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The battle for the hearts and minds of young men

By Phil Barker

There’s no doubt we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of our young men.

New research from The Guardian last week shows men and women still have a completely different understanding and acceptance of what constitutes family violence. And, it is our young men in particular, who struggled to identify what is, and what is not, abusive behaviour.

The Guardian surveyed more than 1000 people in a poll in its “Essential” series.

The numbers are sobering.

It is a fact that more than one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia. It is a fact that police are called to a family violence incident every two minutes. It is a fact that one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15.

Most Australians are aware that “hitting, punching and restraining in any way” constitutes violent behaviour.

But just 63 percent of young men (aged between 18 and 34) agreed with that.

A staggering 37 percent of men do not believe sexual assault is a type of family or domestic violence and that number leaps to 50 percent in young men.

Coercive control, now illegal in a number of countries around the world, which can involve stalking, financial and emotional control, and limiting contact with friends and family, was seen as family violence by only 57 percent of young males.

Yet, according to the survey, 88 percent of men over 55 saw coercive control as abusive behaviour.

Young people are leading the world in pushing for social change, particularly around climate change.

So why is it that young men seem to be reluctant to see family violence when it’s right in front of them?

Tim Winton, writing in The Guardian last year, spoke of young men “having the tenderness shamed out of them … there’s a constant pressure to enlist, to pull on the uniform of misogyny.”

The most influential group in society on a young man, are his peers and role models from sports and entertainment. Not mum. Not dad. Not teachers.

I’m privileged to travel the country, speaking at community and local council forums about positive masculinity. Often, after talking about the influence of pornography on young men, I’ll get a concerned mum who wants to chat at morning tea.

“You said from the age of 10, young men are consuming hours of pornography a week. Surely not my little Johnny. He a nice boy. He’s only 12!”

“Well,” I’ll say, “Does he have a phone and does he have friends who have phones?”

“Yes, of course!”

“So, right now, it’s likely that his view of relationships, love, sex and how to treat women are heavily influenced… by pornography.

Who’s influencing our boys

Jordan Petersen is the hugely successful author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos and host of a massive YouTube channel watched, almost exclusively, by young men. He is also the subject of a new film, The Rise of Jordan Petersen.

Petersen’s message, hidden within sensible ideas like don’t’ tell lies and clean your room is that there is no longer a patriarchy and no gender pay gap. He’s the self-proclaimed “Professor Against Political Correctness” and, in his own words, he can’t believe his success. “Young men are starving for a message,” he told the BBC. “In offering young men “words of encouragement … I hit a hornets’ nest at the most propitious time,” he said.

He’s right.

Young men are looking for help and direction. Imagine you’re 15. You love playing Call of Duty and AFL with your mates. You’ve heard from your older brother that #MeToo and that Gillette ad are an indication that feminists are “taking things too far” and that we live in a society that thinks all men are rapists. You’re told you need to strive for traditional masculine aspirations like home ownership and financial security at a time when those things are increasingly out of reach for ordinary people. 

How does a young, inexperienced person negotiate all that?

Historically, it was the role of senior, more experienced people to share their wisdom and counsel. Apart from the noise of men like Petersen and the far-right men’s movement, the role is shrinking.

That’s why I’m thrilled to be preparing content for discussions with young men at Australia’s oldest school, The Kings School in Sydney, on pornography, masculinity and relationships.

The Kings School is a bastion of privilege, masculinity and influence, educating generations of leaders in all fields of Australian life. So, while this space needs to be given to boys across Australia, right now, this is a promising time and place to talk to young men about positive masculinity

“How young men view and treat women is the cornerstone of the character of a man, and we’re now having open discussions with our young men in these areas” said Director of Leadership and Character Development at The Kings School, David Idstein.

“What is means to be a man is in under scrutiny in society like never before, so it’s important we as a school bring extra focus to that as well,” he said

Sure, it’s only one school and I’ll spend a few hours with a few boys, but it’s amongst a growing number of schools across Australia having these discussions.

And that’s how the battle for hearts and minds goes, one at a time. There’s almost an obligation, now, with “young men starving for a message” for men other than Jordan Petersen and the far-right, to stand up with an equal and opposite message for young men.

For all men, young and old, who want a better world for men and women, it is indeed a call of duty.

If you need help addressing your use of family violence, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491. Lines open 24/7