Vulnerable masculinity

vulnerable masculinity

Men need to be allowed to be vulnerable to end gender-based violence

The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children has ended. But the intentions of the campaign must continue. We cannot tolerate the abuse or death of more women and girls. We’ve written recently about the root causes of gender inequality. We’ve looked at how boys are socialised to think that inflicting or stoically tolerating violence are part of being a man, and we do them no favours with these expectations. The mental health of boys and men suffers from the social taboos against expressing emotion. In this last article to mark the campaign, we look at how we raise our boy-children, and how we can raise them to have a healthier, more empowering sense of their own masculinity/humanity. 

It takes a village

Some of us at SD Law are parents, some are not. But as family lawyers we have intimate experience of many family situations. And we believe there are certain principles we need to adopt, not just as parents but as members of society, in collectively bringing up our boys to be men – men who understand that everyone they meet is worthy of dignity and courtesy, whatever their sexual identity. And all men have the right to be freed from the boxes that have defined manliness for generations. These boxes vary in shape and size from culture to culture but ultimately reflect a global reality. Despite many advances in the last century, around the world men and women adhere to similar gender-based stereotypes in terms of relationship roles, domestic duties, career paths, and even the toys they play with as children. 

Redefining manliness

Men are reluctant to let go of these stereotypes because of the privileges associated with their superior position in society, in relationships, in the workplace…conferred simply by being male. But along with this privilege goes a narrowing of possibilities – of the range of activities available, of the spectrum of emotions that can safely be expressed. As we wrote in Gender-based violence and femicide, “challenging male violence and misogyny, encouraging different types of masculinity and seeing women as allies, all contribute to better mental health and educational attainment among boys”. Many parents are helping their sons understand that the definition of manliness can include smart submission and verbal instead of physical intervention. They are teaching their sons that if someone tries to steal their cellphone, they don’t have to fight. It’s just property. Walking away from a dangerous situation and staying alive to return to family or loved ones is not cowardly, it is manly. But we have to expand the accepted definition of masculinity for boys to be comfortable with this mentality. 

Historically we have reinforced the social construct of the tough guy who stands up for himself as the “real man”. Never mind that this construct has also deprived children of their fathers, through loss of life, incarceration, or abandonment. Today’s boys will hopefully be liberated from such harmful stereotypes. Thrusting boys into these boxes is not helpful for them, or for anyone else. It is a dismissal of their humanity. What it means to be male needs to be understood simply as what it means to be human.

Allowed to be vulnerable

Danusia Malina-Derben is an executive coach who works with Fortune 500 clients. She is also a mother of 10. She encourages her five sons to just be human. “I encourage them to seek out blankets. Run themselves baths. Make a warm drink. That sounds odd, but they’ve taught themselves…when and how to self-soothe. Things we would once have associated with femininity – wrapping yourself in a blanket, making yourself cosy – I’ve tried to help them do that without questioning whether or not it’s masculine. Otherwise I’m going to raise boys who are dependent on women to help them look after themselves…women basically look after their men, if they’re in a heterosexual relationship; and the men rely on that as a…barometer of where they’re at emotionally. It’s a disempowerment for men.” It’s about teaching boys that vulnerability is OK. Vulnerability is actually a strength.

Self-soothing is not enough to end GBV

However, in the context of gender-based violence and femicide rates that are still stubbornly high (see 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children), teaching boys to self-soothe is not enough. We need to teach them to challenge their own privilege, to question what they hear and see on social media, the internet, and television, and to check each other’s behaviour. Put another way, “Men as a tribe must hold themselves to account,” says Tom Lamont, a freelance writer raising a son and a daughter and grappling with the issue of how to raise them both. When the statistics of crimes against women make the news (13,701 women in South Africa were victims of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm between July and September 2022), decent men – which is most men – seek to distance themselves from these events. They reject any collective blame for the intolerable acts of other men. But, Lamont says, even if we don’t accept that all men have the hidden potential to be violent, “the haters among us may be so lost in contempt they can only be reached by male criticism, male pressure, male example. If the perpetrators of sex crimes aren’t being reached or punished by the law as it exists, perhaps what’s left is for men to be better policed by their peers.”

Systemic change is needed

Of course not all men do horrific things to women. But all men have grown up within a system weighted against women. Therefore all men have to be personally accountable for how they behave within the system, how they relate to other men, and how they hold them to account. The problem is that boys have been raised to believe that having a penis gives them privilege.

The notion of changing a system is daunting. It’s tempting to leave this to the institutions – government, education, religion. But institutions are oil tankers. They take a very long time to turn around and, especially in the case of religion, they tend to be run by men, who have a huge investment in maintaining the status quo. So it’s up to the village to raise the children, and that means all of us. For parents of young sons, Tanith Carey, child psychologist, and Michael Reichert, developmental psychologist, offer the following tips on how to raise feminist boys. Those of us who are not parents can apply this advice to the nephews, sons of friends, and other boys in our lives. It takes a village.

Listen to your sons 

To change the way they are raised, we have to talk to them. And we have to listen to them. Parents have a difficult job. They are responsible for taking a helpless infant and guiding them gently and lovingly towards adulthood. Along the way there are a lot of lessons to impart, a lot of instructions to give. And sometimes, in the chaos of family life, real listening gets overlooked. Everyone wants to feel heard; and it is only in a safe space of being heard and understood that difficult questions can be asked. If your son is curious about a delicate subject, or going through a tough time, they need to know they can explore these curiosities and emotions with you, and not be told to “man up”. And sometimes, they will only truly open up when you stop asking them questions. Be quiet and let them talk, in their own time.

Let them cry

If, in the process, they start to cry, let them. According to research, infant boys and girls cry the same amount. By about age seven, boys learn they are rewarded for not crying. “Crybabies” are weak. The only emotion they are not afraid to show is anger, which is “tough”. There is nothing weak about owning an emotion. It’s an important step in self-awareness. Allow boys to discover the whole range of human emotion.

Don’t ignore pornography

You can be sure your son won’t ignore porn! No one wants to think their son looks at porn, but the reality is almost all boys do. Don’t avoid it or punish them if you catch them watching porn. Talk to them about it. Long before he reaches the age of seeking out porn, talk to him about healthy and loving relationships in an age-appropriate manner. When he is older, gently explain that porn is not typical of what mutually enjoyable sex looks like. Teach him about consent and explain that consent is not just for girls. He also has control over his own body and is entitled to consent to being hugged or kissed.

Role model equality

This may be the hardest bit. It’s easy to talk about treating girls and women equally, but if your son sees very gendered roles playing out at home, he will learn by example. If you and your partner divide up tasks rather than share them in a rota, make it clear that such role divisions are based on skills, interests, and what’s best for the family. Dad may be the better cook. Mom may love decorating. Or it may be the other way round. But don’t blindly reinforce traditional stereotypes and then expect your children not to copy them.

Let children play however and with whatever they like. Allow them to explore a variety of roles and activities and don’t define toys or games as for girls or boys. Don’t chastise a boy for playing with dolls or putting on high heels from the dressing-up box. Encourage playdates with boys and girls. Allow your son to discover his interests rather than imposing superhero figures or sports. He may love cricket, and that’s great. But it’s also fine if he wants to learn ballet. 

Equality for all

Equality is not just about girls. True equality allows both sexes to strive for goals and develop their own sense of self without limits being imposed by gendered social conventions. When this happens, men will no longer feel the need to assert their dominance over women and behave in violent and controlling ways. 

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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