Feb. 12, 2019

Social Work prof leads evaluation of program that promotes healthy masculine identities

$1.25M Public Health Agency of Canada grant supports program designed to prevent teen dating violence
University of Calgary professor Deinera Exner-Cortens leads a $1.25 million grant to evaluate a program aimed at preventing dating violence.

Exner-Cortens leads a $1.25 million grant to evaluate a program aimed at preventing dating violence.

Faculty of Social Work

Boys learn from an early age what being a man is all about. They absorb it culturally and from movies, television, music videos and sports figures. However, many of these popular culture and media messages can lead to ideas about masculinity that have adverse health consequences for all genders. 

“We know that certain male gender norms are linked in research to dating violence perpetration,” explains Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens, PhD, a professor with the Faculty of Social Work and the Cumming School of Medicine. “So by intervening on those gender norms, we think we can prevent dating violence perpetration.”

On Feb. 11, the Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Health, announced that the University of Calgary, led by Exner-Cortens, would receive $1.25 million in Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) funding to evaluate the WiseGuyz program as part of the government’s commitment to ending gender-based violence.

Program targets dating violence by promoting healthier masculine identities

WiseGuyz is an innovative program created and administered by Calgary’s  Centre for Sexuality. The program is designed to help 14- to 15-year-old boys to prevent violence and to improve mental and sexual health.

“One thing that’s important for me is that WiseGuyz is strengths-based,” says Exner-Cortens. “It’s positive, it's trying to change the culture, but it also builds on strengths and gives young men tools. Gender norms can be linked to poor health outcomes for young men, in part because of how they feel they have to conform to rigid gender roles.”

One in 20 teens may experience physical dating violence. The $1.25 millions Public Health Agency of Canada grant will evaluate WiseGuyz, a program that fosters healthy gender identities for boys, and targets bystander behaviour.

One in 20 teens may experience physical dating violence.

Rawpixel on Unsplash

Focus on changing bystander behaviour to prevent dating violence

The PHAC funding will go toward program delivery and rigorous evaluation of WiseGuyz. If evidence shows the program is working, it could become the template for a national and perhaps international approach to violence prevention. One of the key elements is to determine the impact that WiseGuyz has on the behaviour of bystanders.

“We know a lot of dating violence happens in public spaces. People know about it or witness it,” explains Exner-Cortens. “There's also a lot of precursors to dating violence, like bullying, homophobic name-calling, and cat-calling. There are lots of behaviours that people might witness that aren't necessarily someone hitting someone, but where it’s still important to speak up. Through WiseGuyz boys learn skills for intervention: what to say and how to intervene. So WiseGuyz really focuses on bystander behaviour, which is critical to changing the climate that allows violence to continue.”

Funding will allow expansion of program into rural settings

WiseGuyz was created by the Centre for Sexuality, which recognized that most sexual health services were targeted to women. While dealing with pressing health concerns like the continuing rise of sexually transmitted infections, the program also ambitiously focused on changing the conversation around masculinity with junior high boys.

“We knew there was a massive unmet need for a boys' program when we started WiseGuyz in 2010, but we never dreamed it would result in the program being the recipient of such an important grant almost a decade later,” says Pam Krause, president and CEO of the Centre for Sexuality.

“This funding will support us to further expand WiseGuyz into rural areas surrounding Calgary and to determine if we will become Canada’s first evidence-based program for boys that addresses gender and masculinities in the prevention of gender-based violence. This is very exciting for our agency, and for the WiseGuyz program.”

Deinera Exner-Cortens is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work and the Department of Psychiatry. She is also a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education at the HBI.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the university toward its Eyes High goals.