I first met Clementine Ford at Parliament House in Canberra early September 2018. She chaired a panel to mark the launch of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation’s new report – From Girls to Men: Social Attitudes to Gender Equality.
As I listened to the panel, I was struck by her compelling and relevant narrative of the issues facing women and men in the 21st century. From that moment, I couldn’t wait for the release of Boys will be Boys: Power, Patriarchy and the Toxic Bonds of Mateship. And I wasn’t the only one. Within its first week of release it had hit number three in the best sellers list of non-fiction books.
Boys will be Boys isn’t meant to be the definitive guide on toxic masculinity – a cultural, not a biological phenomenon – or how feminism responds to it. Ford prefers to consider it as a contribution to a larger conversation. However, the book covers much ground on issues such as patriarchy, gender inequality, rape culture, toxic masculinity and male entitlement.
What makes the book so unique is that it outlines the manner in which men and women are not just at the mercy of men’s power, but also their weakness. “Patriarchy also defines the identity of men. It is as much the enforced script of proper masculinity – how to be a real man – as it is of proper femininity.” The chapter ‘King of the Hill’, outlining Abbott’s treatment of Gillard, is a case in point.
..as gender ratios become more equal, men increasingly attempt to reassert their dominance and ‘re-masculinise the environment’
Ford also draws on Joanna Richards’ research Let Her Finish. Using Senate Estimates Committee records, Richards demonstrated that as gender ratios become more equal, men increasingly attempt to reassert their dominance and ‘re-masculinise the environment’.
Whilst the reception of the book is widely acclaimed by women, the reaction of some men has been a different story. However, such a response is unwarranted as the book does not attack men. It simply points out that many men are afraid to stand up to the expectations of toxic masculinity.
Ford’s analysis details a range of high profile rape cases in the UK and Australia. The most disturbing insight is that consent is understood from the perspective of men. Even worse, the actions of groups of men are often understood as a singular lapse of judgment that should not be the basis for ruining their lives. She details the way in which women come under intense scrutiny for apparently ruining men’s lives when they allege sexual assault.
The lessons on young men learn about entitlement, sex and coded male bonding provide a key insight. Men rely on women’s silence. Rape is about power and control, yet women are understood to be the gatekeepers for the actions of men.
Ford is aware that many men take offence. Her chapter ‘Not All Men’ overviews “their petulant retort”. She identifies a few basic types – 1) Well, I’m not like that man; 2) The male champion of change; 3) The ‘None of my friends are like that’ conspiracy theorist ; 4) The ‘Women do it too’ equal opportunity officer and 5) The ‘You lose credibility with your misandry’ man.
“’Not all men!’ isn’t just a mating call for the lazy and aggrieved, it’s also a diversionary tactic used to shift attention away from the substantial issues of discrimination and oppression”
She argues: “’Not all men!’ isn’t just a mating call for the lazy and aggrieved, it’s also a diversionary tactic used to shift attention away from the substantial issues of discrimination and oppression that impact women’s lives and channel it instead into men’s feelings. Worse, it demands that women temper our complaints, that we frame our discussions of the violence we’ve experienced at men’s hands in a way that doesn’t implicate any of the men we know or work with or sit next to on the bus or even just casually pass by in any one of the infinite numbers of corridors on the internet”.
Ford acknowledges that men reading her work may feel defensive and she gets it. “It can be hard to hear that you’re not as great as you think you are.” She has increasingly disagreed with the view that not all men are part of the problem and come to the conclusion that most of them don’t understand that the “problem is theirs to solve”.
A very touching aspect of the book is the Epilogue Ford writes to her recently born son. In telling him how much his parents love him she gives him a message to fortify him against the onslaught of toxic masculinity that will come his way.
Boys will be Boys amasses so much empirical data on the impacts of toxic masculinity and patriarchy that it sits in the same genre as de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Greer’s The Female Eunuch.
As such, it deserves to be considered as one of, if not the, iconic text of contemporary feminism.