Redefining what it takes to be a man

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  • Wednesday, 01 Mar 2017

I REMEMBER begging my teachers to let me out of school early. I just needed five minutes, I’d tell them, so that I could catch the earlier bus. Just five minutes.

It was my birthday, and anyone who went to an all-boys school would probably know what that meant – if some of the children didn’t like you (or in some cases, really good friends of yours wanting a laugh), there would be eggs and flour waiting for you after school.

So, every year, I’d go to my teachers and ask for permission to leave early. Over the years, all but one said no. So, I’d hide in the school garden, library or staffroom until my schoolmates were bored of waiting for me.

I had a love-hate relationship with school and my friends. As a tiny, scrawny child who was close to many teachers, I found myself the unfortunate target of many students in school.

But despite being half their size, I was also feisty, which meant I’d fight back – both verbally and physically. Which just gave them more reason to dislike me.

Nothing worked. I couldn’t go to the teachers because that would be squealing – something “only girls do.” I even took up hockey to be “one of the boys,” but even in sports where team camaraderie was obligatory, I was never truly accepted.

“Your body is like a girl’s,” I remember one teammate telling me when I had to play with my shirt off one day (we didn’t have bibs to help differentiate teams). Never mind that we were both the same size, equally scrawny.

Then there was a time when eight of them walked up to me holding hockey sticks wanting to beat me up because I made a joke about their friend which they took offence to. I was lucky to get away with some pushing around and painful slaps; one of them who was clearly uncomfortable with the whole thing told them – “Guys, don’t use the sticks.”

Over 20 years later, I could remember all these incidents vividly because they were so scary and there was nothing I could do about it.

Except that there was – I could have told my parents, or teachers. But then I’d be a squeal – “like a girl” – and be exactly what they called me. Also, “boys don’t cry.” I had also been told enough times before that they were just “boys being boys.” So, I took it “like a man,” the way so many of us tell our sons.

Except that the consequences of such thinking is dangerous. First of all, we find that men don’t talk about their problems, we just keep it to ourselves and “take it.” You can imagine how much of a toll this will take on one’s emotions, which then get manifested in various ways, some more violent than others.

Secondly, we start to treat our boys differently from our girls in the way we protect them. Just a couple of days ago, a friend shared something a mutual friend of ours told her – why do we let our boys go to the toilet by themselves, when we would never let our girls to do the same?

This conversation was sparked from a recent revelation about alleged sexual abuse of young boys in the United States involving someone my circle of friends and I had known and worked with. It took some 30 years for the allegations to emerge (he has since issued a statement claiming that no criminal charges has been pressed against him). We need to think about why it took so long for any of those children to speak out (and even then, only after an investigation into the matter had taken place).

I have never been abused to the extent of what some of those children – and many more around the world – have experienced, but I know what it feels like to be disempowered, to have nowhere to run and no one to turn to because of social structure and the patriarchal culture we live in.

We need to start protecting our boys; first, in redefining the idea of masculinity – what it takes to “be a man” – and secondly, in the way we approach conversations about the dangers of society the way we do with girls.

We need to think about who we allow to have access to our children – both the boys and the girls – not just in schools but in daycare, babysitting, play houses and elsewhere.

We need to give our children a platform to reach out to us, and take them seriously instead of telling the boys to “suck it up” and the girls to “cry it all out.”

So often these days we read about how children and teenagers are taking their life – often because of sexual abuse and bullying linked to sexuality, gender identity and other social constructions around sex, physicality and stereotypes.

There is a lot being done for girls, and we can afford to do more, but it’s time we include boys in those conversations as well.

We can start by taking any allegations of bullying or abuse more seriously, instead of defending alleged perpetrators and shaming the victims.

Niki is a PhD researcher at The University of Nottingham, UK. Connect with him online at

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