It's 9AM on a Friday and I'm sitting in a classroom at Trinity, a private boys' school in Croydon, with 13 male feminists. They're sat in pairs, flicking through handbooks labelled "Great Men" and writing down lesson plans. All of them are volunteers for a charity called The GREAT Initiative, which, among other things, trains men to go into schools to teach boys about gender issues. Each pair of volunteers is about to introduce themselves to a class full of Year 9 boys.
They are working against the grain here: recently the government announced that it will be earmarking £2 million for projects with a military ethos in schools, aimed at instilling "resilience in children". On my way in, I walk past a load of boys in army uniforms doing some kind of drill. So far, it's unclear how a class focusing on masculine stereotypes and their role in broader societal problems, such as violence against women, mental health and homophobia, will go down.
Most of the classes start off with a word race, where pupils write down the first word that comes into their head when they see another word. They do this for "man" and "woman", which gets the boys thinking about male and female stereotypes. It also reveals some (not entirely surprising) misconceptions early on, e.g. men have "pit hair" and "BO", while women are "peng ting" and "sexy".
Another session is an advertising quiz, where the volunteers display different adverts on a whiteboard with the brand blanked out. The examples used are quite extreme, but viewing these ads out of context is a way of showing the images for what they are. One of the examples is of a Lynx advert from 2011 depicting model Lucy Pinder in her underwear, cooking a turkey.
One boy says the advert gives "men confidence to control women" and that "if you use this you'll be more manly and you will be in control... she's cooking for you". When asked what they thought their mums and sisters would think of the advert, one says that his mum "would be disappointed in the woman because she is exposing herself", while another – clearly to piss off the volunteers – says "women would be jealous that they're not as fine as her".
Another example, a D&G advert that shows a woman being pinned down by a man, implies that if you buy the brand "you can get away with raping a woman", says one student. When asked about this task, one volunteer, 28-year-old Thomas Lewton, tells me: "I hadn't really thought about this stuff until I did my 'Great Men' training, and then I was like, 'Oh shit, I've been brainwashed my whole life.'"
Another volunteer teacher, Steve Bartholomew, 32, has been taking these workshops for over two years now. "I'd always been unsettled growing up, as I didn't really fit the typical masculine model," he says. "But then who does? I just accepted and internalised that there was something wrong with being emotional. I ended up performing – pretending I enjoyed traditionally blokey activities like drinking and chasing girls, even though I'd have much rather have been at home playing Final Fantasy."
In a way, joining the Great Men workshops is a plunge into the unknown for me, because most of my school life was spent in all-girls education. But it's also highly personal. One of my first encounters with a teenage boy, just before I turned 16, resulted in sex without my consent. This experience has affected me throughout my adult life, and as I've got older one question I've had is why a boy of that age would do that to me?
I'll never find the real answer to that question, but attending the workshops enabled me to think about gender issues from the perspective of 13-year-old boys. What have I learned? Mainly that it's probably quite confusing. I chat with a few of them about consent.
"If a boy and a girl are going to a party and the boy asks the girl beforehand if she would like to have sex later, and she says yes, and then they both get drunk and they have sex, it's fine," says one boy. Another references Justin Bieber lyrics: "What do you mean? / When you nod your head yes / But you wanna say no."That song, he says, has a conflicted message. "The girl in the song hasn't given him consent, but she also hasn't said, 'No, you can't do it.' It's confusing, the way it works."
During the workshops the concept of a "Man Box" is introduced. The idea was popularised by American activist Tony Porter and outlines stereotypical expectations of male behaviour, such as heterosexuality; not expressing weakness or fear; being tough and aggressive; not asking for help; and viewing women as objects.
As one boy says, "Some people, instead of crying, get angry and start hitting things. They want to attract attention to themselves with anger rather than crying, but it just makes you feel worse anyway." And in one activity, all the boys agree with the statement: "It's OK for men to cry," but when asked if they're embarrassed to cry at school most of them admit that they are and say they would judge others if they did, too.
Towards the end of the workshop, the boys spend some time "rebuilding" the Man Box to what they want masculinity to look like. Additions include statements like "asking for help shows strength not weakness", "treat everyone as equal" and the ready-made protest slogan "object 2 objectifying".
What the sessions do show is how damaging male stereotypes are. It is well reported – but perhaps not nearly analysed enough – that suicide is the most common cause of death among men in the UK under 45. Some 94 percent of the UK prison population is male. Women and men suffer massively at the hands of men attempting to live up to the way society thinks they should. And as the "Great Men" volunteer handbook explains, "There is too much of an emphasis on women and girls solving this situation; girls are taught how not to be a victim, how to be assertive, or how not to stand for discrimination."
Speaking to some of the boys after the workshop, one student says, "We shouldn't objectify women – everybody is equal. Today gave me a better idea about how we should behave." And the concept of the Man Box in particular really seems to resonate with the boys. "I want to live by our man box and not the stereotypical one," says one boy, while another adds something hopeful: "I've learnt our generation is the one that can change the man box."
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