How to build a modern man: Helping boys to grow up happy

Society seems to be clinging on to very rigid, archaic notions of masculinity, in which boys don’t cry and love rough and tumble and play sport. Photograph: iStock

I sometimes feel like my house is a laboratory for gender studies. I have a daughter of 14, and a son of 13. I also have a daughter of six, but she has yet – thankfully – to absorb many of society’s proscribed notions about what it means to be a girl or a boy. Her best friends are all boys, and she is as liable to pick up a lightsaber as she is a Beanie Boo.

I am biased, but my teenagers are both equally fine humans – empathetic, thoughtful, strong, kind. But it struck me recently that there is a crucial difference in how they see society’s gender-based expectations of them.

When I ask my daughter about what being a woman in today’s world means to her, she talks about pride, possibility, hard-won freedoms. Her role models are women who fought for change in society. She is acutely aware of the challenge of growing up in a world where women are still seen through the reductive prism of the male gaze. Sadly, she has already experienced moments of feeling uncomfortable in public spaces, like her awareness of the men who stand a bit too close when she’s at the lights, waiting to cross the road. But she is proud to be a woman and bright-eyed about the future.

When I ask my son the same question about being a man in today’s world, he starts by telling me a list of all the things he knows men shouldn’t be. This list includes, but is not confined to, being sexist, violent, bullying harassing or trolling anyone.

Part of that, of course, is the current climate. The abduction and murder of Sarah Everard in Britain have sparked a crucial, global reckoning, as many men are becoming aware for the first time of the challenges women face doing things they take for granted.

Part of it too is that, while we have done a very good job dismantling some of the rigid stereotypes that used to be foisted on women, we have not had a parallel wide-ranging discussion about what it might mean to be a “good man” in today’s world.

Dr Aisling Swaine,  professor of gender studies at University College Dublin who was named by A-Political as one the world’s 100 most influential people in gender policy 2021, worries that even the notion of a “good man” is fraught, and risks setting up another binary. “It suggests there are good men and bad men. That alienates men, making them feel they have to fit into one or other box, and if they’re not quite sure which one they might be perceived to be in, then how to engage. We need to maintain the space for women to voice and make visible things that are realities in their lives. But we also need a conversation around where masculinities and behaviours come into it.”

It seems reasonable to suggest that the patriarchy has served men no better than it served women. Men are more likely to face physical violence than women. They are more likely to take their own lives or to end up in prison. And from the time they are little boys, they are subject to a whole other set of narrow, damaging stereotypes.

There are, most of us now accept, many, many ways to be a woman. But society is still less sure the same is true of men, and clinging on to very rigid, archaic notions of masculinity, in which boys don’t cry and love rough and tumble and play sport and enjoy the craic. Some of that is true some of the time, but there is more than one way to be a man.

“There’s a fear conditioning in terms of how we raise our girls to be cautious and our boys to be triumphant and master the challenges,” says Joanna Fortune, a clinical psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting series. She cites a study which showed that “parents are much more likely to caution their daughters about the dangers of climbing on a fire pole in a playground, while assisting their sons to do the same thing”.

Changing those stereotypes “needs to start in the home, and it needs to start in the curriculum,” says Prof Swaine. It will involve moving away from the binary idea that “to be a real man you need to perform in ways that are stringently opposite to perceptions of what an expected performance of being a woman is. It’s not just a conversation across the genders; it’s about being who you want to be in our society and be enabled to make choices despite the restrictive gendered expectations placed on you.”  

A lot of work has been done to deconstruct some of the stereotypes about the kind of careers that are appropriate for girls, but the reverse has not yet happened for boys

Those conversations are not always easy. “There can be a fear that we’re ‘blaming’ boys rather than there being a societal openness to addressing the root causes of harmful ideas, practices and behaviours that in the end hurt everyone, including men and boys. I don’t think we’ve shifted that much. I think we’ve still got this monolithic, static idea of what being a man is, as much as we have for women.” 

In recent years, a lot of work has been done to deconstruct some of the stereotypes about the kind of careers that are appropriate for girls, but the reverse has not yet happened for boys. “There has been a focus on, ‘no, you don’t have to fit in with societal expectations of what being a woman is’, whether that’s the push to get more girls involved in STEM subjects or careers. I don’t think there’s a push for boys to get into caring professions,” says Alex Connolly, a student of 22.

“If a boy in fifth or sixth year was like, ‘I want to do nursing’, people are going to roll their eyes. Which is exactly what everyone was fighting to stop for girls.”

Elaine Byrnes, a psychologist who runs a sexual health module in schools with Richie Sadlier, points out that “we’re encouraging girls to smash the glass ceiling. But where is the encouragement for young males to do the flip of that? You can be female and be an engineer or a CEO or anything, but a male nurse is still going to be seen as a boy who didn’t get into medicine”.

Connolly is the archetype of what some would call a Renaissance man. The student of English and religion at Trinity is an academic high-achiever, a gifted sportsman, a talented photographer and as passionate about Sylvia Plath as he is about Fifa. But he didn’t always see himself like that. During his teens, he went to a private, all-boys school. “I was a prodigiously talented rugby player. I never loved rugby, but it was an easy way of getting social acceptance. I was able to fit in quite readily because I was the best at rugby in my year, and in these kind of schools, that’s where so much social status comes from.”

Alex Connolly, student of Trinity College Dublin, believes it is vital to have visible male role models – not just in sport. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times
Alex Connolly, student of Trinity College Dublin, believes it is vital to have visible male role models – not just in sport. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times

He played with an older year group and “had just turned 14 when we played our first match. After the match, everyone went to someone’s house, and there was beer and drugs. [The rugby culture in some schools] is very hierarchical and if you’re at the top of that, that’s kind of the stuff you do. If you’re not on the rugby team, you’re one of the guys that hangs out with the rugby team. I wasn’t really into all that. I’ve never drunk alcohol, even still. But you show up because you had to show up, and I just sat in the corner.”

On the surface, he was at the top of the social pyramid: a talented rugby player, popular, one of the lads. But in his head, “I was miserable. I didn’t like rugby. I was anxious and worried about everything. I didn’t like who I was at the time. If you met me at 14 or 15, you’d say there’s the worst kind of south Dublin rugby-playing d***head because I was so insecure and anxious that I was hiding behind being the big man rugby player.”

Some of the attitudes to girls and women he heard expressed among his peer group made him uncomfortable. The conversations “were kind of at the level where you’d expect. I look back on it now with a lot of hindsight, but I was so anxious myself, I didn’t even have a frame of reference to try and say anything” to confront it.

In his fourth year, an injury meant he had to stop playing, and he decided not to go back to rugby, and to focus instead on football, which he loved. This decision did not go down well at school. “The people I would call friends disappeared.” He experienced “teachers talking to their sixth year class about me. Adults I’d never spoken to in my life making jokes and stuff about me. It was surreal”.

The pressure of years of pretending culminated in a complete breakdown in his first year in college. But that was a turning point: he began going to counselling and figuring out who he was. Now, he wonders how much the lack of visible role models for other ways to be a man shaped him. “What is the role model for a young man in Ireland? You have athletes and sports stars that represent a very particular image of masculinity, and what it is to be a leader – strong and brave.”

But there is a “whole other spectrum of life” not represented by that image, “whether it be creative, or kind, or sensitive, or even just a more charismatic character”.

To get along with boys, you have to be into sport, you’re not supposed to tolerate emotion, don’t cry, you have to be assertive, you have to be aggressive and put yourself out there

If Connolly spent his teenage years desperately unhappy at the top of the rigid social pyramid at his all-boys’ school, Cian Mac Lochlainn was bumping around somewhere near the bottom at his, just as unhappy.

He suffered from alopecia and his hair started to fall out from the age of 12, which made him self-conscious and isolated. He was bullied during the first couple of years, but even when it stopped after he confronted the bullies, “I never felt comfortable as one of the lads. I’ve always been told I’m sensitive for a guy. I’ve always been referred to as quiet” until he went to college, when he discovered like-minded people and found making friends much easier.

“Boys have an image put on to them. To get along with boys, you have to be into sport, you’re not supposed to tolerate emotion, don’t cry, you have to be assertive, you have to be aggressive and put yourself out there. I’m not like that as an individual.” In reality, “I did a lot of swallowing down. And if I really wanted to have a cry in school, I’d go into a cubicle for a few minutes”.

Cian Mac Lochlainn believes the narrow confines of lad culture has negative repercussions for both young men and young women. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times
Cian Mac Lochlainn believes the narrow confines of lad culture has negative repercussions for both young men and young women. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times

The narrow confines of lad culture has negative repercussions for both young men and young women, he thinks. “The impetus to have craic and to be craic makes you push down a lot of a lot of stuff, and maybe tolerate behaviour that you shouldn’t tolerate.”

Like Connolly, he looks back on some conversations he overheard in which girls were crudely sexualised with a sense of regret that he didn’t speak up. “When that happened, I was like, ‘I’m out of conversation’. But I get annoyed with myself now I didn’t say anything, ‘Guys, come on, they’re humans, they’re individuals, they’re not pieces of meat’.” As an adult of 22, with female friends, it’s something he thinks about a lot.

Harry McCann had a similar moment of realisation recently, in the aftermath of the Sarah Everard case. The 22-year-old entrepreneur, founder of Digital Youth Council and student started a Twitter thread, in which he wrote about how “I never gave my late-night runs a second thought, until last week when a friend commented on my ‘privilege’.” How, he asked, “is it normal that half of the population has to worry about being assaulted when they leave their homes alone?”

“I have a sister who’s 21,” he says. “My sister is an avid runner. Almost every time she goes out, she is abused or somebody beeps at her or says something to her or comes after her.” He had a conversation about this with some friends, “and all of them had an incident in the last few days or weeks, where somebody had said something, or somebody grabbed them, or somebody had done something that I was completely shocked by.”

He asked the question on Twitter because “I’m curious to know what I can do myself to be a – ‘better man’ sounds cheesy – but what I could do to be more aware of what’s happening around me and the impact it’s having on women and young women especially? This isn’t a conversation I should be having at 22 for the first time. I don’t really understand how, when we talk about things like sex education…we can’t have that conversation about how men should treat women” in public spaces.

I ask McCann and Mac Lochlainn whether they have come across the term “simp”, which I’ve heard is a derogatory term for a boy who’s perceived as being nice or kind to girls. The urban dictionary defines it as “someone who does way too much for a person they like”.

“Calling boys simps for being nice to a girl; [for being] someone who is regarded as being polite and inoffensive, you can only imagine the kind of damage that would have on a boy who just wants to be polite” with no ulterior motive, says Mac Lochlainn.

“It’s firmly meant as an insult,” agrees McCann. But he detects a change in younger teens who, he thinks, are more willing to pull each other up on that kind of abuse. “I often remember conversations where somebody called somebody something, and I didn’t come to their defence. But now I see it online – they’re far more inclined to say, ‘no that’s not okay.’ And that’s a huge positive.”

Byrnes is familiar with the term too, which she associates with a particularly narrow perception of masculinity. “Why does getting in touch with your feminine side mean being a wuss or a simp? Why can’t a man be sensitive?”

Sensitivity, points out Fortune, should be presented to boys as a superpower rather than a weakness. “We look at it in the sense of bullying that someone is going to have a hard time. Actually sensitivity is a super skill. Because sensitive people can walk in, read a room, read the situation, read people very quickly, and very accurately.”

We went straight from extremely closeted conservative to it all being out in the open, and now we’re all seeing the consequences of that

For Byrnes, part of the negativity around sensitivity and kindness is that the movement to create a safer and more equal society for women has left many young men feeling alienated and defensive, and inclined to dig further into traditional notions of gender. “The whole #MeToo movement of women telling their stories and finding their voices is really important. But we need to bring along 50 per cent of the population, and not alienate them. We saw it happening in our sexual health models. We’d start our section on consent, and they’d say, ‘you’re going to tell us not to rape women’. Here are 16-year-old boys who are already defensive, who are already defending masculinity.”

She believes “we need to flip the sexual script, the notion that males are always up for it, that men are the initiators, they’re constantly pushing towards the end goal. And the female is the gatekeeper deciding whether he gets it or not”.

The answer for her always comes back to education. By the end of the sexual health model on consent, simply through teasing out some of the assumptions about men and women, that script can be turned on its head. “What we are not doing enough of is facilitating those kind of conversations, or facilitating opening up the opportunity to explore what it means to be a man in 2021.”

Prof Swaine adds that it’s important that conversations about men and masculinity don’t become about a zero sum game – the idea that for women to gain power, men must cede it. “Masculine power may not be a problem unless and until it is executed in a way that’s problematic. Boys should be taught to use their power to be who they want to be beyond rigid ideas and expectations and in gender equitable ways. Let’s move away from binaries and move more towards the question of how do we use our power to be our best selves?” 

“You could say that ever since the sexual revolution in the late 60s, there was almost an overcompensation after all the years of repression,” and we skipped straight to the other end of the spectrum, says Mac Lochlainn. Along the way, we missed out on an important stage in the transition.

“We didn’t have a healthy discussion on whether someone is gay or straight, man or woman or non binary, how exactly are we are supposed to have a meaningful relationship here? Where are the boundaries? Where are the red lines? There was no interim period. We went straight from extremely closeted conservative to it all being out in the open, and now we’re all seeing the consequences of that.”