Updated: Aug 8
Welcome back to So What? … But What If!, a series of panel events which explores gender-based approaches to safety, thereby helping everyone to feel safe. Live-streamed on the 21st October 2022, this month’s panel discussed how men fit into the conversation, including how they can be allies to groups more vulnerable than themselves, hold fellow men accountable for inappropriate behaviour, and reimagine healthy modes of masculine expression.
Our panel included:
Alexander, mentor at Thriving Survivors
David Russell, Community Safety and Justice Manager at Midlothian Council
And our host, Lee Maginess, owner of ELEETE Plumbing
Key issues: media messaging about what it means to be man
After being prompted by a campaign video by That Guy, an organisation that encourages men to intervene and reflect on problematic, harassing, or violent behaviour, David expressed that he felt the campaign was very effective, though perhaps lacking in terms of total approach: ‘There’s a link for me in terms of earlier years intervention around what it means to be male while we’re growing up. It’s really about that whole model, in terms of childhood, what messaging we’re being given in terms of masculinity’ (7:19-38). He later continued: ‘It’s not necessarily about what it means to be a man, but what we’re telling young people in terms of the media, social media, exposure through television; what are we informing people what it means to be male?’ (43:07-21).
Alexander relayed his own experience being socialised as male: ‘Growing up for me, one of the famous sayings I got told was: “man up”. It’s a stereotype of being a man: you need to be that strong and silent type, you don’t need to talk about your emotions [...] It’s changing a lot, how people view themselves. There’s no set way being a man is now. For me personally, I think being a man is being respectful, and lead by example’ (44:28-45:02).
He also added because of this, it’s important to be ‘teaching the emotional side, emotional intelligence, and being able to speak your feelings, because that’s another problem that guys have, just never being able to actually be open, whether it’s male friends or female [...] It does more harm than good. We should change that aspect. Being more open, being honest, and more true to yourself leads to a lot better things for everybody in general’ (16:51-17:21).
David went on to say that he felt that the That Guy video didn’t represent how he feels about his own masculinity, for instance, saying: ‘The video doesn’t capture all forms of masculinity and all forms of male attitudes. So in terms of the theme of the video, there’s football on in the background, they’re in a pub; I think that starts to give us a message of that kind of stereotype of that group of males, which is obviously part of the population, but I think we need to think wider as well in terms of the other groups who are isolated from society, don’t have friendship circles, and are having these types of conversations online’ (7:44-8:20).
Alexander agreed: ‘Now I think a lot of young children are growing up online and a lot of their opinions are formed in that aspect. I think if you lead by example, whether it be that you’ve got kids or nephews; it’s trying to lead by example, and teach them as they grow older how to be respectful to women and everybody, and themselves, because a lot of it ends up being that they might follow the crowd. That was one of the tough things I had to grow up with: if you don’t want to be an outlier, so you end up hushing up and not saying anything’ (8:51-9:27).
David also reflected on what it’s like to grow up as a boy in today’s internet culture: ‘I would hate to be 13 now. The access, the material, the access to comments is so dangerous [... and] how graphic pornography is now compared to when we were 13 or 14 [...] So it’s about how we use these resources, and how we involve third-sector organisations to really take some of the messaging forward is really going to be key’ (49:23-59). He continued that intervention is needed at a young age: ‘It’s about how we make our education more inclusive, as well as having a more gendered approach to some of those developmental stages that we know are going to come’ (11:13-23).
Key issues: the best way to deal with problematic behaviour as a male ally
Debating whether it is best to be confrontational and loudly call out problematic behaviour, or whether to quietly confront it, Alexander relayed his own experience: ‘I have seen in the past many times, growing up and in school, you confront somebody in [an overt] fashion, normally that just instils it even more into their head that: well, I’m going to do this now just to spite you’ (29:43-55). He continued that quietly confronting someone may have more positive results: ‘It’s more grounding, it’s more personal to them [...] instead of humiliating them’ (30:04-12).
David agreed, as he recalled a situation where he was confronting young people about inappropriate comments. He noted that: ‘It wasn’t about challenge, it was actually about questioning: “what’s your understanding about that kind of language? What do you mean by those words?” And what became really apparent was that their understanding was very, very limited of how awful and how offensive the words they were using were. It ended up being quite a positive experience in terms of me providing that background to say, “this is what this actually means”, and then using that example to say: “imagine someone sitting here today, talking about your family, a female in your family: your sister, for example, in this way, it’s not good enough.”’ (34:12-51).
Alexander encouraged men to consider also ‘knowing what it’s like for the woman in that regard, having an understanding of what that’s like. [...] A lot of it is in the background, with a group of guys talking, but there’s also the ones where someone’s staring; that can really impact somebody. [...] It’s good to challenge and question, like David says: “why do you think that’s right?”’ (38:06-38).
Furthermore, David pointed out that only one problematic individual can be enough to influence the behaviour of a whole group of men, noting that ‘we tar this brush almost by saying “they must all think like that”, but very often potentially one person’s view within that group, and it’s that person who’s got the authority within that group: they’re the highest in the scale of hierarchies, so it’s that compliance. It’s how we start to break down group dynamics’ (11:31-53). Encouraging men to be critical of hierarchical relationships in general is a great way to deal with this issue.
David also noted the bias in imagining public contexts where harassment or abuse happen, but the reality is that it can happen anywhere and by men we don’t necessarily expect, including family members, colleagues, and even close friends. He explained that: ‘We shouldn’t necessarily just think about your typical example of a straight male in this scenario; we have to be inclusive to all males in terms of everyone’s got a responsibility, whether it’s friends, whether it’s family, and it doesn’t have to be a partner that we’re looking out for. We have to be looking out for it from all angles, and in a personal and professional capacity’ (24:53-25:23).
David also spoke about the difficulty some men feel in intervening, because they are worried they are being seen as a threat. But David countered: ‘Actually, you can be a safe male, and you can model certain roles and model that you are safe, and that[‘s] about working together with female colleagues, male colleagues as well, to say: how can we actually demonstrate safety?’ (19:58-20:13). Demonstrating trustworthiness and safety are great ways to be allies in situations where women feel unsafe.
Key issues: access to resources
David noted that the issue is not necessarily the resources themselves: ‘The RHAC Relationships and Parenthood Scotland programme is phenomenal; it encapsulates absolutely everything in terms of consent, and it goes into that emotional level. It talks about the use of pornography in terms of attitudes and females, how they’re dictated in pornography. These resources are there, it’s how we use them and how we use them effectively’ (48:35-58). He explained how these resources are being used in some schools, but not all, for instance.
David also spoke of historic problems of silence or limitations around sex education resources, noting ‘the lack of emotional education around sex, and a lot of the older models of sex ed were very biological, whereas we appreciate now that we need to start helping people understand what does consent look like, what does it feel like, and going into that level of depth with it. And that just doesn’t happen in school, we have to really help parents and carers with these resources that are constantly learning resources, rather than potentially one input a week or one input a month’ (14:14-53).
David further added that ‘there’s a lot of support in terms of people accessing the services and getting the support they need, but unfortunately the violence against women figures increase every year. And that might be we’ve got more access to reporting, and higher report rates, but whether that’s the case or not, it’s still increasing. For me it’s about how we start to look at prevention, in terms of males [... because] the majority of violence committed against women and girls is done by men’ (54:05-38).
Key solutions: having an inspiration in your life to do better
Lee spoke very passionately from his own perspective of being a father, and how he feels that is what motivates him to create a better world for her. He explained: ‘I want to make sure for my daughter, who’s only two-and-a-half-years-old, what I can do to make things better for her going forward. If everyone were to look at their personal circumstances, most people have got a female around them [...] and if you put yourself in that situation where that particular female is being treated in a way or spoke of in a way that you didn’t like, how would you react to that?’ (27:25-28:07).
Lee continued by imploring others to do the same: ‘If people out there are struggling to break the stereotype, break the mould, if people are struggling to come forward and speak about this, just try and think about that one inspiration in your life that makes you think: I wouldn’t want them being spoken to in that way, or I wouldn’t want them to speak to somebody in that way. And perhaps that wee bit of inspiration will encourage more people to come forward, and be more open about this whole topic about males’ behaviour around females, because it really does have to change’ (57:20-59).
Media messaging continues to shape boys’ and men’s self-image in a way that can cause them to be threatening, harassing, and violent to women and girls. As such, the stats tell us that male violence against women and girls continues to rise. Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources that try to counter these messages, and with better access and with better inclusion for all different types of men, we can encourage men to seek help for their behaviour and find communities who bond over creating a respectful atmosphere for all.
Thank you again to our brilliant panellists, and please be on the look-out for our next panel event in November (more information here: https://www.sowhatbutwhatif.co.uk/events).