Avatar photo Ray Swann 7 min READ November 8th, 2023

Positive Masculinity – A New Hope for Boys and Young Men


By Dr Ray Swann

Much has been written about our need to update the ‘operating system’ of male behaviour. In the wake of the #metoo movement, in a society that is tired, exhausted and in some cases ruined by the behaviour of men it isn’t hard to look around and see a veritable waste land. Our connection to nature and her boundaries is lost; the impact of technology and the rise of pornography seems unfettered and the unquenchable desire to hold and wield power remain some of the entrenched patriarchal tropes at the top of the unspoken social hierarchy of the West. Furthering this is the continued division of anything whole: beauty is measured in megapixels; our attention is now a commodity that is traded between soulless entities that own nothing and we seem largely incapable of dealing with the nuance and complexity that is our modern world.

In this waste land, a generation of young boys are growing up.

Sticking their scruffy heads out onto a landscape that is a contested space of identities, they are told they are born into the privilege of systems of advancement for boys and men. But as they look around, they see that maleness is a ‘risk factor’ for academic success, maleness means higher rates of incarceration, males are more likely to be overweight, sleep less, are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs (and die of an overdose). They are more likely to have and to spread a sexually transmitted disease (STD), more likely to be violent and to experience violence, and will have less friends and social support. They are more likely to die by suicide.

Oh, and they are more likely to deny the emotional pain of these things.

It truly is a wicked problem. On the one hand, we absolutely need our boys and young men to understand power, hierarchy, and the entrenched ways in which they have advantages, but we also need to accept that male health is in crisis, and that better male health will support better health for our world. It’s an AND, not an OR.

But like all wicked problems there is not a simple solution that awaits us, barely hidden below the surface of an ice-sea of ignorance waiting to be awakened.

Much of the writing and the work going into what to do, to address gender inequity largely focuses on the problem. Boys are the problem. There have been recent books setting out the challenges I have listed above in far more detail and eloquent prose. Depressingly though, there is sparse reference to anything evidence-informed that starts to present a clear case of what to do. I can say for a fact, we do not need to start boys later in schools, having more male teachers may not actually do anything other than re-enforce current messages, and labelling behaviours may well just create more of a shame cycle for young men. A shame cycle that has very sinister out workings, including a link to increased violence against women.

For the past 25 years I have been working as an educator (of both boys and men) and a researcher. I have seen first-hand the kinds of programs that we need to focus on, as well as read much of the material on setting out how, through taking a feminist approach, we can start to move the needle on the raising of healthy boys. I have seen what doesn’t and does work.

Positive Masculinity is a strength-based approach to working with boys in schools and in communities. It’s not so much an antidote to ‘toxic masculinity’ but rather it seeks out what we might learn from wellbeing science and apply to how boys and young men think, and act, as males. Our recent academic paper, Operationalising Positive Masculinity, highlights some key areas that communities and schools (both hugely important in the social fabric of our modern world) can take.

Firstly, it must be said that masculinities are very much intersectional. The experience of masculinity will vary according to race, sexuality, socio-economic status, and so on. But in the space where there are no easy solutions, we need approaches that account for deficits and promote strengths. Secondly, I firmly believe that in the absence of something to work towards – a telos – boys and young men will seek out something. And thanks to technology and the harvesting of attention based largely on ‘fight and flight’ responses, increasing numbers of boys are drawn towards characters like Andrew Tate. Positive Masculinity is a clarion call to boys and young men to step into healthy ways of being: to look at the world around them with gratitude and to become the kinds of men that we need for this age.

Our research points to three main factors (authenticity, connection, and motivation) that can be emphasized, through two kinds of processes at a school and community level: both knowing and being. Knowing refers to having boys and young men being actively and explicitly taught things. Being refers to the places and behaviours that the learning can occur. Let’s take being taught about relational boundaries and consent. Boys and young men must be clearly taught about healthy boundaries, and what constitutes consent (freely given – clear and enthusiastic without coercion, that can be withdrawn at any time). Boys and young men need to be taught about social fitness, how to form and sustain genuine relationships over time. Our society has changed and whereas perhaps some areas of socio-emotional learning may have occurred more organically, in the modern world we need to ensure that boys and young men know things.

But the world is full of men who ‘know’ right from wrong but continue to make poor choices. Part of learning is that it needs to occur in a context and contexts change – so we must provide opportunities for boys and young men to practise healthy masculinities. This is what is meant by being. All programs in schools and communities – from sports events, to camps, to pastoral, to the classroom are sites and opportunities to embed and practise masculinities. In these spaces, with love and care but also with genuine consequences, the learnings are re-enforced. We expect that sometimes kids may ‘get it wrong’ as they learn. But we have clarity as to the kinds of factors that are important. So, let’s take a look at those now.

We argue that there are three interdependent factors that enable boys and young men to form healthier masculinities. ‘Connected’ refers to the ability to form interpersonal relationships based on respect, open communication and non-violence. This domain also refers to social fitness; part of the challenge of the traditional forms of masculinity is that it often suggests that the individual, stoic way of working is the best. But we need our boys and young men to have social-skills and fitness, and research has established how this can be a protective factor against loneliness, stress, and isolation. And we need to teach this. In sport, it could be as simple as knowing each team member’s name and something about them. In a class it could be a welcome routine right at the start of each class where everyone is valued.

‘Motivated’ refers to the research evidence related to agency, to being instinctly desirous of engaging with and contributing effectively to society, beyond social pressures. In turn, this work leads to forming a relationship with one’s purpose. And from that, helping boys and young men to understand the virtuous cycle of becoming involved with life and the world – that they are needed, they must contribute to what is good and right. Motivation also embodies the challenging aspects including having to make adjustments to goals, being resilient, and also supporting others in their goals.

And finally, ‘Authentic’ refers to self-knowledge and awareness but also in the commitment to one’s values. One of the challenges facing boys globally is that they are falling behind in reading and literacy scores (anywhere from a year or more in relation to girls). One other consequence of this, is that they do not have the emotional language to name what is happening on an inner level. Through literature and oracy, they are missing the naming conventions, nuance and depth required to live rich, emotionally available (but self-regulated) lives.

Boys aren’t actually the problem: they are the living solution in potential of how we can work together to create a safer and more gender equitable future. Positive masculinities enable the enlisting of boys and young men to come and take a seat at the table where the decisions are being debated and made. Having spent so much time working with boys and young men, I can only attest to the beauty, desire, and pureness of heart that I experience in them every day. The nobility of how they seek fundamentally to do the right thing. How conscious and alive they are to our current world.

This article was first published for the Mother Pelican Journal in 2023