"In most conversations about gender inequality and violence against women, men only hear about what not to do. It is time to do more." ~~ Good Lad Initiative
The term “toxic masculinity” describes the phenomenon that our society prescribes men to act in certain ways that are often harmful to others, and even themselves. Men perceive the pressure to prove that they are “manly” by engaging in certain behaviours and avoiding others. To pass as a “real man”, for instance, men need to engage in regular sexual contact with women. This pressure has been linked to an increase in sexual harassment: Men who might not have access to the sexual experiences they are expected to have might become violent.
One solution that has emerged in response to increased sexual harassment resulting from toxic masculinity are workshops targeted at men. The most common form are consent workshops in which students are informed about sexual assault – what it constitutes, how often it occurs, and how not to commit any. These workshops have been controversially discussed. The most prominent points of critique are (a) that the content of these workshops is known already and that therefore they do not add any value, and (b) that those interested in consent workshops are unlikely to be involved in sexual assault anyway. Workshops by the Good Lad Initiative (GL) address these two points, and will be discussed as a more viable alternative to ordinary consent workshops in the second half of this paper. In conversation with development initiative manager Sam Calderwood, we explored the experience of being a “lad” and the positive effects of GL workshops.
GL was founded in 2013 by a group of male students from the University of Oxford upon acknowledging the problems inherent in lad culture, which is especially prevalent within male sports teams. Four years later, GL has held workshops with over 1000 men from 15 different universities, multiple sports teams, business schools, secondary schools, and professional environments.
The initiative’s name and the content of the workshops are based on the ambiguity of the term “lad”. On the one hand, it carries negative connotations and is associated with behaviours such as excessive drinking, obscene jokes, and disrespectful behaviour towards women. On the other hand “good lad” can be a genuine compliment representing the exact opposite. The workshops are based on the premise that at heart most guys are “good lads”. The individual man, explains Sam, is a lot softer than what our society prescribes men to be. Whilst society teaches them that “real men” are tough and emotionless, and have frequent sexual encounters with women, each man’s individual’s values often diverge: Workshop participants mention integrity and honesty as some of their core values. In groups of men, men tend to form group values that are frequently not aligned with personal values. These cultural and group norms foster laddish behaviour, and often constitute a platform for more serious violence. The aim of the workshops is to make men aware of these discrepancies between values that seem to prevail among groups of men, and men’s actual values, and to shift norms to help men to be the good men that they naturally are.
More specifically, GL workshops aim to promote so-called “positive masculinity”, a decision making framework that stands in stark opposition to traditional or toxic masculinity. The framework encourages men to not only refrain from laddish behaviour, but to aim for a positive difference to their environment when faced with complex gender situations. Obeying the law is considered the minimum standard, but obeying the minimum standard does not yet make one a “good lad”. The latter takes responsibility for occurrences in his environment, and aims to enhance the lives of themselves, their groups, and those around them. In the process, he becomes an agent of positive change. GL initiates this shift towards positive masculinity by encouraging their workshop attendees to talk openly about topics such as sexuality, consent, masculinity, peer pressure, and responsibility, and to remove their emotionless “man mask” during this conversation.
The workshop leaders open the workshops with a few ice breakers and present statistics on the topic of sexual harassment. The key here is to present these statistics in a personal way: Most participants are shocked when they hear that every 7th of their female friends has been sexually assaulted at university. The workshop leaders then open up the discussion floor by prompting the participants to imagine a range of ambiguous scenarios. The following questions emerge: Would you buy a drink for a woman in order for her to sleep with you? Is it okay to discuss a one-night-stand with a mate? What do you do when the woman first seemed interested in sex, but not anymore? Sam explains that men do not tend to openly talk about these topics with other men. Behaviour towards other people constitutes emotive conversation, which a culture of toxic masculinity prohibits. The GL workshops try to break this circle by initiating light-hearted, yet serious, conversations within a safe space.
Sam gives me a few snap shots from the conversations that happen during the workshops. The guys talk about the pressures of appearing manly and the risks of approaching women. Rejection causes ridicule from other men, and the feeling of being a lesser man. Whilst this behaviour might seem cruel it is also a form of acknowledgement of the risks a man took, and a way of pulling him back into the group. They also talk about the challenges of speaking up against sexist behaviour when you notice it. Speaking up comes with the risk of losing social status as you might appear as soft or lacking a sense of humour. Sam is optimistic though – he is observing change: More men seem to start calling each other out on sexist behaviour.
The overall aim of the workshop is not to educate men on the right way to behave, but to give them an opportunity to exchange opinions with their peers. One striking outcome of these conversations seems to be the realization that guys seem to think that their teammates find sexist behaviour more acceptable than they actually do. The take away message seems to be that sexist behaviour is not a way of impressing one’s mates. Another take away message might be that conversations of this kind can be very interesting and useful. GL hopes that their workshops are merely a starting point for an on-going conversation under day-to-day conditions among the participants.
Sometimes, participants are reluctant, of course. The captains of sports teams sign up their teams, and not all team members are enthusiastic about participating. The aim of the workshops is to get men into the room who would not normally engage in this kind of conversation. Sam recalls that he himself was very sceptical when he first participated in the workshop. Like most participants, he was positively surprised though. “It was not just another consent workshop, but an actual conversation I have never had like this before. You learn things about your mates you would never talk about otherwise.” In this regard, the GL workshops address the two concerns most often uttered about ordinary consent workshops. Unlike ordinary consent workshops, GL offers more than just information about consent, and involves all types of men in their conversations. It therefore promises to be a very effective way of tackling toxic masculinity.
At this point, GL primarily focuses on university sports teams. However, they are currently branching out in the future, and start to offer courses for workplaces and secondary schools. The aim here is two-fold. First, they are attempting to cover a broader range of topics, such as workplace inequality. Second, they would like to initiate conversation among young boys already. At university age, boys’ ideas might be set already, and it might therefore be fruitful to start the process at a younger age. We will discuss this and other strategies in the third part of this paper.
~Please reference: Sudkaemper, A. (2017, August) The Good Lad Initiative. Retrieved from www.antoniasudkaemper.com