The State of Play for Australian Men and Boys

The lives of men and boys are on the agenda in Australia. There is a historically unprecedented level of attention to men and masculinities - in popular debate, media commentary, community programs, and policy

  • There is media talk, for better or worse, of “toxic masculinity” and its harms.
  • There are debates over how we raise boys, and growing concern about the misogynist messages they may absorb from anti-feminist social media influences and pornography.
  • There is growing attention to men’s health, fathering, suicide, and other areas where men’s lives and choices are constrained.
  • And there are increasing invitations to men to be part of the solution, whether to help build workplace gender equality, or to reduce domestic and sexual violence, or to open up narrow models of manhood.

What we know

Behind this growing attention to men and masculinities, there are a series of insights. We now know some important things about men, boys, and gender.

But let’s quickly talk terminology. Let’s take the word “gender” as a term for the norms, practices, and structures related to men’s and women’s lives. I notice that the term “gender” these days often is used only to refer to people’s identities. “Gender” does include identities, but also includes much much more: norms and values, behaviours, interpersonal relations, images and representations, patterns of work, care, and sexuality, and the organisation of social institutions.

So what are those insights?

  • First, we now know that men’s lives, like women’s, are structured by gender. That men’s and boys’ lives are shaped by masculinity –  by the roles, behaviours, and characteristics that are seen as appropriate for boys and men in a given society.
  • Second, we know that dominant or stereotypical versions of how to be a man contribute to a wide range of social problems. Problems that harm men and boys, women and girls, and others. Problems like domestic and sexual violence, and other forms of violence, including male-male violence. Poor sexual and reproductive health, suicide, alcohol and drug use, mental health, occupational deaths and injuries, and a host of other issues.
  • We know that when men and boys try to conform or feel pressure to conform to some traditional masculine norms, bad things can happen. 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, avoid help-seeking, assault and rape women, assault other men, take risks with sexual partners, drive dangerously, and refrain from active fathering.
  • We also know that some elements of traditional masculinity can be good for men, good for men’s health. And that whether ideals like strength or stoicism or leadership are useful or not can depend on how they are enacted and the contexts where men show them.
  • And increasingly, we know that there is real diversity among men and boys. We’re using an increasingly intersectional lens, recognising that gender and masculinity intersect with other forms of social difference and inequality such as ethnicity, class, sexuality, and disability.

The field of work engaging men and boys

There is now a field of programming and policy focused on ‘engaging men and boys’. This involves efforts aimed at men or boys and addressing their involvements in gender in some way.

This field of work is not new because of whom it addresses, but how. Men have long been the target of public policy and programming – as workers, as husbands and fathers, as medical patients, and so on. But men have been largely treated as generic and ungendered human beings, as representatives of all humanity. The agenda of engaging men is new because it addresses men as men — as gendered beings who participate in gender relations.

So there is now a field of programming and policy – let’s call it the engaging men field, or the healthy masculinities field. What can we see about this field?

  • [Focus / issues] One significant focus of the healthy masculinities field in Australia is the prevention of men’s violence against women. But there are other significant focuses as well: men’s health and wellbeing, fathering, boys’ education, sexual and reproductive health, and other areas.
    • Some of the work with men and boys is done by groups and organisations with a dedicated focus on this area. Some is done by organisations with a broader focus: on violence prevention, health, parenting, sexual health, Indigenous justice, and so on.
  • [Diverse organisations] In Australia, most of the work is small scale, done by local groups and community organisations. If we look internationally, the organisations involved are diverse, from small advocacy and service-focused groups running campaigns in local communities, to large-scale national organisations and regional and global networks such as MenEngage. Their initiatives are diverse too, from local initiatives inviting men to take action against violence against women or share responsibility for sexual health to regional campaigns trying to reshape masculine social norms or produce change in government policies on parenting.

Trends in the field

I have written elsewhere of key trends in the ‘engaging men’ field. But today, I want to mention five trends that are particularly important for us here.

  • [Growth] First, the healthy masculinities field is growing.
    • The number of programs and initiatives focused on men and boys today is well above what it was 15 years ago, even two or three years ago.
    • We are also seeing an expansion in the fields or domains in which engaging men or healthy masculinities work takes place, to fields like parenting, women’s economic empowerment, parliamentary politics, and violent extremism.
    • And the work itself is getting smarter: more sophisticated conceptually, better able to work with men who are at different stages of change, and more experienced at responding to and reducing backlash.
  • [Evidence base] Second, there is a growing body of research on the impacts of these efforts. Very few initiatives in Australia have been evaluated. But international impact evaluations show that if done well, then interventions among men and boys can make positive and lasting change among them.
  • [Support for engaging men] Third, although there is both good and bad in community attitudes towards masculinity, there is widespread support for men’s positive roles for example in ending violence against women. A 2020 survey in Australia found that just under 80% of people agree that “There are things that all men can do to help prevent violence against women,” and only 4% disagreed.
  • [Policy support] Fourth, there is growing policy support for engaging men and boys. Again in the field of violence prevention for example, in Australia’s national prevention frameworks and policies, we have seen an increased focus on challenging harmful forms of masculinity and engaging men and boys in prevention.
  • [Funding opportunities] Fifth, there are also growing funding opportunities, such as recent tenders for work examining men’s roles in gender equality, young men’s experiences of the internet, and more.

So, there is growth in the field, there is evidence of effectiveness, there is community support, and there is policy and funding support.

A profound opportunity

What all this means is that there is a profound opportunity at present in Australia.

  • To bring together the people and organisations involved in healthy masculinities work. To encourage dialogue, the sharing of practice and insight, and collaboration.
  • There is an opportunity to build the work.
    • To engage boys and men in far greater numbers.
    • To build this work’s reach and impact.
    • To increase the profile of this work. To generate public awareness and policy support.
  • We have the opportunity to inspire a national conversation about healthy masculinities – a energetic, well-informed, and productive conversation about men, boys, and the future of manhood
    • To amplify the voices of men and others who are standing up and speaking out against violence and gender inequity.
    • To amplify the voices of men, women, and others who do not blame women or feminism for the problems and disadvantages men face, who do not look to failed and dangerous models of masculinity, but the voices of people who offer real solutions, grounded in evidence, experience, and principle.
  • Above all, we have an opportunity, more than ever before, to make profound and positive change in men’s and boys’ lives. And, from that, to build better communities, a better society, for everyone.

Citation: Flood, M. (2023). The State of Play for Australian Men and Boys. Healthy Masculinities Stakeholder Event, May 16.