Week of Visibility

4 June 2021 via Zoom

Male Bonding and Sexualised Exploitation: Charting a Path to Healthy Masculinities

Speakers: Mia de Faoite and Orla Sadlier of MDN with Mark Casserly, Ben Grogan and Paul O’Brien of Champion Martial Arts & Fitness.

This online event examined the issue of the sexualised exploitation of women and girls in relation to homosocial or male/male bonding.

The panel looked at the role sexual activity, particularly sex buying, and women’s bodies play in male bonding and masculine status building among groups of men. 

Approaching the issue from a Men’s Development perspective, we interrogated what drives this behaviour, its harmful and often violent impacts, and explored the role of Men’s Development in ending the demand for commercial sex and in the fight for gender equality more broadly.

Mia de Faoite, MDN Board member. See what the survivor and long-time activist had to say below

The Week of Visibility of Sexualised Exploitation of Women & Girls is an initiative taken by five member organisations of MenEngage Global Alliance – Men for Gender Equality – MÄN (Sweden), Unizon (Sweden), Crisis Centre for Women in Saint-Petersburg (Russia), Men’s Development Network (Ireland) and Gender Violence Institute (Minnesota, USA).


“To ultimately end sexual exploitation, we need to disrupt gender conditioning – the kind of masculinity often referred to as toxic which demands men are dominant, aggressive, assertive and unallied. We need to examine why some men engage in this behaviour and how it can be prevented.”

Ireland’s Men’s Development Network says the inaugural international Week of Visibility of the Sexual Exploitation of Women & Girls (May 31st – June 4th) was an important opportunity to encourage men to better understand the harmful impacts that hypermasculine behaviours, often the basis for male bonding, can have on women.

Photo of Seán Cooke

On Friday 4 June, the charity hosted an online event with activist and survivor of prostitution, Mia de Faoite and trainers from Champion Martial Arts & Fitness entitled Male Bonding and Sexual Exploitation: Charting a path from Toxic Brotherhood to Healthy Masculinities.

The webinar examined the role commercial sexual activities such as prostitution, phone sex, stripping, mail order brides and pornography play in male bonding and status building among groups of men. It will detail the harmful impact this type of ‘toxic brotherhood’ can have on those working in the sex trade and how it diminishes men’s own ability to live well by having healthy and positive connections with others.

The webinar discussion also looked at ways in which men across Ireland can support each other in putting forward positive alternatives to some of the stereotypical male-bonding activities that take place – creating a mindset shift and social change that benefits both men and women.

Seán Cooke, CEO of Men’s Development Network, says: “We believe the highly gendered nature of the commercial sex trade, and the exploitation and violence it facilitates, are legitimised by broader social structures and understandings of what it means to be a man.

“To ultimately end sexual exploitation, we need to disrupt gender conditioning – the kind of masculinity often referred to as toxic which demands men are dominant, aggressive, assertive and unallied. We need to examine why some men engage in this behaviour and how it can be prevented.”

As well as asking men to question their personal attitudes towards women, they are being encouraged to come together in more positive ways to bond over shared interests that don’t objectify women; a damaging part of toxic masculinity that leads to gender inequality. With this in mind, male members of Champion Martial Arts & Fitness in Dublin also joined the MDN webinar’s live line-up.

The purchase of sex was made illegal in Ireland in 2017 when it was recognised that buying women and girls to perform sex acts is a form of exploitation. Logically, sexual consent cannot be purchased when a power imbalance is immediately introduced.

Gender equality

However, Mia de Faoite, survivor of prostitution and activist, believes we can do more to ensure the spirit of gender equality underpinning the law is realised. She said: “Prostitution is what most people imagine it to be – violent and dangerous. There is no other industry where such a level of violence would be tolerated and although I am lucky to have escaped prostitution, many do not.

“We know that only a small minority enter out of freedom of choice. The vast majority are women and girls who end up in the sex trade due to structural inequalities and a lack of choice. We also know that roughly nine in 10 of those sold and used in prostitution in Ireland are migrant women, who have been coerced into the most dangerous and exposed conditions on the front line of the trade.

“Yes, criminal gangs exploit these vulnerable women and girls, but it is the sex-buying members of the public who enable them. By actively educating men on the structural, gender-based inequalities that lead to men engaging in the sexual exploitation of women, we can help them to understand the damaging effects of partaking in these activities and end the demand.”

Orla Sadlier of Men’s Development Network adds: “Put simply, sexual exploitation occurs when a person achieves sexual gratification or financial gain through the abuse or exploitation of a person’s sexuality. This type of behaviour denies a person their right to dignity, equality, autonomy and wellbeing.

“Sex buyers are almost exclusively men and those who are exploited are predominately women and girls, which tells us that the dynamics of power and gender are in play. To engage in commercialised sex, either as a buyer or a trafficker, is to engage in exploitation, and the gender inequality upon which this exploitation is based is not for women alone to solve. 

“Our work creates opportunities for men to reflect upon their lives, behaviours and attitudes so that they can recognise and address challenges to ultimately stop negative behaviours thereafter. We believe that by supporting men to be critical of gender conditioning, and step into healthy masculinities, they can connect to their own sense of love, empathy and compassion. This will help them avoid damaging behaviours such as dehumanisation and objectification which are necessary to sexually exploit others.”