Fostering Healthy Masculinities among Men and Boys

Men and masculinities are now on the public agenda. There is growing attention in Ireland and around the world to the gendered attitudes, practices, and relations associated with men and boys and their implications for health, violence and gender inequality. There are various signs of this: intensified public debate over codes of masculinity, growing attention to men and masculinities in policy and programming, increasing scholarship on the links between masculinities and various social issues, and men’s activism and advocacy.

In short, men and masculinities are on the public agenda.

Just a note on language. When I say ‘gender’, I mean: norms, practices, and structures related to men’s and women’s lives.  Gender means the meanings we give to being male and female, and the social organisation of men’s and women’s lives.

Now increasingly you see the term ‘gender’ used only for identity, for how people see themselves as men or women or something else. But gender is much more than that.

Gender does include

  • Identities and personality: how you see yourself, your personal traits

But gender also includes:

  • Social norms: societal expectations about men and women, what’s seen as normal or desirable. And ideologies: sets of beliefs about men and women
  • Behaviours or practices: paid and unpaid work; violence; sex; talking; etc.
  • Interpersonal relations: how men and women relate to each other, at work, at home, in bed, on the street
  • Images and representations: what you see in TV, and in movies, music, and porn
  • Patterns of work, care, sexuality, and so on
  • The organisation of institutions – of workplaces, governments, businesses, churches, and so on – who’s in charge, who does what kind of work, how do people treat each other, and so on.

In short, gender is much more than identity. It is behaviours or practices, norms (attitudes, images, ideologies), and structures: (patterns of work, patterns of power, the organisation of social institutions).

When I say ‘masculinities’, I mean: the social organisation of men’s lives and relations and the meanings given to being male. So masculinities – the patterns of men’s lives, the meanings given to being a man – may be good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. But as I’ll note in a moment, influential models of masculinity certainly are harmful, both for women and for men ourselves.

Public debates about men and masculinities

Men and masculinities are now on the public agenda, and we are witnessing at present a particularly energetic focus on men in media commentary and public debate.

One of the times when these debates about men and masculinity – about how we socialise boys, about how some men treat women, and so on – spike is in the wake of high-profile incidents of men and boys assaulting or allegedly assaulting women and girls. When Jozef Puška allegedly raped and murdered Ashling Murphy in January. When two boys aged 13 assaulted and murdered Ana Kriégel. Such incidents intensify the national conversation on men and masculinities in Ireland, as they do in other countries.

Growing attention to men and masculinities in policy and programming

There is growing attention to men and masculinities in policy and programming. This comes out of the recognition that many social problems – domestic and sexual violence, violent crime, unwanted pregnancy, suicide, and so on – are gendered. That is, they are shaped by the identities, behaviours, norms, and structures associated with being male or female.

Remember, masculinity refers to the meanings given to be being male, and the social organisation of boys’ and men’s lives and relations. So focusing on norms, in any context some versions of masculinity will be dominant – the most influential, given the most status. Masculinities can be healthy or unhealthy. But in many contexts, masculinity is based on dominance over women, a disdain for anything feminine, and entitlement. Boys and men are often under pressure to be strong, stoic, in control, dominant in relationships and households, competitive, aggressive, and so on.

And what is now very clear, from a wealth of scholarship, is that this version of masculinity is directly implicated in some very serious social problems. Let’s take the problem of men’s violence against women.

Masculinity and the gendered drivers of violence against women

There are powerful links between masculinity and men’s domestic or sexual violence against women. Most men do not use violence against women. Most men treat women with respect and care. But men are far more likely to use violence against a woman if:

  • They have grown up learning that males’ needs and wishes come before females’;
  • They have learnt, through media, or pornography, or their friends, that men are entitled to women’s deference, that men are entitled to women’s bodies;

Men are far more likely to use violence against a woman:

  • When they are the dominant ones in relationships and households, and live in communities where women have less independence and autonomy and men run the show;
  • When they grow up with rigid and stereotypical gender roles;
  • And when they have mates and peers who treat women with aggression and disrespect.

Masculinity and gender inequalities are not the only factors that shape domestic and sexual violence, but they are certainly key factors.

Masculinity and harms among men

Growing attention to men and masculinities in policy and programming also is inspired by the recognition that masculinity is implicated in social problems that involve harms among men. I am thinking here of issues such as suicide, risky driving, drug and alcohol use, and violence among men and boys.

Let’s take suicide:

Studies find that men who endorse traditional masculinity – men who believe that men should be self-reliant, should not ask for help – are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than other men. And more likely to actually commit suicide. This is the consistent finding from studies in various countries, including the US, Australia, and Ireland.

The rationale for attention to men and masculinities

From what I have said so far, there are three compelling rationales for paying attention to, looking critically at, men and masculinities.

First, traditional, rigid forms of masculinity are implicated in a series of social problems. The norms and relations of gender and manhood are implicated in violence against women and violence between men, sexual and reproductive health, suicide, alcohol and drug use, mental health, occupational deaths and injuries, and a host of other issues.

Second, traditional, patriarchal forms of masculinity are implicated in the harms that some men inflict on women. Implicated in the whole continuum of harmful behaviour, from domestic and sexual violence right through to everyday sexism and disrespect.

And third, traditional, patriarchal forms of masculinity are implicated in the harms that men and boys themselves suffer. Men who conform more strongly to the beliefs that men should be tough, stoic, dominant, daring, and in control are more likely than other men to consider suicide, take risks with sexual partners or at the wheel of a car, assault other men, avoid help-seeking, and refrain from active fathering.

Putting it simply: patriarchal masculinity is oppressive and unjust for women. And it is also limiting and harmful for men ourselves.

The ‘engaging men’ field

So in recent years we have seen the development of a field of programming and policy focused on ‘engaging men’. The ‘engaging men’ field involves gender-conscious initiatives and interventions aimed at men and boys in relation to violence prevention, sexual and reproductive health, parenting, education, and other areas. The Men’s Development Network, with its mission “Better Lives for Men, Better Lives for All”, is an inspiring example of this work.

Their efforts are buttressed by a growing evidence base. If done well – and that is a big ‘if’ – then interventions among men and boys can make lasting change in the attitudes and behaviours associated with gender inequality.

So far, I have introduced the issues of men and masculinities, and the rationale for addressing men and masculinities and engaging men in change. Now I want to return to the impacts of masculinity, before I end by exploring what we need to do.

The Man Box

What do we call that particular, all-too-common version of masculinity based in dominance over women, sexual entitlement, hostility to women, homophobia, aggression, rigid stoicism, and so on?

Some people call this ‘toxic masculinity’. We could equally talk about patriarchal masculinities. Gender-inequitable masculinities. Sexist masculinities.

But another term is the Man Box.

Like these other concepts, the ‘Man Box’ refers to influential and restrictive norms of manhood. The ‘box’ names the qualities men are expected to show, the rewards they earn for doing so, and the punishments they are dealt if they step ‘outside’ the box.

Findings on the Man Box

The Man Box survey has been used in the US, the UK, and Mexico, Australia, and other regions.

The survey asks men about their endorsement of a series of statements linked to seven stereotypical masculine qualities: self-sufficiency, toughness, physical attractiveness, rigid gender roles, heterosexuality and homophobia, hypersexuality, and aggression and control.

In Australia, the Man Box survey was conducted by Jesuit Social Services as part of the Men’s Project, and I must acknowledge their work here.

In Australia, we conducted the Man Box survey among 1,000 men aged 18 to 30.

So, what are the key messages of the Man Box survey?

1st key message: Key aspects of traditional masculinity remain influential.

The first key message is this: many traditional ideals of manhood remain influential.

Young men were asked first about what they think society tells them about being a man. Young men were particularly likely to agree that society tells them that men should act strong (69%), fight back when pushed (60%) and never say no to sex (56%).

So, strength and toughness, aggressive responses to challenge, and perpetual sexual readiness seem still to be part of manhood.

However, some other traditional ideals seem to be dropping away.

Young men also were asked about their own support for, their personal endorsement of, traditional ideals of manhood. There was a consistent gap between social and personal ideals, with lower personal endorsement of every one of the elements of traditional manhood.

A sizeable number of young men believed that men should act strong (47%), be the primary breadwinners (35%) and fight back when pushed around (34%).

  • In a particularly troubling finding, about one-quarter to one-third endorsed male dominance in relationships with women.
    • 27% of young men believed men should always have the final say about decisions in their relationships.

37% believed men should know where their wives or girlfriends are at all times.

Other research tells us three more things about men and ideals of manhood.

1) First, there is a consistent gender gap in support for traditional ideals of gender. Men are less aware than women of sexism, more supportive of male dominance, and have more violence-supportive attitudes. Indeed, some research finds that young men are less aware than young women of the harms of traditional masculinity itself.

2) Second, there is diversity among men. Young men are not all the same. There are differing forms of masculine identity and practice among young men, associated with distinct peer cultures, and large variations in men’s endorsement of sexism and violence.

3) Third, men are changing. While the Man Box survey data is not longitudinal, other data points to shifts over time in gender.

There are some cultural shifts we can take heart from. Young men’s rejection of violence against women, and their support for gender equality, have increased. Homophobia in some ways has declined. There is a growing blurring of gender boundaries.

But, there are still persistent and profound gender inequalities. And new forms of sexism and misogyny are emerging: in alt-right online spaces, in pornography, in patriarchal religious movements, and elsewhere.

Okay, back to the Man Box survey.

2nd key message: Young men who conform to traditional definitions of manhood are more likely to suffer harm to themselves, and to do harm to others.

The second key message is this. Conforming to traditional masculinity exacts a real cost, both among young men themselves and for the women and men around them.

The Man Box is bad for young men’s health. Young men who agreed more strongly with its ideals were more likely than other men to feel depressed or suicidal, seek help from only a narrow range of sources, and be involved in binge drinking and traffic accidents.

Patriarchal notions of manhood are dangerous not only for men themselves but for those around them.

Young men who agreed more strongly with the ideals of the ‘Man Box’ were six times as likely as other young men to perpetrate sexual harassment, bullying, and less likely to intervene in others’ violence.

Again, these findings should not be surprising. Conformity to traditional masculinity is a well-documented risk factor for men’s perpetration of violence against women.

So a key problem with masculinity is that it contributes to sexism and gender inequalities.

Unpacking the Man Box

In a followup report, Unpacking the Man Box, we looked at the degree to which conformity to the Man Box norms has an impact.

Men’s endorsement of masculine norms has a unique and powerful influence on harmful attitudes and behaviours

A key finding of this research is that: Men’s endorsement of masculine norms has a unique and powerful influence on a large number of harmful attitudes and behaviours, over and above other possible influences.

For example, belief in rigid masculine norms was 20 times more important than demographic variables in predicting the use of violence, sexual harassment and online bullying

These findings should be a wake-up call to policy makers and advocates addressing these social problems to pay attention to masculinity.

Some masculine norms are more harmful than others

We found that:

  • While some masculine norms contribute to men’s poor health, others do not, or even are protective of men’s health.
  • Some masculine norms are more harmful than others. That is, they have stronger associations with men’s poor health or with men’s harmful behaviour towards others.

Which masculine norms are influential depends in part on which outcome

Unpacking the Man Box documents that specific unhealthy outcomes and behaviours are shaped more by some masculine norms than others. The perpetration of violence, for example, was associated most strongly with men’s conformity to “rigid gender roles” and “aggression and control”.

We could also explore groups or profiles of men

I’ve said so far we must consider two factors:

So far I have focused on the specific norms of masculinity, and the specific outcomes they shape. But we could also look at all this from a third perspective, focused on the men and their contexts. Using a person-centered perspective, we could extend this work by examining groups or profiles of men themselves – by examining how men themselves are clustered in terms of their endorsement of masculine norms and their participation in particular behaviours. We could try to identify the groups or clusters of men who engage in high-risk behaviours and the men who do not.

3rd key message: We need to shift the Man Box

There is an urgent need to promote change in dominant norms of masculinity. While there are promising initiatives and approaches underway, we must step up the scale and intensity of this work.

Above all, our task is to transform gender – to work for the transformation of gender roles and relations towards gender justice.

Six tasks are vital.

Engage men and boys at scale

There is great work going on in Ireland, and other countries, engaging men and boys in positive change. But to truly make a difference, we must scale up.

We must take work with men and boys from the program and project level into policies and institutions. We must reach large numbers, and change systems and institutions.

We need to scale up at every level of intervention, from community education in schools, to mobilisations among networks and movements, to the day-to-day practice of institutions focused on health, families, and crime, to organisational and institutional change.

And for the policy makers listening, I want to say: that also means building the engagement of men and boys into policy.

In Australia, in the field of violence prevention for example, our national policy frameworks have seen an increasing focus on the need to engage men in prevention. Australia’s national framework for the primary prevention of violence against women is called “Change the Story”. Change the Story identifies 8 essential actions for prevention, and Action four is: Support men and boys in developing healthy masculinities and positive, supportive male peer relationships. Our national government is soon to release its second national action plan on reducing violence against women, and it too emphasises the need for interventions that support men and boys to have respectful and equal relationships and promote healthy masculinities.

Policy initiatives aimed at engaging men also are enabled by international conventions and commitments. In 2019, the Irish Government ratified the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, and this too includes an emphasis on the need to engage men and boys.

Raise awareness of the harms of the Man Box

Second, let’s raise awareness of the harms of the Man Box. Let’s intensify community conversations about the harms of patriarchal masculinities, using strengths-based approaches that invite men and boys into change.

Let’s work with others in the fields of mental health, alcohol abuse, male-male public violence, and violent extremism to the links between masculinity and these problems.

And in doing so, let’s avoid a focus only on harms to men. We must also address how masculinity is implicated in sexism and male privilege.

Weaken the cultural grip of the Man Box

Third, let’s weaken the cultural grip of the Man Box. Highlight the gap between masculine social norms and men’s own ideals, tackling men’s routine over-estimation of other men’s support for gender inequalities.

Let’s engage men and boys in critical conversations about manhood, through structured, facilitated sessions as part of gender diversity and violence prevention education in schools, campuses, and workplaces; via social marketing campaigns on men and gender; in everyday conversations between fathers and sons; and so on.

Let’s inviting boys and men to embrace identities of their own making rather than conforming to constrained masculine scripts.

Let’s also challenge the sources of the Man Box. Dominant ideals of masculinity do not materialise out of thin air, but are produced and reproduced, by people, institutions, policies, and other social forces. Let’s challenge the promotion of patriarchal masculinities in sports, the military, by faith leaders, in media, and pornography.

Support diversity and resistance

We must turn up the volume on the facts of diversity and change in manhood.

Let’s highlight the fact that there is real diversity among boys and men in their practices and ideals of gender. Let’s affirm and celebrate diverse forms of manhood, identity, and gender.

We must

  • Pay more attention to men’s and boys’ active resistance to masculine norms and relations.
  • Explore the protective or healthy value of non-conformity.

Push back against the pervasive policing of masculinity.

Promote healthy and ethical alternatives

Fifth, let’s promote healthy and ethical alternatives. Boys and men cannot be what they cannot see. Whether we call it ‘healthy masculinity’ or something else, let’s foster visions for boys’ and men’s lives which are gender-equitable, positive, and diverse.

Whatever vision we have for what men and boys should do and be:

  1. First, it must be feminist or gender-equitable. It must be clearly critical of patriarchal and unjust practices, and based on alternate norms and practices compatible with feminist values and commitments.
  2. Second, it must be healthy: based in ways of living that are good for males’ own physical and emotional health.
  3. Third, it must be diverse and multiple: able to accommodate and celebrate diverse, positive ways of being and acting. We do not need a new ‘man box’, a new but narrowly prescriptive vision of manhood.

Fourth, if we frame the desirable goal for men and boys in terms of ‘masculinity’, it must be non-essentialist: avoiding the assumption that particular qualities are available only to men and boys.

Go beyond norms

Finally, changing masculine norms is itself only one part of a wider project. Men’s and boys’ attitudes and behaviours are bound up with patterns and structures of power and inequality.

We must tackle not only the norms that express unhealthy and oppressive forms of manhood, but the institutional and structural forces that sustain these.


Traditional models of how to be a man have not yet crumbled into dust. They continue to exert a powerful influence on many men’s and boys’ lives and relations, thus sustaining persistent and pervasive gender inequalities. But their authority is weakening. Women’s rights and social justice advocacy, efforts by civil organisations and governments, and shifts in gender practices and norms in communities all are contributing to a questioning of patriarchal manhood. Large-scale social change is necessary to end gender inequality and to build healthier lives for women, men, and others, and men have a vital role to play.

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CITATION: Flood, M. (2022). Fostering Healthy Masculinities among Men and Boys. Presentation, Men’s Development Network New Conversations Symposium, Ireland, July 28.

NOTE: The Powerpoint slides from this presentation can be downloaded here.

Further resources