Respect and masculinity

When prevailing attitudes and beliefs are understood,
this is often the key to reducing toxic masculinity.

 WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED 

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 
Consulting editor at Eureka Street and writer at Jesuit Social Services

The Man Box 2024 report, the third of its kind by The Men’s Project, a Jesuit Social Services (JSS) initiative, is about the relationship between the way in which men in Australia perceive masculinity and their behaviour and lives. There is increasing public recognition of how extensive and damaging domestic violence is, and that, in most cases, it is men who act violently towards women and children.   

This rightly evokes public revulsion and anger.  Any adequate response, however, needs to include research into why some men act violently, how we might help them to repair their attitudes and behaviour, and how to help children and young men act more respectfully.   

The Men’s Project drew on international research that identified a set of common beliefs in many Western societies about what it means to be a man. Together, these beliefs were described as the “Man Box”. The report linked above investigates how widely Australian men share these rigid beliefs about how men should think and behave, and how these beliefs influence men’s behaviour and health. It is a work of research and not primarily of advocacy.     

The beliefs explored in the report identify being a real man with self-sufficiency, acting tough, being physically attractive, insisting on rigid rules that govern the roles of men and women, being homophobic, hypersexual, controlling and acting violently when perceiving provocation. The researchers presented men with statements embodying these beliefs and attitudes and asked them, first, whether these beliefs represent society’s expectations of men, and, second, to what extent they personally agree or disagree with them.   

The participants were also asked how far they act out these beliefs, whether they had themselves suffered violence, about their level of satisfaction with their lives, their drinking patterns and about their mental health. Their responses to each statement and question were then correlated and were placed in groups ranging from total rejection of the typical Man Box beliefs to total adherence to them. The report discussed the different responses between younger and older men, and also explored the degree of correlation between the level of overall adherence to these rigid ideas about masculinity, and the responses to questions about whether men use or support violence, experience poor mental health, etc.                                                                                                                                      

Among its detailed findings, the report revealed a relatively high proportion of men who substantially reject the attitudes and beliefs embodied in the Man Box, and a relatively low proportion who substantially accept them. Almost half of the younger participants, however, felt pressure to conform to the Man Box rules, and a quarter of them agreed with those rules as well.   

Men who most strongly agreed with them were substantially more likely than those who least endorsed them to have perpetrated sexual and physical violence. They were also substantially more likely to be pessimistic, to drink and gamble heavily and to struggle with mental health. The difficulty of changing personal attitudes was evident in the fact that despite the growing proportion of people who said these attitudes no longer enjoy popular support, the proportion who support them personally did not decline substantially.    

The report does not find that the attitudes belonging to the Man Box cause men to act violently. Nor does it argue that a person who subscribes to all these beliefs will act violently. Rather, it finds that domestic violence is more likely among men who share these beliefs than among those who don’t. It also finds that those who share them are more likely to live unhappily. 

For these reasons, responding to domestic violence should include programmes to promote healthy masculinity, especially among young men. This will not be a magic bullet but will help in reducing the incidence of violence by men.   

 (These reflections are drawn from a research report published by Jesuit Social Services. Jesuit Social Services’ research and policy submissions focus on people’s needs, especially those of young people, whom our JSS staff accompany and whose experience and needs we understand.)   

Read ‘The Man Box 2024: Re-examining what it means to be a man in Australia’ report. 

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association. 

Banner image by Tiero, Canva.