Don’t be one of the boys

Hunter John­son is on a mis­sion to turn con­fused young blokes into healthy men and his fans in­clude Prince Harry and Meghan, dis­cov­ers Juliet Rieden.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - In Brief -

Mate­ship is an Aussie identi er, that spe­cial male bond­ing club that says you’re one of us. Politi­cians love the word – it’s who we are as a na­tion. But for Hunter John­son (above), mate­ship isn’t al­ways a pos­i­tive force – its blokey con­cept of mas­culin­ity is one of many cul­tural con­structs at the heart of a cav­ernous gen­der prob­lem which is brain­wash­ing our boys and cre­at­ing, at best, con­fused and, at worst, sui­ci­dal young men, un­able to form mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships.

“Grow­ing up I saw guys con­stantly hav­ing the need to earn their mas­culin­ity, whether it was drink­ing the most, tak­ing drugs, in their lan­guage ‘get­ting the most women’, show­ing the least emo­tion,” ex­plains Hunter. “But I also saw the fragility of it. All it took was one com­ment – for some­one to say, ‘Oh mate, that’s a bit gay’ – for that per­son to crum­ble.”

Hunter John­son is an ex­tra­or­di­nary young man. Just talk­ing to him makes you re­think ev­ery­thing you do and say, and want to join him in his bid to change the world. The 27-year-old from Syd­ney is charm­ing, fun and ef­fort­lessly in­spir­ing. But Hunter wasn’t al­ways this en­light­ened, and as a teenager he buried him­self in sport. He looks like a cross be­tween a mati­nee idol and a foot­ball jock, which is also sort of how Hunter saw him­self ... back then.

“I drank the Kool-Aid for way too long with my ideals around what it meant to be a man,” he ad­mits. “I was pretty lost, un­til I was about 14 or 15. I was get­ting in trou­ble and try­ing to work out who I was in a school en­vi­ron­ment that was very much a boys’ cul­ture. I saw mas­culin­ity go so well for some of my friends and at times for me also, but then I saw the other side where it was suf­fo­cat­ing.”

The turn­ing point for Hunter was an in­jury that ended his rugby days. “This was my get out of jail free card,” he laughs. “Af­ter six op­er­a­tions, a metal rod, four screws, two skin grafts, two blood trans­fu­sions, I was told that it was very likely that I wouldn’t be able to run again and for me, that was a huge jolt to my iden­tity, which had been built around how good I was at sport, how at­trac­tive I thought I was, the money I thought I was go­ing to make ... it was the rst time in my life I felt truly vul­ner­a­ble.”

Jump for­ward 10 years and a phys­i­cally and men­tally re­con­structed Hunter put his life lessons – and a psy­chol­ogy de­gree – to work found­ing The Man Cave, a ground­break­ing pro­gram to tackle two fright­en­ing epi­demics: the in­crease in men­tal health is­sues and speci cally de­pres­sion in boys and young men, and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. For Hunter, they were clearly linked.

With his busi­ness part­ner, he cre­ated a work­shop for boys with a trial in a school in Frankston, Vic­to­ria. That was four years ago and, since then, The Man Cave has en­gaged more than 2500 boys and young men across Aus­tralia. The Man Cave pro­gram de­con­structs tra­di­tion­ally held views of mas­culin­ity, chal­lenges boys to build au­then­tic, re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ships and rede nes their sense of self. Par­tic­i­pants leave with a pow­er­ful emo­tional tool­kit.

“The de­sign was based on our own lived ex­pe­ri­ence,” ex­plains Hunter.

“We ask the boys to write down on Post-It notes ‘what does it mean to be a good man?’. They write, ‘to be hon­est, to be re­spect­ful, to be trusted, to have hon­our.’

“Then we say to them, okay, but what does it mean to be a real man? What pres­sures are you feel­ing from your peers, what are you see­ing on so­cial me­dia and gam­ing, what are you ac­tu­ally see­ing in your world?

“We’ve now done this from top pri­vate schools to the low­est so­cio-eco­nomic school and ev­ery time it comes back the same: ‘Don’t be gay [ho­mo­sex­ual], don’t be like a girl, drink beer, don’t be soft, show no emo­tion, have a big pe­nis, be buff’.

“The clincher,” says Hunter, “was when pack­ing up we found a Post-It on the ta­ble. The prin­ci­pal walked in and picked it up. It said: ‘Thanks for the les­son, man, it re­ally showed me what it feels like and looks like to be a healthy male,’ signed Cadel. She said, ‘You’re not go­ing to be­lieve it – Cadel is the school’s big­gest bully.’ That was our pinch-me mo­ment. We knew we were onto some­thing very spe­cial.”

Ear­lier this year, Hunter ew to Buck­ing­ham Palace, cho­sen as one of the Com­mon­wealth’s Queen’s Young Leaders. There he not only met the Queen (op­po­site page, top) but the Duke and Duchess of Sus­sex asked for a meet­ing.

“The rst thing Meghan said to me was, ‘Hunter, Man Cave, I love it’. Harry came over too and we ended up hav­ing a long con­ver­sa­tion and he said they would love an op­por­tu­nity to come and check out the pro­gram.”

And true to his word, as part of their Aus­tralian tour last month, Harry and Meghan caught up with Hunter in Mel­bourne.

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