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Gender Norms and Masculinity

How do gender norms and expectations shape masculinity and expectations related to being a 'real man'?

Other research on the shaping of attitudes and behaviours of men who use violence suggests that solely focusing on individual factors in men’s lives (e.g., attitudes, beliefs and investment in gendered roles) does not properly account for all the ‘structural systemic, organisational, community, interpersonal and individual levels of society’ (Our Watch 2019. p. 7) that privileges men. Without developing an awareness and acceptance of the benefits that this privilege provides men, and that their violence can be in reaction to their privilege or access being challenged, then the job of behavioural change is only partially done.

Male gender norms and expectations also work to shape masculinity and the often-impossible expectations related to being a ‘real man’. The term hegemonic masculinity, described earlier, coined by Raewyn Connell (2005) in her studies of masculinity, has been used to describe these expectations and constraints that shape men to act or perform to meet these standards. These standard include:

  • Emotional control
  • Primacy of work
  • Control over women
  • Success
  • Aggression
  • Stoic individualism
  • Toughness
  • Distain for homosexuality
  • Competitiveness

These unreasonable and restrictive markers of masculinity suit only very few males but are often reflected and reinforced socially, structurally, and institutionally as the expected construct of maleness. Most men fall short on scales of measurement and comparisons and must negotiate the shame of not meeting these impossible expectations, particularly if the failure is public and known/seen by their valued group (i.e., their bikie gang, or their football team) (Our Watch, 2019).

Importantly, Connell intended this concept to be dynamic: hegemonic masculinity describes the ‘currently accepted’ or dominant ways of being a man. In any given time or place, there is a dominant pattern of masculinity that is promoted, supported, and upheld, through particular exemplars and representations, and within structures and institutions.

(Our Watch, 2019. p. 24).

However, everyone negotiates parts of their lives or personalities about which they feel ashamed in different and often non-violent ways. In fact, reporting the results from the 2018 Manbox study, the authors (Our Watch, 2019) noted that there is a disconnect between the socially expected norms of being a bloke and the study’s participants’ personal endorsement of those norms.

For example, the study indicated that younger men, when asked, said they accepted that crying in front of friends or other personal behaviours, such as “indulgent grooming”, are aspects of their representation of masculinity (Our Watch, 2019).

This suggests that the reinforcement of the dominant masculine norms in public is a protective strategy some men may employ to maintain their belonging to the ‘male group’! In other words, having control over women is endorsed as a marker of successful masculinity.

Three men standing on top of cliff edge while one is hanging off the cliff by a rope. Man on top of cliff saying 'Your'e not a real man'

For those of us committed to women’s and children’s safety, an awareness of why men choose to be violent is very useful to help us to target our interventions with them. The rich source of contradiction inherent in some men’s choices – to ‘not be non-violent’ – provides us with valuable knowledge to shape our work with this group.

Our goal when working to develop insights with violent men is to provide the environment to move them towards change, not ‘knock’ them off their value base to let them know ‘what fear feels like’. If we work with men to focus on the ‘ethics of fair relationships’ we help them commit to ceasing violence, and these “richer (stories)… can… provide… an anchor, both in terms of accountability and as the basis for sustainable, long-term change.” (ANROWS, 2019, p. 9).

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Understanding Coercive Control

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