By Jared Watkins
Development Coordinator, Men Can Stop Rape
At Men Can Stop Rape, we ask the boys and young men we work with a simple question: “What does it mean to be a real man?” It’s an answer they think they know, but they’ve never intentionally thought about. Eventually, they’ll say words like “tough” and “powerful;” they’ll say behaviors like “having sex with lots of women” and “fighting;” and they’ll say the names of men they admire who they’ve never met. They’re often not the answers we want to hear, but they’re not surprising, considering the multitudes of messages young men receive about masculinity. When we list all of those characteristics together, though, the young men’s faces turn a little sour. The words on that whiteboard, when taken together, become an ugly picture: a brooding creature demanding perfect emulation, setting contradictory codes, and punishing nonbelievers.
We refer to this unhealthy picture of masculinity as the dominant story of masculinity. It’s an idea of masculinity that’s been handed down generation to generation and has left countless victims in its wake. From lagging achievement in young boys to adult men ignoring their health, traditional masculinity has negatively impacted all people in our society. Most of all, though, is that unhealthy masculinity is the root cause of the epidemic of violence against women. If we teach boys that masculinity is about power and control, objectifying women, and having sex with as many women as possible, then violence against women (especially sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking) becomes the norm.
After we create the list of characteristics associated with a “Real Man,” we ask the boys and young men to name the strongest man in their life: the man who has always been there for them and helped shape their values. It is truly heartbreaking to see young people who were eager to list why James Bond is a “Real Man” fall silent when asked to name a man who has made a real difference in their lives. Fortunately, this is not the norm. Young people will tell stories about how their father, uncle, grandfather, coach, brother, teacher, or other male figure taught them the importance of kindness, showing emotions, or standing up for what’s right. The Strongest Men in their lives aren’t strong because they are stereotypically masculine; they’re strong because they stand as an example of inner-strength.
This exercise shows us both the opportunities and challenges of healthy masculinity. The opportunity we gain from this exercise is that we get a chance to interact with a boy or young man and serve as a role model to encourage healthy masculinity. The challenge of this exercise is realizing that we are competing with an entire culture of unhealthy masculinity. Not only do we as a society have to be role models of healthy masculinity for our boys (and all young people), we have to help them navigate this culture, to see the positive examples in our lives and on our screens, and to critically examine and try to change the negative examples. It’s a great task, but it’s the only way we can create a world that is safe and equitable for every person.
Jared Watkins has been working with Men Can Stop Rape since he began interning there as a college student in 2008. He works in the Development Department writing grants and assisting in the cultivation of individual donors. He also maintains the Men Can Stop Rape website and coordinates e-mail and other communications.
This post is part of the YWCA Week Without Violence™ 2013 Blog Carnival. We invite you to join the dialogue! Post your comment below, share your story and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #ywcaWWV.