Healthy Masculinity(ies)

Recently, I volunteered at Men Can Stop Rape’s Healthy Masculinity Summit through my internship at an organization that focuses on dating violence. It was awesome.

There were roughly 200 people there and it was easily the most truly diverse group of people I have ever been in. In keeping with the conference theme, there were actually men in attendance (which was the FIRST question that about half of the people I told about this conference asked me).

And despite the fact that I was only a volunteer, there were a number of ways that all of us volunteers were able to participate, which made it all the more exciting.

However, despite the fact that I have never felt so at home with such a large number of (mostly) like-minded people, my real realization came less than two days after the conference when I was hanging out in a friend’s apartment with a small group of people.

The original purpose of the evening was to celebrate a friend’s birthday but mostly we ended up chatting and playing card games. Now, I still don’t know how this leap in conversation was made, but at one point, a female friend of mine lost it a little bit and started calling out a male friend of ours about his white male privilege and how unaware of it he was.

By this point in the evening, she and I are the only women left in a room full of our male friends. Now, I knew immediately what she was talking about but she (like most people when they are angry and slightly drunk) was not as coherent as she could have been and most of the people she was addressing had consumed even more alcohol than she had. They immediately went on the defensive, commenting on how hurtful it was to be called sexist. Now firstly, neither my friend nor myself used the word sexist for a couple reasons 1) it would just set them off and no one would listen anymore…which ended up happening anyway and 2) sexist really wasn’t the best word for most of the issues we were talking about. They have been known to make actually sexist comments from time to time but this conversation was mostly about awareness and privilege. And secondly, instead of listening to what the reasoning was, there was an immediate shutting down that precluded any attempt to explain what we were actually trying to tell them.

I had been at this healthy masculinity conference not 48 hours prior to this and, I have to admit, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the mental whiplash I was experiencing. These are smart people who I respect and care about greatly. But, here they were, telling me that they couldn’t possibly be sexist because they are good people with their hearts in the right place. As though that negated everything else. As though being a good person wasn’t an ongoing process and the very reason my female friend had brought this whole thing up in the first place.

Now what?

I am a feminist. That is a huge part of my identity as a person, it is how I view the world. Almost everyone who has any sort of extended interaction with me knows this. I don’t try and hide it, yet somehow this conversation felt like a punch in the gut. I had been letting comments slide and not saying everything that I wanted to, and why? To make sure my friends still liked me? So that I wouldn’t be mocked? I don’t really know.

But I do know a few things after this encounter that I didn’t consciously know before.

I know that this abrupt conversation late at night didn’t work, that the people we were talking to weren’t listening and that it ended up being a preaching to the choir moment.

I know that I felt the need to appease everyone in the room and then got angry that I was the only person expected to be rational and logical and was expected to appease everyone. I was expected, both by the other people in the room and by myself, to not be confrontational and to apologize for assisting in the bruising of their egos. And I know that I’m not ok with that.

I know that I need to do better about living out my ideals and morals. And I think that the best way to do that for my group is to be more consistent and point things out as they happen instead of boiling over at a later date. And I know I will have help from some of my other friends with this.

I know that two things stuck out in my mind from the conference on masculinity: 1) Not cosigning bullshit (which is what I was doing with my silence) and 2) There is a difference between being safe and being comfortable. Maybe we all need to be uncomfortable a little more often.

And I also know that, while this was prompted by a conversation about gender privilege, I need to remind myself about my race, class, and sexuality privilege more often. I know that this is about personal growth as well as trying to help my friends grow.

And I know that all of this is hard. But that is part of what makes it important.

Any suggestions about how other people have addressed these issues would be wonderful. I think it could lead to a really interesting conversation and be very helpful in our future dealings of these sorts.

Feminist in Washington, DC. Looking for a job and trying to change the world. Whichever comes first.

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  • Smiley

    Drink less?

    • Jacqueline Hentzen

      Or don’t discuss heavy, important issues when you’re drunk, at least.

  • Joseph Martin

    I can offer an example from myself, as I progressed from privilege denier to feminist. This isn’t about clearly rebuking obviously sexist words or actions – I don’t think there’s anything besides a straight call-out that works there.

    For me, my resistance to admitting I possessed privilege, (either as a white person, a man, a cis person, straight, whatever), revolved around two topics. The first was that, when I was told I had privilege in any sphere, I read it as “you didn’t earn what you have”. Which sounds like a load of bullshit to a kid who’s just come off a 6 hour study bender after a full shift. And I think that breaking down that assumption is a great way to overcome resistance to ideas of privilege. (i.e. privilege is not “you don’t have to work hard” but “everyone has to work hard to be successful, but privilege makes some have to work harder to reach the same level of success.” Its a simplification, I know, but I hope it illustrates the gap.)

    The second is guilt. For me, for a long time admitting I possessed privilege would, in my mind, make me complicit in the creation of that privilege. Admitting that it was my maleness, (well, plus my size) that allowed me to never fear violence (sexual or otherwise) on my walks home at night would be barely less than calling myself a rapist. It isn’t a logical, or even thought out association, but somewhere the connection was emotionally made.

    Male privilege has a way of blinding men so that they reinforce that privilege through smaller acts of sexism, for example, like telling a woman to smile because she’d look prettier. But it isn’t a sure thing, and those are distinct from being an unabashed chauvinist. Eventually, I realized that recognizing my privilege did not make me complicit in the creation of the inequality, and instead that only my actions and words could reinforce or attack that system. I felt guilt by possession of privilege, of being on the upper side of an inequality, and having no choice in the matter, denied that there was anything to feel guilty for, because guilt is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling. Breaking past that allowed me to realize that by shutting down my sexist actions and speaking up on equality issues, there was no guilt to be had, even though I still possess privilege.

    I guess its a long way of saying that, for me, the entire concept of privilege was something I wasn’t willing to process logically, because of the uncomfortable feelings involved. I know: being on the downside of the privilege equation is more uncomfortable, but people who haven’t acknowledged their privilege literally can’t understand that. But it also means that I honestly don’t expect men (or: people when the topic is on other privileges) to ever be receptive to the idea when drinking and in larger groups. Steer the conversation away and come back to it when groups are smaller, (to avoid the male fear of appearing unmanly in front of other men, which can be very strong and which occurs quite subconsciously), and more sober. Julia’s anger at having to be the appeasing and logical when no one else would be is, in my opinion, the healthy response, but I don’t see anyway to make this conversation in this circumstance work in her (and the other woman’s, and women as a group) favor.

  • Ashley Stauffer

    This happens to me all of the time, and quite honestly it is normal. I am a student studying counseling and have participated in many workshops where multicultural issues such as race, gender, and white privilege, etc have been brought up. It seems that you are on a heightened level of awareness about your place in (ranking?) in our societal structure than your male friends are. White men (and white women) are often times unaware of the privileges that their gender/race brings them, and, when brought to their attention they are usually pretty defensive about it. But who wouldn’t be? For the first time they are realizing that things they say and/or believe may be sexist. For the majority of their lives they probably don’t even realize they are being sexist, and have viewed “sexist” men as those who demean and abuse their female partners. It is most likely that when this subject was brought up your friends were having feelings of cognitive dissonance (read here: which explains their defensiveness. Really all you can do in these situations is state your opinion, if they get it great, if they don’t, you one day hope they will.