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Here’s how Brown University is tackling toxic masculinity

"People should come in with sets of desires and use consent to rectify the gap between those," a student at Brown said.

PHOTO CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress
PHOTO CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress

PROVIDENCE, RI — Mark Bodner sat very still as he recalled what made him start thinking critically about masculine norms, even if he didn’t know that’s what he was questioning at the time. When he was in high school, some of his friends would trade insults weekly. He called it a “super repressive, stoic, apathetic culture.”

After one friend sent particularly intense personal jabs at him, Bodner said, “I remember distinctly pre-determining insults to use the next time it happened. I remember having this feeling like, ‘premeditating insults is not really how friendship works.’ So I kind of had this mold that I felt constricted by and didn’t have a way to get out of.”

That and other events, like his high school teacher suggesting he read more about gender as part of a history project, eventually led him down a path of trying to better understand masculine norms and identify the kinds of behaviors he didn’t want to associate with.

Now, Bodner is one of the coordinators of a program at Brown University called Masculinity 101, where students like himself meet weekly, not to trade insults but to discuss what masculinity means to them and how to have healthier relationships, empathize with people, and understand their own privilege. Students also run peer workshops for other student groups on campus.

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The attendance at weekly discussion groups varies, but there are usually 15 to 20 students, sometimes as many as 25, according to students who have attended. They discuss their highs and lows of the week before talking about the theme of the meeting. They’re always offered pizza before the discussion starts.

Although there are programs like Masculinity 101 on other campuses, the group is particularly well-sustained by students on campus and the passionate university staff person who guides it, Marc Peters. Similar programs at other schools have shut down in the past.

At a discussion group meeting last month — which included men and nonbinary people — the theme was how masculinity norms can be a barrier in love and friendships. It was a wide-ranging discussion, with some students sharing uncomfortable moments with family and relationship expectations affected by gender, as well as issues like code-switching with white friends and queer men who felt they had to perform masculinity a certain way around some family members.

Students pair up to talk about their relationships with family, friends, and partners. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Students pair up to talk about their relationships with family, friends, and partners. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

Students raised issues of being emotionally available, expressing affection, and accepting help. A young man said he went an entire day trying to figure out how to tell his mother “I love you,” and another man said he pushed his girlfriend away when she tried to help him during a period when he was busy and stressed out.

When someone shared insecurities they had about relationships — like the need to be indispensable — a student said he had some of those issues too.

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“I realize I have some of those same insecurities in my relationships. I worry my friend or partner can get something more meaningful from someone else and maybe even get jealous of that person, which is not healthy,” he said.

Students ThinkProgress spoke with had a range of different opinions on what masculinity means and whether it’s productive to talk about positive expressions of masculinity. Galen, who has attended these discussion groups, said he can conceive of positive parts of masculinity, such as taking responsibility for one’s actions. Bodner said he doesn’t see certain actions or qualities as belonging to one gender at all.

“Something people say a lot when they’re questioning our work is like, ‘Oh there are so many good things about masculinity that it looks like you’re trying to get rid of and men are supposed to be protectors,’” Bodner said. “The view I have is that those positive attributes don’t need to be tied to a gender and you could just have an identity that associates itself with those positive attributes whether you identify as a man or woman or nonbinary. For me, it’s separating myself from any sort of societally defined set of attributes and just trying to have those good qualities.”

The barriers of addressing toxic masculinity in higher education

Although some of the issues discussed in these meetings may seem like everyday problems not specific to gender, many of the students say it’s unusual for men to have a space where they can candidly talk about these kinds of personal feelings as well as the way their masculinity affects their relationships.

They have a point. Brown University’s program offers a unique space for young men in higher education today.

Two of the only other programs tackling masculinity in higher education today are at Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which both offer a Men’s Project.

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At Duke, there is a 9-week discussion course every semester for “masc-of-center participants,” and every week they meet for a 2-hour discussion that is facilitated by the group’s leadership team. The discussion course is on a smaller scale than Brown’s, with only four to six participants gathering one to three times per semester, said Chris, a student involved in the group who wished to be identified by a different name for privacy reasons. Chris said it’s good that the group is non-academic because this way, people only sign up if they’re really interested. On the other hand, the project doesn’t get the structural support an academic program would.

Chris said the Men’s Project has taught him about emotional labor, performative allyship, accountability, and consent, which he says isn’t just “a box to check.”

Galen attends discussion groups when he has time. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Galen attends discussion groups when he has time. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Men’s Project, which is older than Duke’s, has a 10-week program, monthly discussions about gender equity, and a peer-led workshop session about masculinity. Students at Duke collaborated with people involved in the same project at UNC when they first founded their initiative.

But similar programs at other universities, both academic and voluntary, haven’t been as successful.

Stony Brook University, for example, has developed a unique reputation for discussing masculinity issues since Michael Kimmel, distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies, founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook in 2013. The university planned to offer a master’s program in masculinity studies this year. Then, Kimmel was accused of sexual harassment.

Ritch Calvin, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the women’s, gender, and sexuality department at Stony Brook said that the master’s program is now in limbo, but that he hopes it can move forward.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Men’s Project is no longer active after a backlash from conservatives who accused it of being anti-men.

“Interest tends to ebb and flow depending on the interests of students — as a result this offering was discontinued,” said John Lucas, a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Syracuse University’s A Men’s Issue is also no longer active due to “fluctuations in membership,” according to university spokesperson Shannon Feeney Andre. The group’s last Facebook post was made in 2016.

Despite its stasis now, the program did help pave the way for the peer discussion group underway at Brown.

Peters was in Syracuse’s A Men’s issue when he studied there in the mid-aughts. Now, he’s the assistant director for community dialogue and campus engagement at Brown University. In 2016, he worked with students to design the discussion group and peer workshops’ curriculum.  

Peters said Syracuse’s program was instrumental to his own personal growth.

“I could have gone through life uninterrupted never thinking about these things in ways that were harmful, sometimes realizing it and sometimes not realizing it. I’m trying to provide as many moments of interruption as possible for students on campus.”

Fostering candid conversations about consent

These sorts of interruptions could prevent some incidents of sexual violence on campuses. A 2015 campus climate survey from the American Association of Universities found that 11.7 percent of students respondents across 27 universities said they “experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation” since they began attending university. Twenty-three percent of female undergraduate respondents said they had such experiences, and 5 percent of male undergraduate respondents said the same. Rates of sexual assault were also highest among transgender, genderqueer, and non-conforming people.

To reduce sexual violence, targeting some of the harmful belief systems and norms men have been taught throughout their lives may help. Research released in 2015 found that the likelihood of sexual assault corresponded with risk factors like “hostile attitudes toward women, rape supportive beliefs, perceptions of peer approval of forced sex, and perceptions of peer pressure to have sex with many different women,” among others.

One theme students touch on in the discussion group is consent in all contexts, including sexual relationships.

Peters said he tries to make sure that he doesn’t dismiss students who have concerns about being accused of sexual assault before he discusses why their comments may be missing the mark.

“If I have a student in an all-male identified setting being really defensive about how they engage with or don’t engage with talking about consent and if they’re making really false accusations, like women are just out to get men, what I had to learn to do was affirm the emotion someone is feeling. Because the emotion they’re feeling is real even if it is based on something totally false, right?” Peters said. “For me was a major growth area — to allow the student to be heard, engage with what they’re saying, unpack what they’re saying, and provide some education and not shut them down or disengage.”

“Hookup culture” also often came up in the discussions about consent. Some students weren’t sure how to square healthy consensual sexual experiences with such a culture.

Ethan Pan attends discussion groups about masculinity. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Ethan Pan attends discussion groups about masculinity. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

Ethan Pan, a freshman at Brown, said during a discussion on consent, some of the people in the group didn’t have a concept of a hookup culture that was consensual. Pan, who is gay, said he thought straight students in particular wanted to reject hookup culture altogether as a way of rejecting the “straight masculine norms” that are part of it, but he said they should rethink hookup culture instead of throwing it away.

“They were like I don’t see how you can reconcile those two things … I said during the meeting that during a hookup people often come in with sets of expectations, but rather people should come in with sets of desires and use consent to rectify the gap between those,” Pan said. “Because if you come in with expectations there’s going to be some of level of disappointment or disconnect. But if there are desires and you use consent to take these two sets and bring them into one where you can both agree on it, that’s how I want to think about any hookups that I have in the future.”

“… if you come in with expectations there’s going to be some of level of disappointment or disconnect.”

Galen said one conversation on consent and spontaneous sex was uncomfortable but productive.

“I think people were pretty open about it and there was still awkwardness around it but what I’ve really noticed is that there is this destigmatizing of communication that is really good,” he said. “I think it’s just opening up that you can talk about these issues explicitly and freely which I think is one of the biggest obstacles to healthy consensual relationships, especially when it’s new and spontaneous.”

Another student, who wanted to be identified as Eric for privacy reasons, said that there was also a discussion on consent in long-term relationships.

“There are some people in the group whose philosophy it is that every single thing they do, they ask for consent in some way or communicate about it throughout, just constant communication, which for some people in the group was uncomfortable and not really what they felt like they wanted to do,” Eric said. “But it was a radical idea and it was worth interrogating … And so the conversation didn’t necessarily end in a result, as these conversations don’t necessarily have a right answer per se.  But I thought it was an interesting perspective.”

A former Brown student who went to the group, who asked to go by the name Anthony for privacy reasons, said that although he personally never heard someone in the group describe a sexual assault they experienced or characterize it as such, men talked about not feeling comfortable having sex.

“There’s not really a lot of space for a young man to ask or be asked the question, ‘Why do you have sex?’” Anthony said. “’What are you looking to get out of this experience with somebody else?’ And a lot times it becomes, ’Yeah, I’m trying to fortify this thing in myself that I want to believe about myself or a social practice of I want to establish myself in this social world as a sexually valid person,’ and it becomes last on the list to relate to somebody else. We can use this space to ask questions that usually don’t get asked.”

Garrett Robinson said has learned a lot from the discussion groups. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Garrett Robinson said has learned a lot from the discussion groups. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

Garrett Robinson, a senior who was on the football team at Brown, said the discussion group helped him learn how to improve communication and be more aware of the social and cultural space he takes up as a man and football player.

“People are saying the #MeToo movement has made it so much harder to be comfortable and be normal but I try to explain to people it’s not about trying to police your activity or change who you are entirely. It’s simply being more aware of how you move in spaces and be more mindful of other people’s feelings,” he said.

He added, “I’ve always been a huge proponent of communication within relationships but throughout this work I realized how much deeper that goes in talking to people. Communication is huge in terms of figuring out what people are comfortable with.”

The long-term effects of discussing masculinity

Students say the campus culture at Brown is pretty progressive and the social structure is less clear-cut than at other schools where there is more Greek life. But they say there are still issues to address when it comes to gender relations and sexual violence on campus.

In 2014, two Brown football players were ordered to leave the campus after police investigated a sexual assault. A female student who was a freshman at Brown said that in 2013, she was sexually assaulted by the men while incapacitated in a Brown dorm room.

When asked what he thinks of the campus climate in terms of gender relations, Robinson said it hasn’t gotten any worse but that things aren’t “at some comfortable jumping off point yet.”

Logan Dreher, a member of the student group Feminists at Brown, said Spring Weekend, when there is a big concert on campus, is a time where students may be particularly vulnerable to incidents of sexual violence.

“I think there’s a lot of expectations about really heavy drinking or drug use or drug experimentation that happen. There’s kind of an expectation that you have to hook up with someone or you have to have sex with someone that weekend and if you dance with someone you’re making a kind of promise to them or if you come back home with them, you’re making some kind of promise to them,” she said.” … “That can put people in really scary situations, so we’re trying to make sure people know they don’t need to do that if they don’t want to.”

The Van Wickle Gates on the Brown University campus. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
The Van Wickle Gates on the Brown University campus. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

One of the biggest questions for the discussion group is whether the group should increase outreach and consider expanding to reach more students on campus.

Most of the students ThinkProgress spoke to who weren’t part of the discussion group knew of the program, some because of posters on campus and some because of coverage by Fox News.

Some students said the program seemed like a positive addition to the campus even if they weren’t personally planning on taking part. One male student ThinkProgress interviewed said he thought he was well-informed enough on the subject that he didn’t think he needed to attend the discussions, and another male student said he just didn’t embody toxic masculinity.

Thomas, of course, pushed back on the idea that male students don’t have any more work to do understanding masculinity.

“It’s not on any one individual to change everything, but there is always something more we could be doing. It’s not like there’s an end point like, ‘OK I did it and I have defeated masculinity.’ That’s not really a thing,” he said.

The participants in the discussion group may seem like a drop in the bucket when considering Brown’s full student population, but they say it has changed their lives in both big and small ways. Some students say it has made them think differently about how much they talk over people of other genders, how they communicate in relationships, and how they should speak up when their friends say something demeaning about women. Students have also discussed bystander intervention.

“I have noticed especially with friends from home or friends here that I’m making more of an effort to actively talk about issues like consent and issues where this stuff comes up in our lives and not bullshit so much anymore and really get to the core of these issues,” Galen said. “It’s really uncomfortable and I’m trying to push through the discomfort more. I’m still failing most of the time I would say, but there are still times like when a friend makes a crude joke or something, I used to just let it go and now there are definitely times when I’m like, ‘That’s not OK.'”

“It’s really uncomfortable and I’m trying to push through the discomfort more.”

Some of the men who have been involved in discussion groups like these go on to become educators or work on issues related to sexual violence prevention. These men can also serve as positive role models for other men as they get older. One student said that he saw Peters as someone he wanted to emulate.

The group’s coordinators, Thomas and Bodner, have also discussed whether they want to expand their work to high schools. Peters said there are challenges to doing that in public schools because there are, understandably, layers of bureaucracy involved in schools approving groups to come in and hold events. There may be fewer barriers to doing this at local private schools, he said.

“Parents, faculty, staff, and administrators have a really hard time accepting that young people can cause each other harm and especially sexual harm,” said Sage Carson of Know Your IX, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual violence. “There are really high rates of violence happening in high schools and middle schools and there should be prevention education happening.”

One former Brown student who is now working as an educator at an elementary school, who wished to go by Anthony for privacy reasons, said the thing he took away from the program was that unlearning toxic behaviors is challenging, daily work.

“There’s not a sort of good guy or healthy masculinity ‘finish line’ that you cross and you get a certificate and flowers or something and you are no longer implicated in some of these structures,” he said.

“The real work of your life is I want to be a full human being and not harm other people and recognize them as full human beings … The real work is not in the program, but in your ordinary moments.”