Canada-based Next Gen Men does a lot of work with boys and young men. Their work is based on bringing the community’s hearts and minds together to draft a blueprint “for a future where men and boys experience less pain and cause less harm.” In May NGM hosted its second annual Future of Masculinity Summit to help boys feel included in the gender equality movement.
Boys who attended the Summit had the opportunity to explore why gender equality matters to them, what they’ve been told about how they should act within social justice movements, what they actually believe, and how they can use these powerful insights to create change.
The theme of the Summit centered around issues that boys are concerned about: Why does gender equity matter to me? What is a social justice warrior or white knight? What are the rules of cancel culture? Can I make a difference? In the article below, NGM’s Jonathon Reed explores why the Summit’s theme of boys fitting into a range of gender equality issues should be at the forefront of engaging men and boys.
“That’s what ’s frustrating,” a teenage boy said in a recent workshop. “If my job is to listen to girls and women because I’m supposed to be respectful, #MeToo and all that… where does my voice fit? How come I’m not ever allowed to speak?”
Being a boy or young man in the #MeToo era often comes with loaded feelings. Sometimes you understand what’s going on and why, but other times you feel silenced, targeted or invalidated. If parents and educators want to help boys find their place in a shifting culture, there are key experiences of young masculinity that we need to be aware of.
Power and privilege aren’t usually what boys feel
All too often, the ways adults talk about topics like patriarchy and privilege don’t adequately acknowledge the ways that a lack of power already defines boys’ lives. Most boys spend their weekdays getting told when to wake up, where to be, what to do, who to do it with, and how to spend their free time in order to be prepared to do it all again the next day—while also somehow being told that consent is paramount. They end up feeling silenced.
The blurry lines between being held accountable and getting canceled
We live in a society that is seeking to redress historically imbalanced levels of accountability while still relying on a punitive justice system. That’s how we ended up with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh lashing out against allegations of sexual assault, with actor Johnny Depp claiming that “no one is safe” from cancel culture, and Oscar winner Will Smith getting banned from the Academy Awards. We’re trying to fix an imbalanced system with broken tools. Boys can sense that. Many boys feel a double-standard that girls aren’t held to the same one-strike-andyou’re- out level of accountability as they are, a gut feeling that is related to the fact society doesn’t conceive of boys as vulnerable when it doesn’t revolve around empathy. Restorative justice is the answer—but we’re not there yet. So boys feel targeted.
For boys to extend empathy to others, they need to experience it themselves
In the midst of the 2018 Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, I facilitated a workshop with preteen boys focused on derogatory language, and boys’ role in normalizing or challenging it. Part of the workshop involved them verbalizing the words or phrases they had either used themselves or overheard from others. One of the sweetest, mildest boys stepped up to the front to speak. “Motherfucking cocksucker!” rolled off his tongue with complete ease. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was—the words were as mismatched coming from him as a grenade in the hands of a pacifist. Every single boy has experienced or witnessed violence within masculinity culture. Every single one. This doesn’t mean that boyhood is inherently violent; it means that boys have a close relationship with the kind of behavior that can and does lead to gender-based violence. They’ve seen it every day at school. They’ve learned it from their brothers and their fathers. They’ve felt it ever since they realized that they belonged to a masculine culture that demands as much proof as they have the battle-worn weapons to give.
For positive change to take place, boys need to experience responsive care themselves, while also building their capacity to recognize the current social system as unjust. Those things aren’t—and can’t be—separate.
Schools must be sanctuaries for boys. That means meeting them with empathy and curiosity, and being genuinely interested in their experiences and beliefs. It means offering them opportunities to explore their own perspectives and grow their ability to think from the perspectives of others. We won’t make headway on the movement to end gender-based violence if boys don’t see themselves in it. Boys won’t see themselves included unless they truly are.
Jonathon Reed is a program manager at Next Gen Men (NGM). A version of this article appeared as part of Learnings & Unlearnings, an NGM blog reflecting on their experiences working with boys and young men. To subscribe, go to www.futureofmasculinity.com. Reach Jonathon at Jonathon@nextgenmen.ca.