Teaching Positive Masculinity

Health advocates are engaging men in sexual assault prevention, challenging the negative aspects of traditional manhood.
Dean Courtney Robinson leads a session with students (Natascha Yogachandra)

School is out on a Wednesday and the dean of students' office at Facing History High School is full, but these kids aren't here for detention. Dean Courtney Robinson, who has thick arms covered with tattoos and hair pulled back into a braided bun, looks over the room as high school boys shuffle in and out. Some wear sweatshirts with hoods pulled floppily over their heads; others wear navy polos embroidered with a special insignia: tiny hands clasped around a globe.

They chat, complain, and tease one another until precisely 1:35 p.m., when Robinson ushers out the hangers-on while those in the polos plop into seats for a meeting of the Human United Strength Organization, or HUSO. The conversation topics range from rap music to Malcolm X but the subtext always centers on the meaning of masculinity.

"All right, guys," Robinson begins. "Let's check in."

A senior named Devante Moore usually talks about basketball. He speaks faster and faster as he becomes angrier and angrier. Apparently, this year's coach isn't his favorite. John Susana, a freshman, mentions in a mumble that his grades are good, and his small audience claps for his success.

Room 227 is a safe place. One boy shares that his favorite Christmas gift was a hug from his mom. It's a supportive place. Robinson listens intently to the students' problems and responds with short suggestions for nonviolent solutions. It's a male place, a haven for these high-school boys to talk about the things they ordinarily would find difficult to air in public.

They call it the HUSO Mentoring Group, or HMG, an after-school offshoot of the HUSO umbrella organization, which Robinson established at Facing History in Hell's Kitchen. He hopes to see his group replicated in more city schools, even though there are already a number of similar male-oriented clubs operating under other leadership across the United States.

The purpose of these programs is to give boys the chance to rethink maleness, and to change the way men treat women and each other. Moore, the one who always brings up basketball, says that the group isn't for the weak-minded. "This is for people who got strong minds; who are willing to step up to the plate and really become a young man."

Organizers say the construct works once the young men decide to participate. Getting them in the door and then finding the money to keep the doors open are often the two biggest challenges.

* * *

When Robinson started his organization, he did not know he would become part of a much larger movement that has been working for the past 40 years to engage men in the prevention of violence against women. Mentoring for him started at his home in Harlem when he was just a boy. His mother kept the front door open for any child in need, and those who came also looked informally to Robinson for advice. He now tells his club members that they're walking examples of respectful male students, ones who choose conversation over clenched fists.

The first such experiments emerged in the late-1960s and early-1970s during the second wave of the feminist movement, when male activists realized the positive impact of their support in the battle for women's rights.

Termed "anti-sexists," these men supported the rights of their female partners and initially seemed to be little more than a weak and scattered army without provisions or direction. But after the First National Conference on Men and Masculinity in 1975, structure soon followed, resulting in the establishment of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism.

As gender studies gained credibility as an academic discipline around the same time, some scholars of feminist theory began to develop a new focus, known as masculinity studies. Dr. Ronald Levant played a significant role in the development of masculinity ideology, something he defines as "an individual's internalization of cultural belief systems and attitudes toward masculinity and men's roles."

In 1992, he and his colleagues created the Male Role Norms Inventory, which measures adherence to seven norms of the Western masculinity ideology: Avoidance of Femininity, Fear and Hatred of Homosexuals, Self-Reliance, Aggression, Achievement/Status, Non-Relational Attitudes Toward Sex, and Restrictive Emotionality. Research influenced by Levant's inventory has since revealed that men who embrace more traditional Western masculine ideology are reluctant to discuss condom use with their partners, have less satisfactory relationships, and harbor attitudes that often lead to the sexual harassment of women.

So instead of putting resources into warning women about dark streets and risqué clothing, which unfairly burdens women with assault prevention, advocates for female victims of sexual abuse, such as Lina Juarbe Botella, realize that their primary focus should be on changing the behavior of abusive men. "Women cannot be safe," Botella says, "until men know how to behave."

Tony Porter and Ted Bunch founded A Call to Men in 2002 after being heavily involved in social justice activism for several years. Botella, the organization's training director, said that the two founders "meet men where they're at physically and emotionally," to encourage them to act as positive role models for their communities. But the two men also acknowledge the debt they owe to the women like Botella's predecessors, who came before them as workers for the same cause.

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Natascha Yogachandra is a contributor at Narratively and the chair of the Hope is Life Foundation.

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