Image for The youth leader helping rewrite the script of masculinity

The youth leader helping rewrite the script of masculinity

It’s a year since Sarah Everard was murdered in London by Wayne Couzens, a male police officer. Ahead of the anniversary, Positive News spoke to five men who are helping dismantle the culture that allows gender-based violence to flourish, including youth leader Ben Hurst

It’s a year since Sarah Everard was murdered in London by Wayne Couzens, a male police officer. Ahead of the anniversary, Positive News spoke to five men who are helping dismantle the culture that allows gender-based violence to flourish, including youth leader Ben Hurst

Working with the charity Beyond Equality, Ben Hurst visits schools, universities and workplaces to urge a rethink of masculinity, holding men accountable in a positive way 

Strong. Leader. Breadwinner. Penis. These are some of the ways that secondary school boys typically describe men when Ben Hurst engages them in a quickfire game of free word association. Vagina. Kitchen. Makeup. Sandwiches. These are the common responses when he writes ‘women’ on the whiteboard. 

Their answers might make you baulk. But the exercise draws out the boys’ perceptions of gender “so that we can deconstruct them”, says Hurst, who is head of facilitation at the charity Beyond Equality. By providing workshops to boys and men in schools, universities and workplaces, the charity aims to spark a rethink of what it means to be a man and thereby prevent gender-based violence. 

“I’ll then read them all out and ask, ‘why did you write ‘kitchen’’? If they can’t justify their response, their team loses a point. “They might say, women have traditionally been expected to cook. And then we’ll have a conversation about that. Where does that come from? Who decided that in history?”

This icebreaker activity encourages them to begin questioning long-held myths about gender. How do they feel about crying? Why is it ‘better’ to punch someone who embarrasses them, rather than talking to them? They also delve into male suicide rates and the number of men in prison. 

“We try to build a picture of what masculinity actually means for us, and how it disproportionately affects everyone else,” Hurst explains. At the end of a session, he asks groups what they think men are supposed to be, and what women are supposed to be, and whether that’s fair. What might they want to change about masculinity? 

Seeing the “lightbulb moments”, when boys recognise that beliefs they have long held as dogma are merely constructs, is “the joy of being a facilitator”, he notes. For some boys, realising they can reject social expectations and paint their nails or wear makeup is an epiphany. “They feel like they’ve been cheated; there’s this script they’ve been fed of who they’re meant to be.” 

Hurst didn’t fit the mould of conventional masculinity growing up, preferring dolls to football. Image: Sam Bush

Hurst wishes he’d had the opportunity to have these conversations when he was at school. Growing up, he did not fit the mould: “I wasn’t into cars, I wasn’t into football. I was playing with my sisters’ Barbies.” 

A devout Christian, he aspired to be a pastor and went on to study at a bible college. “But I was kicked out for having sex [before marriage] in my final year.” Stints as a teaching assistant followed, before he got a job with a charity teaching sex education in south London schools, where he was tasked to develop a project for boys on how to be a good man. 

This led Hurst to approach an earlier incarnation of Beyond Equality for help with resources, and he attended one of their volunteer training sessions. “It was intense, the first time I’ve been in a room full of men where we’re all actually talking. It was the first time [I began to see the world] through the lens of intersectional feminism.” 

For some boys, realising they can reject social expectations and wear makeup is an epiphany

Hurst volunteered for Beyond Equality for a year, before becoming staff, and now he also trains other volunteers to give workshops. “I think I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing now, which is a nice feeling,” he says. He and his fellow facilitators will usually see a whole year group of boys three times during an academic year for sessions on masculinity, consent and healthy relationships, and violence against women and girls. 

The vast majority of boys welcome the workshops. And Hurst is delighted when he hears that pupils have felt able to come out about their sexual orientation or gender identity afterwards. Some of the best feedback is hearing that the girls feel a lot more comfortable, he says. 

“They feel more comfortable challenging the boys [about problem behaviour] and they feel more supported by the boys when they do challenge them.” 

In 2019, Hurst gave a TEDx talk titled ‘Boys won’t be boys. Boys will be what we teach them to be’. Seeing change happening in real time, when he’s in a classroom full of unruly pupils is what gives him hope for a better future, he says. “Our aim is to work ourselves out of a job.”

This article is the second in a series, to be published this week and next, about men who are standing up to help end violence against women.   

Main image: Sam Bush 

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