In the next three podcast episodes we're looking at a new topic – what modern masculinity looks like.
The murder of women at the hands of their male partners and former partners continues. In the past week alone in Australia, one woman has died and another was seriously injured. A former Justice of the High Court of Australia was found by an independent inquiry to have sexually harassed six of his female associates and the Covid19 outbreak increases the risk of family violence. All of these issues highlight the frightening statistics around domestic violence and have generated calls for change in the way we deal with issues relating to masculinity.
Steve Roberts is Associate Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Monash University. His research is largely based around identifying positive examples of masculinity and finding ways to amplify them. George Variyan is a lecturer in Educational Leadership at Monash University and his research explores masculinity at elite all-boys schools. They both agree recent events remind us how far we have to go. As far as a dystopian future and what it might look like, Steve believes we are already here and are living it. George fears for the future of young men if the marketised model of high fee-paying schools doesn’t change.
Susan Carland: The recent murder of Hannah Clarke by her estranged husband in Queensland shows us the frightening reality of domestic violence and makes us question the way we think about masculinity. The experts wetalk to fear the escalation of recent tragedies, along with increased male suicide and male violence towards other men. Today we'll take a look at what's being described as the dystopia we're already living in and how we can create a better future for all of us - men, women and children.
Let's hear from Steve Roberts
Steve Roberts: I’m Steve Roberts, Associate Professor of Sociology at Monash University and my research area is masculinity and social change.
SC: Associate Professor Steve Roberts, welcome. Paint me a picture. We are 100 years in the future, we have not done anything to improve the way we think and talk about masculinity. What does Australia look like?
SR: Imagine living in a time where one woman a week is killed by her current or former partner and then imagine living in a world where six men kill themselves every day and then imagine living in the middle of a global pandemic. And one of the risks of that pandemic is that women are more exposed to domestic violence - like, that sounds pretty dystopian to me. And if we thought that's gonna happen in 100 years, it sounds pretty gross, but it's actually now. So one of the things I really want to emphasise is that in some respects we're already living in dystopian times. So in 100 years, the worst case scenario is that those numbers amplify, multiply and are a lot, lot worse. So, you know, masculinity is for me at the core, one of the causes of these tragic events. And I think if we don't have a handle on reeducating and processes of re-socialisation, I suppose, then everything will be worse. So I think we're on a track towards something terrible.
SC: And it sounds like you think we already are in something pretty terrible.
SR: Absolutely. I think with that, I think what's even more terrible is those things are thought about as normal and acceptable in our society - that's tragic to me.
SC: How did we get to this point?
SR: Well, you know, we can blame thousands of years of patriarchy for this, I'm sure. So the problem at the centre of all this that, many people in my field would say, is the hierarchy of masculinity and femininity, so a valorisation of particular performances of masculinity or the the lack of value given to femininity and that kind of power struggle that lies therein
SC: Do you see any problem with some biological arguments that men just have more testosterone? That's why they're more aggressive. Is that wrong?
SR: Yeah, I mean, it's a very complicated set of debates, and I don't wanna be dismissive of the biological accounts of masculinity, per say, but like as a sociologist, I kind of am skeptical of that a little bit. And the main thing that we'd want to stress is that it's the social construction of masculinity that really matters. And one of the reasons that this is so important is because we know that the implications of negative or toxic masculinity or whatever you wanna call it, they’re different across history, across time, across space. So different countries have different statistics that point to that. So because we know masculinity looks different in different times in different places, we know that it's not explicitly and only to do with biology and the issue around, you know, ‘it's testosterone and it's just boys will be boys’, I think is a convenient way of saying we don't have to do anything about it and is part of the reason that we've got this, like, ‘oh, that's life, it’s harsh, yeah, women get killed sometimes’. That kind of attitude is built into our society, which has this understanding that yeah, ‘boys will be boys’ and it's an overspill of that.
SC: What do you are think some of the biggest mistakes we’re making at the moment in the way we talk about masculinity? Is it a problem to use the term toxic toxic masculinity, is that off putting to people?
SR: Look, I think it is off putting to some people, but I think it's off putting to people who are already defensive. So people who already think that any conversation about masculinity is me, you, women, feminists mostly pointing at them and telling them they're the bad guys. And they then say oh if you talk about toxic masculinity, you're saying all men are bad. And of course, we get bored of saying we're not saying it's all men. What we're saying is there are particular performances of masculinity that are especially toxic to men and to women, of course, because men kill women but men are killing themselves as well. So, yeah, it's a problem for everyone. And I think it's irresponsible to say that we can't talk about some components of masculinity as being dangerous, toxic or whatever.
SC: There's a big focus, rightly so, on domestic violence, as an outshoot of toxic masculinity or problematic masculinity, whatever you want to call it. What about some of the less physically violent but perhaps similarly insidious forms of bad masculinity, toxic masculinity, that are happening in society, that maybe we're not paying enough attention to?
SR: Yeah, I mean there’s loads of them, it’s a whole continuum.
SC: What would some of them be?
SR: So, thinking about like men - how masculinity affects them themselves is a really good place to start. So things like diet - people eat in particular ways. There's all kinds of research now that says, men think that not eating meat, so being vegetarian basically, is - in air quotes - “gay” or something, or somehow unmanly. And then at the other end of that spectrum that to drink lots of alcohol is also bound up with masculine culture. So I think there are harms done to the self that we wouldn't necessarily think of as being as bad as you know, these outward displays of violence. But then they're all linked to violence as well, so that we know that when people drink more, they're more likely to commit acts of violence. And during the pandemic, like people might drink more, but there definitely more likely to be in a space in the home for longer and therefore women are at higher risk of exposure to domestic violence, so these things will link together despite the fact there are a whole range of smaller things that are problematic, and that might be not having the freedom to dress or have the haircut that you want and be bullied for that - if you are a boy and you have long hair or whatever, or you dress non-normatively - ranging all the way up to not just domestic violence that leads to murder but coercive control around finances and this kind of stuff. There's a whole range of things that masculinity is implicated in that are super negative, and they go up to people losing their lives.
SC: There is a big focus on, you know, when we talk about toxic masculinity or masculinity in general and feminism, what we're trying to do is stop men doing things and showing how these are bad for women, but as you alluded to, one of the arguments of feminism, is that no, this stuff's bad for men too. You mentioned not being able to get the haircut you want, but what else is there? What are the other ways that men might not even realise these social norms are having a negative impact on the way they live their lives?
SR: So one that I’ve alluded to already and some of the research we’ve done at Monash is around drinking as well. So the drinking culture in Australia is quite particular. In some ways it's similar to some other Western cultures. But we know that it's bound up with masculinity. And we know that one of the ways that men connect with other men is through alcohol, so that has a detrimental effect on their life. And because it's bound up with masculinity and masculine norms in the correct way to be a man, it's going to have a negative impact on their health without even realising necessarily. It's about performing masculinity. It's just the done thing, right, so people don't necessarily think ‘I have to drink because I'm a man’, but somehow those two things are still connected. So yeah, there's a whole range of stuff.
SC: So, like maybe a guy who doesn't particularly want to drink but feels he has to, to fulfill the role of being a man?
SR: Even if they don't, it's not necessarily the case that someone might be like, ‘I don't want a drink, but I feel that I have to’, but the starting point is that they already do. So when you get people to try and explain why they drink, they don't know very often. They don't know what they're doing or why they're doing it. And especially when you get to risky drinking levels they don't really know.
SC: How is Australian masculinity different to other versions of masculinity today
SR: That’s a good question. So we know there were like some commonalities across a lot of Western nations, but there are some different forms. I guess I don't want to pay too much attention to how different they are. And in part it's because I think they return to caricatures that are not necessarily helpful when I give an example. So I think like this idea of, again air quotes, “Bogan” masculinity is particularly problematic because it ends up pointing to a particular proportion of the Australian population, and then they get kind of demonised a little bit for their for their culture rather than for the social or material inequalities that they that they face. So I think it's kind of tricky, but like exposing a very stereotypical kind of way Australian masculinity is a kind of like Steve Erwin, Crocodile Dundee mateship, you know, even the police officers and the pilots say, or get a maid or whatever. This kind of casual, almost like brotherhood, I suppose. On the surface it's kind of supposed to be friendly and not insidious. Or I think that's probably why most people or those people that are against the notion of toxic masculinity, think it's all right in this country, most guys are everyday good guys, good old mates or whatever. But
that disguises the insidiousness of the power relations.
SC: You mentioned an air quote, “Bogan” type of person. Which brings us to an interesting idea about class. How does class intersect with masculinity in this country and the way we think about different types of men?
SR: Again, I think we need to be really careful here because there's a risk that we end up saying that people from particular class backgrounds, perform masculinity in a way that, or they're the main source of toxic masculinity. So we know that class does have an intersection with gender performance and all kinds of other social variables do as well, but we might be thinking about things like working class or low socioeconomic status men might do particular jobs, for example. I mean, of course they do. That's what your socioeconomic status is. And that might produce a particular type of interaction with other men or the family more widely. But it doesn't necessarily mean that those kinds of things don't happen in middle class spaces as well. So what's unique about, you know, air quotes “Bogan” culture or whatever might actually not be to do with masculinity, it might just be culture. And that might be some parallels between say, for example, like Indigenous communities and air quotes “Bogan” communities or working class communities are broadly thought of as being kind of more violent, I suppose, more violent towards women, but towards other men as well. And actually I think that's really misleading because we know that violence does happen amongst middle class men as well, and it's part of masculinity as a structure overall not just to do with working classness. I think it's a real problem for societies today that we look to point to another group, you know, we know this in terms of race and ethnicity as well, and say they're the problem, that's where the problem lies over there, rather than like having a real good, long, hard look at ourselves and other parts of society where there's a common thread of violence or dominance or power or hierarchy.
SC: I wonder also, if I don't know the statistics, obviously you know better than me. But let's just assume, for argument's sake, that domestic violence is more common in lower socio economic groups. It's quite interesting and sad that, if that were the case that people would therefore think it's because this is something poor people do more, when we wouldn't for other issues plaguing lower socioeconomic groups, for example, say health outcomes are worse in lower socioeconomic groups. You know, more likely for this disease, that disease, whatever, we would never say it's because there's something wrong with these poor people would say, Well, what are the factors that are leading, what are the external pressures, supports they’re not getting, that are giving this outcome? Why do you think we can't consider it that way? Why is it that well, if domestic violence is happening there, it's because of you as a people?
SR: Yeah, I think that's really interesting, you know, because I think there's a large group of people that would say that, the underclass they’re sometimes referred to, even academics might say - well, alleged academics might say ‘that's a group of people who are unsavable and it's something inherent. There's a problem there. And then if we think about what other academics might say, ‘I know that group faces particular types of stresses’. So if they're talking about particular ethnic minority groups or sexual minority groups, they might say they face a minority stress and that is a predictor of certain types of behaviour. But when it comes to working class men's drinking or gambling or violence, especially, people are very quick to say there's a problem with those types of people and they're so different to us and I think you know that's super problematic and one of the reasons they do it - I'm kind of playing this idea at the moment in some of my writing, I'm calling it the Project of Betterism. And I think academic men, right, are very quick to say ‘that group over there, they're not as good as us’. That's kind of what they're saying; ‘we’re the reflexive, reflected individuals who sit in the Ivory Tower every time, we get it, we get it, and those people just can't cope with the pressure and they might say, yeah, we also understand that those pressures produce a particular form of masculinity, which is bound up with violence and stuff. But actually, there's something not quite right over there. And they're the problem.
Rather than looking for those common threads and thinking very carefully about how middle class men might disguise that violence, how you know, we've had that example relatively recently of St Kevin's, where the boys on the tram singing sexist, misogynistic songs and I’m sure there are lots of examples where middle class men disguise their violence in all kinds of ways. And that might be because the police don't get involved because they don't need to, or you know, they might have the financial power to disguise in particular ways. So I think, yeah, we need to be a bit more sensitive around positioning particular groups as responsible for negative forms of masculinity, and I would say that's the same for whether that's a working class group or an ethnic minority group. And so it's very, very easy to say they're the problem, over there.
SC: What is the interface between the way we understand masculinity and homophobia?
SR: So this is actually complicated in some ways, because up until about 15 years ago, we were fairly certain that masculinity was homophobia or homophobia was masculinity, essentially, it was so bound up with, bound up together. So the prospect of being a man and performing the right kind of masculinity - actually, one thing I should I should say is in academic circles, we talk about masculinities, we talk about plural, so we talk about like the dominant, culturally idealised form of masculinity- we talk about a plural - and that was up until very recently, very much bound up with homophobia. So to expel femininity, to expel anything that was like a woman, I suppose, and therefore imagining and thinking through the prospect of being gay as being reflective of that, would be something that was rejected by men and boys and men were taught to reject and hate. So homophobia was a gross but kind of crucial part of manliness in lots of ways. In the last couple of decades, we've seen that shift a little bit, and I want to stress very, very carefully that that's not to say that homophobia has disappeared, but we have seen an increasing trend towards greater tolerance, so if we look at a survey level data and close qualitative studies they still find pockets of homophobia, and lots of people see homophobia, but the number of people enacting or standing by homophobic sentiment is on the decline.
SC: And so do you think that will have a positive knock on effect in the way masculinity is performed and understood?
SR: Yeah, but here’s this interesting tension, though. So we think that that is a really important thing for progress - we think if we eliminate homophobia, then it opens up, this is what the research tells us, that opens up the possibility for different types of behaviour. So if that's, you know, dress or haircuts whatever we were saying earlier, but also and again, we've done this kind of research at Monash with tactility between males, say, like physical touch becomes more viable, I suppose, as a way of being for a contemporary young man. But the tension is that does that then have a spillover into relationships between men and women, and that's what we're kind of investigating and why it doesn’t. So it might be that as homophobia declines, you get this opening up of possibilities being a man. But at the minute we're not seeing much in the way of progress in terms of male and female relations.
SC: Associate Professor Steve Roberts, thank you so much for your time today.
Unfortunately, due to Covid we've had to adapt and do a number of these interviews by phone. So while occasionally the audio isn't as great as always, we promise you the content is
George Variyan: My name is George Variyan, I lecture in educational leadership at Monash University and I do research in elite private boys schools, but I am also interested in issues of gender and educational inequality.
SC: Dr George Varyian, welcome to the show.
GV: Thank you for having me.
SC: You've done a lot of research on single sex schools, particularly those elite private schools. What did you find about the way those schools have an impact on the culture of masculinity?
GV: Well, there is just so much written about boys' masculinity in these schools, and they've been written for so long that one wonders why none of that scholarship has had much traction. And I guess in a sense, what I was looking for is, well, I wasn't looking for it, I was just surprised to find that, for example, the most provocative stuff in my data set was that young female teachers were reporting that they were sexually harassed by their students. And I found that data on all of my sites that I studied. And I guess, in a way that was the most confronting thing for me to see that, and it was totally, sad to say, unexpected. I'm sure my research committee supervisory team were not surprised, but I was probably surprised. And then I guess it's about unpicking why I'm surprised and why other people are surprised. Why do they recognise this differently than it is, and there are a number of reasons for that.
SC: So what are the reasons?
GV: Well, I guess, to start with any institution, I guess you're incentivised not to see the difficult issues that are there, you know? And one of my participants called it like the golden handcuffs - these teachers are well paid, they enjoy a status that public teachers don't enjoy, they consider their working environment to be comfortable and well-resourced and that they can teach their subject. So there are lots of reasons why they want to be in these schools and why they are incentivised to kind of rationalise away the issues that they see.
So in a sense, there's that aspect of it. But then there's also the fact that the schools are very asymmetric in terms of their relationships in the school, from the headmaster down to the teachers. And so there's this issue of power that really tends to curtail the ability of insiders to speak out when issues arise so that asymmetries also then extend not just within the school, but because this is a high, these high fee-paying schools, we have parents paying lots of money for their kids to be safe, as well as to achieve the results that the schools are paid to achieve. And so there's the relationship with the parents that makes it also very difficult, I think, for teachers to speak out when they are being harassed. And then this slippery line between what would be considered harassment when it's recognised in the legislation that the age of 16, the younger kids - is it harassment? Well, legally, it's over that age. So there's that issue as well, but the number of reasons why they are incentivised is why they see harassment as something different, so in a Bourdieusian kind of way, teachers mis-recognise it to an extent. They disavow it. They don't believe it's happening. They tend to see it as a question of teaching rather than a question of gender.
SC: Right, so ‘why can't these female teachers just manage the class better’?
GV: Exactly, exactly. And because classrooms, you don't wander into each other's classrooms typically, especially if you're a teacher, and you tend to say, ‘well, they just don't have control’, but this is stuff that's been talked about ad nauseum, right? So where people mis-recognise, or even teachers that do, in studies, that do talk about this, they also feel that they should be in control of their classroom, right? That is their failure. And so when they do speak up, it always becomes a question of their own teaching. And then they question themselves as well. So it becomes really difficult to confront the issue because it really is. It becomes a non-issue, just becomes disappeared, and so you can't confront the emergence of these toxic masculinity kind of behaviours when they do emerge, because people are too busy disavowing it. For all the reasons I've stated already.
SC: If elite private boys schools continue on the way that they are, or the way that you found in your research, what impact will that have on the future of masculinity?
GV: Well, it's a good question because one of the things that's changing is the digital environment is becoming more ubiquitous, social media, so boys are mobilising as well in these spaces to bully and to sexually harass their teachers as well. There are lots of things and then now with the Covid situation I don't know how this is really going to change our world as well, so I don't know if boys schools will continue on the way they were when I did my research, whether there's a new type of hybrid world that we're going into. So it's hard to say what will happen now that we've had Covid overtake all of us as well. But I think that it's not just a question for boys school about becoming coed, because I think it's not about the girls fixing the problems with the boys. You know it's that same logic again. It's about getting their house in order, and I think it's about confronting some of the issues they have, and they’re complex. I think also it's about taking out some of the oxygen out of these high fee paying schools, this marketised way of organising our schools, I think is going to lead to silence because they’re so busy with their reputations. So there's lots that can be done at the level of policy as well as within the schools. If we don't do it, then we're just gonna continue on as normal on seeing these logics that are in the schools, that dis-empathy, the gender issues just continue to emerge, and then you'll go from scandal to scandal. They will not go away. But the thing is, it's so easy to tolerate these scandals, it would seem. It's a question of leadership - okay, then we move on and the news discusses the next item in and we don't actually deal with it. So yeah, I don't know whether I think school leaders that are willing to confront this will see that there has to be something done because I think in the end, they do want the best for their students. Right? Parents want the best for the kids, and I think it's about just addressing the issues that are there rather than turning away from it. I think it is in the best interest of their school communities, in their students. So, I don't I don't know what will happen, but certainly having these honest conversations, but it is really difficult. Like I said, the reason they don't have it is because of these market issues and their culture.
SC Dr. George Varyian, Thank you so much for your time.
GV: You’re welcome
SC: On the next episode, we'll hear a more positive perspective. How masculinity is changing and how many being encouraged to change past patterns of behavior. We'll discover the programs designed to help men connect in positive ways. Thanks to our guest today, that's it for this episode. For more information on what we discussed can be found in our show notes.
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