We can’t address sexual violence if we keep trying to promote ‘healthy masculinity’

Emily Buttitta, Senior Staff Writer

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The Well for Health Promotion has implemented a new event – the MENtality Project Lunch & Learn – the goal of which is to “help engage, educate and empower students to create an open environment to discuss healthy masculinity.”

Though The Well is adopting preemptive measures to combat the serious sexual violence issues on this campus, the intent of this event as expressed by the language used is troubling. To put it simply, there is no such thing as healthy masculinity. 

The specific actions that The Well is undertaking to prevent sexual violence — targeting groups that feel they do not have a part in the conversation about sexual violence, sparking dialogue and promoting engagement — are all steps in the right direction. 

The use of the term “healthy masculinity,” however, is steeped in the very structures that have created the violence that we see on college campuses across the country. 

Past attempts at college campuses to establish similar programs and events have been met with conservative backlash because masculinity is so bound up with male identity. 

A Wisconsin congressman, in response to an offering of a six-week seminar program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison exploring toxic masculinity, claimed the program was insulting to the parents of the young boys who participated and the values that were instilled in them growing up. After Princeton University posted a job listing for an interpersonal violence clinician and men’s engagement manager, a position similar to one Tulane has recently instituted, it was calledlefty social garbage trying to remake men so they aren’t men.”

There is anxiety and violence bound up in these terms, which is why efforts to combat masculinity must also deconstruct the idea.

At its most basic definition, the term “masculinity” means “the quality or nature of the male sex: the quality, state, or degree of being masculine or manly.” This definition is loaded with assumptions that there exist qualities or actions that are particular to the male sex, to say nothing of non-binary or male-identifying people. 

The term “healthy masculinity” has arisen in opposition to the popular buzz word “toxic masculinity” and the undesirable behaviors associated with it such as violence, wanting to appear strong, behaving adversely toward women and extreme self-reliance. This divide implies that there are good aspects of masculinity that are distinct from the “toxic” aspects, but this assumption is misleading. 

A “healthy” approach to masculinity has been credited with allowing men “to experience a fuller range of emotions and share their feelings with others,” but this is essentially moving masculinity in a more feminine direction. Approaching healthy masculinity, paradoxically, is a blurring of the binary the term reinforces.

The American Psychology Association’s recently released “Guidelines for Psychological Practices with Boys and Men” cites a study which found, “Men who rigidly adhere to sexist, patriarchal masculine norms also tend to endorse and commit higher levels of intimate partner and sexual violence toward women.” 

This finding was used as support for the claim that psychologists ought to “understand the impact of power, privilege and sexism” when treating young boys and men and assessing their relationships with others. 

For a program to be effective, it would need to address not just the problems with the term itself but also the complicated relationships people have with masculinity not only because of their gender identity, but because of their other identities, including race, class, sexuality and ability. 

The term “healthy masculinity” is more of a marketing tool than an effective goal. It is designed to make the men that The Well’s program is targeting comfortable with engaging with their own practices and behaviors.

Comfort is important at the outset, especially when the goal is to foster dialogue and make quantifiable change. These events should, however, take a more critical and holistic approach to masculinity, rather than simply parse out what is good and what is bad, if they want to attempt real change. 

Currently, Brown University has a program called Masculinity 101 in which men and non-binary people get together to discuss their own experiences with masculinity and also lead workshops around campus. 

Students are encouraged to consider their relationships with masculinity as they are related to privilege. They also discuss how attributes normally considered masculine can be separated from their gendered associations.

Like Tulane’s new program, Brown’s does want participants to explore “positive expressions” of masculinity, but the students have conversations and share opinions on whether this is as productive as severing these attributes from gender altogether.

The clinician and men’s coordinator position at Princeton University is required to “promot[e] an environment for healthy male social development by challenging belief systems and social constructs that contribute to violence and offering alternative options.” 

If The Well truly wants to challenge these constructs of masculinity, it should explicitly take a nuanced approach that undermines the very idea of “healthy masculinity” while taking into account how material realities and identities affect each individual’s relationship to masculinity. 

The term “masculinity” does not mean the same thing across cultures and identities. Male violence is not inherent to all men, but there is a pattern of violent behavior particular to men that arises from these individuals’ social settings, political leanings and their own inner conflicts that cause them to grapple between entitlement and social expectations.

Tulane claims that it wants to “shift the paradigm” away from one that allows sexual violence to occur on its campus, but to truly realize a new paradigm, we must understand each of us falls within the existing one. The paradigm we live under values masculinity and the binary it is a part of, and so too does this term. 

Effective programming should help people understand and reconstruct identities while remaining attentive to how entangled these are with the gender binary.