Masculinity as Responsibility: Reconfiguring Manhood in a Patriarchal Society

Masculinity as Responsibility: Reconfiguring Manhood in a Patriarchal Society

By: Steve Arowolo*


For a long time, men were portrayed as perpetrators of violence against women and children and therefore seen as monsters (instead of) protectors and providers. As a society, we had lost hope that we have real men in our society who uphold the rights of women, children and people with disabilities.

–South African Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities: Ms. Lulu Xingwana.

It was at a national men’s rally held in Johannesburg on the 24th of August 2013 that the above statement was made, which succinctly described the way men are perceived in a country that has been described by Interpol as the world’s rape capital [1]. The 2009 report by the Medical Research Council (MRC) established that one in four South African men confessed to having raped a woman [2], stating that “more than 25 percent of South African men have raped; of those, nearly half said they had raped more than one person”. The report further stated that combating rape would demand that ideas around masculinity be reconstructed.

While this article is not particularly about rape and the rage that often results from this despicable act, it uses rape to illustrate one of the many acts of violence frequently perpetrated by men against women in our society.

Masculinity has been grossly misunderstood and misapplied: there is more to being a ‘man’ than having the ability or the guts to carry a gun or knife or parade many girlfriends. It is beyond being able to keep a woman ‘under control’; some men think that abuse of a female partner is justifiable under the notion of being able to ‘keep her under control’. Such notions have been summarily described by Gloria Steinem and Lauren Wolfe in an article on the cult of masculinity [3] as some of the critical factors contributing to violence against women in our society; they suggested that “we can only uncover and cure this wound to humanity – especially to the female half of humanity, whose control and subjugation is the most basic requirement of the cult of masculinity – if we report on and pay attention to the victimiser, not just the victim”. An extreme conception of masculinity that sees a woman as someone to be used and abused has been attributed to societal construction of what constitutes true ‘manliness’ right from childhood. It has been unconsciously programmed into a young boy that girls should be assigned lesser roles and position, and so he grows up with that notion of perceiving the opposite sex as inferior, or weakling that needs to be constantly supported or dominated.

Evidently, immense responsibility rests on men everywhere to stand up for themselves, for their families and for their nations. While we may encourage gender equality and discourage a patriarchal society that breeds domination and subjugation of women, a clear reconfiguration of what should be the role of men in our society that focuses on the relationship between boy children and their fathers is urgently needed. Studies have shown that in the United States of America “80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes [4]”, “85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a fatherless home [5]”, and “71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes [6]”. Furthermore, “63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes [7]”, if these statistics are true for the United States of America, it may be closer to being true for many other countries. This therefore underlines the role of men in our society as being much more than just procreating and perhaps raising biological offspring; it is about realising that responsible manhood is exemplified by acting as father figures and role models in our society.

The advice of Josh Carter [8] should be drummed into the ears of all young men who may have misconstrued the notion of what authentic manhood is all about:

“Manhood is not achieved through sleeping with women, graduating high school, finding a job, drinking beer, or killing animals. Manhood is not something that we achieve, but something we choose to pursue. And that pursuit starts with assuming responsibility”.

Manhood, according to Carter, can be summed up with this one word: responsibility. Manliness means taking responsibility; “responsibility for your life, your actions, your character, your attitude. Responsibility for the company you keep, responsibility for the business you do, responsibility for the relationships you pursue, responsibility for the places you work”.

It must have been this sense of responsibility that made South African men under the aegis of ‘brother for life’ to troop out in their numbers, on the 24th of August, 2013 to stand against violence against women and children. And it was a sense of responsibility that made them take a pledge to speak out, act and prevent gender-based violence in their homes and communities. It also must have been this sense of responsibility that made Lauren Wolfe and her friends declare 2013 as the year to end rape [9] (and all gender based violence).

Let us hope that these words would be translated into action. Urgent action with great agency, for a society that embraces traditional patriarchal ways of domination, as a way of proving masculinity will continue to wallow in the quagmire of social vices such as those that are endemic with gender discrimination.

*Steve Arowolo is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF Contributor. His short biography and past articles can be found here.

[4] Source: Criminal Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26, 1978.

[5] Source: Fulton Co. Georgia jail populations, Texas Dept. of Corrections 1992

[6] Source: National Principals Association Report on the State of High Schools.

[7] Source: U.S. D.H.H.S., Bureau of the Census

Steve Arowolo

Steve Arowolo is a Global Change Scholar with the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth system Science (ACCESS), and a pioneer postgraduate student with the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Steve is a proud Fortharian being an Alumnus of the prestigious University of Fort Hare where he successfully led and pioneered Environmental and Sustainable Development initiatives

Leave a reply