At Man Cave, Hunter Johnson is working to pull down the patriarchy from the inside

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 11 October 2022

Man smiling amongst group of school students

When Hunter Johnson was growing up, he watched some of the most important men in his life experience years of mental health challenges.

And while he didn’t always see it clearly as a young person, he later learnt about the abuse, misogyny, and oppression that some of the most important women in his life experienced.

“As I grew up, I saw the impact of some pretty traditional masculine beliefs, and I totally drank the Kool-Aid.  I thought that was what it meant to be a good Aussie bloke. Sometimes, it worked really well for me, but there were many other times when it didn’t,” Johnson explains.

Hunter Johnson is the founder and CEO of Man Cave, an organisation providing programs to support the psychosocial and emotional development of boys, and give them a safe, healthy Rite of Passage into manhood.

“Man Cave is about trying to pull down the patriarchy from the inside,” Johnson says.

When Johnson first began delivering programs for boys back in 2014, what he noticed was that so many of them had never felt psychologically safe enough to talk about the issues affecting their lives.

“They just didn’t have the language for their emotions, and often, they didn’t really notice their impact on others. The whole idea of Man Cave is to create a safe space for them to begin doing this work.”

Johnson went on to set up Man Cave as a fully-fledged charity in 2018, and later launched STUFF, a personal care brand for men, as another income stream to support the charity.

Having spent years thinking and talking to men and boys about masculinity and gender equality, Johnson believes that masculinity is at an inflection point. There’s enough negativity out there, and he sees now as the time to focus on what the optimistic future of masculinity can be.

And when it comes to men’s mental health, Johnson is passionate about a preventative approach.

“Our whole belief is instead of men passing their trauma onto other men, particularly younger men, it should be about how do we interrupt that cycle and give them tools to cultivate a healthy relationship with themselves? And then, importantly, how to be in healthy, nourishing, consensual relationships with anyone they choose to in their lives?”

When it comes to gender equality, Johnson sees it as his mission to help boys understand the nuances of language and concepts surrounding discussions that can often be confronting.

“I often think about our work as the conscious Trojan horse. So, we build the trust, build the safety, get the boys to slow down, feel, understand some of the nuances of these very technical terms, and bring them on the journey,” he says.

“The system that’s been built, and they’ve been born into isn’t necessarily their fault, but as men they do have a responsibility to do something about it. That’s a very important nuance.

“I think with terms like toxic masculinity, cancel culture, rape culture, intersectionality, and the whole consent movement, it can be pretty overwhelming. Helping the boys to break it all down and understand is so critical.”

Lisa Keenan, Executive Director of Mecca M-POWER, says Johnson’s philosophy at Man Cave is critical to creating a more gender-equal world, where everyone can thrive.

“Prevention is usually better than cure. Man Cave is all about early intervention programs that teach boys how to build positive, respectful relationships and create their own version of healthy masculinity,” Keenan says.

“Those attributes are critical in a world where at least one woman dies every week at the hands of a man, often one she knows and trusts. And one in which the same systems that have institutionalised inequality and discrimination against women are hurting men too, with suicide the leading cause of death for men aged 15 to 44. We are grateful for Man Cave and thrilled that they will inspire a new version of what it is to be a man.”

Man Cave runs school-based and online programs for boys aged 12-16, and ensures its program facilitators offer a diverse expression of masculinity.
“We have First Nations people, former child soldiers, refugees, trans-identifying men, all the way to classic ‘jocks’, and drama guys as our facilitators. You name it, we have what some might call a very broad spectrum of bloke. The idea is to represent that diversity of masculinity we see in the classroom,” he explains.

The organisation also includes the Man Cave Academy, which is a training program for parents, teachers, and educators to help upskill them so they can continue the education with the boys.

Man Cave works with thousands of boys every week, and has built up an in-depth data set of the unfiltered attitudes and belief systems of Australian boys. It’s such valuable information and Johnson wants to use it to make a difference.

“When Chanel Contos launched her consent education campaign, we learnt first hand what do boys actually think about consent? Who’s taught them consent? Who’s taught them badly about consent? What do they wish they knew?”

When it comes down to it, Johnson says giving boys the space to develop self-awareness is key.

“It just starts with slowing boys down and getting them to understand when they do feel triggered by a certain topic, to investigate that trigger, as opposed to projecting that pain out.”