It’s a confusing time to be a boy — and a man.
In a lot of ways, it’s always been confusing. For so long, boys learned a strange mix of hyper-masculinity and chivalry: They’re supposed to be straight, cis, “get” women, make a lot of money, and be tough and strong. They should also never forget to buy her flowers or open the door.
These rigid expectations of masculinity are finally starting to expand and shift. And while it’s better late than never, confusing and conflicting signals are still everywhere. Yes, we have #MeToo, but we also have #NotAllMen. Larry Nasser may be sitting in the jail house, but Donald Trump still sits in the White House.
So what does it mean today to be a man, or perhaps more aptly, a “good” man? Men are questioning what healthy consensual relationships look like, and feeling anything from confusion, to apathy, to guilt and shame in the process. Many are asking themselves — perhaps for the first time — how they can help ensure gender equity and join the movement?
We both get questions every day from parents, from corporations, and from global organisations saying: What should we do about our sons? How can we help them be a part of the gender equality solution and not the problem? So as some young men start to wear shirts that say “This is What a Feminist Looks Like,” what exactly does it take to raise feminist sons, and how do we create an understanding that goes deeper?
What does it mean to be a man, or perhaps more aptly, a “good” man?
For both of us (and we bet for many of you), it has often been easier to talk to our daughters about a path towards gender equality. We have celebrity and political role models we can point to. There are global movements and organisations and corporations who are talking about how to raise empowered daughters, how to engage girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and how to raise up more women leaders in politics and business. There have been broad cultural conversations from Miss Representation to #AskHerMore about how we need to rethink our representations of women and girls in our TV shows, movies, books, and more. Although girls have an uphill battle to be seen as truly equal, the pathway — or the end goal — seems a little clearer.
But we don’t always talk about what our sons can do to support these efforts. Or how they can challenge what society tells them it means to be a man. Or how our rigid ideas about masculinity harm them, too. We know from Promundo’s research with young men in the US, the UK, and Mexico, that most men still feel pushed to live in the “Man Box,” a rigid construct of cultural ideas about male identity, telling them they need to be tough, “hot,” and take risks. At least 57% of men report being told that a “real man should behave a certain way” at some point in their lives. We also see that fear of appearing vulnerable or gay still has a powerful influence over young men’s behaviours, and, disappointingly, nearly one-third of young men in the U.S. still feel that a gay guy is not a "real man."
We also know that young men who hold the strongest beliefs — men who are firmly in the “Man Box” — are nearly 10 times more likely to have harassed women than young men who least believe in these norms. These same men are also more likely to have used violence against other young men — verbally, physically, and online. Needless to say, we have to do something about this.
However, when we do talk to boys about gender norms, we’re often telling them what not to do: Don’t harass; don’t abuse; and don’t assume consent. This is a crucial step. But if we want to truly change our culture, we need to raise the bar beyond what not to do. We must set an example for boys and raise them on what to do, to ensure that we get to 50/50 sooner rather than later. We should also be looking to the examples of those gay men, trans men and gender-non-conforming individuals who have been a vital part of breaking free of stereotypes about manhood over the past few decades, and have helped inspire and challenge how cis, straight men see themselves in the world.
So, what can we tell them about who they should be, how they should act, and what it means to “Be a good man?” What could the future of boyhood and manhood look like? To get to healthier outcomes, yes, we need healthier role models and community action, which includes programs and policies to incentivise broad structural change, but we also need to take a look at what we can do every day as individuals to impact the lives of boys and young men. Here are some ways to start:
What could the future of boyhood and manhood look like?
1. Talk to your sons and your daughters (or your friends and colleagues) about their definition of masculinity. For many of us, even just starting the conversation is new, and can open new doors of personal reflection. Just try thinking about how definitions of masculinity might be different for different people and influenced by their race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or even just what their parents think. If you aren’t sure how to begin, try watching The Mask You Live In either alone or with your kids/friends/coworkers. It’s a helpful primer on the downside of harmful ideas about manhood, where it comes from, and what to do to combat it.
2. We can’t shame tears. Boys need to know they can be vulnerable. That it’s okay to cry. To that point, we should be raising boys to embrace their full humanity, as people capable of showing vulnerability and taking care of themselves and others. Seventy-two percent of young men in the US say that society tells them a real man “behaves a certain way;” a greater percentage than in Mexico (68%) or in the UK (57%). About half of men surveyed agree that guys should act strong even if they feel scared or nervous inside — and even more say that’s the message they’re getting from society. And these beliefs have real consequences: Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with a behaviour disorder, more likely to binge drink, more likely to be expelled from school, more likely to commit a violent crime, and boys are more likely than girls to commit suicide. We have to address these limiting norms.
3. Encourage young men to ask for help. About half of guys feel like society expects them to figure out their personal problems on their own; and at least 38% believe it’s the norm for a man who talks about his problems not to get respect. This is even more troubling when we find that guys who are inside the “Man Box” are twice as likely to report having had thoughts of committing suicide in the past two weeks; with overall rates ranging from 13% in Mexico to more than 55% in the UK. And then there’s this: When young men need help, they’re afraid to talk to their male friends about it. When they do go for help, it is usually to women. At least a quarter of guys reach out to a female romantic partner or their mothers when they need help. This puts the emotional labor of healing on women and leaves men without the professional or community help they often need. It's time we change this dynamic by normalising conversations about emotions and mental health, talking more about therapy and asking for help, and supporting increased access to practitioners.
4. Teach a “yes means yes” version of consent: Our culture sends confusing messages about what consent is, and that makes it harder to punish bad actors. We need to talk to our children from a young age about respecting their own — and each others’ — bodies, and to believe in the equality and autonomy of all people. We need to tell our boys to ask before they touch others and that it’s also okay for that person to say no. We need to teach them to build healthy communication skills and to form relationships with people of all genders based on respect and mutual admiration. When everyone understands consent, all of us are better off.
5. Educate Yourself: There is always more to know and more to learn, so dive into the wealth of knowledge out there. Consume feminist media like The Hunting Ground or sitcoms like Insecure. Read classics by bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin, and newer ones by authors like Jackson Katz, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Jesmyn Ward, and Jessica Valenti. Check for new articles by Rebecca Traister and Brittany Packnett. There are so many people out there doing good work to change our culture, and all of us make a difference simply by consuming it.
Of course, these five tips aren’t enough — but they’re a start. And while we have to hold men who abuse and harass others accountable, equally as important, we have to create a pathway forward for a more equitable tomorrow. One where men are aware of the power and privilege that they have. One where men are not afraid to hold other men accountable. One where men are engaged in the principles of the women's rights and sexual diversity movements. One where men are proud to be caring and vulnerable. And, one where men are brave enough to move beyond guilt, denial, or apathy to a place of action.
This is the future of manhood that we know is possible, waiting for us just beyond the horizon, once each of us digs in.
#GettingTo5050, a global movement rooted in actionable tools and resources, aims to catalyze the conversations that will inspire a more gender-balanced world. Because true equality doesn't just lift women—it lifts everyone. Learn more here. And click here to read Refinery29's profiles of eight women fighting for equality every day.
Gary Barker is President and CEO of Promundo, is a global leader in engaging men and boys as partners with women and girls in promoting gender equality and preventing violence.