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.
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.