When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to a rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people.
Some stories that caught our eye this week:
Why It’s Wrong For Pundits To Tell President Obama ‘Real Men Don’t Cry’ “With more than 90 percent of mass shootings and 78 percent of suicides committed by males, violence is not just a policy problem – it’s a cultural problem that we can no longer ignore.”
What first responders think about domestic violence will horrify you “Given that many abuse victims are reluctant to go to a hospital or get police involved, first responders are often the only medical help victims encounter—and their support can be pivotal.”
And from our friends at the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center:
Strengthen laws to help sexual-assault victims “The problem with the current Sexual Assault Protection Order is that it must be reissued every two years….This requires a victim of sexual assault to return to court every two years if he or she needs continued protection…discouraging them from using a law that is designed to offer protection.”
“I was stalked for 11 years & now I can finally talk about it.” Activist Julie Lalonde’s story is a good reminder that sometimes the only end to living in fear comes when the abuser dies.
Raising free-spirited black children in a world set on punishing them. Stacia Brown talks about the struggle to hide her fear from her daughter because “freedom of spirit is the only liberty” black people can give their children.
The war on female voices is just another way of telling women to shut up. “People are busy policing women’s language and nobody is policing older or younger men’s language.”
Two years before Ray Rice pushed the league’s “domestic violence problem” into the headlines, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell testified to a Congressional committee: “We are changing the culture of our game for the better.” He wasn’t talking about the culture in which officials brushed off “hundreds and hundreds” of reports of domestic violence assaults by its players—that would come later. Back then, the league was under fire after decades of dismissing the evidence that one in three players suffer long-term cognitive impairment caused by on-the-job brain injuries.
The NFL’s tolerance for its players’ brutality off the field goes hand in hand with indifference to the damage they suffer from violence on the field. Both have been blamed on football’s “culture of violence.” But ultimately these are business decisions, driven by capitalism more than culture. The spectacle of hyper-masculinity is just another product, manufactured and marketed at enormous profit.
For many players, their assaults against women were covered up by high school and college teams on the route to being excused by the NFL. From Washington to Florida State, university officials are just as invested as NFL executives in protecting their players from accountability, and for the same reason: so as not to hamper the economic engine driving universities, towns, and a professional sports industry.
What is the cost to athletes themselves of being the fuel in that engine? Attention to the few superstars who land multi-million dollar contracts overshadows the far more common story: disproportionately Black and Brown young men, who never see any share of the profit that is extracted from their talent and their bodies. Any serious reform effort has to pay attention to the exploitation of those young men by the same system that colludes with their violence.
Domonique Foxworth, a former cornerback who fought for more safety protections as head of the NFL players’ union, reflects on the physical and economic price college athletes pay to play, the trap of being celebrated for embodying a certain masculine ideal loaded with racist baggage, and how the stage is set for relationships with women infused with resentment and contempt.
Whether motivated by brand rehabilitation or sudden moral clarity, the NFL has hired a team of consultants to advise them on cleaning up their atrocious response to domestic violence. We have yet to see whether advocates can leverage the moment into an opportunity for change deep enough to matter.
Some news stories that caught our eye this week:
Miss World 1998 Linor Abargil became a lawyer and advocate for rape survivors after being raped herself. The documentary Brave Miss World shares her story and the stories of many other women she reaches out to.
Are we really talking about George Zimmerman again? Yes, because he’s acting out patterns that are common to so many abusers, but that rarely get recognized by the media.
To create the better world we are striving for, men need to stand up and help. This list highlights a diverse group of men who are working to redefine masculinity.
Some news stories that caught our eye this week:
- Activism works! See what it took to shame Facebook into revising their policy on ‘humorous’ images of beaten women.
- Patrick Stewart is being awesome again (warning, this story will bring tears to your eyes).
After tearing a wooden fence apart, throwing rocks at a squirrel, and announcing to one of the younger boys that his mother was a slut, the older boys turned on M. They asked him if he “had a slut.” When he asked what this meant, they told him a slut was a “girl to f**k.” He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and he got scared. As he told his mother later “I got the feeling if I didn’t answer right, they would hurt me.”
Being one of the boys in that moment meant being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability. The price for not participating in that masculinity is the threat of violence. Like M, boys every day must ask themselves, “What if all that negative, destructive energy pivots from the small animal, the mom, or girls in general to ME?” Better to agree and keep it directed outward, right? Even if it means meekly agreeing that yes, your mom is a slut, before you even really know what that means or how you feel about it.
Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism. Too often, boys learn that they must be dominating, unfeeling, tough, and defined in opposition to girls to be accepted. This results in a form of masculinity that pretends to be secure and strong, but is in reality tenuous and fragile. Fragile things have to be protected, shored up, and reinforced. And that results in a great deal of pain, since it requires targets (girls, sluts, sissies, fags) to define oneself against and put down in order to be “one of the boys.”
The stakes are high: participate or risk humiliation, intimidation, or becoming one of those targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the consequence of coming up short being bullied or violence.
So what happened to M? He told the boys he had to get home. He had the presence of mind to know that what was happening wasn’t okay, and he didn’t like it. He had the security to realize these boys’ friendship was not worth the compromises to his own integrity that would be required to seal it. And he knew that at home, he would be accepted, listened to, and protected.
I wish we could all feel that safe and protected in our homes, and in our bodies, however they are gendered. I would like M and all those boys to feel that they are wonderful, and that they are enough, just as they are. That they do not need to “man up.”* When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to this rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people—like my friend’s son.
Jason Collins made history when he became the first male player of a U.S. major league team to come out as gay. Cue media blitz. Some reactions were, of course, angry and hateful. Some said, what’s the big deal? Women athletes have been coming out for years. And a great many others, including a lot of straight men, showed lots of love and support for Jason.
And THAT, my friends, is why this is such a big deal.
Yes, it’s true that women athletes have been coming out for years. Martina Navratilova came out in the middle of her career in 1981(!). This year’s top WNBA draft pick, Brittney Griner, came out with barely a media mention (which is enough for a whole other post on sexism). The Atlantic writer Garance Franke-Ruta nailed it when she said “Female professional athletes are already gender non-conforming. Male ones are still worshiped as exemplars of traditional masculinity.” Ah, yes. That ‘traditional masculinity’ which dictates that men are tough, rugged, strong, (which of course implies that women are not) and like their intimate relationships to be with women. I think much of how we’ve defined traditional masculinity is harmful to our relationships, gay or straight.
There have been remarks about how inspirational Jason Collins must be to kids out there struggling with their own sexual orientation, but I think his action does so much more. He has given us the opportunity to shift our perceptions of what it means to be manly. Posts like 17 Moments When Jason Collins was Super Gay do just that. He has helped us acknowledge that we can love who we want to love and be who we want to be without the pressure to fit into a box that is not at all the right shape. And when our communities support us to be comfortable in our own skins, we are better equipped to forge happy, healthy relationships.
Perhaps ill-advisedly, I spent last Sunday afternoon at a dance performance with two of my sons. It was an unusually busy weekend, there was laundry and homework to do, and frankly neither of the boys was wild about the idea of sitting quietly in a theater for two hours. But I persisted, and we went.
The show was Men in Dance—a festival held every two years showcasing a wide variety of dance from classical to contemporary. All of the performers are men and boys. What I love about watching these dances is the sheer range of expression and styles. Some performances are tender and romantic, some funny, some bursting with energy and power.
It is tricky raising boys to be men in a culture that tolerates and celebrates men’s violence, and in which that violence does so much damage. One of the challenges is this: how do we teach boys to be conscious of and critical of violence, and at the same time to love and be proud of themselves, when the culture teaches them that violence is something essential about who they are?
I think what moves me about watching these dances is that it feels like a glimpse of liberated masculinity, what men can be outside of the “man box.” And I don’t mean just because men are defying macho stereotypes by dancing. That’s true, but it is only the surface. The dancers embody masculinity that stretches into a wide expanse of human experience, far beyond that narrow range of emotion typically recognized as manly. It is a celebration of men and male bodies. A display of strength and beauty without domination or objectification. Athleticism and skill without winners and losers. I want those models of manliness for my sons, but they are not easy to come by.
I’m leaving my boys for a few days later this week to join in a series of conversations about healthy masculinity. The Healthy Masculinity Action Project envisions a world where “Every man can be strong without being violent. Every man can make the world a better place.” Rejecting violence is only a first step. The conversations I hope to have are about how we get beyond that to a kind of masculinity that is worth celebrating. How we embody it an authentic way, recognize it in each other, and make it accessible to everybody. I know what it is like to grow up with no visible image of the kind of man I wanted to be, so I know it is possible to make it up on your own. I don’t know yet how to make that vision real for my boys and all of our sons, but I am excited to be with other people trying to figure it out.
I’m not much into sports (unless “So You Think You Can Dance?” counts), but this report caught my ear while stuck in traffic.
Sports commentator Art Thiel weighs in on Rick Welts, president of the Phoenix Suns, and his recent decision to reveal that he is gay. Welts is the first high-profile sports figure to do so. I was happy to hear Thiel call this out as a positive step toward expanding views about masculinity in the professional sports community.
As we’ve seen, everyone loses when we confuse cockiness, violence, and the rampant pursuit of sex (consensual or not) for athleticism and sportsmanship. But while it’s exciting to see this shift in the sports world, Thiel reminds us that the real change depends upon all of us.
He invites all sports fans to stand up for authentic sportsmanship. In the stands we can respond to hateful trash talk by following Thiel’s simple advice. Let folks know: “I don’t need to hear that. My kids don’t need to hear that.”