By Sophie Solly | Insight and strategy director

April 5, 2022 | 8 min read

After years of research with client Movember into the topic of toxic masculinity, Sophie Solly, insight and strategy director at The Good Side, asks whether the Mayor of London’s recent campaign merely tables the issue or genuinely offers an accessible solution.

Mayor of London Have a Word campaign

The Mayor of London’s recent ‘Have a Word’ campaign / Ogilvy

There has been a lot of conversation about the ‘Have A Word’ campaign from the Mayor of London in the last few weeks, not least in The Good Side office where we have been working with Movember and cohorts of young men to understand contemporary masculinity in behavior and culture over the past couple of years.

We’ve been running long-term ethnographic communities with young men from lower income backgrounds across the UK, Canada and Australia, alongside large scale surveys of general male populations, digging deeply into issues of mental health and wellbeing, sex and sexuality, friendship dynamics, gender politics, media and influence. We’re using the insight from our young male collaborators to drive Movember health promotions and behavior change strategies.

The severity of the issue is not in question – research by UN Women UK shows that 71% of all women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. The figure rises to 86% among 18- to 24-year-olds. It’s also clear that a narrative shift around violence against women and girls is long overdue and that placing the emphasis on male responsibility rather than women’s attitudes and behaviors is an important step change.

However, we think it’s worth questioning whether this campaign just tables the issue or genuinely offers an accessible solution.

In the eyes of the young guys we talk to as part of our work, the toxic masculinity narrative has two important impacts. Firstly, it puts men into two opposing boxes: woke warrior embracing feminist discourses, or problematic and hypersexualized menace. The vast majority of young men occupy the space in between these two poles, but don’t see themselves in the images of masculinity offered to them in culture.

Secondly, young guys tend to feel excluded from the conversation around masculinity, seen as subject rather than participant in the debate, and feel a growing sense that they’re first and foremost a problem for society. Sadiq Khan’s statement highlighting ‘an epidemic of violence towards women and girls, committed by men’ acknowledges the problem with bold clarity, but it also serves to underline the demonization of men as a category, which contributes to the alienation that the young guys we work with describe.

The campaign film is exceptionally well observed and grimly familiar to most who watch it. We can assume a positive impact in terms of men reflecting on their own behavior – questioning their ability to influence situations, understanding who within their peer group is a problem, considering the consequences of their inaction. As a first step, this is a positive outcome. Everyone has been a bystander and acknowledgement of the problem is an important driver towards change.

But back to the pack dynamic for a moment. Young men experience intense social norms and peer pressure to conform to the expectations of their friendship group. One of the biggest reasons young men don’t reach out to their friends when they have problems is that they don’t want to upset the pack and they fear being ridiculed for having feelings. Brutal banter dominates the discourse, debate has no place and there is a huge incentive not to be the ‘vibe killer’.

With Movember, we are trying to address the impacts of this dynamic on young men’s ability to be emotionally vulnerable and honest about their feelings, in the hope of driving better mental health outcomes. The ‘Have A Word’ campaign aims to flip this supporting, enabling environment and make it inhospitable to bad behavior towards women and girls, but given the suffocating power of peer pressure and the reality that its expression is usually negative, particularly for young males, this is a heavy behavioral lever to push against.

The central character watches his friend harassing a young woman with increasing discomfort, envisions a pep talk, takes a deep breath and admirably calls out the aggressor. We’ve met some of these guys over the last two years who are willing to question the social norms of lad dynamics and we have been inspired by their confidence, emotional intelligence and resilience. However, we’ve met many more guys for whom such an act would be way outside of their capability – not through a lack of principles, but through a combination of fear, shame and lack of experience to draw on.

It is these young men who tell us they need more tools, ideas and examples of how to challenge and change, how to push against social norms that don’t match their own attitudes. One of the biggest barriers young men face when they want to challenge entrenched and gendered behaviors is knowing what to say and how to act. This is the really hard bit and arguably the next step for the campaign – to move from awareness of the problem and one’s own potential role in making a change, through to an understanding of how to intervene and having the confidence and motivation to put your head above the parapet. The final step in a classic behavior change loop is feedback: making people feel good about a change in their behavior, experiencing a positive impact and wanting to do it again.

To bring young men on a journey of change, we have to first meet them where they are and provide motivating and compelling direction. We need to inspire them to feel able to make the first step. Without offering a clear and easy way out of problematic pack behaviors and modelling what a positive change might look like, campaigns that depict men behaving badly can do more harm than good by reinforcing the disenfranchisement the young guys we work with keenly feel.

There are two ways forward we’d propose: first, show the peer group coming on side with our protagonist to diffuse lads’ worries about how they might react and, secondly, craft the language of calling out more carefully to help young men grasp how to take this bold step with their friends and how to land a tricky conversation in a positive way.

‘Have A Word’ is an important step in a long and complicated process towards promoting more constructive social norms for young male peer groups. We are looking forward to seeing how the campaign continues to build on the conversation it has started and bring men along on the journey.

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