The Man Cave: Redefining masculinity

Hunter Johnson aims to empower a generation of boys and young men with the skills, courage, and character to reach their greatest human potential.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

As per the latest suicide data from the Australian Beaureu of Statistics (ABS), the death rate for suicide among men was 17.8 deaths per 100,000 people – ranking 10th in the leading causes of death amongst males in Australia.

Hunter Johnson and Jamin Heppell started The Man Cave after coming across the increasing rates of mental health challenges Australian guys were experiencing. Hunter Johnson, The Man Cave CEO, explains: “One in five boys in Australia are likely to experience depression before they are 18 and suicide is the leading cause of death for young men under the age of 25. Furthermore, over 90% of sexual abuse and 95% of domestic violence are committed by men.

“We saw that in the system – whether mental health or domestic violence – there was a lot of work being done around crisis management and reactionary solutions, but very little at the preventative level when boys are constructing their beliefs around what it means to be a man.”

By working with young men, The Man Cave wants to develop social and emotional strategies that become lifelong tools for them; which they hope will ultimately interrupt the cycle before it snowballs into the horrifying statistics that Australia is experiencing today.

Hunter Johnson, the founder of The Man Cave talks to INKLINE of the importance of facilitating a safe space for today’s youth to breed a system of healthy masculinity.

Hunter Johnson receives the Queen’s Young Leader award from Her Majesty The Queen. ©The Man Cave

INKLINE: The Man Cave – that’s a really interesting name. Could you tell us about the thinking behind the same?

Hunter Johnson: One of the central premises of our work is meeting men ‘where they are at’ and not making them feel wrong, threatened or isolated. For us, this isn’t about throwing away our masculine traits but about embracing more of our humanity.  Part of the art of doing this is using language that is familiar to many men.

The term “The Man Cave” is familiar with a lot of guys and often represents a space where they can escape from the world. We thought we’d build on this concept – particularly as our programs create a safe space for guys to talk about what’s actually going on in their lives – so it’s effectively a Man Cave with a modern twist.

On a more philosophical level, one of our biggest influences is Joseph Campbell, who is renowned for the quote “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” – we think that’s very true for the courage and bravery that happens within our programs. And finally, on a much more practical level – if we called it “The Feelings Cave” I don’t think we’d get that much buy-in from the young men!

I: Why do you think there is more of a stigma around mental health in men than women?

H: I think there is a stigma around mental health for all genders and wouldn’t necessarily label one gender having it worse than the other, as it’s all relative. As a society, we have a long way to go in terms of creating a culture that openly embraces vulnerability and honesty in regards to mental health.

The dilemma we face is that when we continue to shy away from the crippling effects of depression and suicide, then we continue to associate depression and suicide with shame and silence, and it continues to seep into our lives and build momentum.

What it means to be a GOOD man and a REAL man, according to year 9 boys. ©The Man Cave

In my experience, often as men, our masculinity is conditioned, policed and validated by rules that we didn’t make but still enforce. Often, we celebrate someone’s manhood based on their 1) athletic prowess 2) bedroom conquest 3) economic success 4) how little emotion they show. Coupled with this, we are confronted with mixed messages telling us to be more vulnerable, to be more emotional, to share our feelings and to cry more often.

It’s confusing and hard to know where to start. What I do know is that it’s intimidating to confront everything you’ve grown up identifying with; that it takes real courage to challenge worn-in stereotypes; and it’s hard not to turn to short-term escapes like alcohol and drugs to numb the pain. Again, this is not about throwing away our masculine traits but it’s about embracing more of our humanity.

I: “Redefining masculinity.” What would be your definition of masculinity?

H: Simply defined, the term ‘masculinity’, refers to the meanings given in any particular society to being male and the social organisation of men’s and boys’ lives and relations. An integral part of our program is letting the young men redefine their own masculinity (and identity) for themselves, outside of stereotypes, gender norms, and social pressures.

At The Man Cave, we believe that all of us – young people, parents, educators, the media, teachers, romantic partners, and all members of society – have a role to play in reinforcing positive, equitable, unrestrictive ideas of manhood.

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I: Could you tell us about your major operations (workshops, camps, school programs)?

H: The Man Cave operates through a holistic model and we aim for multiple touchpoints with each group we work with to achieve long-term behavioural change. We use relatable, highly trained and charismatic facilitators to deliver our programs through the following domains:

1) Youth workshops and camps (schools & sporting clubs);
2) Role Model workshops and  camps (parents, teachers, and mentors);
3) Community Events (public talks and hosting men’s groups)
4) Thought Leadership (keynote speaking, data & impact evaluation, and facilitator training)

Each of these programs is co-designed with mental health experts, young people, teachers, parents and youth-engagement specialists to ensure they are relevant, engaging and impactful.

We achieve this by creating emotionally-rich ‘male positive’ sharing environments, intentionally built to create trust, confidentiality, and peer support. These environments are grounded in best practice and the latest research on positive psychology, social and emotional intelligence, personal identity, ‘masculinities’, mental health and youth work.

I: How would a typical one day workshop with 13 – 16-year-old young men play out?

H: The first part of the day is focused on getting the young men to feel safe and to feel respected. Often, that will begin with ice-breakers and a few high-energy games; letting them show their more boisterous side – they also quickly learn this is not a school. From there we slow it down and get their voice in the room as quickly as possible, and ask why would a programme like The Man Cave exist.

What often comes out of it is that very few of them have had a safe space to talk about some of the challenges that they experience as young men; such as bullying, school pressure, puberty, living in a culture of judgement, banter gone too far, dealing with family setbacks, or their relationship with other genders.

In the middle of a workshop. ©The Man Cave

From there we see a lot of boys start opening up, realising they’re not the only ones going through these challenges. That leads us into the second session which is all about exploring the masks that they wear each day – this is where the young men show real courage in sharing who they really are and deep empathy for others’ experiences.

The third session is all about reflection and creating a vision for the man they want to become. We also create a space where the group acknowledges other young men who’ve shown courage, bravery or some unique gift or talent that they’ve demonstrated. Finally, there’s a big conversation about the kind of culture they want to create and information about support structures such as teachers, the guys in the room, parents, or mental health resources.

I: You have now engaged with more than 5,000 boys and young men in Australia. What have you learned thus far about what you can achieve?

H:  We have learned that communities across Australia desperately want and need support for their boys and young men. To date, we have done no direct marketing of our services and we have been inundated with hundreds of schools across the country who have heard about the professional, impact-driven and evidence-based programs we provide.

We are now building the appropriate infrastructure, staffing, funding, training, and curriculum to scale our work across the country – and ultimately, have The Man Cave delivered in communities across the world.

©The Man Cave

I: What is next for The Man Cave. Your short-term and long-term goals?

H: The endgame for The Man Cave is that our programs are readily available to every young man, parent, and teacher across Australia and the world. In order for us to do this, our short-term goals must focus on developing organisational sustainability, building a cohort of highly trained staff and facilitators, and digitising our curriculum so that it is replicable and scalable.

In the long term, our goal is to have local community leaders delivering The Man Cave in their own way, in their culture and in their language. We’re also working on a new social enterprise where 50% of profits will subsidise The Man Cave in low socioeconomic communities, I can’t say too much just yet – let’s just say it smells like teen spirit!

I: What would be your one piece of advice for the young men out there?

H: Too many of us deal with emotional challenges on our own, unbeknownst to most that many of us are going through the same experiences.

Much of the discussion about depression and suicide is centered on sharing our emotions and starting the conversation. While this is incredibly important, we can’t forget the other side of the picture. If we are to change the statistics, we all need to encourage safe, non-judgemental spaces and conversations for our family, friends, and colleagues.

Here, each of us can practice the sometimes-forgotten art of generous listening. Being a good listener is one of the most important and enchanting life-skills anyone can have. It means letting our loved ones speak their truth, to let them know they are being seen, heard, loved and they belong.

All it takes is a simple text message or a quick call to make a commitment to catch up – you could, just maybe, save a life. And you could send that message right now.

Share the positive!