Donald Trump

Something is very wrong with men in Australia. Parliament House masturbators. The “big swinging dicks” pulling strings in the Coalition party room. An allegation of rape in a minister’s office, and another levelled against the former attorney-general (which he strenuously denies).

If you hang around in the footy sheds, pubs and group chats of Australia, none of the stories we’re hearing right now will come as a surprise. For too many men, what Donald Trump once glibly described as “locker room banter” — the casual, scripted misogyny performed when men think women aren’t listening — is a kind of bonding ritual. And the pressure to conform to it can be relentless.

Why men don’t speak out

As a young man, extricating oneself from locker-room masculinity and working out how to condemn misogynistic attitudes can feel like a minefield.

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Raf, a 24-year-old university student says that at his all-male private school the boys who said they had the most sex were lionised, and few of his peers had healthy friendships with women.

“My main friend group coming out of high school was just like ‘let’s go hook-up at Scary Canary’. It wasn’t a very satisfying, or very respectful experience.”

Brian*, a 25-year-old consultant recalls the “brand of gross, inane misogyny” pushed by the older blokes in his cricket team.

Both Raf and Brian describe the guilt they feel about their past failures to hold male peers to account. Calling out friends bears the risk of social isolation, of being accused of having “no chill” and “dogging the boys”.

“The groupthink is real,” Raf says.

But both men gradually had the realisation many blokes around Australia are having right now: that everything you’ve been taught about how to be a man is mostly dangerous bullshit.

Different men respond to that realisation in different ways. Some, like Raf and Brian, feel guilt about their past failures to confront people. But it can lead to far darker revelations too. Speaking to triple j’s Hack, men recently described the shame in realising, years later, that they’d committed sexual assault.

And in other cases, that confusion calcifies into a sense of rage and aggrievement. This can harden and animate violent incel behaviour.

Patriarchy offers little to help men change

Clinical psychologist and men’s health expert Zac Seidler says his inbox is flooded with concerned emails from men. These men are worried they’ll be falsely accused of sexual assault and they’re angry that their own struggles are being overlooked.

Part of this fear, Seidler says, stems from men buying into a dominant brand of masculinity which offers men little nuance. When women are reduced to conquests, it creates a sense of entitlement that can blur the line between consensual sex and assault.

“Patriarchy professes the world and offers very little to anyone,” Seidler says.

Men, he said, “are disempowered because they can’t attain an unattainable masculinity that’s been sold to them”.

And when the bubble bursts, and that brand of masculinity is exposed as ugly and undesirable, many men experience this palpable sense of loss and confusion.

What makes that masculinity so potent is the way it’s baked into our culture, passed down through the generations in all-male spaces where so many young men take their social cues.

Fixing masculinity

The upending of locker-room masculinity shouldn’t be a threat. Instead, it’s an opportunity to turn masculinity into something better.

All-male spaces aren’t inherently toxic, Seidler says. These environments can be important places where men feel they’re not going to be shamed, where we can incubate what he terms “flexible masculinity”.

For Seidler, traditionally “masculine” traits like stoicism and competitiveness aren’t necessarily harmful. Its the rigid adherence to them in all situations that can lead men astray.

A “flexible masculinity” is one that embodies these traits when it’s healthy, but also has space for self-reflection, calling out bad behaviour, and treating people with respect.

Sometimes, all it can take is one good role model — a footy coach, a respected school captain — to lay down the gauntlet and make the locker room a healthy place.

If we change the locker room, we’ll go a long way to creating better men.

*Names changed for privacy

For anyone seeking help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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