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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Rewriting boyhood

2 rows of pictures: Elliott Rae with his daughter on his back, Laura Bates slightly smiling, Jordan Stephens with an earring, Juno Dawson looking left, Florence Schechter in front of a giant tampon sculpture, Sadiq Khan with a sign saying "Only weak men fear strong women", Nazir Afzal resting his head on his hand, 4 men in front of the word "Movember" and a moustache

If you know a woman, then the WOW (Women of the World) festival is for you, says the indomitable WOW CEO Jude Kelly, an advocate of openness, optimism and activism.

We were inspired to see the Global Boyhood Initiative at WOW. We’ve long said that the flip side to empowering girls has got to be encouraging boys to express their feelings. It’s one of the initiative’s goals – plus standing up against bullying and connecting with others. See their excellent 1-pagers for parents on talking about radical influencers and ditching stereotypes.

Their conversation starters are designed, via research, for parents to use with their kids aged 4-6 (eg When does your heart feel brave/shy/scared/proud?), aged 7-9 (eg When you’re mad how do you calm down?) and aged 10-13 (eg Do you feel comfortable talking to boys/girls?).

These WOW highlights really emphasised that gender equality is better for everyone…

Engaging boys

“Boys are at odds with the world and unengaged. For them Andrew Tate is a superhero. But superheroes can be a bit of a knobhead, like Bruce Wayne & Iron Man. We have a responsibility to write different stories about strength, about men being both strong & vulnerable. Men have to do the work on themselves”

Masculinity commentator & Rizzle Kicks musician Jordan Stephens, age 31

Being body positive

“Pressures about looks are crippling and it’s getting harder for boys – I see 13- and 14-year-olds at the gym. Patriarchy is noisy & insidious. How do we filter it & get rid of it? My body can’t belong to the patriarchy – it has to be mine. Instil consent in even the youngest kids & say: ‘You’re allowed to make choices about your body.’ Autonomy is paramount”

Writer Juno Dawson, age 41

Bigging up dads

Role-model for your kids and make masculinity positive. As a black boy I didn’t have to look too hard for trouble but my dad encapsulated respect for my mum. Give men space to be open & access their vulnerability. Don’t put down what boys believe or interview them about misogyny. Ask open questions & be nonjudgmental”

MFF – music football fatherhood founder & Becoming Dad podcast host Elliott Rae

Emphasising pleasure

“At my school girls were on it – they knew what they wanted. The guys’ mentality was: run around town & take take take. I want young men to feel their sexual energy is worth more than society gives it. To understand the pleasure you can gain from giving someone pleasure. Explain to boys: ‘You want enthusiastic consent but “yes” isn’t always consent.’ Sweets taste better when they’re given consensually. Who wants to taste begged treats?”

Musician Jordan Stephens again

Being a male ally

“My experiences are a million miles away from those of women and girls. I’ve never been touched up on the tube or been looked at in a lecherous way in the gym, had to choose a well-lit path home or carried my keys as a weapon. With male allyship I’ve had great teachers, including my wife & 2 daughters. We have to teach boys how to respect girls”

London mayor Sadiq Khan

Acting as activists

“Boys are acutely aware of #MeToo and Andrew Tate but there’s a gap between the discourse around gender & what they’re exposed to & feeling. The counternarrative isn’t as inspiring as Tate. There are heartbreaking stats about how parents show less affection to boys, even at age 2, when they cry. With teens talk to them about mental health – and listen”

Sarah Sternberg of men’s mental-health initiative Movember

Centring girls

“We are facing a public health crisis. Every day a rape is reported in UK schools & one-third of girls is being sexually assaulted at school. We don’t recognise violence against women & girls as extreme because it’s the backdrop to our daily lives. Girls are furious & fighting back but they’re not being heard because of people in power”

Everyday Sexism founder & Men Who Hate Women author Laura Bates, age 36

Praising women

“Male violence #VAWG is a pandemic. Make misogyny a hate crime. It’s about men standing up. I’ve been impacted by women’s experiences all of my career. As my mother was dying I massaged her feet & realised how small they were. My mother was a mountain to me. It’s in her name that I continue to work”

Former chief crown prosecutor

Nazir Afzal MBE, age 61

And finally: vulvas…

“Vulva shame & body dissatisfaction exist because of the patriarchy. The No 1 way to fight #vulva shame: normalisation! Teach your kids the proper anatomical words. Target teenagers so they will have a lifelong love of vulvas!”

Vagina Museum founder Florence Schechter

Some things we learned from Engaging Boys In RSE (relationships & sex education) conference by the Sex Education Forum on 14/3/23

Boys have an appetite for discussing sex & relationships topics. Questions they ask in workshops include: “What if you get falsely accused?” or “How do you ask make a move without accidentally crossing a line?”

Boys want to make change but they don’t want to rock the boat. They ignore sexist comments in their peer group because they want to fit in.

A big barrier for boys being positive agents of change is lad culture, which centres on banter, drinking, partying, sports, gaming, meme sharing and competitiveness.

At a young age boys are socialised into harmful sexual norms and behaviour, such as objectifying girls, that can later escalate into violence and nonconsensual practices.

Often boys don’t realise that their behaviour is misogynistic – sometimes they feel that harassment, abusiveness and assault are carried out by other boys.

Flip the story: what if sexual violence and coercion happened to them?

Help boys to self-reflect. Ask them what kind of relationship they want to be in, who they want to be as a man. With consent, make sure boys can read people and understand verbal and nonverbal cues. Tell them that consent is a low bar – they should also want to make sure that their partner is having a good time.

Don’t demonise boys. Boys are relieved to speak openly – they really want to talk!

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