Breaking Out of the Man Box / Tony Porter
I have thought about this question a lot: How did I come to do this kind of work? While I would like to say that I simply woke up one morning and decided to do the “right” thing, that’s not the case at all. The truth of the matter is that women have inspired me at different points in my life and continue to inspire me about my role and responsibility as a man.
It was difficult at times to understand and accept the role I played in marginalizing and dominating women. As good men—because we don’t physically abuse women or intentionally do anything to harm them—it can be difficult to understand the role we play in supporting a culture of male violence toward them. At times I was resistant to the teachings; this is common behavior with members of any dominating group—whether it be race, class, or others. But I continued to engage in these conversations and women remained patient with me, and eventually I understood why it was important for men to take a stand—to end violence against women and girls, and to promote healthy and respectful manhood.
During this time I was a fairly well-known trainer around New York State on addiction studies. I trained addiction professionals and students on a variety of topics related to better serving chemically dependent people. Many of our training efforts focused on issues of race and class, urban and suburban, and we explored various ethnic groups as well. The goal was to understand what was required to best serve them. When it came to addressing “women’s issues,” I did not make the same effort as I did with issues of race and class. So, with a lot of love and patience, women in my circle helped me to understand that I could not effectively teach about racism without understanding the impact it had specifically on women of color. Similarly, I could not effectively teach about classism without an in-depth understanding of the experiences of financially poor women.
I quickly learned and understood that as men we have been collectively taught to define what it means to be a man by distancing ourselves from the experiences of women. In order to effectively distance ourselves we are collectively taught to have a lack of interest in women and girls outside of those we love.
I understood that as a man it was important for me to “meet men where they are,” and not expect them to instinctively have a high sense of consciousness when thinking about these issues. I recognized that I could love men through the process even when I strongly disagreed with their thoughts and views. I learned that I could hold men accountable for inappropriate language and behavior during our engagement in a loving way. My goal is to draw men into my message, not put them on the defensive and create more distance. One of the ways I learned to engage men is through the experiences of women they love and care about. My motto became: Reach in and grab the hearts of men, ensure that they leave your presence thinking and feeling differently than they did when they entered.
As men we have been taught that domestic violence, sexual assault, and other forms of violence against women and girls is a women’s issue, resulting in us spending very little time, if any, addressing it. We explore this issue from a male-dominated perspective, at times leaving little room to hold ourselves and other men accountable. Fortunately, most men do not intend to hurt women, and many have no idea that their behavior supports men who are violent. Most men are just going with the flow, doing things as they have always done. Operating from this place of domination leaves little room to account for the reality of how we affect women and how they experience us. Our limited willingness to empathize with the plight of women adds to the problem. Moreover, we tend not to listen to them, which is key to understanding how sexism and male domination manifests.
As men, far too many of us don’t listen to women enough. Instead, we justify our conscious and unconscious ability to tune them out by saying that women talk too much, nag, and so on. So it should not be a surprise that many men don’t want to hear what women have to say about issues related to domestic violence and sexual assault. Speaking from my personal experience, taking direction from women and actually listening intently to what they have to say could actually expedite the process of ending violence against women and girls (while promoting healthy and respectful manhood) in the United States. Women have been asking men to listen for years and it’s time that we do.
Naturally, Sheila didn’t say no due to her mental capacity, but she never said yes either. Back then such an act was not considered rape, thankfully today it is. Lack of consent includes the incapacity to give consent. Consent means indicating “yes” by words or clear decisive actions.
During a training not long ago, with male participants from the age of sixteen to about seventy, I asked the question of the older men what was it called when you were a teenager and boys lined up to have “sex” with one girl. The men said it was called running a train. I then asked the same question to the sixteen-year-olds and they said it’s called running a whore train. What this tells me is that for at least three generations there has been limited growth in our collective socialization of manhood regarding the objectification of women.
Surely Johnny thought I approved of the whole episode because I didn’t express otherwise. My silence gave him permission, as if what he was doing was acceptable to me. It’s this line of thinking, the kind of teaching and socialization, that implies, “If I don’t participate, then I’m okay,” which followed me throughout a good portion of my life. I know this thinking follows most men.
Keep in mind that every time I would say to a man, “You’re playing like a girl,” I was really saying that women are less capable, less significant compared to men. Now perhaps our makeup as men does give us a physical advantage in some cases. However, the point to focus on here is the mindset that is continuously reinforced and then transferred to other areas, which is that women are “less than” men.
You tell a boy he is playing or doing anything like a girl and he immediately attempts to change that dynamic. He has been socialized by the age of five, some say as early as three, to know that’s a place he does not want to be . . . associated with a girl or women. We criticize boys who have a close relationship with their mothers by calling them a “mama’s boy”; obviously this is interpreted as a negative. When that same boy is hanging out with his dad, he is referred to as “a road dog” or “a hang-out partner,” “best buddy,” and so on, all positive. Recently at a gathering I heard a three-year-old tell his mother, “You can’t come with us, only for me and daddy.” I know this sounds innocent and it very well may be, but what are the subtle messages he is already receiving about women?
What’s also in play is teaching boys to stuff away their emotions. From speaking with men, it has been determined the average age a boy is taught that it’s no longer okay to cry in public is about five years old. That is the approximate age when we begin to cut feelings and emotions off in our sons and other boys. It is not expected that they will immediately stop crying in public, but this is when the developmental process begins. The expectation is that by the time they are ten years old they will have perfected it. Based on our current definitions of manhood, if a ten-year-old boy still cries on a regular basis in public he is open to being teased, harassed, and bullied. Now on the other hand there is no particular age when it becomes unacceptable for girls or women to cry in public. While I am told by women that there are times, professionally speaking, when it would be frowned on, in general it’s acceptable to cry and share and show emotions when needed.
Next, I considered knocking the kid’s father out, because the reality was we didn’t particularly care for each other anyway. I knew I could take him, which was very important to the man box. But I don’t live this way; therefore, I knew I could not do this. So, I got out the telephone book. I was going to send Kendell to karate school, and then I also had the bright idea of setting up a gym in the basement to teach Kendell how to box. As you can see, I was losing it. The whole time my wife Tammy was watching me with this puzzled look on her face. The look was a combination of confusion and disgust, so she finally said, “Why don’t you just take Kendell to the boy’s house and let them make up and be friends?” This was a novel idea to me because where I grew up you only did that if you won the fight, not if you lost. Plus, you were supposed to be thinking about revenge, not making friends.
Men, we must begin to understand that we promote less value in women by believing and teaching each other and boys that outward expressions of emotions are what women do and those expressions are of less value. Men and boys will often overcompensate to ensure that they separate themselves from being associated with the perceived experiences of women and girls. This is very problematic because it contributes to an atmosphere that says women are worth less than men, so whatever you do, don’t be like them. It also creates the space for men to think that their status in society gives them license to be violent and oppressive toward women. This environment is perpetuated by the man box and cultivated by all men, abusers and well-meaning men alike. No one gets a pass.
Take, for example, the traditional wedding ceremony, which is a primary illustration of a property exchange between men. We all know it as the father “giving the bride away.” The father walks his daughter down the aisle and literally hands his daughter to another man. The woman loses her last name and assumes the name of her new husband through a legal transaction, which seals the deal and completes the ritual or transaction. It’s almost like transferring the title of a car when you buy it from an individual seller. The name is changed on the title, to make it legal—just as the woman has her title (name) changed to show that she now belongs to this man. We understand that this is a figurative part of the ceremony and the exchange of property is not literal; nevertheless, its place in tradition has some relevance. The bride goes from being the responsibility of the father to the responsibility of her new husband, from one man to another. This exhibits male socialization through a very common, cultural practice that supports the idea of women as property.
When speaking with women about the two scenarios, they agreed that the response from men would increase if a stranger were assaulting the woman. But, what they also noted is that they did not believe it would be a substantial increase. Unfortunately they felt, for the most part, that men would mind their own business whether the women was assaulted by her husband, boyfriend, or a stranger.
Whether in the music and entertainment industry, corporate America, communities of faith, or on the street corner, women are treated by men as objects or mere body parts. This has become widely accepted and embraced by mainstream society. For instance, magazines, music videos, advertisements, and commercials exploit women and their bodies. Those images we see on a daily basis condition us to see body parts instead of human beings with opinions, emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Also, take a look at fashion trends for women. Mini-skirts, low-rise jeans, thongs (that show), push-up bras, halter tops, tight-fitting clothing, etc. are all meant to bring more attention to women’s body parts. Ironically, you can often find replicas in children’s clothing stores as well. In some of these stores you can purchase pants for a two-year-old girl with sayings like “cutie pie” or “honey” embroidered across the buttocks. Here we have clothing, supposedly suitable for an adult woman, made for a child. This goes to show how early body parts become the focal point on the body of a female. Also, keep in mind that the driving force behind many of these companies is a man, most likely a well-meaning man.
In fact, the man box teaches that men and scars are actually a good thing. Scars and wounds would mark Kendell as a warrior, brave and courageous, a real man. Conversely, the thought of my daughter having permanent scars scared me to death.
Now I am and have always been very thoughtful about how I explain things to Kendell. I spend a great deal of time explaining and discussing with him the issues associated with manhood. But nevertheless with all that being said he is still influenced by other men and boys around him as well. Although I am a good father and I try to teach Kendell all the right things, over the years and still today I leave him to the supervision of other men in different capacities every day, from teachers to coaches, youth ministers, etc. Let’s face it, he also has a group of friends who all appear to be nice young men but have also been influenced by men.
Well-meaning men teach boys and young men how to think, act, behave, and also how to treat women. I cannot shield Kendell from all those messages, which is why men should be more cognizant of what they say and do around young people. Our young men are watching and picking up man box messages along the way, whether it is in the schoolyard, classroom, basketball court, or other common places. Teachers, coaches, church members, Cub Scout leaders, uncles, men from the neighborhood, and others need to be socially responsible and realize the influence they have on the development of boys and young men in reference to how they view women, ourselves, and life in general.
The sad reality is that we as men quickly become aware that our socialization does not teach our sons and other boys to look out for women against male predators on college campuses. We become acutely aware that she is on her own. We as a result attempt to arm her with all of our knowledge of young men’s behavior, their slick and inappropriate moves, the way they may attempt to manipulate her, and so on. Due to the way we have been socialized as men, none of us can depend on any other man to intervene, and to do the righteous thing when it comes to our daughters. It’s a sad reality for us to process as men when thinking of our daughters. The truth of the matter is that women have been well aware of this reality and living with it all along.
I remember asking a woman friend, “Why don’t women talk more about the things that random men do and say?” Her response was, “Men can’t handle it.” When I really think about her answer, she is probably right. Just imagine your wife, girlfriend, or partner coming home from work; you are relaxing, watching a baseball game and she tells you about some guy down the block who was staring at her buttocks. So you get up, turn off the game, and go outside to deal with this guy. After all, he is looking at your woman. Let’s say you get into a little scuffle, win, and go back into the house feeling proud of yourself for defending your wife’s honor. Then, the next day she comes home and tells you the same thing. Again, you put down the remote and go outside to deal with the situation. You win again, but this time you limp home. By the time the third day rolls around, most men would be praying that their wives, girlfriends, or partners don’t tell them about anything else because of what they would be compelled to do. Women know this and they protect us from each other. They understand that male bravado of the man box would not allow for a peaceful resolution in most cases.
What I have also found interesting is that we talk more about the women being inappropriate for dressing and dancing as they do. Rarely do we hold the men accountable for creating and sustaining the demand for this behavior. We don’t talk enough about men as the benefactor of this behavior. Often we make it appear that this is solely a women’s problem and we as men don’t have anything to do with it.
Also, subtle in Bill’s remarks but very important is the issue of women choosing to love women. Bill mentions it in a way that supports the notion that women who are lesbian, gay, queer, or transgender hate men. And, in fact, their views and positions on equality are not about ending the oppression of women but more about their hatred of men. This view just allows men to discredit these women’s views and opinions, while enforcing heterosexism.
The challenge for men is to then take action. I don’t discredit the progress that has been made by men like John in acknowledging the truths of manhood. However, simply acknowledging the truth won’t move most men to action. I believe when staying silent to the truth becomes too uncomfortable, men will speak out.
Ken’s position is widely supported by both men and women. While men may believe the truths in the challenges we discussed regarding manhood, they don’t want their sons to be the “pioneers” of the required change. I have found this to be true at times with women as well; whether it’s their sons or the man they are partnered with, they are reluctant to let him go out of the man box completely.
It is admirable for a woman to be a virgin, whereas it can be shameful for men and boys. Here, the man box pressures males in cases where they may not be ready to have sex or the woman is not interested. This man box thinking lays the groundwork for violent situations such as rape and other forms of sexual assault. When you have men trying to prove themselves by engaging in sex, violence may not be far away.
I can remember, starting around the age of five, my father leaving home going on business trips. My oldest sister Sharon at the time was ten. My father as he was preparing to leave would look at me and say, “Paul, Dad is leaving on a business trip, you’re the man of the house, take care of your mother, sisters, and little brother.” I would say, “Yes, Dad” and stick my little chest out, my mother would just smile and my sister Wanda would roll her eyes at me.
In addition, there are messages that a daughter experiencing her brother being placed in charge receives as well. For example, your brother is worthy of being in charge regardless of his limitations and you are not, you need a man to take care of you, you are not and never will be as good as a boy. Now we as men don’t intentionally mean for any of this to be the case or outcome. We are just trying to raise our sons to be good men. The challenge is that we are on remote control, doing things the way they have always been done. It’s required for men to get off remote control and think through these issues as we focus on the next generation of men.
The pastor met with Ted and provided all the details of the situation. Ted listened to him and noticed that he was visibly stressed about how to handle the situation because the accused was a known leader in the church. The pastor appeared to have a dilemma; he knew that a response was required but he was concerned about the impact it might have on a large portion of his congregation that were family members of the abuser. At some point in the conversation, Ted asked the pastor, “What would you do if he had hit you?” The pastor quickly replied, “Oh, he would have to leave this church. I would encourage him to remain within the body of Christ, but he would have to worship somewhere else.” Then, Ted simply stated, “So there’s your policy.”
In further conversation with Gary, he stated, “The challenge for me and other men as well is to value women equally and redefine what has been ingrained in us about women for so long. We should genuinely value their opinions, thoughts, suggestions, recommendations, or directives involved with any issue. Once we set these thoughts into motion and value women as we would men, we can retract the (man stuff) sexism that makes us think that we are worth more and that they are worth less. I’m not sure that men actually feel “less than” in these kinds of situations or that many of us can even name what we are feeling. I just know that we often resort to feeling annoyed, agitated, and, of course, angry because that’s what the man box teaches us is okay."
While there is not necessarily anything wrong with being tough and strong—for example, I love football, I love watching tough, strong men play the game of football. The question is what if I’m not tough, what if I’m not strong, what if I’m very loving and gentle? What if I want to be loving, kind, and gentle while being tough and strong at the same time? What if I want to speak about my pain, hurts, and fears? There is a reason why our boys and young men work so very hard to fit into these rigid definitions of manhood, even if it’s not who they are. Is this what we truly want for our boys? Is it working well? Does it contribute to many of our social problems? I believe these are fair questions to ask those of us who are men.
During one event, an athletic director for a major university made a profound statement that will have a lasting impact on me. He stated, “While I had great respect for my teachers growing up as a young man, I can’t remember their names, but I can remember the name of every athletic coach I ever played for.” He shared his statement to emphasize the point that coaches have a lifelong effect on boys and young men. My son is a high school football player and his coach is a household name among our family. My wife and I are fortunate that his coach is a wonderful man and teaches the boys about healthy manhood, and uses football as a tool for character development. I am certain my son (along with many other boys) will maintain a lifelong relationship with this man.
This approach lowers the risk of young women being assaulted and helps them feel safe. While it appears that this is an appropriate response, what we are neglecting is that we are holding women responsible for doing something about violence being perpetrated by men. Not only are we holding women responsible, we are also inconveniencing them in the name of safety, while men’s lives go uninterrupted; this is a normal pattern of response to violence against women in our communities.
Our approach was a way to make the rape on that campus the men’s issue that it needed to be. The focus becomes on the men. So the male students who are transported in the car or the van are no longer asking about what the victim was wearing, or why she was wherever she was, or nitpicking what she was doing when she was raped. They are asking, “Who did this?” And saying, “We need to do something about it because I am not going to be transported around campus for the rest of the year.”
We can begin by having critical conversations of how manhood requires distancing oneself from the perceived experiences of women and girls. When men envision the world that they want to see for their daughters to live in and how they want to see men acting and behaving in that world, not only do we gain interest in this conversation, but it also puts men in conflict against themselves. They know what they are. They know what their male friends are. They also know that they can’t spend all their waking hours making sure that no man mistreats their daughters. Through their daughters, these men take harder looks at themselves. And then the light bulbs come on. We do realize that we have contributed to the problem. We do realize that it may change or may not change in the time that our daughters come of age. We do realize that doing nothing will lead to nothing.
As you know, I grew up in New York City. I remember my mother telling my sister to always have her keys ready when she came into the building so she could enter the apartment quickly and could use the key as a weapon if needed. She had a saying for my sister, “Remember if you’re looking for your keys, you’re looking for trouble.” When I think about this saying my mother would tell my sister, I know she used it to help her remember danger. But the part that said, “You’re looking for trouble” is an example of how we as a society shift the responsibility of the violence from the offender (the man) to the victim (the woman).
In addition to all the things we tell women not to do, we have just as long a list of things we ask them to explain that begins with, “Why did you?” If she is attacked by a man we will want to know: Why were you out so late? Why did you wear that tank top? Why did you have so many drinks? Why didn’t you leave with your girlfriends? One of the unfortunately classic statements with domestic violence is, “Why don’t you just leave?” and then we say, “If she doesn’t leave she must like it.”
Men aren’t in the habit of looking at themselves in a group context and saying, “Well, while I am a good man, I am still part of this collective of men and this is what we do that is inappropriate to women.” No, most men are taught to operate from a place of, “I am a good man and I don’t do or support the behaviors of abusive men.” What this reality misses, though, is that all men, as part of the dominating group, consciously or subconsciously play a role in that system and institution of domination. It’s like when white people say, “I am not racist; I know other white people are, but I am not.” Many times that statement does not create the space to have the needed critical conversations about systematic institutional racial oppression. When whites refuse to self-reflect, or examine their relationship with other white people in the context of a race construct, they limit their ability to understand systematic institutional racial oppression. You can look at almost any dominating group in our country and come up with the same analogies.
The most disrespectful responses are usually leveled at women. While it’s challenging for many men to hear this information from men, it’s even more difficult to hear them from women. What we have to keep in mind is that we are socialized to have less value in women, so the mentality is usually, how dare she confront me on this or anything else. So a woman may say the same thing that I did, and be equally or even more respectful in doing so, but men by and large will hear it “better” from me, the man. This not simply a bad guy, good guy conversation—this happens with most men in many situations; we outlined a few earlier in man box stories. Good guys are just as sexist as other men; no man gets a pass on this.