Many men have responded to #MeToo by pledging to change their behavior
Start young and eliminate gender stereotypes, experts say, to prevent sexual abuse
Watch “Tipping Point: Sexual Harassment in America,” at 9 p.m. ET Thursday, November 9, on CNN.
As millions of women continue to share their stories of sexual abuse and harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, men from all walks of life have responded.
If men need help keeping their pledge, the good news is that there are many established organizations with proven track records of helping erase men’s ingrained attitudes toward women. The bad news: many of them have been providing resources to men for decades. So why haven’t more men used them for self-reflection and change?
“Many men haven’t felt this is their problem because they don’t see themselves as the bad guy,” said Ted Bunch, who co-founded A Call to Men, a men’s violence prevention and socialization organization. “But what they don’t understand is that even though most of us are not abusive, we are silent. And that makes us a bad guy.”
“It’s always been men’s responsibility to prevent gender-based violence,” agreed Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape. “But you have to first see something as a problem before you can gain the skills to impact that problem in a positive way.”
’We want to go upstream’
To create a lasting shift in how men treat women, experts say, prevention is key.
“The way we’ve always responded is through intervention after the fact,” Bunch said. “Someone has to be harmed; someone has to go to the hospital; someone has to go to the shelter; someone has to go to human resources. We want to go upstream and prevent it so that it doesn’t happen in the first place.”
In A Call to Men’s approach, trainers lead group conversations with men, usually ranging in age from 18 to 25; they also offer a nine-week middle- and high-school program called LiveRespect. Much of the conversation in these groups is focused on what A Call to Men CEO and co-founder Tony Porter calls the “man box”: definitions of manhood that box men in and limit how they think and feel.
Harvard Medical School psychologist William Pollack calls it the “boy code” and has written extensively about his research on the constricting behavioral rules and regulations society places on boys as they mature.
“The Boy Code puts boys and men into a gender straitjacket that constrains not only them but everyone else, reducing us all as human beings,” Pollack writes in his book, “Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood.”
Wearing a mask that is ‘glued to your face’
RahK Lash was 19 when he attended A Call to Men seminar and felt an immediate connection to the concept of the man box. As the only son in a family of daughters, he says he grew up expected to conform to a narrow definition of manhood.
“My father was an all-state running back; all my coaches went to school with him and expected me to be like him in baseball, basketball, wrestling,” Lash said. “Personally, I was more interested in art, drawing and dance. But I pushed a lot of my own passions aside.”
Once he got to college, he continued to feel restricted as he tried to match his behavior with what was expected by his fraternity brothers.
“I was raised with strong morals, but I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to live my way,” Lash explained. “I lied a lot, to fit into this masculinity game. It was tiring and exhausting trying to keep up the façade.
“I always felt like this wasn’t me,” he said. “It’s like wearing this mask. And if you wear it too long, it becomes glued to your face. And you begin to think ‘this is who I am.’ “
It would take years, and a sort of reinvention, for Lash to shed his mask.
’Man box’ training starts early
The strict, defining rules of the man box start at an early age for boys, Porter says – much younger than you might imagine.
“The moment you tell a boy to stop crying – and for some of us, that’s about 3 years old – you’re teaching him to stop feeling,” said Porter, the CEO of A Call to Men. “Boys are taught to have no fear, to be daring. Asking for help is also viewed as a sign of weakness, and that is also taught to our boys early on. We tell them to ‘go figure it out on your own.’ The only emotion young boys have permission to express is anger.”
Justin Coulson, an Australian family psychologist who runs workshops with adolescent boys on sexuality and the impact of pornography, agreed: “It starts in those first few years. Studies show that even though Mum is working today, she still does most of the housework and parenting. Many young boys grow up watching and internalizing this.”
Gender stereotypes are all too often reinforced at school, on the playground and in the classroom.
“By middle school, the message of what it means to be a man really takes hold,” Porter said. “In elementary school, you can still tell boys to grab each others’ hands, and they will do it, but middle school is when society’s messages begin to really set in.”
By the time a boy hits puberty, when studies show he will experience a decrease in empathy, he’s probably been exposed to pornography that “illustrates women as objects to be abused and treated appallingly,” Coulson said.