This is an edited transcript of Michael Conroy’s speech in the afternoon session at the ‘Students for sale: Tools for resistance’ conference, held in London on 15 October 2022. You can watch the recording on YouTube. Michael’s speech starts at 20:45.
I’m Michael Conroy and I am on social media as Men at Work. I have worked with boys and young men in various places but now I mainly train teachers, social workers, family support early help, and the youth offending sector. I spent 16 years in secondary education.
With the explosion of the internet and the development of handheld devices, which have now become something that almost every child has increasingly younger, I wanted to focus more on working with boys and young men because the problems that were coming up were just so deep, and so cyclical and structural.
It wasn’t just trying to work out why that individual had done that one thing, because it wasn’t just one individual doing one thing. It was lots of young men exhibiting really worrying behaviours towards girls, towards female teachers, towards their own mums, and in other ways, to their male peers. I wanted to spend time on getting to the root of it and try and do something practical and accessible for anybody who works with boys and young men. It’s not academically rooted work – it’s more experiential.
I want to acknowledge some things before I launch into my PowerPoint presentation. I took some notes when Lulu was talking and I was really struck by the notion of mass grooming. Mass grooming of girls and women, absolutely. Mass grooming through the structures of femininity. But the mass grooming of boys as well, through masculinity.
I’m reminded of what bell hooks said. I can’t quote it word for word, but the gist of it is that we have to dehumanise boys first for them to be able to dehumanise women, otherwise our natural empathy would stop that project from working.
I’m interested in working in that space, so if you pardon me just for a little bit, I’m going to be talking largely about boys and young men and the impact that they have on women and girls.
I was also really interested in what Tsitsi said about the strategic self-infantilisation of men, which is weird, as it’s like we are the serious, calm, rational ones but also we’re babies. We seem to want to have it both ways, but that’s probably no news to anybody in the room.
That self-infantilisation is part of the work that I try and do and that we do in our networks: to try and address that and develop thoughts about accountability and the fact that we’re not babies when we’re 15, we’re not babies when we’re 18, we’re not babies when we’re 24, 30, 50 60, 70. We need to accept our own maturity.
Part of that is understanding how our masculinity is formed through the denigration of the feminine and femininity – i.e. women. Masculinity and femininity are just two sets of propaganda that are keeping the same old bullshit system going that has been going on for centuries.
So thank you to Tsitsi and Lulu for that. I picked up from Robert Jensen the ‘happy hooker’ theme which is really interesting, because last year I was talking to boys who were adamant that any woman who was selling sex or was on OnlyFans was making a fortune.
They were absolutely adamant because they’d read it and you start thinking, well of course they’ve read it, because why else would a multi-billion-dollar industry leave it to chance that people bought their products? They wouldn’t. It doesn’t make any sense. The petrol industry doesn’t do it – nor the cotton, sugar, and timber industries. Of course they’re going to try and sell things through their websites and the media – and to try to shift people’s perceptions about what words mean.
I was really struck this morning, certainly by Fiona, but everybody’s rejection of the nonsense of the term ‘sex work’. Is a 15-year-old boy carrying a machine gun a ‘war worker’ in Sierra Leone? It’s just nonsense but we do have to resist the slippage of language on all fronts. Easier said than done because all of our institutions are kind of buying into the deracination of what words actually mean across the board.
Fiona alluded to the silencing in universities, which is very worrying. It’s interesting though that they don’t silence you if you’re a man doing a PhD at Manchester University about wanking to underage boy porn. I’m sure a lot of you saw that guy who was awarded a PhD. He went through the whole PhD process at Manchester University. His thesis was an ethnographic exploration of his masturbation habits to underage Japanese porn featuring 14-year-old boys. That’s academia at the moment so I’m not surprised they want to silence people talking about the harms of pimping.
So thank you for your speeches this morning. It gives me a lot to talk about.
I’m now going to whizz through my presentation. This statement is still true:
“If we don’t radically, consistently and authentically engage boys and young men in critical thinking about their humanity, and enable them to share that engagement with other males, then women’s humanity will always be denied.”
It’s an echo of bell hooks – that unless we do this, and I primarily mean men. Everybody needs to do it, of course, but men are the silent and the absent ones in all sorts of ways – in domestic abuse, in the use of the passive tense in reports of murder in newspapers. When a woman is killed, they use the passive voice to avoid actually pointing the finger where it should be.
I believe that we need to humanise our boys and humanise ourselves in the process and part of that involves them understanding the full humanity of women and girls. So much is put in their pockets, in their hands, in their ears, in their eyes, that persuades them otherwise – whether it’s the toy industry or clothing, messages from porn or music lyrics or whatever. They’re learning from this totality of culture, just by osmosis, what it is to be a man. And it’s based on some really poor and wrong data. And that becomes dangerous. They are dangerous assumptions and premises to work from.
Basically, I train teachers. I’m doing it every day this month, which is great, and next month as well. Social workers, all sorts of youth sports teams and youth funding teams.
Currently, there’s a real hunger and desire to work with boys. But if they don’t know what that means or how to do it, they come to the work with a real honesty and enthusiasm but they’re frightened of being seen as accusatory or being anti-man or man bashing.
And I just say, do you want your boys to be safe? Yes. Do you want them to be safe to be around? Yes.
Right. that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to do those two things together. That’s the basis of the work that I do and those two things, they’re inseparable.
It’s about diving in with the teachers, the social workers, the youth workers, whoever they are, thinking what messages are these boys getting?
The first thing we do is work on three phases. One is, name the problem. Let’s say it; let’s spend the day saying what is going on in school; what is going on in college; what’s going on in this youth centre. What are the harms and the damage? And that’s kind of uncomfortable as well.
Then we’ve got to ask ourselves why, because either we believe in some kind of weird biblical thing that anybody born with male genitalia is, per se, always going to be an abuser, which I simply don’t accept or believe. I don’t subscribe to those ways of seeing the world.
We’re all subject to infinite and incredibly complex layers of nurture and suggestion and coercion and shock and trauma and bad information that we’re just soaking up constantly from when we’re babies. As we get older we develop this ability to reflect, and it’s supporting that reflective ability, which doesn’t happen most of the time, and that’s catastrophically dangerous.
The question then, once we’ve done that, is saying what can we do, with limited resources, with no governmental will whatsoever? What can we do?
I have a couple of quotes from working with boys and young men and teachers and social workers and I’m doing some work with adult male perpetrators in Manchester.
This quote by Kate Iwi – some of you may be familiar with her work – it’s a really powerful value call.
“Change will only come about when the internal conflict or dissonance within [the men] becomes unsustainable. Your job is to build up a relationship with them that helps them to consider that they could have a better life; they could have a life where violence and abuse don’t fit.” – Kate Iwi
It’s a really powerful rallying call. I think that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to make it undesirable, uncomfortable and unsustainable to be abusive. How do we do that? And when do we start?
“Intervention should be viewed as an activity that should add to a person’s repertoire of personal functioning rather than an activity that simply removes a problem, or is devoted to managing problems” – Tony Ward
It’s my conviction that the earlier you start, the better. But, of course, the devil is in the detail. I’m going to talk a little bit about schools because that’s an area I know something about.
Ofsted did a response to Everyone’s Invited which blew up in early 2021 when some students at a college in London, young women who were absolutely sick of sexual harassment, of having drinks spiked, being cat called, all of that stuff, set up a hashtag on a website, which I think is at 50,000 thousand testimonials to date.
Ofsted were told to do something and visited 40 schools as a sample of the hundreds of schools that were mentioned. Of these, they found 32 were abjectly unfit for purpose in terms of dealing with reports of sexual harassment and abuse. Instead they created a culture that minimised it or just flatly denied it existed. They were just not up to it at all so thousands of young women around the country were being let down by schools, despite there being loads of brilliant people in the schools who try their very best to do wonderful things and sometimes take on an incredible burden of care of children above and beyond their contract.
These things are true at the same time. It’s a messy world. I’m talking to teachers and I’m saying there is a huge problem here and what are we going to do about it? We need to talk it through and see where we can get to.
This is the first question I ask when I’m working with a group, which could be 20 or 30 people, who are teachers, social workers, youth workers, or prison officers. I ask, in the work that you do, how does the enactment of social scripts of masculinity play out in ways that are (a) self-destructive for the young men and boys you work with and (b) destructive towards women and girls?
That’s the conversation. That’s what we talk about and we go into it in as much detail as time allows. We remain in touch and do follow-on work.
If you have a particular mindset about what a boy or what a man should be, which we’re going to look at quickly, they will behave according to that script, until you have some kind of catalyst for change and often the conditions are not offered to boys for that catalyst. This is not excusing adult men – I’m just saying that we don’t have these constructive conversations as a matter of course in our education system.
This image is meant to be a sponge in the shape of a brain, by the way.
From day one, even when it’s in the mother’s womb, people say, he’s kicking so he’s going to be a footballer or she’s kicking, she’s going to be a ballet dancer. Instant self-propagandising about essential characteristics of boys and girls, which is of course nonsense.
But then they wake up, and somebody’s painted the room with blue and put cowboys and dinosaurs in it. If it’s a girl they’ve put dancers in glitter and butterflies. And then there are the birthday cards and t-shirts, and the constant overlaying of this nonsense.
But within that nonsense, there’s some really substantial and significant instructions about what to do and what not to do.
So I directly say if you squeeze that sponge, what are the things that come out of it? (I’m doing a one day course here in five minutes, so please forgive me if I seem to be rambling.)
I say, come on guys, all that stuff in your brain, what are the main things that come to you in terms of instructions about being a man?
And they basically always say a combination of: be strong; have money; have power; be dominant; get what you want; don’t stop; don’t give up; don’t take no for an answer; don’t be emotionally expressive. But you can be angry. Being angry is alright, and in fact it might get you somewhere. That’s what boys and young men say, over and over again.
Boys of 13, 14, 15, 16. In all-white pupil referral units in the morning; public school in the afternoon; 20 different nationalities; millionaires. They’re all saying the same thing, because there’s something about our totalising culture towards boys and men which provides the fuel for them to absorb these messages.
Then I say OK, so if we break these rules, these man rules, what happens?
And they know immediately – you get bullied; you get the piss taken out of you; you get isolated; you get marginalised; you might get beaten up; you might get killed, if you’re dressed in the wrong way or in the wrong place. They’re the experts on it.
Then I ask them the next bit, which is what are the words that we use when we punish each other? What are the shame words? What are the worst words that we could use towards each other? Is it dickhead, wanker, nob, fool, idiot? No. What they say is, it’s pussy, wimp, girl, woman, princess, bitch, etc. etc.
So I say, that’s interesting, fellas. So that stuff that got put in our sponge by the world since we were babies and that we’re still getting, what does it tell us about the world and what we think about women?
That’s the creative discomfort that we need to be able to strategize to create – because that discomfort is the only hope of separating developing boys and young men from harmful beliefs becoming entrenched.
They need to feel discomfort because that’s the humanity.
It is good to be uncomfortable at that point because there is no way of denying it. It often goes really quiet, and we just sit with that and they say what they are thinking. They often say things like, well, I love my mum and my little sister. And I say, but you’ve just said all this – and this seems to suggest that you individually didn’t invent this. It was already made up when you were born but now we’re all swimming in it.
Then we ask, what are we going to do now? What are you going to do tonight? What are you going to say when you text somebody? What are you going to say? What are you going to share? What are you going to do tomorrow. What’s next?
And that’s the work that I think needs to be done with boys and young men. I’m not going to draw any grand conclusions.
The next part starts with a blank screen and it asks, what would the world be like if we weren’t trapped in this cycle and reinforcing it ourselves? What would our relationships with each other be like? What would our relationships with girls be like? What could we have? What could they have? Would that not be better?
So it’s just a creative exploration of another world and what is possible, and trying to start that in really respectful ways with boys who are 15, 14, 13, 12, and then working younger and younger, in ways that are age appropriate.
Other people have important things to say, so I’m happy to stop there if that’s alright.
To find out more about Michael’s work, please visit his website: Men at work: Constructive dialogues for boys, young men and those who work with them.
Watch the recording
Here is the recording of the afternoon session of the ‘Students for sale: Tools for resistance’ conference. Michael Conroy’s brilliant contribution starts at 20:45.