Working with boys and young men to help them break harmful habits so they can have a life where violence and abuse don’t fit

The afternoon panel at the Students for Sale: Tools for Resistance conference on 15 October 2022. Michael Conroy is the second from the left.
The afternoon panel. Michael Conroy is second from the left.

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.

Men at Work: Michael Conroy

"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."

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.

Men At Work Training Aims:

1. FOCUS on supporting boys and young men in BEING SAFE + BEING SAFE TO BE AROUND

societal values / beliefs shaping young men’s ideas around what it means to ‘be a man’ 
how this manifests in behaviours / attitudes of boys and young men                            
how constructive work with B & YM can enhance safeguarding

knowledge / skills / confidence to facilitate constructive dialogues with B & YM about safety, empathy and respect  - for themselves, for their male peers and for women/girls

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.

1. Name the problem:

Lack of empathy
The harms arising from the above

2. BUT WHY? The fatalistic –‘what do you expect?’ / ‘It’s just human nature’ / ‘boys will be boys’  type approach is both insulting to boys and men AND conducive to unsafe/ disrespectful behaviours.

By asking WHY things happen we can get to their roots and thereby work for positive change. 

3. And what can we do?
create opportunities (possibly the first ones) for boys and young men to explore their behaviours and thoughts around what it means to ‘be a man’, within a safe and constructive framework 
offer them critical skills useful in developing resilience against harmful peer/societal influences

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?

Breaking habits of harm requires
strategic, intentional, purposeful work.
Yes to legislation. 
Yes also to preventative work ‘upstream’.

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 response to #EveryonesInvited

10 June 2021: Ofsted publishes review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges

Ofsted's findings (taken from visits to 32 schools and colleges, and conversations with over 900 pupils) include:

 For some children, incidents of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are so common they see no point in reporting them
 92% of girls and 74% of boys reported that they or their peers experience sexist name-calling
 Sexual violence typically occurs in unsupervised spaces outside of school, though some girls also experience unwanted touching in school corridors

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 response to #EveryonesInvited - continued

“Children and young people were rarely positive about the RSHE they had received. They felt that it was too little, too late and that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives. Because of these gaps, they told us they turned to social media or their peers to educate each other, which understandably made some feel resentful. As one girl put it, ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys’.

In the schools and colleges we visited, some teachers and leaders underestimated the scale of the problem. They either did not identify sexual harassment and sexualised language as problematic or they were unaware they were happening.”

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.

What are the problems and issues that arise in your work that stem from boys and young men acting out their understanding of what it means to ‘be a man’, in ways that are NOT in: their own interests and in the interests of women and girls.

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.

but WHY?

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.

In asking ourselves WHY certain things are happening it is useful to look at the multiple strands of influential messaging that shape the beliefs, values and behaviours of boys and young men.

1. What are these multiple social influences from which the ‘sponge’ of our brains absorbs beliefs and values, from birth onwards? 

2. If we squeezed the ‘sponge’ to identify the essential ‘MAN RULES’ (i.e. what men ‘should’ / ‘shouldn’t’ do, be, think, like etc) what might we find?

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.


Men should: be tough, sexually active (hetero), get the last word, be dominant, have money & power, be the provider, be good at banter.

Men should not show emotions (anger is OK), need help, be too gentle, give up.

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.

THE MAN RULES: What can happen if we break them?

If there are rules then there are ‘punishments’ for breaking them. What do these punishments – or negative outcomes - look like?

Bullied, hit/hurt. lose status, risk-taking behaviour, over-compensation, ostracised, threatened, mocked, self-harm, lose opportunities, low self-esteem, substance abuse, murdered, mental health issues, suicide.

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.

THE MAN RULES: What words are used as ‘punishment’?

1.What connects these words, broadly?
2.What does this language tell us about the world that taught us the MAN RULES?

Girl, pussy, sissy, wimp, mummy's boy, gay, faggot, princess, woman, big girl's blouse, bitch, homo, bender, pansy, queer, tranny, cuck, moist.

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.

What COULD we have if we lived beyond the ‘MAN RULES’?

Following rules can bring SOME benefits but can also cost us a lot. What might boys and men be able to have by developing the courage and character to resist pressures from peers and society?

Authenticity, honesty, openness, healthy confidence, better friendships, less stress, different opportunities, intimacy, help, safety.

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.

Further reading

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