In the eye-opening book “Why men hurt women and other reflections on love, violence, and masculinity,” Dr. Kopano Ratele, an esteemed academic psychologist and passionate gender activist, challenges the idea that masculinity is set in stone. Through a thought-provoking study involving parents of boys, Ratele exposes the stark contrast between the inflexibility of masculinity and the familiar, more adaptable nature of the feminine.

Ratele shows how society relentlessly sticks to narrow definitions of what is considered “appropriate” for boys, vividly illustrating the backlash against those who dare to explore gender fluidity—boys who embrace skirts, play with dolls, or express emotions beyond anger. This resistance highlights society’s staunch defence of conservative practices, especially when it comes to boys.

Ratele says men raised conservatively suffer lovelessness.  This leaves males feeling unworthy and unlovable and this craving – which takes root in boyhood – he calls “love hunger”.  At the development stage when youngsters should be learning life lessons about loving relationships, boys are indoctrinated with conventional ideas of what it means to be a man. This leaves them with the raging, festering question “am I not worthy of love?” And this anger gradually leads to a lack of care for others.

Society deprives boys of the love they need and expects them to suppress their feelings. When men express pain, the same societies put pressure on them to “man up.” This harmful mindset teaches boys that wielding power violently is more socially acceptable than being compassionate and kind.

In South Africa, where violence was baked into social structures due to capitalism and racism, less than 40% of Coloured and Black families have present father figures, leaving boys without positive or negative role models to shape a healthy sense of masculinity. The lingering repercussions of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past—migrant labour, forced removals, and the creation of inhumane labour camp townships—continue to poison the present.

While local conditions are undeniably traumatic, it is important to acknowledge that violence, partner abuse, rape, and murder transcend all social classes, racial groups and nationalities—it spares no one.

Although Ratele openly grapples to come to grips with why so many men resort to violence, he attributes it to widespread forms of social conditioning that shame boys into neglecting their emotional lives, especially vulnerability.

What happens when men who are ill-equipped to express emotion find themselves feeling vulnerable, scared, or helpless? They either lash out aggressively or retreat, fearing any association with weakness or femininity. This outward aggression manifests in various forms of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, and mental.

When directed inward, untamed anger can lead to risky behaviours, self-harm, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse—a desperate attempt to numb the pain. Tragically, both consequences deprive men of the opportunity to plumb the depths of their humanity, and the alarming rates of suicide among young males underscore the unspoken global mental health crisis men face.

The problem does not lie in being born male but in a brutal system that leaves men disconnected, alone and adrift, with few alternatives but to convert vulnerability into violence. As Ratele says, society is complicit when it upholds the enforcement of gender stereotypes through shaming.

While the saying “hurt people hurt people” offers an explanation, it should never excuse traumatized men from harming others. Love, compassion, and unconditional acceptance are fundamental human needs that go beyond gender. By nurturing positive male role models and fostering emotional intelligence, we can no longer tolerate the notion that individuals who have experienced hurt inevitably go on to harm others.

To address male violence, Ratele emphasizes the importance of loving boys for who they are, rather than restricting approval to socially acceptable behaviours.  He says we can nudge more boys and men to embrace kindness and build an ethical, peaceful and loving form of masculinity.

According to Ratele; “Love appears to me to be the most vital force against violence” yet he claims its transformative power is unrecognised by those who study violence.  He says love is the ‘sticky stuff that connects us to one another’.  It nourishes life and as a vital social truss, enables us to unfold our humanness.

Men have the power to challenge gender stereotypes by engaging with enlightening work like that of Dr. Ratele’s, rather than succumbing to the misleading alpha male rhetoric perpetuated by figures like Joe Rogan.

In supportive environments, men can embark on transformative journeys, where they learn that it is not only acceptable but essential for males to express their emotions, that love is best demonstrated through actions, and building genuine relationships are all vital building blocks for nurturing wellbeing in boys and men alike.

Listen to Prof Ratele on the inflexibility of male gender stereotypes: