Patriarchal masculinity in Australia: What the Man Box research tells us has changed or not

(Speech by Professor Michael Flood at the launch of The Man Box 2024.)

Let’s think about that model of traditional masculinity, toxic masculinity, dominant masculinity, whatever we want to call it. That version of manhood based on being tough, aggressive, stoic, homophobic, and dominant over women.

Good news and bad news

First, there’s some good news. Most men don’t personally endorse this model of manhood. Most men believe that:

  • Men who are facing personal problems should ask for help.
  • Men can avoid fighting back when others push them around, without this being weak.
  • It’s okay to teach boys how to cook, sew, and take care of younger children.
  • Gay guys are ‘real men’. And straight men can be friends with them. (Who knew?!)
  • Men don’t have to have heaps of sexual partners. Men can say no to sex.
  • And in a relationship, men and women should share the decisions.

In short, most young men in Australia – two-thirds to three-quarters – agree with more healthy, gender-equitable, and inclusive models of manhood or personhood. And I wouldn’t be surprised if “Quintile 1” tattoos became popular in Australia.

But there is also some serious bad news. A sizable minority of young men – one-quarter to one-third – endorse rigid, dangerous, or sexist models of manhood. They think, yes, men should be tough, aggressive, stoic, homophobic, and dominant over women.

This quarter or third of men are more likely to be the ones who suffer harm:

  • Some are thinking about suicide.
  • Some are drinking at dangerous levels.
  • Some are problem-gambling.
  • And some are taking risks while they’re drunk or stoned.

This quarter or third of men also are more likely than other men to be the ones doing harm:

  • The men harassing women online
  • The men who pressure their wives and girlfriends into sex.
  • The men who bully other men.
  • The men who make their intimate partners feel scared or controlled or worthless.

And this research shows that substantial minorities of men – around 1 in 5 or 1 in 4 men – have used physical and sexual violence against an intimate partner. This may be shocking for some, but for those of us who know the scholarship on violence perpetration, the fact that large numbers of men have used such violence is depressingly familiar.

Change over time

But surely it’s all getting better? Surely that model of traditional, patriarchal masculinity is dying out?

Tragically, no. I am dismayed to see that there has been little change in the past five years in young men’s levels of endorsement of male aggression, stoicism, traditional divisions of household work, homophobia, and hypersexuality.

What has changed? If I can put it in simple, cynical terms, men these days have better hair, and they’re doing less surveillance of their wives and girlfriends.

  • More young men these days are comfortable with men spending time on grooming and fashion.
  • Young men these days are less accepting of men always knowing where their intimate partner is. Although they are just as accepting as they were five years ago of men always having the final say in their relationships or marriages.

So if we look at young men in general in Australia, we could guess that:

  • Young men are spending a little more time in front of the bathroom mirror, they’ve got better haircuts, and they’re moisturising more.
  • Young men are checking up on where their wives or girlfriends are a little less – they’re hassling them less about where they are and who they’re with. But overall, their support for male dominance and control in relationships and families is pretty steady.

What to do

In the commentary I’ve written for the Man Box report, I explore what we must do about this. But there are three more reflections I want to offer here.

[Challenge harmful societal messages]

My first reflection is: We are not doing anywhere near enough to shift entrenched masculine cultures of sexism and stoicism.

Young men report that they are still being fed the messages of rigid, patriarchal masculinity. So we must ask: Where do these Man Box messages come from? And how can we challenge their influence?

  • What are the messages we can craft for boys and men that will engage them in change? Messages that will be relevant, engaging, compelling.
  • Who are the messengers who can deliver these? Who are the messengers who will be seen as credible, relatable, authoritative.
  • Where are the settings where we must do this?

In the commentary I wrote on the 2018 research, I emphasised that we must challenge the sources of the Man Box. That now seems more urgent than ever. I have at least four sources in mind: Parents. Peers. Porn. And Preachers

  • Man Box messages come often from fathers, and to a lesser extent mothers.
  • Man Box messages come often from peers – from mates and friends. So work with these populations will be a vital part of making change.
  • But Man Box messages also come from pornography. Pornography use is one driver of boys’ and men’s tolerance for, and perpetration of, sexual violence. So we need to educate boys and men to resist pornography’s sexist messages, and we need to hold the pornography industry to account.
  • Man Box messages also come from preachers: from the growing army of male supremacist influencers online. The men inviting men back into the Man Box, saying “You’ll get girls, muscles, and money.” We have to shut them down. We must equip boys and men with the skills to critique misogyny. We must redirect boys and men towards content and space that are genuinely supportive and healthy. And we must intervene directly among the men at risk of entering misogynist extremist communities and to help men exit from those networks.

[Don’t focus only on the harms]

My second reflection is: We can’t focus only on how men and boys suffer harm. We must also address how men and boys do harm.

There is a tension in the field of work with men and boys, between pain and privilege:

  • There is a tension between recognising that men and boys suffer harm ourselves, and recognising that men and boys do harm to women, girls, gender-diverse people, and each other. #NotAllMen, but far too many boys and men

I think that efforts focused on men and boys may have focused too much only on the harms that men and boys suffer. Men say that societal messages about male self-sufficiency, toughness, and the breadwinner role have declined, but not societal messages about male aggression and control or male dominance in relationships. In other words, they’re still being told, “Boys will be boys”, including with women. So we need to do more to address issues of power, privilege, and perpetration.

[Take the work to scale]

Third, we have to take the work to scale. If healthy masculinities work in Australia boils down to a handful of programs among boys in schools, we will certainly fail. We must scale up the work of building gender-equitable identities and relations among men and boys in Australia.

  • We do need widespread curricula on healthy masculinities in schools across the country.
  • But beyond schools, we need efforts in workplaces, sports, and communities. Efforts that are part of whole-of-institution initiatives aimed at culture change.
  • We need to shift the gender norms or ideologies that feed patriarchal manhood. And that means large-scale communications and social marketing campaigns – not a few posters, but major media efforts.
  • We need efforts to transform the institutions and structures that sustain rigid models of manhood, in government policies on parenting, employment, and tax, in workplace cultures, and in the corridors of power.
  • We also have to build capacity in Australia to promote healthy masculinities: through training for educators and others, resources and curricula, and standards for effective practice.
  • Finally, we must mobilise men. Men ourselves must take action. Much of the work of challenging rigid, patriarchal forms of manhood has been done by women, and it is well past time for men to share some of the load.

Men must break apart the walls of the Man Box, and help other men to climb out of it. Men, working with women and others, must get cracking on building healthier, more equitable lives for all of us.

Citation: Flood, M. (2024). Patriarchal masculinity in Australia: What the Man Box research tells us has changed or not. Speech, launch of The Man Box 2024. Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, February 1.

To read about the Man Box research, see here.