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  • Is breaking the 'man box' the key to ending domestic violence?

Is breaking the 'man box' the key to ending domestic violence?



In recent years, both public awareness and condemnation of domestic violence have greatly increased. Once it was commonly met with silence and resignation. More recently, however, its extent and its serious effects are widely recognised and deplored. Overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women and children, it is now more attentively policed and subject to heavy penalties. These developments are important in registering the disapproval of society against domestic violence, but they do not of themselves prevent people from reoffending. Neither do they address the reasons why men act violently, nor discourage young people from doing so.

The risk inherent in focusing on men’s behaviour and on its punishment is that it will lead us to belittle men as a whole, or to see men who act violently as monsters and not as persons. To be incurious and dismissive of people rarely helps them to change. If women and children are to be free from violence, the men responsible for violence need to be seen and respected as persons – even as we reject their behaviour. The attitudes and beliefs that influence their behaviour need to be recognised, and they and boys today to be introduced to a better way of expressing their masculinity.   

In building this respect and understanding a recent and beautifully written Report is exemplary. The Jesuit Social Services Men’s Project initiated the Man Box 2024 report on how men perceive masculinity in Australia. The name Man Box might initially seem to imply disrespect, suggesting that it places men into a box containing undesirable specimens of the human race. In the research, however, the Man Box insists on respect. It arises from United States research identifying a set of beliefs that put pressure on some men to act violently. The Man Box is not about boxing people in but about releasing them from a socially constructed box that diminishes them. The report, model for its rigour and clarity, draws on Australian experience of men in Australia to ask how widely men share rigid beliefs about how men should think and behave, they may flow into their behaviour, and how they affect their wellbeing.

The beliefs that the Report explores identify being a real man with self-sufficiency, acting tough, being physically attractive, insisting on rigid rules governing the roles of men and women, being homophobic, hypersexual, and being controlling and violent if necessary. Although variations of some such beliefs might be held in a way that is sensitive to persons and situations, in the Man Box they are rigid and brittle.

In the research participants were presented with statements embodying these beliefs and attitudes and asked whether they represented society’s expectations of men, and to what extent they would agree or disagree with them. They were also asked about how far they acted out these beliefs, about their level of satisfaction with their lives and their mental health. Their responses to each statement and question were then correlated and they were placed in groups ranging from total rejection of the typical man box beliefs to total adherence to them.


'The Report is heartening in the relatively high proportion of men who substantially rejected the attitudes and beliefs embodied in the Man Box.'


The Report discussed the differences of response between younger and older men, and also explored the degree of correlation between the level of overall adherence and the responses to the particular questions.

And the Report is heartening in the relatively high proportion of men who substantially rejected the attitudes and beliefs embodied in the Man Box, and the relatively low proportion who accepted them totally. It also recognises that only a minority of men who subscribe to all the rules of the Man Box admitted having acted violently.  Yet it is chastening in that almost a half of the younger participants felt pressure to conform to Man Box rules and that a quarter of them agreed with them. Men who most strongly agreed with them were far more likely than those who least endorsed them to have perpetrated sexual and physical violence. The difficulty of changing personal attitudes was evident in the limited change of personal beliefs among people who recognised that they no longer had popular support.

This very inadequate summary of the Report does no justice to the richness of the insights and the questions that it explores. It will richly reward a leisurely and reflective reading. The summary also conceals the respect showed by the Report for all the people who took part in it. The statements of belief to which they are asked to respond are presented neutrally, and the comments made about the people who respond are never dismissive.

While unequivocally rejecting the behaviour of men who act violently towards women and children, the Report evokes compassion for persons who support most strongly and live by the rigid Man Box rules. The attitudes make for an impoverished and unhappy life. Men who endorse them totally condemn themselves to a life of isolation, to the pursuit of sexual satisfaction without affection, to relationships marked by inequality, and to life in the shadow of violence. They are more likely to have thoughts of self-harm, to heavy drinking and problem gambling, and to have little pleasure in life It is a life that is unfree and unsatisfying and often marked by mental illness. Ultimately the Man Box is a Man Trap.

Underlying the dispassionate research in the Report lies the conviction that to find deliverance from the rigid adherence to attitudes so lacking in freedom, mutuality and joy would be a great blessing, to accompany men on this journey would be a great privilege, and that to encourage children and young men to swim against the tide and adopt a more fully human understanding of what it means to be a man and to live by more expansive rules is an urgent task. It lies at the heart of reducing the level of domestic violence and the accompanying misery and humiliation of so many women and children. It would set so many human beings free. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Two brothers at sunset. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Masculinity, Domestic Violence, Man Box, Social Services



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Existing comments

Over the last several evenings I’ve been watching a series about a disaster at sea. A large car ferry sank in treacherous conditions with a great loss of life. Women, men and children. An (obsessively) engaged male engineer needs to discover the cause. In the second paragraph of this thoughtful article perhaps we can discern that it is the focus to ‘fix’ men who perpetrate violence against women and children (& other men). I wouldn’t like to see a situation where women are seen as passive in any dynamic to find a solution to a problem where, overwhelmingly, they are impacted severely: physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.

Pam | 01 March 2024  

Domestic violence is a serious issue. The majority of the perpetrators are male, but there are also some very violent women around. My understanding is that much can be done working in the family situation with most offenders. Like with most social issues in our society, we need more resources and more support people.

Edward Fido | 01 March 2024  

When working as a co-facilitator of mandatory and voluntary mens behaviour change groups (MBCG), we advocated three core principles:

1. Respect for women
2. Accountability for behaviours
3. Responsibility for actions

The landscape of physical domestic violence is one of excuses and minimisation: "I was drunk," "I had a bad day at work," "It was only a 'tap'." Significant numbers of perpetrators claim they were brought up never to strike a woman. Almost invariably this claim is uttered with disbelief, often carrying stated or implied self-delusions such as, "It wasn't 'me'," or "I was (like) a different person."

It's easy enough to dismiss these attitudes as survivors from another century - until we realise they are current in this 21st Century, stoic, implacable residents of the Man Box.

A friend once generously observed, "Men are as much prisoners of their gender as women." She may have changed her mind since the late 70s, but I wonder how far we can push metaphors like The Man Box.

The metaphors don't exist in isolation: all around us, the media both reinforce and perpetuate attitudes which may well have been borrowed from Man Boxes. We need to do more than "understand" their content.

Alistair P D Bain | 02 March 2024  

Is there a similar Women's Project sponsored by the Jesuits, and in what ways might Ignatian spirituality be relevant to values, attitudes and behaviours of males and females?

John RD | 04 March 2024  

There is much to be done in encouraging young men to explore healthy and respectful modes of interaction that shape their relationships with others – young and old, regardless of gender. Andy sees much value in delving into the Man Box report and he may well be right.

The fact that the majority of men interviewed failed to endorse the Man Box array of brute is beaut attitudes is worth highlighting and saluting. But, so to is the fact that our society has casually kissed goodbye to legions of men who in the recent past provided day to day modelling of a masculine mode of being which incorporated respect for others; the disappearance of a large number of apprenticeships has robbed recent cohorts of young men of a three to four year relationship with mentors in trade and (informally) life skills. In a similar period, there has been a collapse in the numbers of men working as primary school teachers and a significant drop in the number in secondary schools. These statistics are relevant because the majority of young men will never read a report on how to be a decent man – but they do take note of actions of men they respect.

This not to say the education of young men must be done by men: it is best done in a community of men and women committed to common goals. I well recall, while on a playground stroll, coming across a young, slightly built female teacher taking to task a senior student twice her height and weight: his crestfallen manner left no doubt that her words had stuck several cords. The young teacher already possessed that incalculable skill of be able to correct a behaviour while leaving the misbehaving individual's dignity in tact.

Bill Burke | 04 March 2024  

Domestic violence against men is a serious issue that often goes unrecognized and underreported in many societies. Despite common misconceptions, men can also be victims of domestic violence, facing physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at the hands of their intimate partners. The stigma surrounding male victimization often prevents men from seeking help and support, leading to a lack of awareness and resources available to assist them.

Men who experience domestic violence may feel ashamed, emasculated, or afraid to speak out due to societal expectations of masculinity and strength. This can result in their suffering in silence, enduring the abuse in isolation without the necessary support systems in place to help them break free from the cycle of violence.

It is crucial for society to also recognize and address domestic violence against men, providing them with the support, resources, and understanding they need to escape abusive situations and heal from the trauma they have experienced. By raising awareness, challenging stereotypes, and fostering a culture of empathy and support, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society where all victims of domestic violence, regardless of gender, can seek help and find safety.

Suleiman Hammadu | 07 March 2024  

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