Matthew DeFina: Positive Masculinity & The Man Cave

In this episode, I spoke with Matt DeFina. Matt is the head of programmes at The Man Cave, preventive mental health and emotional intelligence charity that empowers boys to become great men. Through The Man Cave, Matt now wants to give young men experiences that will expand their views of what is possible in life for themselves and in their deeper relationships with others.

It is such an important and empowering conversation. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Matt DeFina.

Health Podcast Highlights 

Matthew DeFina: Positive Masculinity & The Man Cave Introduction

Well, today we are going to be exploring The Man Cave. It’s a part of life that I have over the years found myself crawling into and out of many times. But I think what I’ve referred to as the man cave is a little different but connected to what we’re going to be discussing today.

My guest today is Matthew DeFina. He’s head of programmes at The Man Cave. Matt has always been driven to find the potential in himself and others and to create environments where people can flourish. Through The Man Cave, Matt now wants to give young men experiences that will expand their view of what is possible in life for themselves and in their deeper relationships with others.

While Matt was initially working in corporate consulting, his desire to contribute directly to social change and lead a values-aligned life led him to throw in a promising business career and take up a full-time role at The Man Cave. 

Now a registered psychologist, Matt used his studies to gain knowledge and skills in Ethical Psychology practise, gender stereotypes, leadership, and how to create organisations and communities that bring out the best in people. I love talking to Matt. It was such an important and empowering conversation. I hope you enjoyed this conversation I had with Matthew Defina.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging.

Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, today we are going to be exploring The Man Cave. It’s a part of life that I have over the years found myself crawling into and out of many times. But I think what I’ve referred to as the man cave is a little different but connected to what we’re going to be discussing today.

My guest today is Matthew DeFina. He’s head of programmes at The Man Cave. Matt has always been driven to find the potential in himself and others and to create environments where people can flourish. Through The Man Cave, Matt now wants to give young men experiences that will expand their view of what is possible in life for themselves and in their deeper relationships with others.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:15] While Matt was initially working in corporate consulting, his desire to contribute directly to social change and lead a values-aligned life led him to throw in a promising business career and take up a full-time role at The Man Cave. 

Now a registered psychologist, Matt used his studies to gain knowledge and skills in Ethical Psychology practise, gender stereotypes, leadership, and how to create organisations and communities that bring out the best in people. I love talking to Matt. It was such an important and empowering conversation. I hope you enjoyed this conversation I had with Matthew DeFina. Welcome to the show, Matt.

Matthew DeFina: [00:02:04] Hey, Ron. Thanks for having me today.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:06] Matt, I’ve been looking forward to this because, you know, when I saw, you know, your organisation, The Man Cave, funnily enough, it resonated with me. You know, it’s a term we’ve all heard about and I know that I feel like I’ve crawled in and out of that cave throughout my life. But tell us about The Man Cave. What is The Man Cave? 

What is The Man Cave?

Matthew DeFina: [00:02:28] So The Man Cave. We started in Victoria in 2014 and really the two guys that started it, Hunter and Jamin, and looked at the statistics around suicide, depression, anxiety, mental health and realised obviously that there was a really high prevalence of this towards teenage boys. And so they thought, “Oh, we have to get to this earlier.” There has to be a way of preventing these statistics from becoming a reality. 

They realised that when they reflected on their high school experiences, they were never really given the chance to talk openly about what was actually going on in their lives. And their whole definition of what it meant to be a man was never really challenged, deconstructed. They sort of just inherited this story.

Matthew DeFina: [00:03:12] And as a result of that, they were felt constrained by really rigid gender stereotypes of how it was to be a man. And so they created a space where they thought, well, we can’t hold the feelings cave because I don’t think any boys are going to be walking into that kind of space called The Man Cave. 

And we’ll play off the idea of, you know, boys come and hang out in the man cave together, but will also play off the idea of it’s a safe space. And so psychological safety is a big part of The Man Cave and sort of what’s conceptualise the way it is. 

And yeah, that was seven years ago now. So we’ve now worked with over 20000 young men in Victoria and around Australia. It’s not just our programmes anymore, it’s also connecting with boys through TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitch, and I can talk more about that as well. And now it’s also working with educators, teachers, and adults to work more effectively with young men. But in the programming side of things, I’ve just come back to that really briefly is.

Matthew DeFina: [00:04:11] Yeah, the main bit is just recognising that there’s a missing rite of passage for teenage boys and actually for most young people. There’s not a point where they go, “You’re a man now.” And when we looked at this, some great work by a man named Dr. Honour Rubinstein. He’s a Melbourne-based GP many years ago, realised that he was seeing what’s teenage boys come through. His medical clinic around 15 apathetic, couldn’t connect with them and started looking at what was going on. 

And he realised that a lot of the indigenous tribes around the world for thousands of years have taken their boys and their women through rites of passage to initiate them into the next stage of their lives. And we do this for our whole lives, really, and these tribes have been doing this for thousands of years.

Matthew DeFina: [00:04:57] So the programme is built around this idea of how do we create transformation, how do we not just coming and going, all right, boys are going to sit down for an hour and listen to everything that’s wrong with masculinity, which is not how we do it. I can tell you now. 

Yeah, it’s a full-day programme and it’s about meeting them where they are — having fun, a bit of play, a bit of banter, and then starting to open up the conversation about the culture in the group, what they think it means to be a man. And then we sort of go from there and I can talk more about the details of what we do because I think that’s where the magic happens. But yeah, that’s The Man Cave for now.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:27] Wow. Well, you know, what you’re saying, I mean, these whole lessons from the past are a theme we’ve explored before on this podcast from a nutritional perspective. And you know, we have a lot to learn environmentally, but here we are talking about personal journeys through life. 

In a way, there’s this whole Peter Pan Syndrome where boys, you know, do men ever grow up? And perhaps it’s a part of this whole process. We’re not guided through it. Do you think I mean what is part of the programme or how do we guide up our young boys through that in the through the programme? Give us some examples.

What is in the programme?

Matthew DeFina: [00:06:11] Yeah, absolutely. And there are some amazing stories I could tell you, and I will. I think the first thing I’d say is just the context of right now is we’re also saying, you know, boys and young men are missing out on so much and all young people are because they’re not in school face to face, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. 

And they’re not getting a lot of those formative experiences they usually get. And so you then adding social media on top of that, then adding, you know, gaming and different things and intergenerational misunderstandings within households. And it’s just a really hard time to be a young guy. 

And then there’s, you know, conversations that have been happening this year that are really important conversations around consent, around sexual assault, that it’s important that we enrol young men in those conversations as well. 

So I think I just wanted to paint a bit of a picture for the context we’re working in right now as well because it’s sort of changed in the last few years. And the way we work with boys and the way we connect with them has had to adapt to do that as well, which is more the online space for. 

Matthew DeFina: [00:07:18] I’ll tell you a story about a workshop I was in when we were face to face, which wasn’t too long ago. In the main part of the day, we hold an activity called spectrum and we get the boys to basically vote with their feet in a room. And so we’ll ask them simple questions like “Do you prefer Snapchat or TikTok” to start with. And that they’ll show us they’ll stand in a line all along that line. 

So I’m in that room this day. And so doing that and then we’ll go to cats or dogs. A bit of fun. You know, where where are you on the line? Which ones do you prefer? Eventually, we step them down, and on this day we step in to ask the question of who feels like they can be their whole self at school, and he feels like they can’t. 

And where do you feel like you are on that spectrum? And we just watched the boys. I just watched the boys slowly sort themselves out, and most of the boys were like, Yeah, we feel like we can. But there were three or four boys on the side of the room that was like, couldn’t be closer to the wall. And so we started having a conversation with them.

Matthew DeFina: [00:08:17] And this one boy, his name was Toby. We said, “Why do you feel like you can’t be yourself right here? And this was a few hours in. So we’d sort of created the safety in the group and stepping down to this point where they started to recognise we were going to have some more real conversations. 

And Toby just said, “Well, last year I opened up to my mates that I was struggling and they went and told everyone at school and it got spread around as a rumour. And so I just decided from that day that I could never tell anyone about my emotions. And I just got to keep it to myself.” I was just standing there, watching him, just thinking, that’s the moment for him as a 13-year-old boy where he’s put on that first bit of armour. He goes, “It’s not safe to talk openly.”. 

Matthew DeFina: [00:09:03] You know, we talk a lot in the social discourse about men need to open up more and talk more openly. And sometimes I think it’s myths that maybe those messages are confusing, but also there are experiences like that that have informed their reason for creating some of that armour. 

And yeah, we then had the conversation with him and basically enrolled the rest of the room in realising that it wasn’t just Toby that was suffering because all of them were playing into that feeling that they couldn’t talk openly with each other. 

And we then went into an exercise next, which is called a check-in, which is where we get the boys to openly talk in front of each other. So we’re not talking about mental health on masculinity. We’re actually getting them to start to practise breaking down some of those barriers. And yeah, I’ve seen some incredible check-in circles. 

Matthew DeFina: [00:09:50] We’ll keep it between 30 and 40 boys maximum. Two or three facilitators who are guys that are in their 20s or 30s that are healthy male role models that can hold a group of boys can have the banter in the play, and then also tell their own story really powerfully. You know, they’ve got the training in mental health first aid. They’ve got the facilitation training they can engage with the boys, and then they can also, you know, be real. 

And I think that’s one of the things that is really magical about what we do is these men coming in and just showing the different versions of masculinity that the boys can be. And also showing the range of masculinity that you can express within yourself.

Matthew DeFina: [00:10:30] Because I guess one of the key lessons for the boys is we’re not here to say masculinity is wrong or it’s a bad thing because it’s not. It’s a beautiful thing when you learn to do it effectively and healthily. We’re trying to teach them how to embrace more of their humanity and especially parts of their humanity and their emotional experience that they’ve had, that maybe they’ve been told they shouldn’t have as they grow up. Whether it’s like, don’t cry, toughen up, you know, simple messages that have maybe been passed on from older generations where it’s like you just got to get on with it. These boys are starting to internalise those ideas.

And then, of course, this is what we’re saying years later, where they decide that they can’t seek help or they get angry because they start to feel emotional and they’ve been told they haul off that to feel emotions is not a good thing. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:11:19] I mean, you know, when I think of myself in growing up in the 50s and 60s and 70s, you know, this was the time when role models for masculinity were very much dictated to by movies. And now it’s become I mean, in one sense, it’s become more complicated. It has become more complicated. But it’s an exciting time too.

I mean, the stories that people are getting coming from the news, social media, and advertising, and not many of those. Well, this conversation is an example of a difference, isn’t it? And what you guys are doing. So at least it’s kind of balancing out these bombarding of images and information that the kids are exposed to. How do we navigate that social media minefield? 

How do we navigate social media?

Matthew DeFina: [00:12:11] Yeah. And I know you’ve had some experts on your podcasts in this space really well as well. And yeah, it’s a much more complex time now, isn’t it? I think the first thing that we’ve noticed and we serve the boys quite a lot on, one of the things I told us last year was that parents don’t realise that that’s the only way they’re connecting with their friends right now. 

And so first and foremost, whether it’s gaming or whether it’s social media, those are the two main ways they’re actually talking to their friends. And so then they’re getting told by their parents to stop doing those things because they’re perceived as not healthy. And to an extent, they don’t have a healthy relationship with those two things. But right now, they are sort of just trying to cope and get through. 

Matthew DeFina: [00:12:52] So I think the first thing is there’s definitely some conflicts we’re saying where boys are feeling misunderstood in their houses because parents are making that wrong and we can go down the conversation of teenage brain and addiction and social media and how important it is to put boundaries in place there. But I think the other bit is, you know, how do we find healthy role models for these boys where they’re looking up to them, not for their success, but for their attributes? And it’s interesting. 

We asked them who they look up to. And right now they’re telling us it’s people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Scott Pendlebury, Bailey Smith, you know, footballers, entrepreneurs, tech giants. And you know, it frustrates me in some ways because, you know, we’re looking at people like Jeff Bezos who are spending millions and billions of dollars to go into space momentarily when that money could be diverted towards so many other social causes. 

And you know, they’re idolising these guys like Elon Musk because they’re thought leaders and they’re really successful. But we’re trying to find guys that are more they’re looking up to for their character traits. And so I think that’s the first bit is how do we highlight and elevate role models, healthy male role models. There are AFL football players that are amazing guys. And then how do we get their voices out there more? But also at a local level, like how do we connect boys too. 

Who do young boys look up to?

Matthew DeFina: [00:14:16] I remember growing up I didn’t. I didn’t notice at the time, but I had about six or seven different uncles and I thought they were actually my uncle. Dad had convinced me that, like three years old, Uncle Frank, Uncle Rick, uncle, oh, he’s like, They’re not actually your uncles, mate, they’re just my mates. 

But you know, now right now I’m actually, you know, I’m down in Ocean Grove because my dad just had heart surgery and I’m now still connected to those men and they’re reaching out to me saying, How are you going? And I’m now 30 years old and they’re 60 or 70. But I’ve known them my whole life.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:14:50] You know, there is this cross-generational need for connection, isn’t it? And this moving away from us and them and I guess, you know, the conversations I’ve had about digital media is digital nutrition. It’s called we. We did that a few weeks ago was about modelling was a really important thing. The things should be meaningful and mindful and in moderation. But finding that that balance. 

I guess, you know, we as a generation, my generation are very quick to dismiss the time on social media as a waste of time. But in this day and age, it’s really hard. I know also that when I climb into the cave and I do this, I have done this and my wife will say to me, What’s going on? What’s happening? Something’s not right. And I, it almost takes me to a day or two to articulate it, to actually get it in my head. What is going on?

Matthew DeFina: [00:15:53] Can I ask you more about this cave you’re talking about? What is, what does that look and feel like in your world?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:16:00] Well, in my world, it kind of would be. It’s a dark place where I go very quiet and my wife looks at me or my family. Look at me, what’s going on, you know, like you, normally you’re a little more out there. A little more communicative. You’re being very quiet. What’s happening? Nothing. I’m fine. I’m perfectly fine. Don’t worry about it. I’m okay. And I know that I’m not fine. That there is something. There is something. 

And I mean, I’m now in my mid-60s, so, you know, this has been not a new thing for me, but what I’ve recognised is that it just literally does take me a little while. It may take hours, it might take a day to go. This is what it is to be able to actually articulate it. Mm-Hmm. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:16:49] And the other side of that, and that is that on the weekend and this is relevant to this conversation. My wife was catching up with a friend in our kitchen and I do all the cooking. So I’m sitting there. I’m standing there listening to this conversation, which is on speakerphone, and I am struck by the conversation itself, just the dynamics of it. And I liken it to a tennis game at the end of it. It went on for an hour. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t talk much on the phone because I’m just not very good at it, you know? 

And so I thought to myself, Wow, you were on the phone for an hour and it was amazing. I said, I just I would love to sit down on more of your conversations because I really am not saying anything. That’s very important in this case, too, because men love to, you know, so not say anything and just listen.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:17:39] And at the end of it, I said, You know what? I liken this to a tennis game. I think when men talk, we really into the serve rush then it put it away for a winner. And there we are. Whereas women take a conversation and look at it more as a baseline rally. Hmm. Because I just don’t think we have the language, nor were we encouraged to communicate.

I mean, I don’t know, you’re 30. So you know, how was it growing up for you? I mean, great that you had all these uncles, but you know, are you part of the family with lots of boys or girls? Or what’s the dynamic there? Because that makes a difference too.

Matthew DeFina: [00:18:23] Yeah, absolutely. And just before I go there, I just want to say I’ve noticed the same thing in my conversations with men versus women as well, and it’s like, how do we as men move to a place where we don’t need to fix it and we can just talk about it because that’s where my brain goes. It’s like, “Oh, great a problem I can fix. Let me get it, I’ve got a tool for that. Let me get that out.” And yeah, I’ll talk more about maybe how check-in works because I think that sort of starts to create that space.

Just imagine, like when you go to the airport, you’re taking baggage to the airport and so you’re checking in your luggage and your baggage before you get onto the plane. Apologies if this triggers anyone that was hoping to get on a plane anytime soon. Chance for you to check in your luggage or your baggage for the day. 

And so you just start by saying that checking in and then once you said checking in, it’s just your space to talk openly about whatever you want, what’s on your mind. There are a few gods there. So we tried out. We just slowed down a bit. Listen to our minds, listen to our body and then just talk freely from there about what’s going on in your space. 

Can talk about whatever you want. It might be something you’re really excited about. Might be something that you kind of a challenge that you’re going through. It should ideally come back to what the emotions and feelings and thoughts are that you’re experiencing, and no one’s allowed to interrupt you during that time until you’ve said checked in. 

And once you said checked in, then it’s like imagining that you’re fully present. I’m here now. I’ve checked in the baggage that I need, and the person that’s sitting there with you is ideally just listening and just paying attention. And in the end, I can ask questions, but I certainly can’t give advice and there’s no rescuing of the other person as well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:20:11] I said this when my daughters were married, I said, I get on really well with my sons-in-law. I love them dearly. And I said to them, “You know, I’m going to give you some advice now. I’m going to give you some advice. And the advice is this: When your wife tells you a problem, even when you know the solution, the solution is so obvious, you know, it’s just as simple as this. Don’t do that. Don’t do it. Just say, wow, that’s really interesting. How does that make you feel?”

You know, when they present with the problem, because in my experience, the thing women are really good at doing is discussing and talking and communicating, and they’re not fussed about their solution. It’s the process which is more, you know, which is as equally important as the solution. And like you said, you know, you’d love to jump in, and I think that’s a very male thing we need to unlearn.

Man vs women: How they deal with problems

Matthew DeFina: [00:21:10] Yeah, exactly. And I think the check-in — the beautiful thing about the chicken as a tool, as a starting point is it creates a grounding. I know now where you’re at as well and you know where I’m at in my day in the life. But it also it is giving the permission and the space and the tool even to then actually be able to talk. 

And I genuinely think that men do want to talk. They do want to talk openly and as part of this social idea that we don’t, but we actually really do. And sometimes when we do start to talk, sometimes people around us can be so excited. We’re actually doing it that it’s almost like, repulses us doing it again. Yeah. Oh, they jump in and try and fix it for us if it’s a mate or if it’s a partner.

Matthew DeFina: [00:21:57] And I guess I’m wondering, you know, what’s it like? I’m a psychologist as well. I’m thinking about, you know, one of the bigger is I’m really passionate about as part of our work as well as the mind-body relationship. And you know, what role? How do you connect to your feelings and emotions? And also what happens to your body when you repress or suppress those emotions for years and years and years? 

And that’s why, you know, years later, it can be really hard to feel some of these things because you might have spent years pushing it down and making it wrong. And one of the bits we do, well and you know, this is maybe a bit for you as well is just to tune into your body as a starting point. How does it feel? And I think that’s a core driver of a lot of the illnesses we’re seeing and a lot of the behaviours are saying in modern societies: the disconnection from the body. 

Matthew DeFina: [00:22:49] And as I’ve connected more to my body and started to even do detoxes from sugar, caffeine, alcohol, these things, I got, “Oh, I’m not treating my body respectfully.” I’m basically farming my body to get as much out as I possibly can so that I can get as much work done as it possibly can. 

And just feeding into this whole, you know, modern, modern industrial age of just, you know, work as much as you can get as much out. And then when you’re done, you sort of go to your deathbed and that’s it. It’s not really satisfying for a lot of us. 

But yeah, when it comes to this, and I guess I’ll try and bring it back to the boys, but also to what is most valuable for your listeners is where like, where do you start? And I think that the check-in is just one of those tools where you don’t, because of how it’s structured, it’s just you both kind of know the rules and you just do it and you said it’s like, practise, you know, we think about it like a gym. It’s like the emotional gym. 

And you go the first few times you do it, you’re going to feel pretty sore and it’s going to be a bit weird. But as you get more practise at doing it, it’s going to be more natural. And then, yeah, you still got to keep going. It’s not like you sort of you don’t go to the gym so that you never have to go again. It’s just part of life. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:01] Yeah, the other thing that you mentioned was consent. You know, this whole issue of consent and this has become a really big and obviously very important and traditionally underreported in a shocking way. But it’s now part of the conversation. Is this something that a lot of boys are willing to and are actually more openly talking about in your workshops?


Matthew DeFina: [00:24:30] Yeah, it has been very confronting for a lot of people, and I think first and foremost, I think it’s been incredible to see, you know, women like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos are leading the conversation nationally around this. And I think the bit we’ve observed with boys is they haven’t necessarily felt invited in to some of the conversations around consent. 

And so they’re trying to work it out. And if women we’re talking about boys, just to be clear, I’m talking about 12 to 15-year-old boys, that’s mainly who we work with. So, you know, a lot of what can drive their behaviour and a group dynamic is how do they find safety within a group and belonging within a group in school. And what do they need to do in order to belong and feel safe. And that is what’s driving a lot of their behaviour.

Matthew DeFina: [00:25:19] And so what we’re trying to do with the boys is deconstruct the norms of the group that are moving towards potentially toxic masculinity, deconstructing some of that, showing them another way and finding ways of connecting with each other that aren’t driving behaviour. That is, you know, creating some of these challenges around nonconsent in high school. 

So the boys want to talk about it and they want to understand it. I think the other thing we see is that young women are often more emotionally advanced than boys, and so they just are just so much further down the path than boys are and sometimes it can be hard for them to go. “I’m still trying to work some of this stuff out, and you’re miles ahead of me.” So, yeah, we’re still trying to work it out.

Matthew DeFina: [00:26:04] And especially we’re seeing relationships between teenage boys and their female teachers is quite a challenge, as well. There’s quite a lot of disrespect we’re hearing about and saying now in our workshops and with schools.

And so we’re looking at, you know, how do we work the boys effectively, but also, how do we enrol even the male teachers to really be powerful allies at a school to show what it looks like to be respectful and to empower female teachers of that school in front of those boys. 

But basically, where we got to with the consent, where we asked them some questions around what they think ‘consent’ means, and their definitions, for the most part, were spot on in terms of legal definitions. And, you know, 90% of them thought, you know, I know, I know what consent means.

Matthew DeFina: [00:26:50] The challenge is the way you say it, and then this is a bit that we think needs to go next is helping boys understand the power dynamics within genders as well and helping them realise that there isn’t a difference between whether you’re a man or a woman in the power dynamic within society right now, and that can influence whether you get consent or not in a relationship.

And how do we help boys navigate that in a moment to moment basis and check in with their values and check in with kind of man they want to become? Because then I think that’s where are we going to start to help boys and young men that are acting more from a place of character and care.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:27:30] I mean, this comes back also to modelling, doesn’t it? Because the type of relationship that is modelled within the home and this is another thing about another issue that’s getting a lot of attention and rightly so long overdue is domestic violence.

So if disrespect and actual violence, doesn’t have to be just physical violence, it includes emotional violence. If that is what is being displayed at home and coming to school and confronting a female teacher, where do you draw your inspiration from if you like?

Another area that must be a huge challenge, particularly for the 12 to 15-year-olds is intimacy, you know because exposure to pornography is ubiquitous. It must be because, you know, even if you put controls on your child’s phone, they’re literally just, you know, one question away from getting their mates’ phones and looking at these things, which boys invariably would do. 

And yet it does skew their idea of what a man is and how a man treats a woman and more broadly, the whole issue of intimacy. What are you seeing from, what impact is that having on your, you know, your — of young men, young boys.

Teenage boys on intimacy and pornography

Matthew DeFina: [00:29:07] As you said, it’s hard to deny, you know that they are. They’re looking at it and they’re going there and they’re finding ways to look at it because they’re curious. The main thing we’re saying is in the absence of role models or discussions about these things boys will revert to and this is what the research shows — boys will revert to a stereotype because that’s the only other way they can see fit to continue operating. 

So when they look at media, they’re not just looking at Hollywood films, they’re looking at pornography as well. And you know, some of what we’re seeing in the dynamics within pornography is still outdated stereotypes. The male is dominant, the female is submissive. And you know, that’s then their model for how they need to be in the bedroom.

Matthew DeFina: [00:29:50] Then we’re layering on top of that, a masculine identity at a group level with a group of mates at school who think that that’s what it means to be a man because either they haven’t had someone else show them alternative and they’re just trying to get through high school. 

So, you know, I remember at high school, there was a moment with my mates where there was a few of us that had had sex before anyone else, and I felt so cool being part of the sex club at high school. I wasn’t all ready. I was not ready to do it at that age, but I just wanted to be one of the cool guys that I had a social identity safe and protected. But from that point forward, I was safe for the rest of high school I was safe because everyone knew I was a man.

Matthew DeFina: [00:30:31] So what we’re trying to do is like, how do we around pornography? First of all, as adults bravely into that conversation because I find it hard to have that conversation, it’s uncomfortable for me as well. And then how do we again connect boys back to, you know, what kind of relationships do they want to have, but also, you know, there’s a lady here we haven’t really spoken about, which is that the objectification of women within their lives. 

And if I think back to again, my high school experience as an all-boys private school, great high school, but very much hooking up as it was called back then, hooking up with a girl was then guaranteeing me social status points on a Monday morning in high school. Going further than that was even more chance that I’d secure my identity within that environment. 

And so, unfortunately, it came to be that we would often objectify those young women because they were wise for us to gain reputation points within our own schoolyard. And I would just like, hit this button now, Ron, I don’t have the answer. I don’t have the answer but –

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:31:39] I guess acknowledging it and starting a conversation rather than pretending it’s not there, pretending it’s not there is probably the worst way of dealing with it. And then anything beyond that, at least starting a conversation is a worthwhile thing to do. I guess another thing you know, we talked about consent, we talked about abuse. 

But sexuality is another thing that, you know, that is changed and I’m kind of optimistic. These are difficult times on many levels, but there are so many important conversations going on that just weren’t going on, you know, 15, 20, 30, certainly 40 or 50 years ago. 

You know, if we are going through teenagehood is challenging for boys and girls. But when sexuality doesn’t conform to the stereotype, that adds another dimension to the complexity of it, of the challenges of it. Is that what you’re saying in your workshops? Does the check-in even get to that point? That’s a very intimate and open conversation to have.


Matthew DeFina: [00:32:42] With sexuality and gender as well, because we often talk about sexuality and sexual preferences, but we’re also talking about young men questioning their gender and questioning whether they identify with masculinity or femininity more. 

Whether they, you know, we had a workshop earlier this year at a regional school where we were running The Man Cave workshop and our partner organisation Flourish Girl, was running a workshop for women and one of the students in the Flourish Girl workshop decided at lunchtime that after a few years of trying to work out who they were, they were ready to transition. They were ready to transition from being a girl to being a boy. 

And our facilitators facilitated that happening, and they swapped workshops halfway through the day and came to The Man Cave. And the facilitators within The Man Cave then created the space for the boys to ask really simple questions like, “Well, what do you want us to call you now? What pronouns should we use and how can we support you?”

Matthew DeFina: [00:33:39] And these are year 11 students in Regional Victoria enabling this process. So that’s the level of what’s happening with young people is that’s what’s happening. And yeah, I think the main bit is, as you said, really intelligently pointed out, when we talk about the stereotype of what it means to be a man and we’re talking about this concept of The Man Box, which is a well-known sort of concept now around a masculine stereotype. 

There’s been some great research done here in Australia by Jesuit Social Services around The Man Box and the beliefs in it, and The Man Box effectively is just the stereotype of what it means to be a man. And if you believe in these ideas, then you are more likely to get in a car crash, get into a fight, have more poor mental health, and more likely to be more violent towards others as well.

Matthew DeFina: [00:34:26] So within that Man Box construct, one key bit is that you’re heterosexual and you’re homophobic and only like women, and therefore I’m safe and I’m with the boys. And so it’s all, it’s all okay. What we’re trying to do is deconstruct that man box and go, Hey, do you guys realise these are some rules you’re playing by? And it’s not your fault you’ve inherited this, but it is now your choice. 

You get to choose whether you want to keep going this way. And so, yeah, we are seeing a lot more boys now deciding will actually. Maybe they don’t feel like they are gay or not, but they just want to explore it and they want to be supported by their friends to do that. And it’s incredible watching young men support their mates.

Matthew DeFina: [00:35:05] And there’s always this tipping point where a young boy, we talk about it from the perspective psychologically of if you’re about to say something in front of a group that feels like it challenges your identity within that group, it does feel like you’ve got to jump off a cliff because you’re inducing the fight or flight phrase response, the amygdala hijack response, which is saying you’re not safe here. 

And if you say this, you’re not safe and it’s just a human response and it’s naturally there to protect us. And so we just have to hold that boy through that experience, make him feel safe. And then inevitably, once he talks openly says, Looks, I actually think I’m exploring my sexuality. 

I don’t know if I’m gay or not, but maybe I am, and I’m coming out here now. His friends would go, did we just want you to be you? Well, I just want you to be the best. Great. How do we support you in exploring this? And that’s some of what we’re saying at a high school level, I think with the boys.

Matthew DeFina: [00:36:00] And yeah, it’s a confusing time. I think in general because you add on other intersections of race, religion, First Nations people, and sometimes for these young men, being a man is not their first concern. It might be the fact that they’re Muslim or might be the fact that English is a second language for them. And there’s a whole other raft of issues like we sort of start with masculinity as the entry point and then talk about mental health from there. But intersectionality, there is a lot of other things that are coming in for young men as well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:36:34] And in this current pandemic, how are you seeing that affecting, you know, mental health with young men and this Flourish Girl? I mean, I’m obviously going to have to follow that one up, man. Yeah. You know, as the sort of companion to this because there are some huge challenges for young girls as well. But how are you seeing the pandemic and young boys?

Dealing with the pandemic with young men

Matthew DeFina: [00:37:05] Oh, well, the reality is not good at the moment. And I guess we’re trying. We’ve always, as an organisation, tried to challenge the narrative and create stories of what’s actually going on with young men and what we’re saying in programmes. 

Realistically, right now, we’re seeing challenges around disconnection and isolation between boys and their mates. And, you know, they’re not going to experience a lot of the usual things that were taught their mental health and wellbeing. 

And I think especially we’re seeing challenges of maintaining motivation towards study and also then, you know, apathy towards that. And then that’s starting to broaden out into apathy towards life in general, which is why we’re saying, you know, hospitalisations of young people and access to mental health services that are critical services go through the roof.

Matthew DeFina: [00:38:05] And I guess the thing that we’re trying to influence now, especially the Victorian and the New South Wales government, is we need funding for this stuff now. We don’t need it next year when it works for your whole political cycle of the budget. We need it now. And young people are asking for it.

So how do we get on services before it becomes an issue before they end up in hospital before they’re critically in a critical condition mentally? And obviously, we think that’s why it positioned ourselves intentionally as at the prevented events. And so then also, how do we find, you know, how do we find ways of connecting boys?

Matthew DeFina: [00:38:44] So we’re starting a Year 12 Rite of Passage programme were boys that are finishing year 12, we’re going to take them through a two-hour online session or a bit online where we actually get them to acknowledge the journey that going through high school. What’s been your story? The highs, the lows, what kind of man you want to be going forward, which is where a lot of the values and visioning pace comes in. 

And then we’ll invite them to honour each other. So what they’ve seen in each other through that journeys together and basically try and create that threshold moment for them where they go. Okay, I finish school. And because we’re not in physical spaces together, that’s not happening a lot.

Matthew DeFina: [00:39:22] So, yeah, the challenge is, I think with young men as well as they don’t have control of their environment like we are as adults in many ways. And so being at home, the family dynamic is more important than ever, and you’ve then got adults that are stressed because they’re trying to adapt in their own way. 

And unfortunately, I think likely to just be great if we just hit pause on academic results and outcomes. We just hit pause on a lot of this and connect back to what really matters and create other learning opportunities. A lot of opportunities for those young people. Yeah, this is it’s the challenge of our time. As you said, it’s a challenge of our time.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:40:02] But Matt, this is a good note to finish on because this is an opportunity for me to say, well done. You know, The Man Cave and thank you for creating a safe space, a safe place, a community so that people are not on their own. They don’t, you know, they may well be, but at least they should know they’re not alone. And thank you so much for everything you guys are doing.

Matthew DeFina: [00:40:23] Thanks, Ron. And for those listening, just love to give them that takeaway to check-in too and you can go to our website to have a look it and a tutorial for how that works. And also just with young people around you to share stories kind of like I did with my uncle and you did with your wife. For young people to understand more about who you are, but also what you care about. It’s been a really enjoyable conversation, so thank you. 


Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:40:48] Thank you, man. Well, I know I’ve said it before we live in challenging times, and that was ever an understatement. That’s got to be it. It is a challenging time and so many issues are coming to the fore. So many issues around consent and issues around sexuality, domestic violence, men’s ability to communicate and be collaborative and a whole range of things which, you know, stop when we are young.

And, you know, we’ve explored with our discussion of education with Professor Pasi Sahlberg in recent weeks coming up. We’ve explored the importance of early childhood education and the whole process, the whole movement through life from a young child through to adolescent, teenage adolescence, and into being young man is a challenging time. 

And I’ve often thought that lessons from the past we have so much to learn from our past and rites of passage and tradition have always signified various points in an individual’s journey through life. And we seem to have lost that.

So to have an organisation like The Man Cave come along and fill that void to start a conversation to legitimise people, boys, in particular, getting in touch with their feelings and some, and that a process is a process that we need to constantly be practising. Look. We’re going to have links to The Man Cave

Look, anybody listening to this with connections to schools and young people. I would encourage you to be proactive too, to join and invite The Man Cave and support this organisation because it’s doing such an important job. 

And I’m certainly going to be exploring the Flourish Girl and movement as well because young girls and boys are facing extremely challenging times and at least having these kinds of conversations and modelling along with them is an important part of that process. So I hope you found that enjoyable, stimulating. I certainly did. I hope this finds you well. Until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.