One of the most common misconceptions about feminist work is that it is a movement solely for and about women and that men are excluded as allies or beneficiaries. But in truth feminist issues are not just “women’s issues,” they are human issues. Ultimately it is about the right of each of us to embrace our full humanity, reach our full potential, and be our authentic selves. And this mandate includes men and boys, who are just as harmed by destructive, limiting gender roles and stereotypes, as well as the belief that somehow women are inferior. We see evidence of this playing out in many disturbing ways in our culture, in how society and the media encourage and glorify “masculine” qualities like aggression, domination, and violence, and how if boys show emotion, they are often called a “sissy” or told to “toughen up” or to “be a man.” Not only do these messages take a toll on a boy’s or man’s personal sense of self and life experience, but they negatively affect all those around him, whether through cultivating sexist attitudes and behavior or perpetrating acts of violence and sexual violence, which are now manifesting in epidemic proportions. To address societal ills like sexism, discrimination and violence against women, feminist work must not only come to the aid of those who are affected and victimized, but also focus on prevention by addressing harmful societal and cultural norms that are often the root cause.
Men are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about these forces in our society and are looking to break free and speak out against them (see my previous piece, Activist Men React to Locker Room Talk). We need to support this growing movement and create even more awareness about the increasing numbers of men and organizations (and women as allies) who are working to create a different culture.
A CALL TO MEN has pioneered this work by educating men all over the world on “healthy, respectful manhood.” Founded by Tony Porter and Ted Bunch in 2002, A CALL TO MEN is an internationally recognized violence prevention organization and a respected leader on issues of manhood, male socialization and its intersection with violence, and preventing violence against all women and girls. One of its latest initiatives, the LIVERESPECT curriculum, empowers middle and high school boys to better understand healthy versus unhealthy relationships and make better decisions for themselves and those around them. Recent research shows that schools that implement the LIVERESPECT curriculum find measurable changes in attitude and awareness, leading to decreased incidents of dating violence, sexual assault, bullying and homophobia.
I was fortunate to be able to attend an anniversary gala last week in New York City, where supporters came together to celebrate 15 years of A CALL TO MEN’s work and inspiring vision: to create a world where all men and boys are loving and respectful and all women and girls are valued and safe. The event was headlined by actor and activist Matt McGorry, and emceed by MSNBC Anchor Richard Lui. It honored “the Next Generation of Manhood” and other champions on these issues, including political activist and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, Joe and Alice Torre, chairman and president of the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation, and Alan Gardner, senior vice president, human resources, Verizon Communications.
I had the pleasure of speaking to some of those in attendance about what they value most about A CALL TO MEN’s work, how they view the changing role of being a man today, and how women can create space for men doing this work.
Here are some select excerpts from my conversations with Tony Porter, Gloria Steinem, Matt McGorry and Gwen Wright.
Tony Porter, CEO, A CALL TO MEN
Marianne Schnall: As you look back on the past 15 years, what are you most proud of about A CALL TO MEN’s work?
Tony Porter: Before 1994, when VAWA got signed, there weren’t many men involved at all. If you were in law enforcement, women would engage in you. If you were a lawmaker, women would engage in you. Maybe you can work in a batterer’s program, but there weren’t many places for men. It was purely seen as a women’s issue and we weren’t doing prevention work. We had our hands full holding the men accountable and providing services for those who’ve been victimized. So when we started talking about prevention, it was new and it wasn’t widely accepted. Women approached it with great caution and suspicion for all the obvious reasons. To be here tonight—15 years later—surrounded by actors, athletes, leaders in business and philanthropy, it’s no longer abnormal for men to be in this space. We have come from a time where there were two or three other men in the audience, to now—this is huge.
MS: What do you see as the organization’s most critical work going forward?
TP: Our most important work right now is engaging men to work with boys. For example, we have our LIVERESPECT curriculum in schools across the country where coaches and teachers can reach boys with messages of equality and respect in middle and high school.
I was visiting one of the schools in South Bend, Indiana, and I sat in on a curriculum session with a group of sixth-grade boys. They were talking about the “objectification of women.” [laughs] I know six weeks before they started the class, they did not know what objectification of women meant! But now, I’m listening to these 12-year-old boys talking about the objectification of women, that these are things we have to stop and change. That’s the stuff that’s really, really exciting me.
We also work a lot with coaches and mentors to do the same thing—fight the constant onslaught of negative messages that society throws at our young boys that tell them women and girls are property, that they have less value, that they are sexual objects.
In all the places we can, we want to show men how they can infuse messages of healthy, respectful manhood, gender violence prevention, challenging these rigid social norms, and helping our boys by creating space for them to be okay with their authentic selves.
MS: How can we engage more men in this work?
TP: When we started talking about healthy, respectful manhood, we opened the doors for men to get involved in a meaningful way. As we promote healthy, respectful manhood, we decrease violence and discrimination against all women and girls. And by incorporating the conversation in manhood, we allow men to have a voice. So we’re creating that space by broadening the scope. A big part of our work is with men who have influence and men who have platforms, really engaging them to become the voice and understanding that they can talk about healthy manhood. So at the end of the day, men might not even know they’re doing domestic and sexual violence prevention, because they are talking about being healthy men, but the two are inextricably linked.
Gloria Steinem, lecturer, writer, political activist and feminist organizer, honored with A CALL TO MEN’SEnvisionary Award
Marianne Schnall:You’re being acknowledged tonight as being one of the champions of this organization and this cause. Why do you value and support the work of A CALL TO MEN?
Gloria Steinem: First of all, it’s always been about escaping gender prisons and race prisons and becoming unique humans and also sharing our humanity. And it’s not always as easy for people in a position that’s supposedly privileged to give up privilege. And actually, it should be, because, I mean, I don’t want to be just with white people, and men don’t want to be just with men. But I think because men, in a way, have more choice and choose not to take privilege, that they deserve our gratitude especially.
MS: What do you see as A CALL TO MEN’s greatest accomplishments over the past 15 years?
GS: I think each male human being who grows up because of A CALL TO MEN knowing that he can be a whole human being and not be stuck in a gender prison is the triumph, because then he will be a model to others. He’ll raise his own children, and the children will grow up knowing that men can be nurturing. He will not perpetuate violence against females that is the only way to keep the extreme of gender going—so it’s the root of everything from human relationships to world peace.
MS: This event honors the next generation of manhood. How do you see the role of manhood changing?
GS: I think probably the most fundamental is men being raised to raise children, whether they have children or not, because that is how they develop all those qualities that are wrongly called feminine. I mean you and I as little girls and young women were more or less trained to be patient and pay attention to detail and be kind and empathetic—and boys need that too. And women need to be in the world and also express ourselves as ambitious, as dreamers, and as all the things that are wrongly thought of as masculine.
MS: I can’t help but acknowledge we are witnessing an extreme version of masculinity exhibited in our president right now…
GS: Yeah. Well, I think the election of Trump was a perfect storm of different forces. Among the biggest forces—and referred to by the code of “Make America Great Again”—is going back to an old race and sex hierarchy. He, of course, who in no way measures up to anybody’s idea of masculinity, is therefore especially obsessed with masculinity and has always been a racist. He and his father were convicted of massive discrimination in their housing projects by the Civil Rights Commission of the Justice Department long ago and have continued to practice racism. So I do think “Make America Great Again” is a code for let’s go back to the old hierarchy again.
MS: As you know, Feminist.com and I have an initiative with Michael Kimmel and his Center called Women & Men as Allies, inspired by our belief that men need to be included in feminist work. In my opinion, this needs to happen much more than it does. How can—and should—feminist women create space for men in this work?
GS: Yes, of course! The whole idea is we create space for each other by being whole people and reaching out to others as individuals and by doing each other the favor of telling the truth and expecting others to tell us the truth and naming injustice or hurts as they come along so we can heal them.
MS:Is there a call to action for men tonight?
GS: One call to action would be just to imagine that they were exactly the same person with the same humor and faults and talents and everything, and were born female. What would their lives be like? That’s the key to empathy, and it’s the key to empathy for me too. Imagine what would my life be like if I were born male or born a person of color—there’s nothing more important than empathy. And as an assumption of empathy, simple kindness.
Matt McGorry, Actor and Activist, Gala Keynote
Marianne Schnall: Why do you value and support the work that A CALL TO MEN does?
Matt McGorry: I think it’s important because it’s a conversation that’s not happening often enough. It took 28 years of my 31-year-old life to really first be introduced to a lot of these concepts. And I think I grew up in a fairly progressive liberal household and have been a part of theater and the arts for a long time where we theoretically tend to be more liberal and “in touch” with our feelings and things like that. But it really wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started becoming aware of them in a very conscious way, and it really sort of changed my own life. And I’ve realized how important it is, that I don’t want men to be going through their lives not having had these conversations, in many cases for the sake of women and girls and gender non-conforming people, but also for the sake of men in our own humanity, in our own goodness. Without these principles, I don’t feel like I can be the best person that I can be.
MS: This event honors the next generation of manhood. Is manhood going through changes?What do you see as the role of a man today?
MM: I’d like to think it’s going through changes. I think these conversations are becoming more commonplace. From my understanding, the way it sort of seems when you’re in it is it never quite seems fast enough—we’re always sort of focused on creating the next thing and creating the next shift and getting to the next goal. But even in my own life, I’ve seen my friends and the people that I know changing with these conversations we’ve been having, and that for me is in some ways some of the most rewarding parts of the work: to really see those changes up close and personal. Regardless of the fact that I might be a public figure—just literally doing the thing that I’m asking other men to do and seeing the rewards in my life and how that starts to shift the culture.
As far as the future goes, I think there’s going to be a lot more of elevating this issue. I think, obviously, with what’s going on in Washington now, this is such an important time to be having this conversation. The conversation about what it means to be engaged in “locker-room” talk and even to be the Billy Bush and on his side of it and to really think, like, how many times have we been in situations where we’re sort of silent or supporting someone in inappropriate behavior and comments? Now that this has sort been unearthed in a way for a lot of men, I think it’s time to really dig in and sort of parse apart what we have.
MS: What is your call to action for men tonight?
MM: I think in many ways, it’s to understand that thinking that we’re not a part of the problem is not the same as being a part of the solution. Being a “good guy” doesn’t take us out of what I feel is the obligation to actively be creating a shift.
It’s funny, after spending 28 years of my life not knowing anything about this, you start to look back and really see some of the ways that—even being what I would consider a “good guy”—you have holes in your own logic and the things that you think simply by growing up in a culture that is sexist and racist and all the other things. Things are normalized, right? If they weren’t normalized, we’d be asking ourselves all the time as men, “How the fuck is it possible that violence against women is in epidemic proportions?” So part of that is de-normalizing what we see all around us and understanding that it doesn’t have to be this way, and we can and should be a part of changing that. So I think for me, that’s really what it is. It’s moving from a place of passivity to understanding that being non-sexist is not the same as being anti-sexist. And educating ourselves and understanding that by virtue of seeing my life through the eyes of a man, there are going to be large gaps in understanding and that I have to do the work of really educating myself on those issues, which allows me to have a little more perspective that I can bring in to my groups of male friends, and the men that I know, and my followers and everyone else.
Gwen Wright, executive director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, served for ten years as president of the board of directors of A CALL TO MEN
MS: Why do you value and support the work that A CALL TO MEN does?
Gwen Wright: I value and support their work because I have a son. My son is now 34, married, and has two kids. His youngest is a 20-month-old little boy. When I first started doing this work 30 something years ago, I really didn’t think a lot about men’s engagement or working with men or anything. And then I realized as my son was getting older that there needed to be a new paradigm for him that wasn’t the paradigm that I grew up with. And I knew Tony and Ted, and when they were starting A CALL TO MEN, they reached out to me and said tentatively, “This is our thought. Do you want to be involved?” And I said, “I will, but I will step in cautiously, because I don’t know where this is going, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And I think we created something miraculous.
MS:This event honors the next generation of manhood. How do you see the role of a man today? Is it changing?
GW: Well, again, I kind of relate it to my son. My son is a very different man than my father or my brother. And by that I mean that he is very much committed and connected to his children and how they are raised, and he’s very much committed to an anti-sexist way of living his life. So it is a constant conversation that he and his wife have. And his friendship network has to match. So I think that for the next generation, A CALL TO MEN is providing a new way of living, and that’s what I appreciate.
MS:How can—and should—feminist women create space for men in this work?
GW: That was my challenge, but I think that the way that we could and the way that we should is to recognize that we share this world. And in order for us to have true freedom, we have to engage with men to support that effort. We can’t do it on our own. If we’re all here on the one side doing it, and they’re still doing their own thing, it just cuts us off at the knee, so I think that we have to engage if we truly want freedom.