During the holiday, I read a fascinating book by journalist Chris Hemmings entitled ‘Be a Man’ and this was the topic of the assembly I gave to the school yesterday – Thursday 18th January. This is a very recent work in which the author reflects (as a fairly young man – aged 30) on how macho culture consumed him during his university days. During his undergraduate career, Hemmings became part of a toxic misogynistic drinking culture associated with the university rugby club. What particularly worried him in retrospect was how he knew that his group’s treatment of women was deeply unpleasant, but that he was unable to escape the negative peer pressure of his social circle and do the right thing.
The last few months have not been a good time to be a man in the English-speaking world. Once allegations of sexual misconduct were made against the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein in early October, a chain reaction was set with countless well-known male actors being accused of harassment of both women and men. I made the point to the boys that women using the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter to document the harassment that they have suffered in the workplace are not trying to accuse all men of acting inappropriately. However, it is important for boys to realise that we men have a degree of privilege and that the vast majority of women will suffer some discrimination or harassment at the hands of a significant minority of men.
LGS boys are sensitive and thoughtful young men, but the point that Chris Hemmings makes in his book is that so was he … until he got in with the wrong crowd at university. He attended a ‘nice’ middle-class independent school and shared its values. However, he points out something that I know well as someone who has spent 20 years teaching in boys’ schools; namely, that well-educated and decent young men sometimes act in inexplicably immature and unpleasant ways when they get into groups. The book’s subtitle is ‘how macho culture damages us and how to escape it’. Hemmings explains that he became a rugby player as a Sixth Former, not because he truly enjoyed the sport, but because it gave him social kudos at his school. When he went to university, he was quickly inducted into the macho drinking mentality of the rugby club, which turned him into a sexist monster capable of the vilest behaviour towards women – I will spare you the grim details. Even though he soon recognised that his behaviour when drunk was repulsive, Hemmings felt unable to extricate himself from his negative peer group because he feared being rejected socially by those he considered his friends.
LGS has long been part of a group called the International Boys’ School Coalition, which gives us the opportunity to share what the most innovative boys’ schools are doing across the globe. Recent conferences have featured a number of sessions on ‘positive masculinity’. Although I’m not particularly keen on the actual phrase, I whole-heartedly agree that we need, as men, to redefine what it means to be a man. Across the developed world, young men have developed a warped view of masculinity with three strands: to be a ‘real man’, you must be good at work (academically) – as long as you give the impression of not trying terribly hard; you must be good at sport; and good in bed.
In my assembly, I referred to these as the three myths of macho masculinity, pointing out that they are outmoded and potentially toxic. Academically, of course it is good that we all wish to do well, but it’s negative that stereotypically boys wish to be good at a subject without necessarily putting in much effort. I’ve referred previously in my blog to the ‘talent myth’. If we believe that achievement only comes from talent, it follows that there’s no point in trying if we don’t have that talent. This myth will contribute to mediocre academic achievement unless challenged. We must focus on our effort, measuring our improvement against our own starting points, understanding that, although we cannot be the best at everything, we can always be better.
Being good at sport? Yes, it’s important that we all exercise and it’s wonderful that so many of us derive huge enjoyment from sporting competition. However, what men need is an outlet in the form of any leisure pursuit. At LGS, we seek to value equally all forms of co-curricular achievement and I am proud that our boys have equal respect for those who excel in sport, music, drama, chess or debating.
Finally, the need to be ‘good in bed’ is perhaps the most worrying, contributing to the equivalence of sex and power in many young men’s minds. Too often, men are encouraged to see the other sex as property to ‘win’ or dominate, and only look at women as prospective girlfriends, focusing on their physical appearance. We want LGS boys to learn how to respect women as equals, and to enjoy normal friendships with them, just as we would with a boy. Similarly, we must accept that sexuality comes in many different varieties. Again, I feel that LGS boys are much more understanding of difference in this school than society at large. What is important in terms of relationships is that we find the people who enrich our lives: friends of either sex or a romantic partner of either sex.
This blog is therefore something of a plea for an understanding of difference. We read such a lot about the mental health problems from which the young are suffering. We have to be very careful of directing our children along a well-trodden route. For a large number of boys, sport will be a lifelong motivator, but for many it won’t be. At LGS we know that boys are made unhappy when they feel forced to conform to societal norms against their instincts. We must find ways to support them in being themselves and in exploring their unique passions.
If I were to substitute the word ‘boy’ for ‘girl’ in the last paragraph, I would be defining feminism. Discussions about ‘positive masculinity’ are promising because men finally seem to be realising that they need a male equivalent to feminism. Women are far ahead of men in having redefined what it means to be female. Starting with the suffragette movement and progressing to modern feminism of the 60s and 70s, women have fought for equal rights and equal opportunities for decades, determined that nobody should dictate to women the role they should have in life. We now need to help men acquire the confidence to be their true selves, and to jettison the macho myths of traditional masculinity.