It was a bright but chilly autumn morning when I arrived outside a high school in South London, braced to spend a morning with a rambunctious group of teenage boys.
In my day job, I’m a contract manager for a tech company, but I volunteer to run workshops on masculinity and gender for the Great Men Project. The kids are bright and enthusiastic — and very often surprising.
School security led us through the labyrinthine corridors of the modern school building. Seventy male students had been split into smaller groups, and my co-worker Ben and I were delivered to a neat if somewhat charmless classroom to meet our group of 16 boys.
An hour later, we were deep into the three-hour session and discussing some provocative adverts we’d pulled up on a large screen. We asked the boys to guess what the ad was selling. There was a short pause as the boys considered what they were looking at.
“What are they comparing women to in this advert?” Ben asked one boy.
“And what do you do after you’ve bought your drink?”
“And when you’ve finished with it?”
“Throw it in the b…”
He gasped with realization, stopped mid-sentence, and rocked back in his chair, hands clamped over his mouth. The other boys finished his sentence for him, and the reaction swept the room like a wave at a football stadium.
“You can’t say that about women!” one of them shrieked. “It’s out of order.”
The ad they were looking at is by clothing company Red Tape, which has a habit of making highly stylized and blatantly sexist ads. Most of these young men initially thought it was promoting a soft drink (thanks to appropriation of Coke’s branding) — but they understood the true message of the ad straight away: Wear our clothes and you can have your pick of beautiful women.
“They think we’re stupid,” one of the boys said. “It’s like that Lynx advert with the women falling from the sky.”
We asked them what the advert says about women. “That they’ll have sex with you because of your clothes,” said one boy.
Another picked up on the “live your fantasy” tagline, asking who, exactly, decided those women were “fantasy women.”
“They all look the same,” he said. “They’re all skinny, and they’re all white.”
When I joined the Great Men Project as a volunteer in 2016, it was because I needed hope. The world seemed to be moving to an increasingly hard place where tolerance and empathy are in short supply. Gender inequality, sexism, and misogyny felt as prevalent as ever, and each news cycle seemed to bring with it a fresh story of tragedy featuring as its chief antagonist, toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is men’s problem — albeit one that is incredibly harmful to women — and I had lost hope that men would ever truly see it, own it, and fix it.
I’m a father — I have a son and a daughter, and I want them both to grow up free from the burden of a masculinity that teaches boys the only emotion they’re allowed to feel is anger, or that it is the most ultimate of all insults to tell a boy that he is doing something “like a girl.” But before I’m a father, I’m a human being, and we are talking about how we treat other human beings.
You don’t need to have children to understand that a world where we greet each other with kindness, as equals, regardless of how we look and sound or where we were born, is better than one where we use those traits as criteria for cruelty.
Volunteering for the Great Men Project was, in some small way, one thing I could do to try and help. Writer Sarah Perry and campaigner Genevieve Dawson started the Great Men Project in the UK in 2014, with the aim of creating a nonjudgmental environment where boys learn from one another through a series of activities in workshops run by men. Gender stereotypes affect everybody, and by asking boys to challenge the stereotypes of being a man, they can have a positive impact on themselves and on how gender issues affect women.
Ben Hurst, my partner for this workshop, is a project coordinator for the Great Men Project. He has a skillful style and energy that resonates well with the boys.
Sometimes during a workshop, some boys can be a little quiet or unwilling to speak up. The first workshop I led was focused entirely on the subject of pornography, and, well, it took a little time before that group shook off their awkwardness and realized no one was there to judge them. But this group was excitable, articulate, talkative, funny, and, above all, up for this.
We started by asking them what “masculinity” means to them and what they would like it to mean. We asked them to place themselves on a spectrum, with “strongly agree” at one end and “strongly disagree” at the other, in response to these statements: “It is weak for men to cry,” and “I would be embarrassed to cry at school.” This got the boys talking about what it means to be a man. We provoked some deeper discussions around the statements “It’s okay for a man to hit another man,” and “It’s okay for a man to hit a woman.”
It was powerful to watch the discussions and realizations around each new statement as the boys began to revise how they had responded to their previous statements. Boys who previously asserted that it was fine to hit a man, even if he was smaller and weaker, then went on to say that you shouldn’t hit a woman specifically because women are smaller and weaker than men, which prompted others in the class to point out what they felt was obvious hypocrisy.
The boys were already starting to ask questions of themselves and beginning to think about stereotypes. When we showed them the provocative adverts, we wanted to encourage them to think about the unequal representations of gender, about the ways our bodies present gender, to see where representation — or lack thereof — comes from, and to see the power of the media to shape behavior.
One ad for American Apparel so missed the mark that all the boys thought it was an advert for condoms, and one boy thought it showed an act of rape.
Another, an ad for Protein World shakes, featured a slim woman in a bikini and asked, “Are you beach body ready?” The boys quickly saw how its depiction of a “perfect” woman’s body would make women whose bodies did not conform to that standard feel guilt and shame.
We ended the workshop with author and activist Tony Porter’s 10-minute TED Talk “A Call to Men,” in which Porter outlines what he has come to know as “the collective socialization of men,” wherein the rules of masculinity are placed into “The Man Box.”
The boys hung on every word, following him intently through a bleak and upsetting story set in a motel where a then-12-year-old Tony was pressured to have sex with a troubled 16-year-old girl. At the end of the video, Porter says he asked a nine-year-old boy what life would be like if he didn’t have to adhere to the rules of masculinity, and the boy replied, “I would be free.”
The whole class spontaneously applauded. There was no disingenuous display, no sarcasm or mockery — just a room full of teenage boys applauding a TED Talk on masculinity and gender equality. It gave me a little bit of hope.
That evening, as I sat on a train heading back home to the coast (don’t get too excited, it’s the Thames Estuary), I was still thinking about how the boys had reacted to that Red Tape advert. It’s so inspiring when something clicks like that, when they see — if only for a minute — just how pernicious this stuff can be. It’s estimated that we see and hear several thousand adverts or brand messages every day, so it’s reassuring to know that these boys can see through a lot of this, and they’re disgusted when they do.
That makes it all the more outrageous when you realize that people three times their age can’t see how harmful a lot of this messaging is. Instead, they’ll have you believe that you just need to lighten up about sexual harassment in the workplace, that you’re a snowflake if this absolute nightmare from Dove offends you, or that actually you’ve missed the joke on this one and actually it is funny because it’s really about the bus but it just seems like they’re saying you can pay to have sex with this woman.
The imagery and messages are all part of the same problem, contributing to the cultural expectations of how boys and girls should behave and putting enormous pressure on young men to adhere to these bogus rules of toxic masculinity.
Thank goodness, then, that endeavors like the Great Men Project exist to encourage boys to think critically about gender stereotypes and the harm they can do. From the deeply committed team who manage the project through the team of talented volunteers who lead the workshops and the boys themselves, maybe we can at least start to empower the next generation of men to go out into the world with a far more positive model of masculinity, gender equality, and what it means to be a man.
Originally published at medium.com.