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Men Are Made, Not Born

November 14 2019 By Patty Kinnersly, Our Watch CEO

How do we support the men and boys in our lives to be respectful, kind and fair? It’s a question many of us ask ourselves each time we see or hear another example of violence or disrespect towards women.

Man in blue box Image

Whether it's a tram load of schoolboys shouting vile, sexist comments, a radio announcer ranting that someone should shove a sock down the throat of the New Zealand Prime Minister, or the sexist trolling of AFLW star Tayla Harris, the examples of disrespect and abuse are almost daily.

Of course, this is not all men. There are many examples of decent, respectful men doing great things. But all men need to step up and speak up when they see examples of disrespect and sexism, as well as reflecting on whether their own behaviour and attitudes could be better.

A new report by Our Watch, Men in focus, has found that rigidly following only the dominant ideas of how to be a man – to be tough, stoic, aggressive and hyper-sexual – are both driving violence towards women, and harming men themselves.

Men in focus is the largest review by a sector organisation of the Australian and international research evidence on the topic of masculinity and violence against women. The report explains how these stereotypes that associate masculinity with dominance, control and aggression help create a mindset that promotes and excuses violence, or even sees violence as an inevitable or ‘natural’ expression of masculinity.

It found that men who subscribe to these stereotypes experience greater health risks, including higher rates of depression and suicide. They are also more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours such as dangerous driving and substance abuse and are less likely to seek help.

It’s important to note that these stereotypes aren’t necessarily bad in themselves, or in all situations – in an emergency, for example, it’s important for someone to take control. The problem arises when men feel the pressure and expectation to behave only in these ways, or believe that there’s no other way to be a man.

How do we change this? How do we encourage and support men to see that there are many ways to be a man and to express themselves and operate outside the confines of rigid or stereotyped roles?

The good news is, we know that men are made not born. Masculinity is a social construction, a set of social or culturally dominant ideas about how men should be. These ideas are reinforced by our social systems and structures, resulting in learned behaviours and attitudes about manhood.

In order to better understand these dominant ideas, we need to challenge the attitudes and practices that underpin them, and look at many of our institutions and systems – for instance, our laws, the workplace, our sports organisations – that may help promote and maintain these norms.

We need to promote more positive and respectful ways of being men and to encourage men to embrace behaviours normally not available to them or that might be considered feminine or unmanly. Men shouldn’t be judged against a narrow checklist of traits in order to conform or be accepted.

There is no one way to be a man, and men do not conform to one model of masculinity, nor do they act in the same way in all situations. For instance, the ways in which men act at work or engage with their children at home might differ from how they act when they're at the pub with their mates.

We need to support men and boys to bond and interact with each other in ways that don’t encourage aggression or disrespect towards women. Both men and women need to be part of the conversation that leads to change in societal attitudes and prejudices, and we need programs and policies that break down stereotypes and create opportunities for change.

Research shows that achieving gender equality is a key to breaking the cycle of violence against women and their children. In order to do that we have to reframe masculinity so that no part of being a man is associated with sexism, disrespect or having to dominate.

We can all play a part in creating a new normal where no man stands by watching or encouraging the violent behaviour of others and where our laws, policies and systems no longer tacitly endorse men’s aggression and violence and where all men are supported and encouraged to reject the narrow stereotypes that are too often harming both them and the women in their lives.

This opinion editorial was originally published on whimn.com.au on 14 November 2019
Image source: whimn.com.au