When the bells are tolling for public male predators, when suicide takes so many men, when we see the rise of authoritarian strongmen across the globe, we should stop and question the confluence of forces that link these events. Through a feminist lens, it is clear that specific actions are symptomatic of wider social institutions that are long overdue for change. This analysis, which seeks to liberate while holding accountable, is rejected by men who think it is not in their interest. Among the wider public, the idea that feminism might be for men, as my title intimates, is unpopular at best and at worst dismissed. When feminism is reduced to a slogan mainstream male politicians wear on T-shirts, misunderstandings are never far behind. I want to take some time here, using specific practical examples, to vindicate the marriage between feminism and masculinity work. Fundamental to this is an approach based on the UWC values which this work represents.
Starting a year-and-a-half ago, I have focused on what we can offer young men within education. While this started out as an intra-classroom investigation into performance and behaviour discrepancies, I knew much more was at stake. Throwing pedagogical techniques at these students is no more than a bandage. My past year at UWC-USA has been occupied by a deeper concern with masculinity and gender equality, culminating in a series of circles with male students called Positive or Healthy Masculinities, as well as a book club for male faculty centered on bell hooks’ The Will to Change.
When I think about my goals in doing this work, one answer is that the means and the ends cannot be separated. There is something inherently powerful in a men’s only shared space. The space and encouragement to be open is healing in itself. Why that might be is obvious when we face the widespread cultural stigma against the mere existence of men’s feelings (anger being the notable exception). All the spaces I have shared with men prove how damaging these ideas have been. In fact, when the right questions are asked in the appropriate space, each individual man proves his wealth of accrued knowledge and feelings. But spaces are often not appropriate. This is a testament to some of the hollowness in the lip service paid to the passive ideal of “safe space”. This reification of space is divorced from personal action, and must be challenged by questions of “safe for/from whom?” and “what ideas are being sheltered?” As some students recently reminded me, the UWC goal of a peaceful future is not a passive ideal. It needs work. Discomfort cannot and should not be avoided. It requires what the UWC organizing values calls personal responsibility and integrity to actively bring about peace. So, too, should we shift our view from the safety of the space to the courage of the conversation; openness of heart requires an intentional commitment to its own power in the breaking down of barriers. In the co-construction of these courageous conversations, I have seen the best of men.
You are either a man or you are an epithet.
But how can we muster courage while facing the fear of being considered “unmanly”? Regardless of sexual orientation, all men at some point fear the spectre of emasculation. I say “regardless of sexual orientation,” but sexual orientation (and activity) are common bearers of the emasculatory gesture. You are either a man or you are an epithet. This is why gender and sex literacy (especially the distinctions between perceived biological sex, sexual orientation, gender, and gender expression) is indispensable to this work. And thankfully it is becoming more commonly acknowledged. The imputation that one is “not man enough” directs us to judge ourselves and, thereby, to abide by certain rules. We all know what they are and most of us, myself included, still hold ingrained prejudices when we find these rules subverted. It is no surprise that structures which construct traditional masculinity also radically limit its definition.
Men who express their gender differently through their bodies (hair, nails, dress, jewelry, makeup, gait) know this better than anyone. They are also acutely aware — as many have told me — that outside our small community this would be punishable through violence or ostracism. (Nor should we assume that they face no consequences within our gates.) The threat of harm alone is often enough to enforce retrograde social norms. So even when we acknowledge the multiplicity in gender identities and expressions, we are still not facing up to the immense hurt caused by the suppression of any exploration — let alone affirmation — of non-traditional or non-binary gender expression. Who compliments men on their nail polish? Who affirms that another man can pull off a dress? Compassion, lauded in our UWC values, requires us to be proactive in avoiding hurt. Courage, like love, is a verb. We do it when we share space in openness with each other. But the prerequisite for this is a compassionate community which accepts and affirms who we are. Although emasculation is merely one form of hurt, it is exemplary of the limitations imposed by traditional gender roles. Working with masculinity means acknowledging the pain, caused by all the lost gestures in everyday subversive actions, that has limited and eventually paved the way for change.
The means of a supportive, courageous space is an end in itself. This is true but it is not the whole story. Like anything, this work is not and cannot be value-neutral. The point, rather, is to choose the appropriate values. Faced with a world in which “nobody cares about men’s feelings,” we need an analysis and a vision. Asking “what about the men?” requires a direction and an explicit statement of what matters. So when we recognize the self-harm caused by traditional gender roles, from substance (ab)use to a suicide epidemic; when we recognize its sexual norms as premised on domination and objectification; when we recognize that these gender norms are both contingent — and therefore changeable — and systematic, pervading all aspects of our culture and affecting us all; when we see that traditional gender norms are not working and that we must liberate ourselves from them; we must acknowledge that this is and ought to be feminist work.What does that mean? It means taking responsibility and ownership for re-evaluating the patriarchy. There is solid evidence justifying this project. Building communities of conversation and inquiry with men that are explicitly led by a rejection of traditional gender norms is the most effective measure for reducing sexual harassment and assault. Feminists have always known this is more effective, more value-informed, than victim-blaming. (I was honoured — though not entirely surprised — by the organizers of UWC-USA’s 2020 Womxn’s Week who acknowledged this in inviting me to speak.) We simply cannot afford to ignore the harm that patriarchy does to all of us. The same ideology that offloads all emotional labour on women unsurprisingly does not sufficiently prepare men for emotional intelligence, maturity, or openness. A world that is designed to ignore, shame, and blame survivors of sexual assault is now recognized to hurt men who are increasingly coming forward with their own stories. The reality of the matter is that we have to pick sides. But those who facetiously claim that this pits genders against each other are uninterested in the real issues. Values are fundamental to what we do. Embracing feminism means, fundamentally, to embrace a sense of idealism. In the face of overwhelming social pressure, to strive for a different and better world. Acknowledging that the goal is open-ended and will require a commitment that is reinforced with every mistake.
What cannot be talked about cannot be challenged. What cannot be challenged cannot be changed...
The first point in discussing these value-laden issues with men is awareness. Aside from being unaware of the fate of others, men lack a vocabulary for their own socialization. From all the conversations I had, it was clear that many men recognize and have experienced the harms of patriarchal masculinity. But they could not always conceptualize them. What cannot be talked about cannot be challenged. What cannot be challenged cannot be changed, let alone dismantled. Providing conceptual tools is crucial, but the importance of asking questions cannot be underestimated. Asking the right questions, at the right time, can unlock unexpected answers. Values guide our everyday actions, so it can be uncomfortable to realize that some of our values stand opposed to the people we want to be. This discomfort was visceral when, despite his beliefs and identity, a young man found himself aligning with the value that all children need a mother and a father. But again, we cannot address what we are not aware of.
There is something incredibly powerful about gathering with men, especially young men, and prompting a public discussion on our values or the idea of the man box. In a world where men are socialized to bottle up and muster on, this is often the first time their personal experiences are discussed and taken seriously. As noted above, spaces themselves can be transformative. But newfound knowledge also forces a choice. I rarely use the term “toxic masculinity”. Not because I think there is no such thing. But use of the term can call up false interpretations according to which all of masculinity is toxic, or that there is a neat binary between toxic men and “good guys”. There is no separate thing called “toxic masculinity”. There is only masculinity. Part of its toxicity comes from the unwanted, socialized, unreflective, forced aspects of the gender construct. Becoming aware implies a personal responsibility. No longer can we hold on to masculinity-as-given; rather, it will have to be a conscious choice from among the values that we hold dear.
However truly I believe these facts for my own context — based on my own experiences and research — they are not universal. Although there are certainly cross-cultural patterns of traditional masculine identity, man is not a monolith. It shows up in different parts of our lives in various forms. (I am grateful to more than one faculty member who prioritized his childcare work over our critical discussion group for making these dialectics visible.) Although we can identify similar patterns, the value we attribute to them and the way we react must be locally informed and prioritized. This does not mean that working with masculinity is impossible, nor that it must be limited to local contexts. UWC values encourage us to build intercultural understanding, not stimy it. And understanding can only be built in conversation with others for whom these same issues play out differently. It is in these spheres that I am humbled by my students who came from all continents to discuss how masculinity has played out in their lives.
One student in particular made me rethink how culturally and personally specific this work can be. After collectively acknowledging a list we had constructed of enforced man box stereotypes, he rebutted the idea that we need to find alternative gender roles. As a Latino man he felt comfortable in embodying a more traditional role, which he disclosed to having previously been criticized for. But he saw value in emphasizing and embodying the admirable qualities it contains. I mention this to highlight how heightened self-awareness interacts with different intercultural norms. Although there was in some sense a barrier between us, his honestly shared reflections showed me how he was aware of and processing the meaning of his gender role. Where I could have been embarrassed by my myopia, I am seeing this as a learning opportunity for myself in how communication across cultural boundaries can be open to difference.
Am I showing up and setting an example for the alternative possibilities that I believe in?
I have been blessed to work with men. Again and again it has challenged me to question the example I set as an educator, as a colleague, as a friend. Although my action and personal example is the value that has occupied me most while at UWC, it is also one I struggle with. Am I showing up and setting an example for the alternative possibilities that I believe in? Have I become fully aware of how my gender affects perceptions of my everyday interactions? Am I comfortable publicly displaying emotions? On all counts: more so than previously. Deepening self-knowledge and the example it leads me to set are infinite tasks without closure. Undoing socialization is a life’s work. But it does require conscious work.
When I gave a talk in January titled “Feminism for Men”, I was daunted not by the public speaking but the prospect of openly calling myself a feminist. Although I had long affiliated myself with feminist causes and ideas — had even considered myself a feminist — I had never publicly self-described as such. Impostor syndrome would (for once) have been justified, but mostly I recognized the “unmanliness” that I associated with feminism. But how can we ever hope to set examples if we don’t stand for what we believe in? I am a feminist.
So often we stand alone with our realizations and (perhaps) willingness to change. This, too, is why I think of this as feminist work. Feminists have a tradition of gathering in communities of shared experience, searching affirmation from each other and names for their newfound concepts. This is how we have a name for ‘sexual harassment’, a concept which many women experienced but could not place. These are the kinds of powerful social and epistemological innovations which have driven action for change. Without these communities to hold ourselves accountable, understand our shared experience, practice action, and receive affirmation and love, change will be piecemeal and impermanent. I have been blessed to find such a community at UWC-USA.
I am indebted to Promundo for essential research and educational material, without which I could not have done this work.