Dear men,

Can I call you that? You don’t mind? Yes, I really mean it, I think you are sweet men. So let me say it a few more times, to taste and feel and practice it properly. Dear men, dear boys, dear fathers, dear sons. Dear men, kind men.

I wrote this immediately after shooting for Talkshow Nadia about Andrew Tate and similar manfluencers. I was a little gutted and yet hopeful at the same time when I left the studio. Those poor, sweet boys and men after all!

Because what was – and is! – the case? Boys and men have lost their way, are in crisis, are being demonised, out of touch – or think the opposite! According to some, now is the worst time ever to be a man, because being a man is not actually allowed anymore and anything seen as masculine is now seen as something bad. Blame woke!

That’s why many boys and men cling to role models who claim to know. After all, it’s not that hard at all. Just tidy up your room and go to the gym a lot.

So far so good, fine advice you might say. But what comes next?

Then it becomes quite difficult. Because then you have to start living like a real man. That means independent, in control, successful, rich, performing, competing, and more of that genuinely masculine stuff.

Then you have to start doing, and just being is no longer enough.

The irony is that those who say boys and men should just be able to be themselves, then invariably have a very complete and quite restrictive interpretation of that. Just being yourself then implies being a real man. You don’t just become a real man, you have to act like one!

How tiresome. And how unkind. Not sweet at all. Is a real man allowed to be lovable?

Once a policeman came into the classroom. He asked the class, what is a real man? The boys all shouted really masculine things: strong, tough, being decisive, a winner, etc. Then the policeman asked if a real man could also be nice. And then it was the girls who spoke up, yes they would like that, of course a real man is nice too!

I understand that it is quite a challenge to be a man in this world. And to be nice. But the crisis of masculinity is not as new as it seems. If masculinity is something that needs to be done and proven all the time, it is also something that can just be lost or taken away from you. Therefore, the first lesson for boys and men about masculinity is that you cannot be or look feminine, because then you are a sissy, not a real man. You can’t be or look like a sissy, that too, which is why that swear word in all its variants is the most common swear word used to keep boys and men in the closet of masculinity.

Lately, the crisis of masculinity seems to be getting worse than it already is existentially. Indeed, the legitimacy of masculinity is in question. Not so much the legitimacy of manhood, but rather of the unearned privileges and self-evident behaviours traditionally associated with it.

You can think of the times we live in as two plates of earth sliding over each other. The old, patriarchal plate still tells boys and men that first and foremost they must be men and act masculine, and thus they must never ever be or appear feminine – or gay. The modern, emancipated record cherishes ideals of equality and justice and expects boys and men to display skills and behaviour that contribute to these – precisely what the patriarchal record says they must not be or do.

Behold the confusion. This is where you can see how it is possible that men who send dickpicks, assault or rape women, as well as men who ‘just’ dismiss everyday sexist jokes as harmless locker-room or get-together talk, who piss off their friends and colleagues ‘for fun’ and call them sissies, do not understand that they are doing something wrong. After all, they are just doing what is expected of them, what everyone does – or would like or should do? They are simply fulfilling the dominant script for masculinity on the patriarchal earth plate. And well, there is also that other, emancipated earth plate, and actually they do agree that we should treat each other normally and equally and that everyone should be safe everywhere, but yes those earth plates do rub and we have to hold our own in the hard masculine world anyway, otherwise no one will take us seriously – because that’s how women and sissies are in the world of real men.

Originally, in essence, we are all a vessel full of possibilities, full of human potential, full of traits and qualities we need to live the best and most enjoyable life possible. But then fate strikes, the dehumanisation that boxes us into ‘male’ or ‘female’ and demands that we adapt to it. So as men we have to ignore, deny and suppress those traits in ourselves that are seen as feminine, and as women we have to do the same but the other way around. We basically have to live as half a man, and on top of that, as half a man we also have to prove that we are indeed a whole and true man – or woman. Thus, we learn to put on, magnify and exaggerate those traits that are seen as masculine.

And this is where perhaps the biggest problem of the cult of gender or masculinity arises. In principle, masculine qualities are also qualities, nothing wrong with that, good to use in all kinds of situations, heartily needed for a full life. But in balance – with themselves, and with our supposedly feminine qualities. Excessive qualities become distorted qualities and lead to pitfalls. Too much autonomy becomes isolation, too much decisiveness becomes pusillanimity, too much assertiveness becomes aggression. And autonomy needs connectedness to be balanced, decisiveness needs to be paired with empathy, assertiveness needs flexibility.

We need all our qualities, not just the supposedly masculine ones, and certainly not the distortions of our qualities!

We are living, in other words, in a state of unfreedom and a lack of balance. Not because we are not allowed to be masculine enough, but rather because we are not allowed to be human enough. Because that, after all, is what we are, first and foremost: human! We don’t need to learn things that are alien to us, all the qualities we need are within us. But yes, those are often called feminine qualities, and that is actually taboo for men. How complicated can life be! How difficult after all to be a man!

We’ll have to learn to embrace, develop, harness and appreciate our supposedly feminine qualities. Of course, it is nonsense to call them feminine traits when they are just as common in men as in women. They are just human traits found in all of us and we all need them.

We use this pyramid to make it clear that – and how – the Man Box contributes to all kinds of social problems, from economic inequality to violence, from climate to mental health, from labour to care, from relationships and sexuality to gender and diversity. At the top of the pyramid, we find serious forms of violence that are less frequent, at the bottom of the pyramid, if you can say so, we find ‘milder’ forms of violence that are much more frequent.

Violence is both the ultimate expression of inequality and its ultimate cause.

I once learnt from Anja Meulenbelt that emancipation, in short, comes down to sharing fairly and not beating.

The pyramid shows us that the question is not, what can we do to promote equality and prevent violence? Rather, the question should be, where do we start? Because that means we can do it anywhere, anytime! And then please don’t stop there, one step at a time.

We need new perspectives, for boys, men and masculinity – and for society as a whole. Perspectives that show us how to get from the patriarchal earth plate to the emancipated earth plate, and how to shake off the patriarchal burden and leave it behind. Perspectives that help us be human in the 21st century, in connection with ourselves, each other and the world.

What also struck me during the talk show: for many of these boys and men, it is important to be free, autonomous, independent, to go off the beaten track, to colour outside the lines, to think and live outside the box – like a poor lonesome cowboy.

Dear boys, dear men, I have news for you: what really imprisons us is masculinity! As long as you cling to masculinity, you will never be free. The stories about masculinity that they tell us, and that you may pass on, strip us of our humanity. After all, we are much more than just man, we are above all human! And it is our humanity that is taken away from us when we have to be masculine and act masculine above all else.

Dear boys, dear men, dear people, it is actually very sad when boys and men always have to be a winner in control. After all, who is always in control? And what if you are not in control, for once, are you then a loser? Who is always in control – that’s not human at all, impossible in a human life, is it? Who is never a loser – or, for that matter, a so-called sissy? And what’s wrong with that? Wouldn’t it be good to learn to deal with loss, uncertainty and the feelings that come with it?

Frankly, all this firm masculinity often feels like a very fragile scab on a wound that apparently hurts a lot. All those boys and men running after Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson and other men’s gurus are actually very sensitive, vulnerable, struggling. That’s the epitome of humanity, but why do they have to deny it so vehemently?

Danish researchers mapped how angry young men end up in all kinds of radical and extremist online communities. They also interviewed the young men themselves. One of them said at the beginning of the interview, ‘now I am going to tell you in detail why I am so angry’, only to spend more than an hour explaining in detail why he was so sad.

A few years ago, Jordan Peterson came to speak at the University of Amsterdam. Sunny Bergman went there for her documentary Man Made. She didn’t get to speak to Peterson himself but spoke to some of the guys who went to the lecture. And what did they say? We are struggling, and at least this man understands that.

But then again, what is it that makes boys and men so vulnerable? What is it that makes boys’ and men’s lives so difficult, that makes them so sad and angry?

The most vulnerable thing, of course, is to be vulnerable when you are not allowed to be.

We teach boys and men that it is better to be unapproachable than vulnerable, better to be perpetrator than victim, better to be angry than sad, better to be active than passive, better man than man. Actually, we are also sweet, soft, vulnerable, caring, uncertain, helpless, desperate – but we shouldn’t be, we can’t handle that, because we are supposed to be in control, strong and confident and decisive and solution-oriented.

And so we take it out on ourselves, each other and the outside world – especially on all that and those who symbolise what we are not supposed to be.

The danger, then, is that in situations of loss of control, sadness, insecurity etc, we, who are actually very sweet boys and men, have to seek refuge in increasingly extreme control compulsions and exaggerated and distorted interpretations of masculinity, in radicalisation or extremism, or that we take refuge in overworking, drinking, drugs, gaming, sex, gambling – or violence, or ultimately even suicide.

When I started giving workshops to boys, the motto was ‘Strong enough to be nice’. Apparently, boys and men think it is important to be strong, so that appeals to them. And then it turns out to be quite a challenge to be nice. For that, you have to be strong. Because you will soon be called a wimp, softie, sissy, gay and things like that. A real man is not nice, according to the dominant masculinity ideology.

Instead of getting bogged down in limiting and harmful ideas about masculinity, let’s ask the question: what kind of man do we really want to be? What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of men would ideally populate that world? And what does that mean for the men we would like to see in the world? How can we free ourselves from the matrix of masculinity and celebrate ourselves in the freedom of humanity?

With the questions “What kind of man do you want to be?” and “What kind of men do we want to see in the world?”, in recent years, we have increasingly connected the various themes of – and entry points to – what we call men’s empowerment. Beneath broad thematic areas such as violence and safety, labour and care, relationships and sexuality, and gender and diversity, there is always the question of how we raise boys to be men, what we expect of men, how we interpret masculinity.

For many men, being a man is apparently very important, just as being strong is for boys. But then it is very important to examine how we can, want to and are allowed to fill in that manhood. Can we be men in such a way that we can be ourselves? And in such a way that we share fairly and do not beat others? What kind of men do we want to be and see in the world? What kind of fathers, what kind of sons, what kind of partners, what kind of friends, what kind of colleagues, what kind of employers, what kind of bystanders, what kind of lovers, and so on.

Sunday is Father’s Day. A good time to ask ourselves what kind of fathers we want to be and see in the world, to take a moment to reflect on the importance of fathers, engaged fathers, caring fathers, kind fathers. Because we need them to show where we want to go with the world, with humanity, with boys and men. Engaged fatherhood helps break the intergenerational transmission of things like poverty, violence, and gender stereotypes. Engaged fatherhood is good for children, partners, families and fathers themselves. Engaged fathers show that it is possible, to be the man and father you want to be, that you want to see in the world.

I for my part already know a little, I think, what kind of men I would like to see in the world, including myself. Not that I know how to do everything, but I do know better and better how I want it. That we can practice, that we can learn, that we don’t have to be perfect, that we can love so-called masculine and so-called feminine things, that we can love men and women, that we even don’t have to be male or female, that we can recognize that we are changing. That we can appreciate each other for who we are, as human beings, and that we find it interesting to get to know each other, and thus get to know ourselves better.

Over the past 30-plus years, I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of men I love around the world. Men who participated in a men’s weekend, men who committed to our workshops as peer educators, men who participated in all kinds of activities, men who developed initiatives of their own, men who spoke out and showed themselves as ambassadors or in our campaign, men who are trying to make a difference in their own environment, trying to be a good man, a good human being, through trial and error. Men who are themselves, open and honest, also about their struggles as men in this world, with what is expected of them, what they themselves expect, about their desires, vulnerabilities and missteps. Men who are looking for a meaningful and meaningful life, with relationships that matter, with themselves, with each other, with women, with children, with their partners and with the world. Men who don’t know it all that well either, and don’t mind acknowledging and sharing that, because we know that we can and should figure it out not alone, but mostly together.

When I am with these men, I suddenly find it much easier and more fun to see myself as a man as well, and I feel invited to be myself in all its complexity and contradiction, and funnily enough, the importance of being a man becomes a lot smaller, because we are among people who may have in common that we have had to learn to relate to the Man Box, but who would like to be able to go, be, do, feel and live outside it.

This crisis of masculinity is not so bad if it gets us moving and helps to break out of the Man Box. As true pioneers, we should and can walk unbeaten paths, discover and invent new ways to be ourselves and connect with each other and the world. Living outside the box is a great aspiration, but let it be outside the Man Box.