I apologize, this is a personal post and a bitter sweet one at that. This will be my last blog post in my professional capacity with the Men’s Anti-Violence Council.
Still, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the many papers, conferences, programs, people, places, and things that I have observed in my year and a half and offer a few notes on what I’ve seen.
Historically (and still to this day), the anti violence conversation has been dominated by conversations about how NOT to be a victim. Blue safety lights, improved reporting schemes, buddy systems, safe rides, personal defense class, and rape whistles came to symbolize all that Universities were doing to combat sexual assault. I think it is safe to say that these methods alone were not doing the trick. In fact, Dr. Emily Greytak has some poignant things to say backed up by her research in “Beyond Blue Lights and Buddy Systems.”
The Don’t Rape movement came next. Clarifying campus rules, social norming campaigns such as “My Strength is Not For Hurting” and campus wide programming such as performing theatre and videos exemplified this pedagogical shift. While the research on best practices in this area are mixed, it was a significant evolution because it rejects at its core the fact that victims somehow “choose” to become victims.
Any student in the North Carolina education system can tell you how victims have been turned on their head and systematically made perpetrators of a different nature – perpetrators of speaking out about their attackers.
Bystander education was developed as a value added component of the Don’t Rape movement. It addressed all students, of any gender and sexual orientation as active agents to prevent violence. At its core is the principle that we all have a responsibility to speak out about cultural and behavioral red flags of violence. It gave every person a voice and power to stop violence in some way shape or form. The efficacy of this approach is seen in the addition of the Campus SAVE act which MANDATES bystander intervention trainings not just for students, but faculty and staff.
But in all of my limited time working in this field, I have yet to see a good response to the phrase “boys will be boys.” Some have argued that boys “shouldn’t” be boys or that boys can be better than “that” (a synonym for boys being, by default, “bad boys”) but there has never been a credible counter narrative about what boys CAN and WANT to be. This is especially true given the varied lived experiences of boys from differing cultural, racial, religious, socio-economic, or geographic upbringing not to mention the experiences that gay men have and continue to face in the United States.
The Men’s Rights groups might argue that this stigmatization is where misandry and women are somehow oppressing boys, but I reject this claim as well because it merely reinforces that violence is somehow a part of being a boy and that all men must “reclaim” this heritage. In other words, man up boys, because otherwise women will get you and other men will mock you. Once again, using the threat of demasculization in the eyes of other men to transfer responsibility.
So let me offer you an executive summary of “the next page.” Real Men, at least according to the media, men on the street, Men’s Rights groups, and Suzanne Venker (in her work The War On Men) are the following: Strong, independent, handsome, sexually attractive and sexually active, heterosexual, bread winners, and otherwise dominant.
According to my sources (think little kids on the school yard, fraternity men, and athletes), any threat to these skills are considered bad. Like Sandlot, throwing “like a girl” is the WORST of all possible insults.
So we hide our fear, we don’t admit our weaknesses, refuse to ask for help, drink, drive, fight, and have as much sex as possible to prove ourselves. Or claim that others are less masculine than us.
Let me offer a counter narrative – being a cisgendered male / man is about being you without being measured against impossible standards of daniel-craig-as-James-Bond-esque behavior. Being a man is about being authentic, being honest, being open with others and yourself. Being a man is less about your biological sex and more about how you perceive your own masculinities. Being a man is about accepting yourself for who you are and accepting others as well. Being a man is about being ok with femininity in yourself and others and being ok with others regardless of biological sex being masculine in their own way as well. Being a man is NOT about NOT being a woman, it is about who you are in your gender identity and not about your sexual orientation. Despite a societal fascination with coming of age stories and rituals, being a man isn’t proven, it’s developed and understood through personal exploration.
But what does healthy masculinities have to do with violence prevention? Have you ever heard the phrase “make a man out of you?” Yeah…so have I. In Game of Thrones, it is often accompanied by a gratuitous sex scene. This is not uncommon. So often sex is closely associated with graduating from boyhood to manhood. It is an entitlement and barrier of sorts. 40 Year Old Virgin, American Pie, Sex Drive, Eurotrip, and Superbad have all tried to make this point.. Real men (see Don Draper or James Bond) are never turned down. Only weaklings, boys, and gay men can’t get women to have sex with them.
It’s time we reject this narrative as well. Sex (and physical/emotional intimacy) is a joint conversation between partners of any gender. It has nothing to do with coming of age of men through sex, violence, or financial coercion. The “nice guy” has no more entitlement to sexual gratification as the man in the mask who takes a person’s freedom at weapon point and no person in between.
Long story short, If I have learned anything this past year and a half, it’s this. Let’s talk. Let us talk openly, honestly, and in a safe environment. Boys and Men WANT to talk about issues of sex, manhood, and healthy masculinities. So often I have heard the refrain “no one has ever asked me.” So let’s ask. Let’s ask young boys what it means to be a man. Moreover, let’s ask ourselves, our friends, our media content providers, and the systems around us.
I think the answers might surprise us. In a good way I imagine, but some not so good ways too. But that, ultimately, is a good thing. At the very least, we’re not letting the conversation be dominated by the few and the hostile.
Together, we can create safer communities and supportive environments for all gender identities.
This is Jacob Oppenheimer, signing off.