On this episode of the What Happens Next? podcast we’ll hear a more positive perspective – how masculinity is changing, and how men are being encouraged to change past patterns of behaviour.
The research undertaken by one of the guests in our last episode, Steve Roberts, along with PhD students Brittany Ralph and Rebecca Stewart, is now being used by VicHealth to develop programs and projects to support healthier masculinity. We’ll talk to them about their research, along with VicHealth CEO and Monash alum Sandro Demaio, also known as the host of ABC’s Ask the Doctor, about how they're helping to turn the tide on toxic masculinity through innovation and education.
Susan Carland (SC): In the last episode, we heard about the dystopia we’re in right now, but we shouldn't give up hope. We'll discover the programs designed to help men connect in positive ways.
Rebecca Stewart (RS): I am Rebecca Stewart and I am doing My PhD is part of the Behavior Change Graduate Research Industry Partnership, which is a collaboration between Behaviour Works Australia as part of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute in partnership with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and I am looking at what the key ingredients are to engaging men and boys in sustainable shifts in attitudes and behaviours around healthier versions of masculinity
Britanny Ralph (BR): Brittany Ralph, I’m a doctoral researcher at Monash University and my research focuses on looks at masculinity in positive change, particularly with regards to men's friendships.
Steve Roberts (SR): I'm Steve Roberts, Associate Professor of Sociology at Monash University, and my research area is masculinity and social change.
SC: Steve Roberts, Brittany Ralph, Rebecca Stewart, welcome to the podcast.
I want to start by asking about the research Rebecca has done and is doing on programs to help men and boys have different attitudes, or healthy attitudes towards masculinity? Give us some hope. What's working?
RS: Ah, there's plenty of hope out there, especially when you're talking to young people, I think. In terms of what's working, there are a number of programs out there at the moment that specifically address masculinity and the stereotypes and norms that are associated with those and whilst the evaluation is a little bit lacking at this point, we do have a lot of anecdotal evidence or reports, and I have been out there talking to a lot of the facilitators who do have a lot of hope with the people that they're speaking with, so it's looking at breaking down stereotypes around what is OK in terms of emotional expression. So, you don't just have to be mad, you can be sad - it's things like respectful relationships. The respectful relationships initiative is one that's been run in a number of primary and secondary schools across Australia, and one of the really positive things that I have learned about this curriculum is that they have this whole school approach. So in the research I’ve been doing, one of the key features that keeps coming out of successful interventions, working with stereotypes and norms is that education is one part of it. But you also need to be working at multiple levels of that sort of ecosystem that the person lives within. So it's not just individual skills, it's not just teaching the boys and girls what gender stereotypes are and how to counteract them, but it's also about educating and skilling up teachers so that they can have those conversations. It's about engaging parents in those topics and developing their language around it and one of the things that I think is quite cool in that initiative in particular, is that they send the kids home with homework to sort of discuss the issues that they've dealt with at school, which sort of forces that conversation to be happening outside of that sphere so that they can continue to, I guess, educate up, but also have those meaningful engagements with the authoritative figures in their lives.
SC: Which I think would probably make a big impact for boys and girls. If Mum and Dad are saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I really think that too’ or ‘that's interesting’ that must have a really significant reinforcement.
RS: Absolutely, and ot of the feedback and anecdotal evidence that I've had shared with me is that most of the time people sort of come back and say ‘we have never had a chance to talk about that or to even think about it’. So one of my key things, which is probably a bit cliche, is it's all about self reflection and self awareness, and we really have a lot of power over the environments that we, and how we move through the world and the impact that we have. So I think programs like this that sort of challenge those traditional norms. That might just be, I guess the thing about norms and stereotypes is they’re mental shortcuts. So until you actually call them out and sit down and have a think about them - you just don't
SC: Britney. You've done research on men's friendships. How have men's friendships in Australia changed over time?
BR: So the study that I'm doing for my PhD research talks to fathers and sons, and a really interesting thing, at the most basic level, we're finding that men are opening up more - at least the men that I'm speaking to, and a lot of men you find that are being spoken to in the literature, they're becoming more comfortable with talking about their emotions with their male friends, and they're becoming more physically tactile, which we know is an important way to access feelings of belonging and well being. A really interesting thing that was mentioned earlier was that, you know, we look at young men as this sort of beacon of change, and it's definitely true that a lot of the younger generations are more comfortable with being intimate with their male friends. What I'm finding with my research too is that the fathers that I speak to who are aged between about 50 and 70, they're also living in this cultural shift, and they lived it 20 years ago as well. And so they're also coming up against things in their lives. Deaths in the family, illness, other forms of trauma, and they're changing with it. So they’ve had this cultural shift, and they have gone through something traumatic and sort of gone - a direct quote from one of my participants is that “you get to a point where you realise you can't do it on your own anymore”. And so it isn't just young men that are changing, it's also older generations, and they're bringing up boys, you know, as a result of their experiences in their thirties, they have been more intimate with their sons. They've been more open and communicative and caring with their sons. And so for the sons, it's just natural. Of course, this is only going off a small sample of men that are willing to speak to me as a researcher. So this is definitely not across the board.
SC: What are you hoping will be the outcome of your research? How can we use what you found to make men's relationships, you know, tighter, more fulfilling.
BR: Yeah, I think what's coming out of my research, it’s gonna be a lot of theoretical stuff at the base line, but I think beyond that, what's becoming evident to me is that most of this fear and mistrust men feel about being vulnerable with other men, it isn't that it's not well founded, it's that once that sort of initial barrier is broken between male friends it's like the floodgates open and their friends are - my communication would be that everyone is is going through a very similar thing. A lot of men are going through a similar thing in terms of feeling trapped, in terms of feeling ‘you know what? We're humans, we all go through tough times’. It's just it's once you get past that, that first hurdle and start talking about what's going on, you'll find that your friends all open up too and they love you and they care about you and they want to be there for you. So it's hard to talk about men's friendships and then discuss things like domestic violence because it definitely makes me feel like the work that I'm doing might not be as central to positive change. But I think speaking about men's everyday lives, it's helping, hopefully, helping them to realize that it's okay to pen up to your friends.
SR: I just wanna give Britt a big thumbs up, actually, because I think you're doing better work and more important work - your work is really important, and it's because it demonstrates to me that we all have an obligation to highlight positive enactments of masculinity and masculine change because otherwise we fall back on ‘the boys will be boys’ stuff. If we're saying that men can't change, they are what they are, actually, your research is finding that older men are processing that change and trying to change. So we're not saying that this is perfect. We know we have a long way to go. We know that violence is really shocking against men and women, but there's a possibility to be more than they were, and I think that's really, really important to highlight what's possible.
SC: All right, Big Sky thinking everybody. If you could change one thing about the way masculinity is done or understood in Australia, what would you do?
RS: We've got great people, great men and great women, out there doing amazing work in this space and breaking down rigid norms and stereotypes. And, you know, it's often called the ‘man box’ of these rules that limit and restrict how men can engage with their peers, which back to Britt’s research is really important because one of the key ways to break the abuse cycle is around environment and relationships, and I think, agents of change are being developed everywhere, and we all have responsibility to get out there. So I think there's a lot of #notallmen, but the reality is that all men will experience or witness sexism or gender inequality or violence-supportive jokes, and so I think my biggest change that I would love to see is the bystander stuff. It's standing up and saying, ‘actually, that doesn't sit well with me’. and ‘I don't think you should say that’ or ‘stop talking and let Susan finish her thought’.
SVC: Or ‘actually, that was Cindy's idea, not yours’.
RS: Exactly. So that is, I think there's a real responsibility for all men to step up, and women as well. I mean, it's hard. Bystander action is a big thing at the moment, and it's hard to take that stand. But as Britt was talking about, and my research is showing the same thing, as soon as somebody says something, you'll find five other people in the room that are thinking the same thing or feeling the same discomfort. So it's about rallying and, yes, speaking out.
SC: And that is how we change social norms, isn't it? We - communities, people - subtly and not so subtly, are always letting each other know what is okay in our society and what's not. You know, if I suddenly spat on the floor, you probably will give me a dirty look or something, because in Australia, that's not okay. In other cultures, spitting outside is fine, here, that’s not okay and we let each other know. So speaking up is - here's a challenging question, I ponder on this, as a Muslim. After September 11 there was a huge focus on the Muslim community in countries like Australia, the US - you need to police yourselves, it's on you guys to stop this happening. And a lot of Muslims really pushed back against that and said, ‘We're not responsible for this. Don't make this our problem and by even saying that you're putting us all in the same boat.’ So on the one hand, I think about this issue with the way men need to stop other men and police other men. I think about it as a Muslim and the experience I've had with that. But on the other hand, I do also know the significance of bystander intervention as well and the way we do change social norms and that we need to have male role models for men to look up to, to go ‘that's not okay’. It's a tension that I struggle with. Tell me why the Muslim community experience is not replicable here. I feel like it's not.
BR: I think the first thing that comes to my mind is again power. So this idea that as a sort of top of the gender hierarchy men are the ones that will determine what is considered masculine, right? So, some theorists, or some academics will say if a woman disapproves of a man’s behaviour, it makes it more masculine, so it doesn't actually make him not want to do, it makes him feel like he's doing the right thing.
I totally agree, but there is to a certain extent we have to understand that men are more likely to listen to other men. So in a situation when someone is standing up, it isn't just because someone's calling it out because another man's calling it out. And so they take that as a legitimate comment on their behavior. It also has to do with the rational emotional binary, because if a woman speaks up about something it’s probably going to be taken as us being hysterical. Whereas if a man does it, it's considered and it's valid, you know, it's got more validity to it.
RS: And men aren’t a minority. And we live in a patriarchal society that is set up to support and carry some of these behaviours.
So, I had not thought of it in that way, because it's not my my world perspective, and it's really helpful to get another lens to look through, and I can see why - that helps me to understand the not all men thing.
SC: I can say, as a Muslim woman, I understand the visceral resistance that some men have when they’re like, ‘stop blaming us’. I can understand it because I felt it from another perspective.
SR: I think what's missing from that conversation, or is at the edges of this conversation, is about race and racism as well. And it's very easy for white people to turn to ethnic minority groups and say ‘Oh you should be policing that behavior’. But we didn’t see that with the Christchurch massacre. You know, we didn't see the white population say ‘well yeah, the white population really have to have a good think about what it is that’s unique about a culture that produces this behaviour’. Actually, I think there's a common thread which is not being a Muslim. The common thread is that terrorism is most often enacted by men, and it has a relationship with masculinity. I think that's what's missing here, right? So we're not saying that all men, because they may or may not engage in practices of masculinity, that they're gonna be terrorists or they're going to be killers. But we do know there's a relationship between masculine ideals and power and violence. So I think the thread - it's completely misleading to point to a community and say ‘it must be something about your culture’. It's patriarchal norms that run through all of these cultures that are the common thread.
I get it, I get - you know, I'm actually often apologising in the front of my books, saying, ‘I'm not saying hashtag not all men, but I am also pointing to this group of men who are doing some good and productive stuff. However, we do have to recognise that masculinity is the thread, was a continuum, and some of those practices lead to even more negative practices across cultures. It's not unique to culture.
RS: Yeah, these aren’t little toddlers walking out one day and saying, ‘I'm going to be aggressive and abusive towards the women in my life or the children in my life’, it's a culmination of influences. So it's the patriarchal systems and institutions. It's the being told to stop crying at a young age and not show emotion in that way. It's being made fun of because you've got long hair. And then maybe your voice doesn't break as soon as everyone else's. It's that sort of culmination and then getting into the workplace and sexist jokes going around on the email. That's the bystander stuff as well, acknowledging that all of this contributes to that final behaviour. So, no, not all men. It is a minority that’s enacting this violence, but we're all supporting it, and we're supporting the structures in the norms in the society and the culture that enables that to be the end outcome.
BR: What I would like to see change is shame. I think at the centre of a lot of issues for men is shame. And it was interesting, I was speaking to a student after our first and only in person lecture on Monday, who came and spoke to me and she said it wasn't until this year and starting to learn some of the stuff we're teaching in the men and masculinity course that she went, ‘Oh my God, I would hate to be a man. It sounds like it would suck’. She was saying, ‘my whole life I've been able to go to my friends, you know, express my feelings, talk about my problems. But for them, there's so much shame. And people in my life have gone through horrific things and they just can't talk about it because they don't want to appear weak or vulnerable. And I think shame is at the centre of things like the incel movement. So, if masculinity says you need to be attractive to women and and have a high level of virility or whatever it might be, have promiscuous sex, and you can't have that, then you feel emasculated and you feel immense shame and it comes out in these really horrible ways and that can have knock on effects. The worst, of course, being a mass shooting like what happened in America. But even smaller issues - I work at a gym, and I see men come in who are smaller, physically, and I'm thinking of one person in particular who's been coming in for the last few years, and there's so much anger in him, and I can feel it when he walks in, and I just want to hug him - like he's gotten quite jacked in the last few years - but you just feel, you just know that he's gone through hell in high school because he's small. I think back at my high school experience - the shame was massive for men who were smaller. So if we can change what you think of masculinity and not attach someone's worth to their ability to enact particular masculine attributes, then maybe we won't have so many men that are hurting so much and taking it out on each other and on women and on themselves.
SC: I think that's such a good point, cause what I noticed when you were talking when you were talking about the spectrum and where things start, all the examples you gave of what we do to little boys are humiliating things. Stop crying, Don't wear your hair like that. That's humiliating them. It sounds like humiliation of men is actually the toxic ingredient and I was trying to think as you were speaking, how are women humiliated for not living upto ideal femininity? I mean, maybe, you know, as women it’s well, I'm not thin enough or not pretty enough, whatever. But I don't know if the level of humiliation is as toxic for us, because we have more options now for what it means to be a woman in a way that men don't have options for what it means to be a man.
BR: Exactly. And that's what we haven't gotten to yet as a society, we have done a lot of work with men and there's still work to be done, but we haven't flipped it and looked at the stereotypes of men that are harming men. Toxic femininity was through the idea that women should be subservient and stay in the home - we're addressing that, we have to do the same for men.
SR: Building on what Britt was saying, I think it's the idea that one has to expel the feminine, right? So the reason those boys are being humiliated in that sense is because other boys are saying they're too much like a woman. So it comes back to the gender binary and biology and all these things that men have to be, have to act in particular ways of boys and men and girls and women have to be distinct from that, and separate. So when you end up kind of veering into that lane just a little bit, you get called out for being too feminine. So it's this idea that men ‘should’ be something that is really problematic. So I think that's at the centre of all of this. This binary needs to be uncoupled, and we should all be free to do whatever and not find that the only way we can achieve status is by having power over others through acts of humiliation.
SC: Thank you so much to all of you for joining us 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.
Sandro Demaio (SD): Hi, My name's Dr Sandra Demaio, I'm a medical doctor and a public health expert and advocate and CEO of VicHealth, the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. And I'm currently learning how to make sourdough.
SC: Sandro Demaio, thank you so much for joining us.
SD: Thank you.
SC: Tell us about some of the research that VicHealth has done into masculinity.
SD: Yes, so we’ve been leading some research in this with a range of partners for a while and it's really looking at the growing evidence that initiatives that promote healthier masculinity, that is sort of question the norms, challenge the unhealthy norms often that come with being a boy or a man or a guy and the perceived expectations around what that means for your role in society and how you interact with others and across your life - how we can use the evidence to I suppose, have healthier masculinity and also the positive that impacts that we know come with that. Firstly, on women and girls health due to improved gender equality. But also there's good evidence that actually, by challenging existing norms around masculinity and helping young men and boys to develop healthier ways of being and thinking and acting and letting them go their own way, improves their health and well being. And that's what we're all about at VicHealth, it's basically trying to make sure that every Victorian is able to lead a healthy life, and that every Victorian man or boy is able to explore their own masculinity.
SC: And how responsive have you found men and boys to be to your initiative? Are they interested, or a bit uncertain?
SD: I think it's a concept that is probably met initially with uncertainty. People sort of think ‘oh what does this mean?’ Is that a term that means there is something unhealthy about being masculine? And you know, what's what's wrong with going to the gym and being in a football
team? Or the things that you might think, at first, are kinda typically blokey. But once you unpack that with them, I think they very quickly realise that, actually, the way society pushes young men and boys to act in certain ways, to react in certain ways and reinforces norms again and again across their life course, both in terms of how they think about themselves, in terms of how they react to or interrelate with other men and boys, but also really importantly how they interrelate and react to others, including women and girls in society. I think once you unpack that with them and really start to have a think beyond the first reactions, it resonates really strongly. And certainly this is my experience. I wouldn't call myself a terribly masculine man. You know, not not in the ‘traditional’ way. And I always thought that I was kind of different because of that. You know, I always loved drama, I loved music. I could never catch a ball to save myself. I actively avoided football and instead would volunteer for first aid, to run the first aid program. I was leader of the Environment Club, not a prefect or getting colours for sport at any point, you know? And so I always kind of felt that there was certainly times in my life in my teenage years where I thought maybe something was wrong with me, that I didn't sort of fit in the typical box that men and boys are told they need to fit into. And it was probably a sense of, it probably was a broader battering to my sense of worth at some points, particularly my adolescent years. And so I think this is actually something that many, many men share and can relate to, that there's been a certain experience or time in their life that they felt they don't stack up to what society wants them to be, and so the idea of challenging that and of actually saying well, you know what? We're all different and it's healthy to be different, and it's healthy to find your own version of masculinity. And actually that it could be healthy and not just for you, but also for those around you, is really empowering
SC: And what findings have come out of the research so far? Of the projects you've been running?is
SD: Yes. So I mean, I think the major findings have really been that this is healthy and helpful, not just for issues of gender equality, of equality between men and women, of respectful relationships, but also it's actually good for the health of men and boys. And I think that's something that often surprises people. We think of challenging unhealthy norms around masculinity as something that men are doing to help others. But actually, it's as much about improving the health of men and boys as it is about challenging those kind of ideas that men ‘need to be a real man’ or ‘man up’ or all those sort of really unhealthy framings and phrases - that those those things don't just have a negative impact on the relationships between men and women, on the dynamics across society, between men and women. But also actually, they have a negative impact on the health of men themselves. A world where we have you know, there's good evidence that in a world where men are constrained by the kind of typical rules of masculinity is a world where they have poorer levels of mental health - men, they participate in more unhealthy behaviors like risky drinking and, in fact, a world where we have higher rates of suicide and cart accidents among men. We know at the same time a world where there is greater gender equality and where more women are at the helm of the decision making-table and in the decision-making seat as a CEO or as a Prime Minister or as a Minister or another leader in society, that in fact, you get better equity outcomes, you get better health outcomes across the population, not just in women, but in everyone. And I think that that's a big part of the message that is being lost, that it's not a zero sum - It's not about someone giving up ground for someone else. It's actually by creating a more equal and respectful world, where individuals, regardless of their gender, or how masculine they are, can find their own way and be celebrated for who they are and what they are, we all win.
SC: All right, cast your mind into the future. Look into your crystal ball. Sandro. If we don't change our ideas and the way we think about masculinity, what does the future look like?
SD: I'd like to see a world, I think we can achieve a world, where everyone realises that there is no single male path. There is no single form of masculinity. There's no right or wrong form of masculinity. That way, we should be encouraging everyone to be themselves, but also challenge the kind of unhealthier behaviours that are often associated with being a man, or that we feel we have to sort of be, to be manly. And I think reminding everyone that in that world, if we are able to achieve healthier masculine norms, it's not a zero sum. It's not going to mean a healthier world for men and a less healthy world for women or a healthier world for some men and not for others, it's actually gonna be a healthier world for everyone, a safer world, for everyone. And, you know, I think just a better future. And I think particularly for my kids - my future kids, I don’t have kids at the moment - but the next generation, it would be great if we can move past these outdated masculine norms so that a generation soon can grow up feeling comfortable and empowered in their own skin, and that being a man doesn't require you to think or act in a way that actually comes with worse health outcomes yourself, probably also for your partner, your family and possibly the rest of society.
SC: Thank you so much for your time today, Sandro.
SD: You’re so welcome.
SC: We'll be back with one last episode on this topic. Looking at tips and ideas for cultivating positive aspects of masculinity and effectively tackling the negative ones. Thanks to all our guests today, that's it for this episode. More information on what we discussed today can be found in the show notes.
- Traditional masculinity is evolving – and young working-class men are leading the charge
- Risky drinking among men: alcohol's role in social interaction
- Putting good health on the table
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