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Download our Creative YOU report About us Blog Tackling toxic masculinity through youth work Recent events, including the tragic death of Sarah Everard, have reminded us to search for, and uncover, that individual contribution we can each make to reducing the violence directed at women. As male youth workers we have always been in the privileged but responsible position of being able to establish relationships of trust and influence with young men. This takes patience and tenacity but once established, we should be using these developmentally to expand young men’s understanding of what it means to be a man and the choices within this that many don’t even realise they have. In short, to help them path-find a route out from what has recently been labelled the culture of toxic masculinity. Our tools for tackling toxic masculinity One of the most effective tools we youth workers have is ‘developmental group work’. This is a facilitated form of group discussion and activity work that offers young people a more relaxed and confidential time and space for talking about thoughts, feelings and actions. However, engaging young men in this process to start with often requires our most skilful support and encouragement because it lays so far outside their sphere of what’s familiar; not least because it requires a level of co-operation with workers that many young men would not think credible to display in front of their mates - especially if they are already under the cosh of peer pressure to be lad and bad. Steppingstones to success When it comes to freeing young men from this straitjacket of narrow and negative masculinity, the first step is to actually believe we CAN! From then on, to see ourselves as progressively working towards it with every positive interaction we have with an individual or the group as a whole. By consciously clocking up discussions with the group – either on the streets or in youth centre sessions – we get closer and more quickly to the point of being able to ‘flip’ our informal interactions into more structured sessions of groupwork. Experiential catalysts But even then, it often requires the catalyst of a special trip, event or activity to seal the deal, because youth work is experiential. Karting’s a good one, as they will have needed to find the activity credible and fun. They will have needed to be reassured that we have the confidence and ability to handle them as a group. And (arguably most important of all...) they will have needed to enjoy the time we have engineered around the activity (e.g. during the mini-bus journey, over a meal or in down time) talking with them about quite in-depth issues, enough to want to do more of it with us – even without the activity. The first session of facilitated group work is an important milestone; and if they turn up, it will be because we’ve been prepared to stake the increased credibility gained through offering the activity, on convincing them that group work is also going to be fun(!). A lot relies on the setting, timing, and element of surprise. The minute they walk into the designated space, it has to look and feel different from the usual youth club setting they were expecting – still relaxed and informal, but grown up and comfortable. The circle of chairs is fundamental to developmental group work, but it will have taken them by surprise and probably made them feel a tad anxious. So we know we’ve only got a short time to encourage them to sit, listen to our explanation of it symbolising all having an equal say, and experience it working – maybe as we initiate a quick round robin of something like “a true bro will….” Everything they say is scribed up on a board or sheet of paper, as this signals that they have been heard and that their individual opinions are being valued. It also creates for them, a sense of being involved in a whole group conversation – even if they’ve each only contributed a word of two. Once we had achieved this, we would probably quite quickly encourage them to stand (to counter any emerging feelings of them being ‘trapped’ in the chairs), and be issuing them a challenge that appears at first to endorse the type of masculinity they are most familiar with… We are now going try something that is really hard. It’s going to feel physically dangerous; it’s going to take a lot of courage and trust, and most young men probably couldn’t do it – but we think you guys can. Trust exercises These will typically be a series of physical trust exercises. The most exhilarating of which is usually the one where they take it in turns to fall forward from height into the outstretched arms of the rest of the group. The thing with this exercise is that it feels dangerous, it feels impossible but is totally safe so long as everyone plays their part and can be trusted to do so. Our responsibility as workers/facilitators, is to only allow this to happen once we are satisfied the group is fully committed – and getting them to this stage usually includes empathising with how tempting it will feel, to betray the trust placed in them just for ‘a laugh’ - because that’s what they would normally do. I guess it’s easy to imagine the tension, the fear, the callouts of “yea, I would do it, but I don’t trust HIM!!” and then the enormous sense of relief and celebration as the last young man in the group overcomes his fear, places trust in the group, and lands in their arms safely. In fact, what a great subject for the next bit of group discussion: out of interest, let’s just go round and see what feelings we all had inside us as they were doing that…before you fell, as you fell, and once you had been caught? From this point on, it’s not exactly plain sailing, because the standard set for pace and variety in this first session is going to need to be maintained and built on each time thereafter. But as you can imagine, the challenge to them of placing physical trust in each other soon morphs seamlessly into the need to place emotional trust in each other as they are encouraged – through various group work exercises – to talk more openly and honestly with each other about their fears, hopes, feelings; values, attitudes and beliefs. In fact, if all goes to plan, this and the next few sessions (usually once per week) will start to be experienced by the young men as transforming their peer-pressure into peer-support. Peer support is an essential precursor to them exploring the sort of men they would most like to be if only they could choose; and it’s definitely needed if the conversation is going to progress onto an honest discussion about how our current attitudes and behaviours are likely to be impacting on others, not least women and girls. “Now, we are going to try a ‘talking version’ of that physical trust exercise we did in our first session – it’s going to need just as much courage, honesty and trust - and once again, most lads wouldn’t be able to do it, but we think you now can… The difficult question is: What would you not like about being a woman, if you were one living here in this part of the city today?” This is just one of several exercises that effectively holds up a mirror to all of our behaviours and responses to women. And for these young men, it will invariably present us with an opportunity to lead them into a new domain of trusted discussion and debate about intimidation, discrimination, sexism, sexual identity, and the meaning of equality. Youth work in practice As it happens, we are working with a group of young men right now who have been at the centre of inter-agency concerns for quite a while and are seen to be posing a risk to others in their community through their sexist and racist anti-social behaviour. They are living in a deprived part of the city, where there has been little or no dedicated youth space for some years, and which has experienced a demographic shift over a generation from white working class to multi-cultural community. There is a huge inter-section between sexism, racism, homophobia and othering of all kinds, so positive but challenging youth work with young men that consciously seeks to broaden and rebalance their sense of masculinity, can be of real benefit to them and others on many fronts, including community cohesion. Promoting equality and tackling discrimination has always been one of modern youth work’s underpinning principles. For those of us who identify as male youth workers, anti-sexist work with young men is one important way of us translating this principle into practice, and one sure way of demonstrating that youth work works. To bring about wide-scale change, surely we also need to build this kind of work into the school curriculum. After all, so much about being both a positive member of society and an effective member of a workforce is relational. It’s the development of soft skills, like empathy, particularly within peer groups, that help us develop the ability to regulate our behaviors. So, arguably, until there is a more intentional focus on helping young men learn about who they are and how to be, too much of our precious resource and efforts will continue to be misspent in fire-fighting mode. Tell us about your own experiences of tackling machismo and toxic masculinity – what else could we or should we be doing? What have you found works? We’d love to know. How can we help?