For everyone A healthier masculinity

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 11 months ago.
  • 31 Jul 2023

With a sharp rise in the number of young men and boys exposed to misogynistic attitudes on social media in recent times, educators can find themselves negotiating contested territory when it comes to helping boys develop healthy relationships.

Evidence shows an increasing demand for resources to tackle the impact of certain social media influencers on the attitudes and beliefs of boys in our schools. Also, an intensifying need for the ongoing education programs that address issues of sex and consent, combat outmoded ideas about gender and masculinity, and promote respectful relationships.

So, how do schools counter the toxic messages many boys are encountering online, discuss the dangers and limitations of gender stereotypes, and promote healthier role models for their students?

Mandy Stevens, a liaison for the Respectful Relationships and Modelling Respect and Equality (MoRE) education program, acknowledges that masculinity can be tricky terrain for educators, particularly if they haven’t had much training. It’s also a topic that parents can be touchy about schools tackling, particularly at the younger levels. But she says it’s essential that discussions around equality begin as early as possible, so that its lessons are preventative, rather than corrective.

“We’re not waiting until problematic behaviours have already occurred, and then trying to patch things up at that point,” Mandy says. “The real power is where you’re getting in early and facilitating that skill and knowledge development that, hopefully, will stop some of those behaviours occurring at a later point.”

“When we talk about healthy masculinity, we’re talking about a generation of men that contribute to a healthy, thriving, gender-equal world that is safe for all people.”

Daniel Paproth

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has become pervasive in debates about men and gender in recent times. It describes a version of traditional hyper-masculinity featuring violence, dominance, emotional illiteracy, sexual entitlement, and misogyny, that is harmful to those who conform to it, and for those around them.

A national study of men aged 18 to 30 undertaken by The Men’s Project at Jesuit Social Services found that a belief in stereotypical masculinity and conformity to “rigid gender roles” is around 20 times more significant than demographic variables in predicting men’s use of physical violence, sexual harassment and online bullying. One of its authors, Professor Michael Flood, says the survey’s findings provide important evidence for the need to scale up initiatives to shift unhealthy norms and to foster positive alternatives in Australia. But he is also concerned that the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is “far too often misheard as saying there is something fundamentally toxic about being a man; that all men are toxic”, which can trigger a problematic sense of shame.

Daniel Paproth is a facilitator with The Man Cave, a national organisation tackling young men’s emotional health and intelligence. Its programs aim to help boys avoid this shame, offering a clear, safe and healthy rite of passage from boyhood to manhood that circumvents the sort of risk-taking behaviour boys can be prone to when trying to prove their masculinity. Funded by a mix of donations, program revenue and government support, the organisation has currently worked with more than 215 schools across Victoria and New South Wales.

At its heart, its facilitators try to show boys that there are more options when it comes to being a good man, Daniel says. “When we talk about healthy masculinity, we’re talking about a generation of men that contribute to a healthy, thriving, gender-equal world that is safe for all people,” he explains.

“It’s not about throwing away some of the more stereotypical masculine traits that we’ve come to know, whether that’s competitiveness, leadership, liking sports or bantering with our mates, or being physically strong or stoic – those qualities can be important for all of us, at different points in time. It’s really about healthy ways of channelling those drives and giving boys access to more data so they can express their full selves.”

Students participate in a session with The Man Cave. Photo: supplied

“The real power is where you’re getting in early, facilitating that skill and knowledge development that, hopefully, will stop some of those behaviours occurring at a later point.”

Mandy Stevens

Daniel says that kind of information would have been helpful when he was an impressionable teenager, which is why The Man Cave facilitators strive to model different expressions of masculinity. “We want our facilitators to be like that older male cousin that you really wanted to hang out with and impress, but who could also provide some guidance,” Daniel says. “Someone who has tapped into their own expression of masculinity with that added layer of emotional intelligence and self-awareness.”

Daniel says he’s seen firsthand the impact of figures such as social media influencers Andrew Tate and Joe Rogan during discussions with young people, which has led The Man Cave to put out a report breaking down the appeal of these kinds of TikTok celebrities. Startlingly, around a third of the 1,300 boys surveyed said they considered Tate a role model.

How are schools to tackle that sort of popularity? As Mandy suggests, getting in early might help.

Birmingham Primary School are implementing a new pilot program dubbed Modelling Respect and Equality (MoRE), created by The Men’s Project at Jesuit Social Services. Year 3 teacher Chris Scott was one of the educators who attended the training on behalf of his school. He says secondary school teachers are seeing the effect of the likes of Tate and Rogan, and he is hoping that MoRE will help boys resist some of the negative messaging they might be exposed to.

“Boys need to know the impact they can have, positive and negative,” Chris says. “The training was quite surprising to me, because it made me realise there’s still a lot of 1970s-style attitudes out there, like the number of men who want to know where their partner is at all times. It made us consider how we can deal with that sort of thinking in the classroom, knowing that some kids will be exposed to this at home.”

In recognition of the value of early intervention, the federal Albanese government’s latest budget pledged $65.3 million over four years from 2022–23 (and $18.2m over two years from 2026–27) towards Consent and Respectful Relationships Education, alongside investment in teacher training.

“By starting early and including specific consent education curriculum initiatives designed to teach students the underlying beliefs and attitudes that lead to gender-based discrimination and violence, there is a critical opportunity to help prevent violence against women and children.”

Correna Haythorpe

The AEU has welcomed the government’s establishment of the National Respectful Relationships Education Expert Working Group to support the program’s implementation in schools. “Improving the safety of women and children in Australia is the responsibility of all members of our community, but teachers, principals and education support personnel play a particularly important role,” says AEU Federal president Correna Haythorpe.

“By starting early and including specific consent education curriculum initiatives designed to teach students the underlying beliefs and attitudes that lead to gender-based discrimination and violence, there is a critical opportunity to help prevent violence against women and children.”

However, the AEU is pushing for the teaching profession to be represented in the working party, given they are the ones who ultimately deliver Respectful Relationships education.

“Effective curriculum development can only occur if teachers are involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation from the very beginning,” says Correna. “We are calling on the Albanese Government to rectify this and appoint a representative of the teaching profession to the working party as soon as possible.”

While Tate might present a challenge to programs such as Respectful Relationships, he also brings an opportunity to broaden the conversation. Digging a little deeper into the report from The Man Cave reveals that it isn’t Tate’s rampant misogyny that makes him appealing to boys and young men but, rather, what they see as his work ethic, bravery and defence of “male values”. Instead of simply rejecting him as a role model, Daniel says the answer might be to lean in and get students talking about exactly why some might find him so appealing.

“What we’ve found is the vast majority of boys weren’t really aligned with the things that he says about women, but what resonated was his messages around working hard, finding motivation, getting fit, things like that,” Daniel says.

“What we need to do is create a conversation where you’re saying, ‘Cool, so there are things about his messages that you resonate with. But let’s also think about the real-world impact of some of the language that is getting thrown around here.’”

Mandy Stevens agrees. “On one level, people like Tate are really negative and risk undoing a lot of the messages we promote. But if teachers engage in these sorts of conversations in a curious way, it’s a great chance to then have a discussion. If we ignore it, we’re not providing students with any sort of critical reflection or a forum to think about these issues more deeply.”


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