Ep4: Interview with William Smith-Stubbs - what it means to be masculine today!

1 Apr 2022 PODCAST

What it means to be a man today can be a hard to navigate, the world is changing and perhaps what we thought was masculine is being challenged. Today Jess speaks with behavioural strategist William Smith-Stubbs and Co-Founder of Spur Projects a multi-award-winning, charitable organisation that focuses on mens mental health and suicide prevention. They discuss the traits of the masculine, how it has evolved over the past 10 years and how men and women can hold space for each other to be their authentic selves. 

Episode Resources:

If you are struggling and need help contact lifeline at lifeline.org.au

Find the amazing work Spur Projects are doing at
wearespur.com/org and on instagram 



Jess: Welcome to Flip The Script podcast, where we flip the narrative on issues that affect men's health.

Louie: Our aim is to talk about the weird, the wonderful, and perhaps the unspoken issues that affect men so you can feel empowered and back to live in your best Life.

Jess: Let's get into it.

Jess: Hey guys, I'm super pumped to have William Smith-Stubbs joining me today. He is a behavioural strategist, mental health advocate and co-founder of spur which is a mental health non-for-profit organisation with incredible campaigns focused on raising awareness for men's mental health, in particular suicide prevention. Thank you so much for joining us today, Will.

William: No problem. Thanks, Jessica.

Jess: So, I was looking at this today and it's pretty impressive. Since 2011, spur has reached over 40 million people worldwide in over 105 countries. Can you tell me a bit about the journey that led you to co-create spur and the amazing work that spur has done today?

William: Sure, yeah. Yeah, and great to be having a chat with you and it's always really weird to hear your work summed up like that. So, let me kind of define and unpack our work over the last 10 years. So we co-founded, my co-founders and I about 10 years ago, a nonprofit which officially is called spur Projects. We tend to refer it to it now as spur or spur:org, and it was based on a realisation that the number one killer of men in Australia, age 14 to 44 was suicide. And as myself as a young boy when I was about 12, I went through a really difficult time.

William: I became quite sick and as a result of that illness, fell into depression. And around about 12, suicide was to me the option that seemed most attractive. And I was really, really lucky and I'm very grateful that I survived that suicidality. But it stayed with me and then in my early 20s, I had not having really thought about it for a long time but experiencing depression over my teen years. I met a couple other young guys in Brisbane called Lee Crockford and [Eon 00:02:14] Chan. And, they had an idea about creating a campaign to try and tackle this problem of suicide.

William: So, a friend of a friend introduced us. I thought I could help with various different things behind the scenes, but I ended up sort of becoming the poster boy for the campaign, using my experiences of depression and suicidality to help other men understand how to talk about it and how to seek help. In fact, our very first campaign was based on that premise of as young boys were taught so much to toughen up and to harden up to bottle things up inside of us, and not to seek help.

William: So rather cheekily, our first campaign was called Soften the Fck Up. And, it was aimed at trying to get men to be okay with being soft sometimes and to seek help, but I didn't make you emasculine. In fact, it was a very masculine thing to do to try and help yourself, and to try and receive help.

William: But that led to a really amazing opportunity to create a nonprofit that's worked in a range of different areas over the years focused on mental health and wellbeing. And, now we have a few other ventures a well. A commercial design studio focus on social impact, and software startup based on helping employers better understand the emotional needs of their employees.

Jess: Yeah, you can tell that what you're doing is not only coming from place of your own experience, but you're really helping so many other people. And, obviously you can see the amazing work that you guys have done today. It's really incredible. Talking about that masculinity, that feeling vulnerable, that speaking out, can you tell me a little bit about how you would describe masculinity? And what are those key attributes and behaviours? Because, I think I'm a lot of men struggle with this. Like not only is there the patriarchy or the way that society kind of defines it, but what does it really mean to you? I'd love to know.

William: That's a really interesting and tough question. It's complicated, first of all, and it's changing. It has been changing for quite some time. What I would say, though, is in terms of what it means to me is whatever I want it to mean. Traditionally, masculine roles or masculine behavior or even emotions were... I shouldn't say traditionally. For some time, let's say in the past century men were taught to be masculine means to be cold, and aggressive, and assertive and stoic. And in many cases we were taught to be men by being told, "Look at everything a woman is supposed to be, and just don't be that." Which is a really terrible way to educate boys about how to be healthy, happy, emotional human beings which is what we are.

William: If you go back earlier though, one of my favorite references for this and when we talk about masculinity can be so many different things. But we've been taught for a long time that it's about the more aggressive or the more emotionally distant sort of side of things. And I would actually argue, it's not that being masculine to me would be to care for others, to provide for others, to protect others and to want to improve things. And yet, I can look at many women who do those things as well. And, does that mean that they're masculine or does that mean that those things are feminine? I don't think so. I think it really is whatever you want that thing to be.

William: So if you go back to Shakespearean times, so hundreds of years ago. There's a line of Macbeth after the murder of this family where one of the friends of this fellow has said, "You have to avenge their death." And this character, he's a Lord and he's a warrior, and he turns around and he says, "And yet I will do that, but first I must feel it like a man." And, so he spends time grieving.

William: And, I think one of the things that we've lost with masculinity over the years is the freedom to feel beyond just a few select types of emotions. And for my work, the problem that has arisen is as a boy growing up, if you are told when you fall down to not be upset, to not cry, to not have emotions or experience a wide range of emotions. When you do need help and you are in crisis, you're going through a tough time, it's really difficult to ask for help because that's seen as emasculine.

William: So to sum that up, I know it's sort of a sidestepping answer to say it can be whatever you want it to be. But, I think the more that we can allow human beings to just be human beings and to breast that in whatever which way they wish, I think we'll be happier as a result. We'll be healthier as a result, and less torn up about, am I acting or behaving in the right way that I've been told to do? Which I admit does lead to some confusion than if you don't have much guidance.

Jess: Yeah, I guess you're seeing, instead of seeing society as your compass, you are going inward and using yourself as your compass as to how to act, how to behave and that kind of thing. But-

William: Definitely, yeah.

Jess: that could technically be the difference between living or dying if you've got a mental health issue, and you have so much shame around seeking support, or seeking help or being vulnerable. Because you probably know, the statistics are a lot less in women, right, because women naturally love to communicate. We are very open with our emotions, so we process these negative thought patterns and that kind of thing. And we seek support a lot more freely, you would assume, right?

William: Yes, although the catch there is that women attempt suicide about three times more than men in terms of numbers. Yeah, so while we have, there's about 3000 deaths a year from suicide that are men three times more than that our attempts from women. The reason that they don't end up dying from that attempt is a number of things, including I think, primarily the method. So, women tend towards methods of suicide that are less catastrophic and they can be rescued from or intervened with more easily.

William: So, there is actually, I would say at the moment... I talked to a lot of men through the work that we do over the years who are struggling with kind of the new lack of definition, I suppose, of masculinity and gender. It's not just men who are suffering though, women are also suffering in that. We're all being told multiple different things, experiencing pressures of society that we've never been really able to figure out. I mean, not only are we going through a hundred year pandemic, we have less time to ourselves. We have more work, we have multiple stresses. We can be reached for work in our homes now, not just in the workplace. Relationships are generally harder these days, economically it's harder these days, and so it's hard for everyone.

William: But, particularly if you are... I'll give you two examples. Yes, as a man, if you ascribe to traditional ideas of masculinity and gender, you'd find it a lot harder to ask for help because you might be afraid of being seen as weaker inferior and having emotions would be an emasculine thing. Which is kind of ironic, because we also tell men that they should know how to fix things, right. So if you can fix an engine, but you can't fix your heart but I always find quite strange. Which then you prevents them from not seeking help, but as you say is a risk to your own life.

William: On the other hand, you have women who are particularly these days because of a lot of advances in women's rights are kind of told to be everything. Not just that they should be a good mother and a good daughter, but they sure should have a career and raise their kids and also go for that promotion and do all these things. So, it's kind of been a blessing and a curse in that respect as well.

William: And, I think that often we try and compare the experiences of genders in the sense of which one is struggling the most at the moment in terms of this social redefinition of gender. We're both in the shit. It's both terrible for all of us at the moment. I do think that it's positive though, we are going through a process of saying, "Do these models of femininity and masculinity that we've had for the past decades, do they work anymore?" And if not, should we start to unwind some of that infrastructure around it?

Jess: Yeah, I think it's definitely a hot topic for today's time. I think a lot of people are struggling with it, but I think it's definitely something that people just need to go inside themselves and work out, "Have I got to a point where I'm feeling not aligned, not happy?" Just look inside yourself and do those check-ins, because that's going to really tell you what's working and what's not. Because like you said, being feminine, being masculine may look different on different types of people and what they want to express themselves as. And, I guess that's the future of where people are kind of going.

William: You perfectly put. I think it's very much, it should be in my opinion, an individual thing. Like what feels right to you. So, I do CrossFit. I've done CrossFit for I think 10 years. And, there are women in the gym that I go to who are incredibly athletic and muscular, and can do things that some of the guys in the gym can't do. Then does that make them less feminine? I don't think so at all. And, would they consider that less feminine? I don't think so, but I think we've chosen to relegate certain things like strength and physical strength into say, "That's a man's thing." And, emotional sensitivity is woman's thing.

William: What an actual fact, we're capable of both. An individual, you might be interested in or feel more comfortable with one or the other, well, it's up to you to figure out what makes sense for you. I will say though, and in particular I'm aware of some of the things that we've already discussed in this conversation. That doesn't mean it's not hard. I think it's really hard for my generation who are kind of in a transitionary period of we look at some of our parents and I know my dad, for instance, growing up was a very emotionally distant sort of guy. And, I think that there is a reaction from my generation to say, "We don't want to be quite like that, but we also are figuring out what the alternative is." And how do you do that in a way that feels true to you, but you can also navigate?

William: It is hard, and I've no doubt that many of your listeners probably are struggling with that of what feels right to me in terms of masculinity and what makes me a man. And, I hope that our kids don't have to struggle with that question, that they have a lot more freedom in terms of how they can express themselves but more security in that, this is okay.

Jess: That's incredible. And actually, circling back to what you were saying about women's empowerment movement. I kind of wanted to ask, have you seen kind of some of the people that you come across or the people that are involved in spur have issues around feeling emasculated? Because I think women are like, "Wow, okay I need to be this boss babe. I need to do this, I need to take action. I need to be in five different places at once." And through that process, they're delivering so much value, they're exporting so much energy. Is there not any space for men to kind of be in the same space?

William: I would say if there's a question of like in empowering women, does that push out men from spaces? I would say that's bullshit. It doesn't. And I totally understand why a man might feel that way, because there will be just those opportunities because a lot of opportunities in the past were geared towards men. If you look back into an office 70 years ago, there weren't many women around if there were, they were probably getting coffees or drinks for the mad men in the offices. So, yeah there's more competition, I suppose, in that sense and that's okay.

William: In the same regard, the empowerment of women is a benefit to men in that if I no longer have to play a certain role myself, and my female partner no longer has to play a certain role in terms of her career that unlocks opportunities for her. And, maybe I want to look after the kids and that should be an okay thing for me to do without being less of a manly thing to do. I think there's a couple of things. One, I've always been of the belief that any man who is afraid, or uncertain or nervous about the empowerment of women is probably afraid that the only thing that he has going for him is that he is a man. Because, if you're nervous about giving women opportunities, and empowering them and lifting them up from a history of oppression, what other reason would you be worried about that other than, well, where does that leave me as a result?

William: And I would say if there is anybody of your listeners who may who might be feeling that way and uncertain, I wouldn't worry because it'll open up more opportunities for men to do things that we weren't allowed to do previously. When we look at traditional careers, for instance, say nursing or care, traditionally not very many men in that industry. Whereas, now that's starting to become much more acceptable and much more open to those for those roles. Same with teachers. The other thing is, I'm not sure if you remember, I think it was Play School and then she was on Better Homes and Gardens, Noni Hazelhurst.

Jess: Oh, yeah.

William: Kind of like Australia's aunt. She said something somewhere, and was just stuck with me about what would it mean if we could empower women and mend the broken hearts of men? And I think for me, that is the crux of a lot of social reconfiguration that we're going through. Women for so long have been told, "You are objects or you are secondary you're second class citizens." And, they're being lifted up.

William: But at the same time, we do need to do a lot of work to help men to feel okay and to understand that a lot of the rules we've been given have been detrimental to us such as don't seek help which results in our death or worse health. So if we can do those two things, if we can empower women up to the same place as men in society, while also working on the emotional side that we, as men need. We need that support, we need that freedom and that care. I think we have a much better society as a result.

Jess: Yeah, I absolutely love that and I think that's a great mission for us all to have. And, also for men and women to both know that just because we're empowering men or we're empowering women, it doesn't mean that there's no value that the opposite sex will give. Your value will always be there and you have to just hold true to yourself and back yourself and know your own worth. And if that's not going to change, then why does anybody else changing around you really matter that much.

William: Yeah and anyway, it's on a zero sum game. Empowering women doesn't mean you have to disempower men. That's not really kind of how it works. You're just providing more balance to the equation. And, I think it's sometimes scary because it's change, but it will be okay in the end.

Jess: Just circling back to being authentic, we kind of like to summarize this, I can kind of see the overarching messaging and the overarching theme of this is look within yourself and do what's aligned with you because at the end of the day that's going to be your truth. Do you find that some people kind of feed into that toxic masculinity and that toxic way of being? Or, is this something that is kind of naturally starting to change? Do you see that moving into a better position in the future?

William: Actually, was having a really interesting conversation about the term toxic masculinity just yesterday. And I'm not making it up, but actually was having this conversation. And, I was talking to somebody who was really struggling with that term. And when we got into the conversation, I think it was really apparent that if you say toxic masculinity, it may sound like you are labeling masculinity itself as toxic. Which is not all, I think, the in tent behind that. It's merely saying that if masculinity or parts are masculinity, I should say, are defined as always be stoic, always be aggressive, never seek help, always do these things and you have to abide by those rules. That itself is toxic. It's not the masculinity as a whole. There are many wonderful things about being masculine that shouldn't be labeled as toxic. So, just to clarify that point.

William: I think there are on multiple different angles. People want to stay into these perspectives that can be toxic for everybody. And as an example, a few years ago, right. Six years ago or something, I went to an event and was introduced to a fellow. He started chatting to me and I realised that we both knew a similar friend. He had hired her, and she'd quit two weeks into it because another opportunity that she'd been waiting on had come up. And I said, "Oh, I didn't realise you knew her." And he said, "Oh yeah, what a bitch."

William: It struck me that I've just met the dude. He knows that I know her, and he thought it was appropriate to call her that. And I remember thinking like if it was a guy, would he have said that? Probably wouldn't. And, it was that permission to say that about a woman so we easily and the assumption that as a man I'd back him up that I just found so bizarre. So, I wrote this quick little blog post and I put it out there and it blew up.

William: But, what struck me was that I received thousands of comments on it. Some from people saying, "Yep, this is a great take on the problems of gender that we have." Some from men who were negative about it, and the positive ones were from both men and women. The negative male ones were very much of feminism's going to ruin the world, all that sort of stuff. But what amazed me, and I still struggle with understanding is that there were women who were posting the same thing negatively that this is terrible, and don't spread this stuff and that's bullshit, et cetera. And I was just thinking, if what I'm talking about is the advancement of our freedom in terms of being who I want to as a man or a woman and the respect for each other. Why would you want to go backwards?

William: And, the only thing I could figure out that it might be is that, well, we know that. We know the rules there, we know that traditionally I would come home from work and my wife would be there making dinner and put the food on the table. And I wouldn't talk at my emotions necessarily, and I wouldn't seek help and we'd have a very strict sort of way of interacting. And, we kind of have had that for so long that it's easy to navigate. And maybe the reaction was, "Yeah, if we go into this new world of being more free with our definitions of femininity, masculinity, that's scary and we don't know the rules. We don't know where our place sits in that." So, it's that sort of thing I can kind of figure out it might have been.

Jess: I was going to say, I immediately thought safe, because it's what they know. It's common knowledge, it's what they know. They don't want to go into, like you said, a new way of being, a new way of respecting one another. Yeah, so for them, they feel unsafe to kind of move into that territory. But like you said, at the end of the day, it's just respect. Come on, that's a common... It's-

William: But, I do want to just say, I try and practice as much as possible that my opinion is my opinion and we're all kind of learning and figuring things out as best as we can with the knowledge that we have. And, so as much as I might say should be in this direction and somebody might be thinking, that's really scary. As you say, it's not safe. I don't like it. I get it and I get that we need to kind of process things our own way. So, I'd never say to somebody like, "You're being an asshole, just get with the program. I just want to reassure up if I'm talking to somebody like that like, "it's going to be okay. These things will figure out and you won't lose your place in society because we've lifted up another group."

Jess: Yeah, I guess everything just needs to be met with compassion and patience. This is like you said, kind of a weird navigating world that we're in at the moment. So, we just have to be patient with one another and just respect one another. And, obviously some things are going to really trigger people, especially now when things are very uncertain and everyone's feeling little bit on edge. I can tell, because the way people are communicating to each other online is very fiery. It's very fiery.

William: For sure.

Jess: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I've absolutely loved this conversation. Is there anything else that you want to add?

William: Well, a couple of things. One, I would say that the beginning of this conversation, it was about my work for the past 10 years and seeing how men traditionally have been taught to not seek help, and how that has resulted in such tragedy. People every day in Australia will decide it's easier to take their life than to ask for help. That's heartbreaking. So at the back of that, I would say if you are one of those people that is struggling and thinking of suicide and desperate for help, just put your hand up, ask for help, call lifeline. Just take that first step and I promise you that it will get better. I guarantee you, it will get better.

William: The second thing is that this whole conversation about it's pretty heavy, right. It's pretty big kind of philosophical thoughts about society and how we progress. What is amazing to me though, is how quickly society can change. And one thing always stands out for me is when I was in high school, which is a very, very long time ago. But I was in high school and I graduated, and I'd gone back the year later with the girl I knew and her little brother was going to be in this performance of something. And, we were walking up to the school and he was there with his friends and they were grade 10 or something. And listening to them, occurred to me that this kid was openly gay and all his friends were straight and it was not a big deal. They did not care, whatsoever. And a year earlier in my grade, saying to somebody, "Oh, you're so gay." Would've been a huge insult.

William: And, what occurred to me then is that change happens and we agonize about I and as you say, we fight about it a lot particularly online. We thrash and we nash at each other, but it happens and it happens when we're not looking. And so these things will sort out, they will find a way to reorganize things and to kind of tidy up the shelf. And, then you'll look over and the whole room's clean, and it just kind of happens like that. So, I have a lot of hope and faith for humanity being the future.

Jess: That's absolutely beautiful. The work that you've done today and the impact that you're making, and I can really tell that you are coming not only from a place of personal experience, but you've done so much work with spur. And hopefully like you said, things are changing and moving in the right direction. So, it will lead to a healthier world where people just can feel great in who they are. They don't have to feel this overwhelming pressure to kind of be something that they don't genuinely want to be. So, where can the listers find you in the work that spur's doing?

William: They can see our work at wearespur.com. We are on Instagram at we.are.spur, I'm on Twitter at WilliamCStubs. And if you want to look at any of our mental health projects, if you go to org.wearespur.com. Also on that site, we have the world's largest list of mental health resources that we've compiled for different countries and regions around the world. So again, if you are somebody who is struggling, at org.wearespur.com. We have a wide range of resources that you can tap into.

Jess: Amazing, we'll link all that in the show notes. So, thank you so much.

William: Thanks, Jessica.

Jess: If you guys have enjoyed this episode, please rate and leave a review and I will speak to you on the next episode. Thanks, guys.


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