My friend’s story proves men can change. Now educators are working with young boys to help them escape gender roles at an early age
‘We have to get a lot more deliberate if we want to transform masculinity into a healthy identity.’ Illustration: Nathalie Lees
I have a friend – let’s call him Dave, though that’s not his name – who is active in his church, a loving and supportive husband, and a hilarious dinner companion. He’s also a former rapist.
He confessed this to me in fits and starts, over dinners and phone calls and late-night drinks, after we’d known each other a couple of years.
His story matches much of the research my work relies on, but it still forced me to re-evaluate some of my core assumptions about rapists and about the role of men in ending rape.
Dave’s former MO is familiar to anyone who thinks about sexual violence for a living. He picked victims he knew. He got them alone, encouraged them to have conversations that made them feel vulnerable, and pressed a lot of alcohol on them. And then, when they were too drunk to consent, he “had sex” with them. (That’s how he thought about it at the time, though today he will tell you straight up it was rape.)
The research is very clear: most rapists know they don’t have consent, and they rape an average of six times each. Before Dave told me his story, I thought that meant that most rapists were essentially sociopaths. I worried for a long time that Dave, too, must be a sociopath. But I’ve done a lot of thinking and searching on that idea, and I just don’t think he is. I think he’s a guy who grew up with some very toxic ideas about what it means to be a man.
While Dave’s violence is inexcusable, his story also gives me some hope. It shows that men can change. Even men who’ve already done terrible things.
Better models of masculinity are everywhere, if you know where to look.
When I polled my friends about where they find examples of the kind of masculinities they want to see more of in the world, the crowdsourced list was dazzling in its diversity and included the musician Frank Ocean (for his “openness and vulnerability around sexuality”); the basketball star Steph Curry caring for his daughter at post-game press conferences; all of Barack Obama’s interactions with children; queer men of various stripes subverting the very definitions of manhood; and an array of fictional men of film and TV, including Bob from Bob’s Burgers and modern superheroes like the Flash and Midnighter.
American men may be enjoying more emotional vulnerability in their superhero stories, but they also elected the living embodiment of toxic masculinity as president. Trump has spent his life defining his manliness in opposition to the women he dominates and degrades. He has been accused of sexual assault by over a dozen women, including his first wife, Ivana. The men he’s installed into power share his attitudes.
And when these men talk about making America great again, one of the things they’re yearning for is the re-establishment of “traditional” gender values in which men are dominant, women are subservient, and anyone who questions whether that’s really the natural order of things is punished.
My friend Dave grew up in a household steeped in those very values. It was only in learning that there are other, better ways to “be a man” that he became the friend I know him as today.
That’s not to say that we should let guys who’ve already offended of the hook in order to tempt them into the light. If you hurt someone, whether or not you mean to, you should face consequences. In fact, consequences can sometimes help facilitate learning.
“I think one of the reasons my behavior went unchecked for so long is that I didn’t suffer any consequences,” recalls Dave. It wasn’t until he lost a friendship he valued that he had to think about his behavior in a new light.
Whatever he knows now, he still hurt those women, and if any of them decided to hold him accountable for that, I’d support them. So would Dave, for that matter.
He has hardly become a full-time feminist crusader, but he does small things that make a big difference. He refuses to laugh at rape jokes or slut-shaming or anything that reduces women to commodities, and he goes out of his way to explain to other men why these things aren’t funny.
He doesn’t vote for candidates who want to control women’s access to abortion or birth control.
He’s raising his daughter to know that her body is her own.
These are, of course, small victories, less “revolution” and more “baby steps toward basic human decency”.
The difficulties in divorcing masculinity from misogyny aren’t confined to the tricky business of rape prevention.
Hostile sexism – the kind that involves calling women degrading names, rape and rape threats – is the kind that’s most often linked to toxic masculinity. But it’s not the only kind of masculinity that relies on the dehumanization of women. After all, if men were just hostile to women all of the time, why would any of us enter into relationships with them?
Instead, hostile sexism plays Mr Hyde to benevolent sexism’s Dr Jekyll, the two of them teaming up to keep women subservient to men’s needs. Benevolent sexism says that real men protect “good women”, who are morally superior angels living on uncomfortably narrow pedestals. It’s a kinder, gentler way to force three-dimensional women into two-dimensional boxes and strip us of our humanity.
Dozens of programs work with boys to help them rethink what it means to be a man. These programs need to start younger
We have to get a lot more deliberate if we want to transform masculinity into a healthy identity that doesn’t rely on the subjugation of women. It would be a whole lot easier if we started at the beginning, teaching boys that being strong includes being able to embrace their own vulnerable emotions and that girls aren’t teacups or trophies or aliens from Venus but fellow human beings who are pretty dang interesting.
Karen BK Chan, a sex and emotional literacy educator, speaks compellingly of the need to teach boys resiliency in the face of sexual rejection. “How might we empathize with a young guy who is balancing masculinity pressures and the desire to show and receive love?” she encourages us to ask. “How can we help him experience bearable rejection instead of unbearable failure?”
Across the country, dozens of programs work with high school and college-age boys to help them rethink what it means to be a man. These programs need to start younger. We need to shift from an intervention mindset – trying to shift young men’s conceptions of masculinity after they’ve already been formed – to a prevention mindset in which we help boys develop healthier ideas about gender to start with.
Research suggests middle school could be an ideal time to inoculate boys against toxic masculinity. Middle school boys’ ability to resist traditional masculine norms is relatively strong, but weakens when they get to high school.
Maine Boys to Men (MBTM), a program that has long worked with high school boys, is developing a curriculum for middle school boys that teaches them to see and sidestep the rigid gender roles they’re already growing into. That’s only part of its shift from being strictly a training program for high school students to becoming a multifaceted program working to transform masculinity at the community level.
In some ways, this shift is the result of the executive director Matthew Theodores’ very productive midlife crisis. Until 2012, he was general manager for marketing and strategy at a division of Microsoft. Unfulfilled, he started looking for not-for-profit organizations to connect with and stumbled into a board position at Boys to Men.
Since he had three boys of his own, then ages six, eight, and eleven, it’s no surprise the work quickly got under his skin, or that he saw the potential impact of working with younger boys.
MBTM adapted its high school curriculum for a middle school audience and tested it during the 2015-2016 academic year, reaching just over 500 boys in southern Maine. It tuned it up accordingly, adding more periods of physical activity and centering emotional literacy as the heart of the program, and wound up with a four-hour curriculum. The program is usually delivered one hour at a time over the course of four weeks at participating schools.
The course begins with the “gender box” exercise that’s a hallmark of all MBTM programs. The idea is simple: the group leader draws a big box on the chalkboard, and the boys brainstorm stereotypes of masculinity. All of those go inside the box. Then they discuss what happens if a guy tries to behave in a way that’s not described in the box. Those punishments and threats hover around the outside of the box. The completed visual serves as a jumping off point to discuss how confining traditional masculinity can be and how harmful to both boys and girls, both men and women.
Once they are primed to move beyond the gender box, the course gets the boys up and moving through a series of exercises in which they have to decide what they think about topics related to sexism and violence and debate their opinions with peers. Empathy is the glue that holds together all of the ideas in the course.
As an adult woman, my presence would have inhibited the boys in the middle school program. But MBTM let me check out day two of a two-day program for high school students. The high school programs differ from their middle school work in more than age grouping – the high school group is mixed gender, with a hand-selected bunch of students the school has identified as being leaders or showing leadership potential across a range of social circles, teams, and interests. The idea is to use these teens as a schoolwide vaccine, each inoculating those in their particular spheres of influence.
In one exercise, students were asked to respond physically to a series of scenarios by walking toward one side of the room or the other to indicate where on the spectrum of “healthy” to “abusive” the relationship being described sounded to them.
The most contentious scenario involved a girl, Lindsay, and her prom date Ben. The two have left an after party when Ben turns off on to a strange side street and stops the car. Lindsay pretends to sleep. He kisses her neck, gropes her breast. She pushes his hand away; he gropes her some more.
The three students who take a stand in Ben’s defense are all girls: “She didn’t say no.”
One boy says: “It’s not on her to say something. She has indicated that she does not want this to continue.”
A facilitator ends the stalemate, announcing that what Ben did is sexual assault, in no uncertain terms. The girls remain unconvinced. It’s a stark reminder that toxic masculinities aren’t just perpetuated by men.
After completing the program, the students will be assigned an adviser and encouraged to help their fellow students step out of their gender boxes.
It’s all part of a focus on making a community project of shifting gender norms that everyone can take part in. To that end, MBTM is also expanding its adult offerings, including a boot camp for new dads that offers practical parenting prep along with some exercises to help the dads think about how they want gender to play out in their relationship with their co-parent, their parenting style, and the values they pass on to their kids.
Though the high school program has proved effective through years of evaluation, it’s too soon to say what impact the new offerings will have. But the signs are encouraging.
Feedback from the middle school boys is almost universally positive, with most of them saying they’re going to change the way they talk to people or adjust their judgments about how others do gender. “Kids have come up after we’re done,” facilitator Sam Eley tells me, “and said, ‘Man, I’m really not going to try and be in a box!’”
The staff at MBTM hopes that the project will transform the kind of measurement they can do on the effectiveness of their interventions, by following the students as they grow into high schoolers and beyond. That kind of longitudinal data on transforming masculinities is nearly nonexistent and could light a way forward for many other programs to follow.
And not a moment too soon, because the boys are already being influenced by our fragile masculinist-in-chief.
Adapted from Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All, by Jaclyn Friedman. Copyright © 2017. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.