There is a lot of anxiety these days about gender identity and raising boys secure in their masculinity. To be honest, I’m much more worried about raising up men – or rather, human beings who are being transformed into Christ like maturity. This isn’t an abstract worry for me. I’m the mother of two boys, one about to enter his teens.
My heart is troubled as I think about our boys. Not because I share the fears of those who think boys are being sidelined. It still seems to me very much a man’s world. But because when we look at the statistics of male violence towards women, we realise it isn’t a few bad apples. It is so widespread that abusive behaviour towards women is normalised.
The correlation between gender inequality and a power based masculinity, and domestic and sexual violence is well documented. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald references the many studies on this. Of more concern, for those of us who are Christian, is the recent article by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson revealing that evangelical men who attend church sporadically are the most likely to abuse their wives. Even though those who attend regularly are less likely to abuse, this does not exonerate those of us in the churches from taking care to ensure we are part of the solution, not the problem.
When we insist masculinity is defined by power, we get violence. The St Paul’s College scandals reveal a strain of deep misogyny still amongst at least certain pockets of our young men. The election of someone so contemptuous towards women as Trump has given licence to men to behave in a similar way.
This culture of toxic masculinity means that boys aren’t just formed through the family, but through a combination of family, school, media (traditional and social) and social groups such as churches. And of course, violence is the extreme end, the logical outcome of what is a pervasive disrespect towards women. When you look at little boys, they are just as sweet – and mischievous – as little girls. But how do some of these adorable soft haired toddlers we cuddle in our arms grow up to abuse women? And how do so many more of them grow up to disrespect women?
Through the way our culture forms them.
Australian culture has a deep well of toxic masculinity. For myself as a mother, I often summarise this in my head as a phrase I have constantly heard used about my own sons and other boys. Boys will be boys. The Australian rock band The Choirboys had an image that encapsulated this attitude, so it’s no surprise they had a song called Boys will be Boys. The lyrics give a good insight into this phrase. Here are some:
“He's so good at being bad”
“You're gonna have to take me like I am”
“Boys will be boys
You know they don't have a choice.”
Whenever one of my sons or their male friends misbehave, odds are someone will turn around with an indulgent smile and say “boys will be boys”. If it is about one of my sons, I usually retort something like, actually my boys better well behave.
There is a defeatist view about human behaviour in this slogan that doesn’t reflect the fullness of our biblical understanding of what it is to be human. It encapsulates our tendency to sin, but not our call to transformation. Moreover, it suggests we expect less from our boys than we do our girls. What a strange and dangerous view of gender we have if we give men power, but expect better behaviour from women. It seems the opposite of the saying of Jesus from Luke 12:48: From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. Have you ever looked at the context of that verse? It’s a parable about unfaithful servants. Hear what unfaithful servants are like, in v45: those who beat those under them and get drunk. We all know the result of drunkenness when combined with entitlement don’t we? With such people, it fuels further abuse. This isn’t a bland stewardship verse. It is about the use of power.
And those little boys whose bad behaviour is excused, they grow up, and my experience is as men they do get away with treatment of others for which women would be condemned. We say, oh well, that’s what you expect from those alpha male types. And the men who refuse to aspire to alpha male status are denigrated as weak or effeminate.
What do we do about it then? Those of us who are parents, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles and family friends and teachers or have any kind of relationship at all with boys? I hesitate to say what I do is the model to which you should all conform. After all, my boys are still being raised. My husband and I can’t claim success yet! But I offer my own thoughts on this to start a conversation about how we can work towards reversing this trend. So that we draw a line in the sand and say, not this generation. It stops here. Here are my 10 suggestions:
This might be the obvious one, but let’s stop saying things like boys will be boys. Let’s have a standard of behaviour we expect of boys and girls. And expect the same help around the home from both. The plus is you get more help at home too – win win.
Ensure boys have good models. We need to model respectful behaviour and work on our own often unconscious sexism. When we have any say in leadership, whether of our country, our schools, our churches, we should prioritise people who treat all people in respectful and equitable ways. If you think a community your boys are part of is a bad model – whether it is a church or school or scout group – change it or leave it.
Talk to boys of all ages about sexism, racism and other ways of marginalising people. Point out examples when you see them. Also point out positive examples. My sons loved the story of Hidden Figures, and were able to discuss sexism, racism, how they intersect, but also the difference those women made. Help them to see the ways that in Christ, we are all one (Gal 3:28). Reveal to them the depth of God’s heart for the oppressed, and how Jesus declared freedom for them (Luke 4:18).
Broaden their reading, listening and watching to include those different from themselves. Especially stories which show these others as the hero. I get annoyed at the short sighted strategy of getting boys to read by playing into all the stereotypes and only giving them stories about other boys like them. A great website, A Mighty Girl, finds good stories to help girls grow up to be courageous women. I suggest we use it to help bring up good men. On the other side, keep them away from violent and misogynist media. And discuss sexism and other such disparagements of others when you do see them in what they consume.
Re-examine your theology. We know that God values all people, and abhors abuse. Yet studies (as quoted in the article mentioned by Baird and Gleeson) reveal that theology with gender hierarchy is implicated in abuse towards women. This startling disjunction should send us back to our Bibles, and cause all who teach to think about how they can communicate God’s heart better on this issue.
Be a strong and brave advocate for change. Even if, especially if, it costs you. This is how you prove it matters. Give boys opportunities to also be advocates.
Allow them to develop their own individuality, without being constrained to narrow ideas of masculinity. Help them express emotion, wear the colours they like, play with toys that teach nurturing and care, enjoy a variety of activities. And let them see girls likewise being given this freedom.
Teach them to open doors FOR EVERYONE. Especially for the elderly, the less mobile, smaller children or people carrying large items. To give up their seat to anyone who needs it more than themselves. This isn’t gallantry, it’s what it takes to have a compassionate society.
Encourage cross gender friendship. There is no better way to stop seeing others as strange or inferior, than to get to know them. Seriously consider co-educational options for their schooling. Encourage play and parties with both genders. Or anyone different from themselves really. In this, they are following the example of Jesus, who talked to women when it was scandalous to do so.
And lastly, again and again, make it clear their value isn’t in measuring up to narrow or toxic ideas of what it is to be a real man. Give them the true dignity of being a child of God, redeemed to a new life in Christ.
 I shouldn’t need to prooftext this, but in case anyone is looking for encouragement, why not pray through Psalms 10 and 11?
Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister. She works for the Australian College of Theology in the areas of editorial, policy and research. She is also the editor of an academic theological journal, Colloquium. She has worked as a pastor, adjunct lecturer and editor. She is married with 2 sons and a very assertive cat. Her life strategy is to be silly, honest and kind. Not necessarily in that order.
I shouldn’t need to prooftext this, but in case anyone is looking for encouragement, why not pray through Psalms 10 and 11?