says it makes little sense to just tell men not to be a rapist or to treat women in a certain way. He said alarmingly that many men do not see themselves as perpetrators unless a crime has been committed and even more alarming is that an initial reaction in the workshops is one of victimhood. He says that the emphasis must be on male self-improvement. Once an awareness of laws is found, the programme is about consequences of smaller actions that may escalate. This includes awareness of pornography addiction and its possible link to sex crimes and general views about women.
Guinness states that many of the reactions of young men to being confronted is that “groping, touching and sharing pictures are not such a big deal”. These events are often justified with “she’s exaggerating or she has nothing to be upset about, it was just fun”. Guinness states that the aim of the workshops is to point out the damage that these things and the subsequent attitude does.
Much of the work done by such organisations is on changing the way boys and men think about masculinity. A lot of emphasis, especially with boys, is to allow them to express and feel such emotions as empathy and to recognize or identify other emotions. Many boys (me included) were taught that they have to “man up” by parents who wanted “strong” boys. Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, a consultant psychologist and an expert on child development says that parents need to promote emotional literacy in boys from an early age. This would mean talking to them more about how they feel, issues around sexuality and consent, sexual boundaries and the dangers of pornography. She says this should be done before the age of 11. Much of this work should be done in the home within an environment of self-respect and equality. This of course, means that parents need to look at their own behaviour first.
There are many cornerstones of a boy’s upbringing that can lead to issues later on and as parents, we need to be aware of them fully. It starts at an early age with early relationships. None more so than with the mother. If this goes wrong or the boy thinks that his mother is only there to provide for him solely, it will have an effect on future relationships. Some mothers through their own issues create the “little prince” who can do no wrong. This basically means he has been infantilised and has never moved beyond that point. The central point of mothering where boys are concerned is to gently and kindly disillusion them that they are the centre of the world and the mother has other interests and relationships too, as do other women he will meet in the future.
Hopefully, through programmes such as this, we will witness a better relationship and more understanding between the genders, less entitled and toxic masculinity and more men who are strong but empathetic. Maybe then, women will feel safer going about their business. All of the leaders of these organisations hope that the models can also be used to also counter racism issues and promote diversity generally.
Additional to this, all adults have the power of choice. I grew up with certain attitudes towards women being pushed on me as a boy, whether intentional or not. I like to think that as an adult, through self-awareness and choice, I show respect to the opposite sex and treat them as equals. This was only done through me making that choice and going against what I had picked up in the family system.
Every man has the capability to do the same.