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Challenging the 'unspoken rules'

Opinion Piece

Even with 80 percent of intimate partner violence incidents going unreported, New Zealand has the worst rate for this violence in the developed world. We also have the third highest rate of sexual assault.

These awful facts indicate that too many New Zealand men still express their masculinity through dominance and power over women. To help change this, the White Ribbon campaign this year is calling on us all to challenge the “unspoken rules” or expectations that boys and young men inherit from society based on outdated ideas of what a man is, how he acts, and how he should express himself.

Boys Don’t Cry

If boys aren’t encouraged to show emotion such as sadness and anger in healthy ways, it can lead to the bottling up of emotions, mental health challenges, aggression and violence.

The healthy alternative is to encourage boys to show emotions and to be able to name and express their emotions. As adults, we can help boys (and all children) to do this by giving them the language. For example, saying “I can see you are sad about . . .”

We can also role model and try to get comfortable with our own emotions. It’s OK to cry. This can feel awkward but children learn from watching us. If we turn away when we are feeling sad, they learn that being sad is “unacceptable”.


Boys are often told they need to be dominant (or be the boss of the family). This pressure on boys to be in control of others or to be the bread winner undermines gender equality, which is a conerstone of respectful relationships, and can lead to domestic violence. This kind of attitude also reinforces gender pay inequality and can lead to unequal relationships in the home. We need to encourage young men to be who they want to be, not conform to a stereotype.

Toughen up

If boys feel like they have to be tough and not let anything bother them, they learn that having feelings (especially strong feelings) is not acceptable. This can lead to mental health challenges, shame, aggression, violence and self-harm.

It is healthy to open up and share our thoughts and feelings.

There are many other “unspoken rules” such as Boys don’t back down from fights, Young men drive fast/need to sleep with lots of girls, and Boys need to be strong/can’t appear soft or weak/shouldn’t ask for help.

All such “unspoken rules” need to be challenged, and the healthy alternatives promoted.