Can Labour’s plans bring an end to the damaging blame culture surrounding young men and boys?

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Boy sitting in front of a bookcase with his head in his hands

By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre & Jonathan Davis, BA Theology and Religion, Research Assistant on the project ‘We’re in this together’  – sexual harassment in schools: a boys’ voice’, and an active member of Mantality UoB

Labour’s ambitions to open discussions with men and boys to combat violence against women is an important step forward in the public conversation about how we make society safe for everyone, however it runs a risk of fostering a blame culture against men and boys in schools. Blame culture helps no-one. It shuts down much needed dialogue across genders and can reinforce feelings of worthlessness in young boys.

Lately, masculinity has been at the forefront of social discussion. With reports of violence against women and girls rising, disproportionately carried out by men and boys, its prevalence in conversation is hardly surprising. We have also seen a rise in incel culture as well as the ‘manosphere’, extreme internet groups and content promoting anti-women propaganda. But this phenomenon doesn’t just exist in the dark edges of the internet.

Throughout respected organisations in our society, such as the London Fire Service and the MET Police, we see this misogyny in action. It is important to note that misogyny is a societal issue, and can often play out in male-dominated organisations such as these. Misogyny also often goes unchallenged. An example of this can be seen in the recent FIFA World Cup, which was held in Qatar, a country that is known for its misogyny.

With the rise of social media platforms such as TikTok comes new sources of influence. Young men and boys across the internet are learning from certain figures who modify definitions of masculinity, quite often distorting the nature of what it means to ‘be a man’ and establishing hierarchical frameworks of men taking precedence over women. These portrayals of masculinity can come into conflict with those versions that don’t associate with dominance. 

The role of women has changed in recent years; they have bodily autonomy, access to abortion and contraception, and are an important part of the workforce. Many women in Western culture are subverting old-school ‘house wife’ roles, leaving the traditional view of the male as the provider and leader of the household in crisis. However, masculinity is not a dirty word. Associated traits of masculinity, such as assertiveness, dominance and leadership, are not inherently bad if utilised positively. More needs to be done for the evolving role of young men and boys to support them in negotiating their own masculinity through this changing landscape.

Recent research found that harmful gendered norms are directly linked to sexual and gender-based forms of abuse and harassment against women and teenage girls. Additionally, it was found that dominant forms of hegemonic masculinity, such as ‘laddishness’, can put pressure on changing men’s behaviours, and harmfully affect men’s emotional and mental health. Giving evidence at the recent Women and Equalities Select Committee hearing on Relationships, Sex and Health Education, Dr Sophie King-Hill highlighted how vital it is for children and young people to learn about gender and why it would be unethical and dangerous to remove it from the school curriculum.

Dr. Sophie King-Hill and Dr Dan Vyleta recently carried out research with young men and boys which highlighted the fraught landscape that they have to negotiate. This project found that there is a conflict between the external self that boys are expected to be and the internal self. This research also demonstrated a need to listen to the voice of the boy, and that blaming a whole gender for societal issues without dialogue compounds these issues. A new AHRC IAA funded project builds off the back of this and will be mapping the oral histories of boys to explore what more can be done to change the conversation and to create safe spaces where boys can flourish. Something that is missing and vitally needed.

In a place where social media is spreading misinformation about what it means to be a man, one potential solution is to start promoting positive role models to young men. These can be seen through many differing celebrities such as Manchester United football player Marcus Rashford, who uses his platform to help young people, Harry Styles, who promotes inclusivity in the LGBTQ+ community, and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, who talks openly about his experiences as a gay man with HIV.

Misogyny and violence against women and girls is rising, and there is a male mental health crisis. Instead of condemning young men and boys, as a society we need to take a step back and realise that we are all in this together – having this as the starting point will allow for valuable conversations and actions to emerge.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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