As published on ABC Religion & Ethics
At my last public engagement of 2018, after the other boys had left the gym where I had presented, a young man approached me. Hesitantly, hands in pockets, tears pooling in his eyes, the 16-year-old said: "I have done those things to girls you talked about. I don't want to be that kind of man. I want to change. How can I make up for what I've done wrong?" The acknowledgement of his guilt, his desire to make amends, moved me deeply. Tim and I talked a while longer. I understood his desire to change was real.
This encounter represents a shift I have noticed taking place over the past year: more boys wanting to break out of harmful patterns, narrow expectations and deforming cultural messaging that they should be dominant and entitled to take what they like from girls.
Earlier in the year there was Steven, also 16. He leapt to his feet, passionately castigating his classmates at a Tasmanian public school for laughing at images of violence against women during my talk. "How dare you laugh," he said. "This is serious, you can't just laugh it off." And then there was the 17-year-old Pacific Islander at a school in Melbourne's west who said he intervened to stop the molestation and filming of a drunk girl at a party.
Later there was Canberra student, Braden, aged 16, who, at a Catholic youth festival in the Homebush arena attended by thousands, publicly said he was sorry to any young women who had ever been hurt by a male. The place erupted in thunderous applause and cheers.
Another time, at a WA secondary school, a boy at the back of the room stood up and told of how he had no friends, how he was bullied every day at school, how his brother had lost his life to a drug overdose. He broke into sobs. A student in the front row arose, walked to the back and hugged the first boy in a gesture which took my breath away. I had to step outside to pull myself together.
The faces of these young men came to mind when I watched the now notorious advertisement We Believe: The Best Men Can Be, released by shaving company Gillette. These faces of good boys; sorry boys; boys who stepped out of the pack and did the right thing, said the right thing, at the risk of disapproval; boys who felt the sting of ostracism for calling out bad behaviour, but knew their integrity was intact. The boys who recognised there was something sick at the heart of aggressive versions of masculinity and didn't want to adopt its codes. The boys who are now part of what could become ― were we to allow it ― a cultural tipping point in dismantling and transforming harmful cultural attitudes about the way men and boys should be.