Engaging Men in Discovering a New Masculinity

There is a struggle underway to define manhood and masculinity. It’s playing out in the halls of Congress, in pop culture, and in desperate protests to maintain an outmoded view of what our country should look—and be—like. It’s a story not being covered much by mainstream media.

During the last presidential campaign, Barack Obama represented a break from conventional manhood; John McCain was its standard bearer. A year and half into his presidency, Mr. Obama is still seen as a sensitive and thoughtful man, a caring husband and devoted father, even as many of his policy decisions come under fire from progressive quarters. But the debate about a new direction for manhood is largely absent.

For as far as many men have come over the last generation in accepting—if not embracing—the historic world-changing gains women have made, there are others yearning for the bad old days when men were the kings of their castles. Rather than seeing in feminism a portal to our own personal growth, many men narrowly see it as a threat to the status quo. Many show great disdain for women’s rights. Sadly, it’s those men’s shrill voices that are getting much play, clogging the airwaves and the blogosphere.

Men’s were among the harshest voices warning of Armageddon during the health care debate, and in the bitter diatribes directed at President Obama as well as civil rights veteran John Lewis and liberal Barney Frank—both members of Congress (The great exception was Sarah Palin, a self-described pit bull with lipstick.) But while the media highlights mean-spirited men, there is another side of the story— men around the world working for gender equality.

Under the umbrella of MenEngage (www.menengage.org), there are hundreds of groups and organizations which understand the crucial need for men and women to question conventional attitudes and expectations about gender roles in reaching gender equality. Among their efforts is a men and gender equality policy project underway in Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, China, Croatia, Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania. Other countries are expected to participate in the coming years.

Founded in 2004, MenEngage members are dedicated to involving men and boys in working to end violence against women and in redefining old-style notions of manhood. Among its core beliefs? Manhood is /not /defined by how many sexual partners men have, or by using violence against women or men. It’s also not defined by how much pain men can endure, or by how much power we can exert over others. It certainly isn’t defined by whether we’re gay, straight or trans.

Rather, manhood is defined by building relationships based on respect and equality; by speaking out against violence in society; by having the strength to ask for help; by sharing decision-making and power; and by how much we as men are able to respect the diversity and rights of those around us. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds achievable. So what gets in our way? The power, privilege and sense of entitlement we enjoy as men.

Taking a hard look at privileges we’ve long held is a “manly” thing to do if, by manly we mean courageous, thoughtful, and caring. What happens for men when we question the entitlement we inherited simply by being born in male bodies? What shifts for us when we no longer assume social conditions favoring us are right, or just, or “normal?” A transformation begins. A door opens, an invitation to explore our inner lives is extended and it’s suddenly not quite as scary to spend time exploring our feelings. We become more available to ourselves and to women, men, and children—to everyone in our lives. So tightly have we been holding on to what we’ve perceived as our birthright, few have considered what treasures await us if we let go. How to compare discovering one’s heart opening vs. needing open heart surgery? How to equate surrounding ourselves with symbols of wealth vs. surrounding ourselves with circles of friends?

A new report by the Men and Gender Equality Policy Project, notes, “In far different ways than women and girls, boys are also made vulnerable by rigid notions of gender and masculinities.” Conventional expressions of dominant masculinity, ample research confirms, drive dangerous rates of alcohol, tobacco, and substance abuse, car accidents, occupational illness, and suicide. In such a world, everyone loses, not just the men. “For the most part,” the report says, “programs and policies have not fully tapped into men’s and boys’ self-interest for change,” particularly in the positive experiences many men report as they become more involved in caregiving and family relationships.

Careful not to pit the needs of men against the needs of women, the report promotes forging alliances among “women’s rights activists, civil society groups working with men (and male leaders), the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [communities] and other social justice movements.” Noting the common interests all these groups share in ending gender inequalities, the report advocates taking up gender equity as a cause not only for women and girls “but also to reduce the pressures on men and boys to conform to harmful, rigid, and violent forms of manhood.”

That pressure to conform—combined with a sense of privilege—is a dangerous mix. I favor cultivating the middle ground where men explore our lives after letting go of the pressure, after giving up the privilege. I see plenty of examples that give me hope and inspiration.

I am a member of V-Men, the male arm of V-Day (www.vday.org), the antiviolence organization playwright-activist Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues) founded that works to prevent violence against women and girls and, more recently, to advance healthy masculinity as a key to a world where all are safe and free. The writer Mark Matousek is interviewing men for a book exploring men’s lives as they really are—filled with disappointments as well as successes, fear and vulnerability as well as confidence and strength, love lost and love found. To me it’s a critical component of a strategy to encourage men to move from being bystanders to allies (if not activists) in the struggle to end violence against women, girls and men. And in overcoming the damaging effects of conventional masculinity. (Editor’s Note: Mark and I are leading a workshop, “Ten Ways to be a Man: Men’s Voices in the 21st Century” at the Rowe Conference Center in northwestern Massachusetts May-14-16).

What will it take for us as men to face our full humanity? What will it take for us to wake up to the healing the world is crying out for? Men relinquishing our privilege, willing to investigate our inner lives, doing the work of integration so that the personal becomes the global. Men engaged in /that /work are the ones the media would be well advised to report on if they truly want to be fair and balanced. But whether they do or not, it’s up to us as men to take a long, hard look at how we’ve been socialized—from boyhood on—and to decide what to keep, what to transform.

This is the moment to ask the deepest questions of ourselves, to wake up to our potential as full human beings. The urgency of these times—environmentally, politically, spiritually demands we take our place with women in the work of global transformation. The world is waiting.