Healthy Masculinity: The Idea That Men Can Control Themselves

The real question isn't if men are more or less violent. The real question is whether or not men have control over themselves. This idea, who is in control of whom, is fundamental to how we understand and deal with violence, especially with gendered violence.
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Woman Depressed. Series
Woman Depressed. Series

Men and women are different. What isn't so obvious is that men and women are similar. But we go out of our way to highlight the differences and generally, culturally, balk at suggestions of essential sameness. This is nowhere so true as in our understanding of violence.

The world over men are aware that they can always, potentially, be frightening to women and children. Men are, on average, physically stronger humans. They can do two things with their physical strength: hurt others or help them. In most places, masculinity is inextricably bound to violence. And that violence is inextricably bound to female vulnerability. And that vulnerability, with the ever-present threat and exercise of physical harm, keeps women subordinate to varying degrees -- physically insecure in developed countries and virtually property on entire continents. Boys will be boys.

It takes a lot of courage to take this on and suggest that the relationship between violence and masculinity can be changed. For the world to be male-dominated, men must have a clear monopoly on violence and culture has to show that they are willing to use it. Our media, proliferating stories of male violence, assumes that monopoly as an incontrovertible truth, "the way things are." Just as women have to have a monopoly on tempting sexuality that controls men who cannot control themselves. Because in all this sea of physical strength is the idea that men are actually fundamentally weak. A good example, as Hugo Schywzer just put it in a Role/Reboot piece, is that "Too many of us do accept a similarly indefensible argument: that short skirts can drive men to rape."

That's why the real question isn't if men are more or less violent. The real question is whether or not men have control over themselves.

This idea, who is in control of whom, is fundamental to how we understand and deal with violence, especially with gendered violence: domestic abuse, rape, acid throwing, sex trafficking, child brides, and more. (Interestingly enough, it is the same idea that informs abstinence-only sex ed, shame cultures and the idea that sex is bad.)

As Pat McGann, Director of Strategy and Planning at Men Can Stop Rape, explains, "Every day we hear news stories about violence, but, rarely, if ever, are they linked to masculinity. It's time to make connections between the epidemic of men's violence in our country and what society is teaching boys about masculinity."

That's a big undertaking. Because of the pivotal function that violence plays in our rule by strong men, challenging it has implications for everything else: the economy, reproduction, child care, leadership, who gets access to the divine. You have to redefine roles, write new rules, dismantle systems and rebuild them. You face critics. Deal with backlashers. Political intransigence. Religious approbation. Suggest alternative understandings of maleness and violence and you threaten an entire system based on that connection. Gee. You might have to be a feminist. Forget I said that.

Really, though, what you have to be able to do is have the imagination to envision a transformed culture. This is what the Healthy Masculinity Summit being held in Washington, D.C. on October 17 - 19, 2012 is doing.

The Summit is the work of the Healthy Masculinity Action Project (HMAP), an ambitious initiative devoted to starting a national conversation about how masculinity is defined and to challenge the normative idea that being violent is essential to being a man. The project will engage teachers, coaches, business leaders, parents and young men in modeling strength without violence. It was started by a coalition of six organizations and involves more than 20 allies and sponsors that run the gamut from major corporations like Verizon to small, grassroots organizations. It also includes international groups. Ruchira Gupta, the Founder and President of Apne Aap, a women's rights organization in India, will be a featured speaker.

Importantly, the project involves both men and women working together to move people from awareness to change.

"Without men's active engagement with gender justice, efforts to solve the problems are ultimately limited," explains Shira Tarrant in an upcoming update to her book Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power. "If men do not take active roles in resolving the politics of housework, male violence against women, hiring and wage disparities, or gender bias in the media, then women are talking into a feminist echo chamber."

Another important idea is that this Summit is a forum for open and honest discussion of hard topics. Open, honest discussion of hard topics is something we are sorely lacking. Especially in mainstream media and storytelling and particularly in respect to gendered violence.

First, consider, this example of the language we use to describe violence: "Women get raped and beaten up by men they know every day. Millions of them." OR, "Millions of men rape and beat women up every day. Millions of them." Here's another: "She went to a party. Drank too much. Passed out and was sexually assaulted." VERSUS "During the party, two boys inserted their fingers into her vagina and took pictures while she was unconscious." "She was a victim of domestic abuse," doesn't give the same impression as, "He broke his wife's nose five times and knocked out two of her teeth during a two-year period."

This isn't easy reading. We'd rather keep things passive, "family friendly," shame and blamey and patriarchy-happy. How does changing the words change the way you feel about hearing the information? Chances are our inclinations would be different if 87 percent of editors and producers of content were women and not men. It's not common to read about graphic violence in ways that focus on aggressors in this way. If I were a boy or a man this would be threatening at first. If this happened, if "men raped" instead of "women get raped" I would probably pay more attention, even if I felt somehow blamed by association, held responsible for the actions of a predatory and violent cohort of my gender. I would feel defensive. I would try to get to the bottom of it. And, I would want it to stop. I've got to believe that some of the young men involved with HMAP came to a similar conclusion.

Although the Summit is not limited to gendered violence, this topic is a big component to how masculinity is understood by both men and women. In regards to how we change the conversation about violence and masculinity, there is a Venn diagram that is essential to consider. It's the Venn diagram that says, "Whereas most assailants are men, most men are not assailants," and that enables us to describe without indictment. The Summit is an example of how to do this.

Second, as it is, we're still teaching girls and women not to "get raped" and be victims of domestic violence. "They were young. They were attractive. They were out for a good time. Instead they attracted sexual predators, and they wound up dead." I didn't make that up as the lead-in to a bad Oxygen movie. ABC did as the intro to their "Safety Tips for Women." After reviewing the full spectrum of "how to be safe" literature I came to the conclusion that if I was stupid enough to go out at all I should wear a tent, dark sunglasses, shave my head bald, drink only water (out of a covered sippy cup), become a Luddite, and in general act like a paranoid superspy. Because a woman can never tell which man she will cause to lose control.

Here is some Breaking News, Patriarchy: MEN CAN CONTROL THEMSELVES. They do all the time. Day in and day out, all over the world. Men demonstrate that they capable of control, kindness, empathy, compassion and humanity. The goals of HMAP aren't elusive, and although there are simply too many examples of horrific violence against women and girls, they're in plain sight. The Summit is an example of where.

Third, we almost always frame the violence as an individual matter instead of a systemic one that can be confronted and changed. And the system is the problem. It's a system that constantly suggests, and often demonstrates, to females, that they cannot be safe, ever. That all males are somehow latent rapists and abusers in waiting. That women need to be, ultimately, scared of and responsible for not provoking. Basically, that men are predators with minimal control. That message is coupled with the idea that there are certain entitlements -- to power, status, ownership. Like communal, violent access to girls and women and the products of their labor. The Summit is an example of dismantling this system.

As the opening page of the Summit's agenda explains in a quote from Frederick Douglass, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Lessons about gender, control, empathy and other people start really early in life and are stealthy and subtle. It starts with small things like teaching boys not only not to knock down other people's castles, even if it's fun for them and makes them happy. As any parent will tell you, that's not so easy, it requires people to think about ideas like "boys are just violent," "he loves destroying things," "girls and boys are so different," "he can't help himself," "it's just a phase." It's even harder to teach children not only not to violate other people's space, but to intervene and discourage others not to do the same.

And this is the last central idea behind the Healthy Masculinity Project: Imagine women looking at men and considering them potential helpers instead of potential attackers. SCHRÖDINGER'S RAPIST becomes SCHRÖDINGER'S ALLY.

Registration for the Summit closes on October 7th. Can you imagine: if John Wayne lived today maybe he would have used his real name, Marion, to sign up.

To learn more about these ideas and the organizations that are addressing issues related to masculinity, education and the prevention of violence check out these organizations:

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