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Breaking Out of the Man Box

We’ve all heard the sayings: boys will be boys. Man up. Boys don’t cry. Each of these sayings has the potential to be harmful to young boys, and to put them into what author and speaker Tony Porter calls the “Man Box.”

What exactly is the “Man Box”? It’s a visual representation of how our culture pushes boys and men to fit a certain ideal of masculinity. By constantly pushing men towards certain traits — and away from others — we shove them into the “Man Box.” This can be extremely limiting for boys and men. It’s also incredibly destructive to men, and a root cause of gender-based violence.

These gender norms and expectations can have negative impacts on men. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, men who suppress their emotions — something that is required by many ideals of masculinity — are 30% more likely to die prematurely than people who regularly express what they are feeling. A study in the American Journal of Men’s Health found that men who repress their emotions have an increased risk of self-harming behaviors, depression, anxiety, and aggressive attacks on others. This may be why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have determined that the suicide rate is 4 times higher in men than in women.

Of course, the harm from the “Man Box” isn’t just limited to what these gender norms do to men. It is also directly linked to gender-based violence. When boys are pushed into the “Man Box,” of one the only acceptable emotions that they can show is anger. They are often encouraged to be aggressive and/or violent, and to prove their masculinity through being highly sexual with women. In the “Man Box,” women are objects, the property of men, and less valuable.

The result? As shown in the chart to the left, the vast majority of violence in our society is committed by men (source: 2014 FBI Violent Crime Statistics). According to the CDC, over half of all female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner — and 98% of the killers were men. 90% of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men, based on the results of the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

Yet there is hope! We can help boys and men break out of the “Man Box.” Start by rejecting the gender norms and expectations that put boys and men into the “Man Box." Next, consider these steps, from A Call to Men:

  • For everyone:

  • Allow boys to embrace and express a full range of emotions

  • Allow men and boys to cry

  • Validate men and boys’ feelings

  • Allow men and boys to be and act afraid

  • Let men and boys ask for help

  • For men and boys:

  • Value women and treat all people equally

  • Never use power, control or violence

  • Never use gender-based attributes to bully or discriminate

  • Do not make or laugh at sexist jokes

  • Don’t perpetuate negative stereotypes

  • Listen to women and validate their experiences

  • Embrace female friendships

  • Model a healthy, respectful manhood to other men and boys

We can all work on acknowledging feelings, and allowing children to express a full range of emotions. By working to make a change, we can end these cycles of destructive behavior and violence — and make a difference in our community.

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