By Joann Bautti
As I drove my 10-year-old son home from his Little League baseball game, I listened to his excited chatter about his team winning. Aidan has a reputation in our family for being a chatterbox. What I didn’t realize right away was what he was proud of himself for. After the game, when all the boys were scattered about laughing and talking, one of the coaches yelled, “Come on, ladies, huddle up!”
“That’s sexist,” Aidan told the coach. I gripped the steering wheel, feeling a simultaneous mix of pride and fear. “How did your coach respond?” I asked. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re right, Aidan.’”
The truth is I wish I hadn’t felt fear when Aidan told me this story. I wish I hadn’t felt the need to watch that particular coach’s behavior towards Aidan for the next few games, concerned he might treat him differently. The good news? The coach took his comment in stride and didn’t react defensively. The bad news: Speaking out against sexist comments and “jokes” is not commonplace.
(Indeed, it’s rarely identified as an issue worth talking about, let alone interrupting.) In my conversations with Aidan after such encounters I talk about recognizing the behavior for what it is and figuring out what he can do to promote positive change. He’s learned what to do pretty quickly. With adults I work with, and students at the university where I work, it is a more involved process. And that process has taught me as much, if not more, than what I am teaching students and others.
Growing up in a traditional Italian family, dominant men ruled the roost. I was a feminist before I even knew what the word meant.
Gender inequity was blatant in my house. Why did I have to stand at the kitchen sink and wash every dirty dish when my brother never had to help? Why did my parents rarely come to my tennis matches but never missed my brother’s games?
The seed that grew in me fueled my passion for women’s studies, feminism and eventually my profession, coordinating efforts to prevent interpersonal violence in higher education.
Years of listening to survivors of violence—sexual assault, domestic/dating violence, and stalking— intensified my commitment to end gender inequity and accelerated my sense of urgency to end the injustice and oppression. I’ve learned to listen to others as well, including men speaking out about these issues nationally; male students working for change on campuses; campus and community police officers trying to make a difference judicially, and my own three boys at home.
After the birth of my first son 18 years ago, I listened to my inner voice when it demanded I closely examine how conventional masculinity—defined by dominance, control, and rigid gender straitjackets—is dangerous and unhealthy for developing boys.
I listened in 2010 when antiviolence activist Jackson Katz came to speak on the campus where I work. Katz mentored me to partner with the university’s athletic department, offering suggestions for collaboration. And I listened to how male students responded to him, a former football player, and like them someone who knows what it’s like to live with the man box.
I listened when Byron Hurt, director of Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, about misogyny in the rap world, spoke to our athletic department a few years later about the importance of coaches and administrators leading student athletes by their own example. To illustrate how much work needs to be done to undo sexism, he described being in a mixed-race audience at the premiere of 42, the biopic about Jackie Robinson, the first African American to break professional baseball’s color line. Happily, scenes that included racist jokes found no one laughing, while 50 years ago, he noted, the audience would have guffawed and snickered.
Sadly, though, when he goes to movies today that include sexist jokes, people laugh out loud. Much work remains to be done.
When one of the newer members of our university’s football team who attended a program I offered for the team said, “This is the best thing we’ve done since we got here,” I felt gratified. That was the summer of 2013, the first time campus anti-violence educators were invited to speak with new football players about preventing interpersonal violence, tying it in to their coach’s 12 Steps to Success efforts, focusing on stereotypes, life goals, and the man box.
Not long ago, our community police department approached me to conduct interpersonal violence first responder training for their officers, acknowledging that the department was struggling with how to respond in a victimfriendly way to survivors. Police officers trained to interrogate suspects often find it challenging to interview victims with sensitivity— and to believe them.
Our on-campus military partners invited us to conduct a training for the Army ROTC faculty and new ROTC students. The military partnership we have established, as well as the community police department partnership, is unprecedented.
What I have learned beginning nearly two decades ago when my first son was born is that living in the man box can be debilitating and stifling. The toll it takes on men has parallels to the gender inequity and oppression women experience.
On the door of my office is a poster titled “Every Girl, Every Boy.” The text says: “For every girl who takes a step toward her liberation, there is a boy who finds the way to freedom a little easier.” But finding that way is no small task; it requires recognizing the soul-crushing weight of the toxic man box. When I validate the perspective of the men I work with—acknowledge what they bring to the work of undoing sexism—they can more readily validate and acknowledge what I do, what I see. Working with the man box is our best chance of phasing it out of existence altogether. And once we’ve achieved that goal, we will all be free.
Joann Bautti works at an East Coast university where she serves as project director for a Violence Against Women grant to reduce sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. A trainer, educator, activist, advocate, mentor, and program manager, she says her most important work is raising three amazing sons.