I was in a college-level gender studies course when I first heard the term “toxic masculinity” a term used to describe masculine behaviors that are harmful to men, their partners, and even to society at large . It’s been, ahem, a few years since I took that course and, since then, the term has gained wider understanding and usage. It, too, has evolved from a term that was used to describe men who grew up without a sense of “maleness” and a concern about what feminism was doing to men (gasp! the effects of those feminists was horrible in the eyes of the first users of the term!).
At that time, I was working at Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ health center, as an HIV counselor and as an honorary member of the Trans Health Committee (it was an honor, indeed!). While I was learning about gender in an academic sense, in real life, I was counseling clients through complex relationships with varied risk for HIV where gender and gender expression and identity could play a significant role in their relation to their partner(s).
It is not a stretch at all to imagine how extremes in masculinity and femininity may be detrimental to our health. For example, toxic masculinity may fuel a desire among men to exert power over women, to take reckless risks, and to be less likely to seek out mental health care. It is also not a stretch to imagine how men may feel alienated from participating in sexual and reproductive health decision making within their partnerships. Since my days at Mazzoni Center, I have gone on to train young men living with HIV in Cameroon and male inmates in a Malawian prison about their roles in creating a safe and loving relationship and the responsibilities they have as men to challenge these detrimental notions of masculinity.
The curriculum I used, Men As Partners developed by EngenderHealth, evolved from the Mentors In Violence Program (MVP) developed by the Center for Sport In Society at Northeastern University. So, I was overjoyed to recently be invited to participate in an MVP training! In some ways, I took the long way to get to this training as I have been long familiar with off shoots of the program for some time.
The MVP program created a unique approach to combating violence against women by focusing on empowering bystanders to act when they see or hear something that could lead to violence. The focus of the training was on reviewing common scenarios that young people confront and discussing options for intervening. For example, we discussed scenarios where friends talk about sexual violence towards a woman and our challenge was to suggest options for deescalating the conversation and alerting the speaker to the fact that such talk is “not cool” and inappropriate.
In this era of #MeToo, the more tools we can give men, young and old, to disrupt cultural norms the better. Far too many young people believe that there are only two options for action in a potentially violent situation: to call the police or do nothing. With each scenario we discussed, we compiled a list of feasible options of what could be said or done to change the outcome.
If you haven’t already, please take a few minutes to watch Jackson Katz, the founder of the MVP program, discuss the role of men in preventing violence against women.