The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.
Walking through empty corridors to find the Menslink offices, I was reminded of being in after-hours debate practice at Belconnen High School. Menslink, a counselling and mentoring charity for young men, has offices in the back of a defunct high school on the south side of Canberra.
Menslink has been around for fifteen years and it’s the only charity in Canberra that focuses on young men. Their services include a mentoring program with fifty active volunteer mentors (women volunteer at five or six times the rate of men, FYI) and the Silence is Deadly outreach program, where they go into high schools (often taking a few football players) to debunk the idea that men should be stoic, autonomous and self-reliant.
I went to their offices to meet with Ben Triglone, a counsellor of five years, seen above with his girlfriend Gabby. Ben reached out to me after I appeared on 2XX FM community radio talking about masculinity and what it would be like if there were spaces for men that embraced vulnerability and supportiveness, rather than leaning towards hypermasculinity.
As soon as we started talking, I recognised myself in Ben. He is genuine about his commitment to his work, he cares about the boys he’s met, but there’s a lingering cynicism and dismissiveness there, too. It’s the same way I often talk about things I care about—I’m on the nose, until I qualify, quip or backpedal. To be honest, it put me at ease, as I suspect it did Ben, too.
After Ben opened a can of soft drink and sat across from me on a couch, we talked about job satisfaction, fear of young men, causes for hope, and the ways that doing good work reaps the greatest rewards. Counterintuitively, our mutual recourse to cynicism and pessimism led us both to open up more than we might have otherwise. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. There is more than one way to skin a cat, after all (there are four), and even the cynical and pessimistic can change the world for the better.
How did you come to this work?
I just stumbled into it. I sort of hit the crossroads in my life. I was doing something completely unrelated and y’know, call it a midlife crisis or whatever but I hit the wall and I was really stressed out and felt like I had no meaning in my life. I just quit and had a brief and unsuccessful foray into high school teaching—quickly worked out that was the hardest job in the world. Had to be an easier way to make a living, I thought. So I was literally just looking for a job. This came up and I thought, that sounds cool, and that was five years ago and I’m still here, I love it. There’s just so much we could do.
Was there someone here who saw potential in you in this place?
Nah, I think I was just the only person who applied for the job, to be honest. But I’m still here so I must be doing something right.
Why are you still here? Five years in any job is a long time.
Yeah, totally. I mean, usually I run on five-year cycles, change jobs every five years, and I’ve hit that five years now and I still feel like I’ve got work to do. I’m excited about—probably for the first time in my life, and I’m forty next year, I feel like I’ve got a bit of a purpose.
I was like anyone else when I was a teenager, bit of a brat, conceited little jerk, and looking back horrified at the person I was. And I had all these great support networks around me and still found it really tough as a teenager. Guys who come here are finding it tough and they don’t have those, y’know, a good supportive family around them or friends, so it must be bloody tough for them. I feel like I’ve got a bit of a debt to repay in that sense.
Tell me about the Silence is Deadly program.
It’s trying to break down that idea that real men are autonomous and they tough it out themselves and asking for help is a sign of weakness. That’s why we’ve been previously affiliated with the Brumbies and now the Raiders, to try and break that down. We’ll have a big burly front-rower up on stage saying guess what, I was devastated when my girlfriend dumped me, I’ve got the same problems you have and I’m not afraid to put my hand up and say I need help. So if a big, seemingly tough guy—you get the drift.
Is that ever a funny or difficult relationship to negotiate, going to guys who play on the Raiders and the Brumbies and saying, we need you to do X? Do they ever say, ‘Aw, but I don’t actually talk about my feelings’?
All the time. That’s an ongoing struggle. They’ve got no idea what they’re showing up to, and for some of them it’s bloody frightening getting up there. I’d be scared to do it. But then there’s other guys who just get it straight away and understand how cathartic it is to talk about some of the struggles that you’ve had and how you were able to get through them. Yeah, it’s certainly challenged some the preconceptions I had about footy players. So what about you, man? What got you passionate about this area? Some sort of life epiphany or something?
Yeah, something like that. I had a relationship burn out in my mid-twenties. I was about 24, 25, and I’m 28 now, and the way I attempted to cope with that was really terrible. I poured myself even further into a job I really did not like, thinking the harder I work, the better things will get. The less I talk about my feelings, the less likely they are to cause a problem. Yeah, so that relationship fell apart, I pushed her away, and over the next couple of years I started thinking a lot more critically about why the people in my life who were well adjusted, who could recover much more quickly than I was capable of doing, were all women.
Then I started thinking about the outlets that are available to women, the way women are socialised, the things that are appropriate for women to do—and those things all come with their own negative baggage. But still, the upside of the process of being taught to be a woman in Western society—I started to really look at that and wonder what I could do to teach myself that in my later life. I was reading a lot of really great stuff online by mostly female feminist writers, too, this really insightful, profound stuff by intellectual role models—women who, y’know, to look up to them as a young woman would just be so inspiring, to know that’s how you can talk and think and comport yourself. And I looked around for men who were doing that—as men—and it’s not really done.
The men who are presented as men, if that makes sense, are footballers, film stars, models, people who have control over women and control over money, and I just thought that was ridiculous. So I started talking about this stuff to my girlfriend, then to my female friends, and it’s only in the last year that I’ve started talking to other men about it, and that’s when I finally got around to creating Homer.
Well good on you. A lot of people talk about getting things done but not a lot get around to actually doing it, and I’m probably in the former category a lot of the time.
Keeping it going right now is just me when I have time, but actually getting the ball rolling, I was like, if I don’t just push this out into the world and force myself to keep up, then it’ll sit in the back of my head for another year, two years, three years and by then, somebody else will have thought of the site, created it and done it, y’know?
Is this your full-time thing?
No, I’m a full-time student, just started a job at a bookstore. This is just my hobby.
Well that’s how all great things start, isn’t it?
I hope so. Has working here changed your personal life?
Ah, yeah, definitely. I went from a high-paying job with basically no job satisfaction, now I’ve got a job with high job satisfaction and very low pay. [Laughs.] But despite that, I’d never go back. Not a second has passed that I’ve missed it. It’s been life changing for me. It actually scares me, wondering what I would be doing if I didn’t discover this job.
Did you stick with your other job because of status and pay?
Probably, but also because it was comfortable and easy. I got to work from home, all my friends were telling me I had the perfect job. I was working for a sports betting company, watching sport and setting the odds on it, because I’ve always liked sport and I’ve always been good with numbers. It was a natural marriage, but ultimately this company grew exponentially while I was there, and the more money they got, the more pressure there was to perform. They’d audit every key that you pressed. It just created this horrible work environment, and it’s one of those things—until I got away from it, I didn’t realise how destructive it was. I don’t even like thinking about it. They were dark times, but when you’re living it they just become normal. I didn’t have any human contact, either. I could go a week without seeing anyone. I wasn’t evolving as a human, basically.
Well, for example, I’ve been thinking kind of ambitiously in the last year or two. In the five years I’ve been at Menslink I’ve become acutely aware of the need for something but I haven’t been able to articulate what that is. I’ve just known there’s something missing, something young guys need.
The thing that initially got me thinking about it—have you read Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari? He’s a drug legalisation campaigner. He talks about addiction and he’s saying that addiction is a manifestation of being unable to connect with anything else. So if you can’t connect with something meaningful and positive, you’ll find something to connect with, and it’s not always going to be something that’s particularly healthy.
With the moral panic around video game addiction or internet addiction, it got me thinking that maybe they’re doing it because it’s the only thing they’ve been able to connect with. It’s the first time in history that you can live within the confines of your own bedroom. Apart from physiological stuff, from gaming you’re getting a sense of belonging, you’re getting status, you’re getting a sense of achievement, you’re sure as hell getting stimulation. I like games as much as the next guy, but I reckon there’s an opportunity to create something there.
There’s a dearth of places where guys can go to feel safe to talk to their peers. I would love to be part of a movement that gets guys that sense of identity, purpose and belonging in healthy, positive ways, and gives them the skills that are gonna set them up for the outside world.
How much is the creation of environments that aren’t good for young men precipitated by gaming? I mean, it’s remarkable not only for the fact that it’s a phenomenon that’s entirely modern, this kid who can get everything in their room, but that this is also a generation gap thing as well.
Yeah, I realise I probably sound like a really old bloke, saying the same things my folks said about TV. But I do think that social media or games or whatever, it’s more just a symptom of something bigger that’s going on. It’s coupled with the demise of the community—kids don’t play on the streets any more, nuclear families have broken down, people don’t talk to their neighbours, the population is growing but people are becoming more insulated, in many ways. And I just think this is all compounding. It’s only anecdotal evidence that I’ve got, but it is based on five years of interviewing families, mainly single mother families, and that’s another factor is the lack of male role models.
I watched this documentary on bikie gangs recently and the guys who join bikie gangs are not unlike the guys who come to Menslink. They’re lost souls, they wanna belong to something. Same guys who join ISIL. They’re looking for a sense of purpose, an identity and belonging, and they’re not getting those things so they’ll latch on to the first agency who can provide it for them. Some people are able to do that in positive ways, but probably for the majority of us it’s a bit of a struggle, finding that calling. There hasn’t been a single teen that I’ve talked to—and maybe they’re just pissing in my pocket—but there hasn’t been a single teen who hasn’t wanted somewhere with men around who are happy to share what knowledge they’ve got, somewhere where they’re free to talk about what’s on their minds.
Do you guys get good community support from local businesses at the moment?
Yeah, we’re really lucky. We don’t expect that to sustain itself, but certainly the last few years people have really gotten behind us.
Why do you think that is?
I wonder that myself. I think for a lot of people, young men are a bit of an insecurity for them. If you’re walking down a dark alley late at night, if you’re gonna get clubbed in the head it’s probably going to be by a young guy, or at least you probably think it is. So I think that’s one of the reasons, people feel insecure about young men. But also I just think people recognise that men need a lot of help. Women are a lot better at getting help themselves.
How much do you feel like Menslink is going after symptoms and how much after causes?
That’s an excellent question, because I think we should be increasingly asking why, why, why, until we get to the bottom of the pyramid. What do they say? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
We’re not a crisis centre, so we’re not Lifeline or the Domestic Violence Crisis Service, so we’re not at the front line, but we’re certainly not at the roots, either. I think us, along with everyone else, should be trying to get as close to the roots as possible. We would love to become redundant. [Laughs.] That’s our ultimate aim. We’d love to not have guys coming into counselling because they’ve got people around them before it hits that crisis point.
I think it would make Australian society, especially, deeply uncomfortable to be talking and operating at the level of the roots, and I don’t think we’re really there yet at all. The closest we’re getting is stuff that still says that the way Australian men are men is okay, we just need to tweak it a little so they feel okay hugging other people, talking to other people and crying.
Yeah, and I think it is changing. The few times I’ve gone out to Silence is Deadly sessions, a big part of that is a Q&A session after they’ve delivered the idea and the concept. Some of the questions that come out of the young guys’ mouths, bearing in mind that they’re in front of their entire school year, the candour that they speak with is really encouraging. It’s twenty odd years since I was in high school, but if some of the guys I went to high school with had asked the questions they’re asking, you would have been signing your own death warrant. We’ve got a long way to go, for sure, but we’ve come a long way, too.
The concept of masculinity, it is breaking down compared with previous eras, which is liberating but it’s also confusing. Y’know, you’ve heard people talking about your ‘man card’. Watching Sex and the City with your girlfriend—time to hand in your man card. Well, let’s take this man card and make it something coveted, but to get it you don’t have to be a powerful guy, just a good guy—probably just a good person, really.
Men thinking and operating publicly in this area is so under-done.
Yeah. Y’know, I saw one of those stupid motivational posters, it said ‘Courage is contagious’ along the bottom and it’s true. I was a real cynical prick before I started working here and I still am to an extent but there’s so many good dudes out there and you just don’t know.
Someone said when you do good work you meet good people, and that’s the best thing about this job. Yes, we get to help young men, but from a selfish perspective it’s just getting to meet all these awesome dudes that are out there, who I never would have mixed with if I wasn’t forced to. They’re out there, and it’s really reassuring to know. I lived in my comfort zone for 35 years and I couldn’t advocate leaving it strongly enough.