Friday, August 23, 2013

By Patrick McGann
Director of Strategy and Planning
Men Can Stop Rape

By now, many of you may know that the Healthy Masculinity Action Project (HMAP) has used storytelling to start conversations at the Healthy Masculinity Summit, Training Institutes, Town Halls, and Campus Conversations. This past year I’ve spent a lot of time formally and informally talking about healthy masculinity and listening to people talk about it. Someone occasionally voices the idea that healthy masculinity keeps us bound to gender instead of liberated from it and that our shared humanity can serve as a freeing agent. I’d like to share my thoughts on this subject, and in the spirit of HMAP, I’ll start with a brief personal story.

Feminism and a Genderless World
In 1983 as a Texas Tech University graduate student, I became involved with Abby, another graduate student. A year later we married, and shortly thereafter, she declared herself a feminist. Okay, maybe it wasn’t an actual declaration. She didn’t stand in our living room and announce while I was watching TV, “I am now a feminist.” It became clear by the books she read, the classes she took, the topics she brought up – and the arguments we had.

In the living room of our two-story, $150 a month, rental house in Lubbock, I told her – pretty zealously – that feminism was trapped in a tunnel vision, that it only focused on half the population and the well-being of people was lost. We’re all humans. This didn’t set well with her.

I have since come to have some understanding of why my “humanity” argument didn’t fly. A few of those reasons, I believe, apply to the idea of healthy masculinity and a genderless world.

Deconstructing Masculinity
Early in my graduate career I was heavy into reading about the ‘sixties and counterculture. One book whose title I can no longer remember focused on the creation of a commune with the intent of establishing a new society free of all harmful mainstream ideologies. After a short while, the banished ideologies started popping up here and there. It turned out that it was no easy walk to freedom. The commune residents positioned these unwelcome ideologies as outside the new environment and external to themselves. In actuality, they had internalized them as well. This mis-positioning resulted in people unintentionally replicating the very things they were trying to escape.

Based on this example, we can’t wipe away the old simply by embracing the new. Just because a man has gotten on the healthy masculinity bandwagon doesn’t mean he’s free of unhealthy masculinity. If we men are responsible about all of this, we’ll commit to deconstructing unhealthy masculinity – both internally and externally – for the rest of our lives. And we’ll teach deconstructing it to the boys in our lives.

Reconstructing Masculinity
But we need to do some reconstructing too. Otherwise, we’re left with a deconstruction void. Identity is a basic part of human life. We all have our identities shaped for us and participate in shaping them ourselves. We are more willing to deconstruct identities if more appealing identities are waiting in the wings.

In prevention work, we talk a lot about behavioral and attitudinal change in young men and boys, but if the attitudes and behaviors don’t fit with identities that young men will enthusiastically assume, we’re less effective. Men Can Stop Rape’s Men of Strength Club not only fosters young men and boys’ attitudes and behaviors connected to preventing gender-based based violence and other forms of violence. It also presents young men with a positive way to think of themselves in relation to those attitudes and behaviors. The Club reshapes social norms among peers by reconfiguring group and personal identities so that members are connected to something important that is bigger than themselves.

Moving from masculine identities to gender-free identities is a large leap, probably an impossible leap for the overwhelming majority of men and boys. I myself find it hard to grasp. And where do transgender people fit into this schema? I could more easily recognize the possibility of a gender continuum – something a number of theorists advocate. And running across this continuum would be the principle that no gender shall cause harm.

Strategy and Masculinity
So how do we create that gender continuum for men and boys? And I’m not referring to the guys in the violence prevention choir. I mean all of us. We need a strategy – a plan, a path, a process – that helps men and boys begin to break down the gender binary. We’re not Nike. We can’t tell them: Just Do It! During trainings, Men Can Stop Rape sometimes represents this binary through the two words most frequently used in ads for boys’ and girls’ toys: BATTLE and LOVE. How do we create conditions for men to move closer to love?

In another exercise we do during trainings called “Describing Healthy Masculinity,” we ask people to come up with personal examples representing healthy masculinity, and the end results are words that can be linked to love: a man who’s caring, respectful, non-violent, emotionally supportive, a good listener, questioning, empathic, and more. Someone often points out that these are words used to describe women. Healthy masculinity may not be our final resting point. Maybe it's a strategic, practical first step for men and boys to move in between the two gender poles. Maybe it’s a way for them to start considering “and/both” instead of “either/or.” Maybe it’s one way to bring all the genders closer together.

Let’s Talk
Of course, whether this is the case isn’t up to me. It’s really up to all of us. Whether healthy masculinity is a viable and valuable strategy is something everyone will have to answer and act on. So let’s keep talking about it.

Learn about the Healthy Masculinity Action Project
Patrick McGann, Ph.D. has been involved with Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) since the organization’s inception in 1997. Patrick has co-authored a sexual assault prevention strategy for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and has played key roles in conceiving, planning, and implementing the Healthy Masculinity Action Project. He regularly gives presentations across the country on engaging men in the prevention of gender-based violence. Share

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