Rethinking Masculinity

An interview with Tony Porter, the CEO of A Call to Men, which teaches men how to prevent violence against women.

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Tony Porter, the co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit A Call to Men, has become internationally recognized for his work with men and boys that seeks to end violence and discrimination against all women and girls. Twenty-four years ago, Porter started working with domestic-violence offenders at VCS, a volunteer counseling service in New City, New York. Under the mentorship of female activists, Porter began to see more clearly how men can become a part of the solution. He wanted to raise awareness about what well-meaning men have in common with men who batter or sexually assault women. Porter recognized that in our society, all men are socialized to devalue women. While offenders must be held accountable for their abusive and violent behavior, well-meaning men can help to address this larger social ill.

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As A Call to Men's work expanded and its reputation grew, Porter was asked to present in front of the UN's Commission on the Status of Women. He eventually gave a TED Talk, now with more than 4 million views, and authored the book Breaking Out of the "Manbox": The Next Generation of Manhood, which opened up a wider conversation on how to engage men in the efforts to end violence against women. Now considered an authority on the topic, Porter has lectured for the State Department and serves as an adviser to the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, providing policy consultation, player engagement, and violence-prevention training. A Call to Men has worked with groups of men, including ones in the military and at universities, to redefine what it means to "be a man."

The nonprofit's LiveRespect curriculum teaches middle- and high-school boys to identify not only how society pressures them to follow strict gender rules but also the consequences, ranging from teasing to violence, if they don't conform. A Call to Men's programs help men and boys to identify everything from the media's influence, to what demonstrates consent, coercion, and nonconsent, to the myths and facts of sexual harassment and assault. Most important, they teach them how to interrupt the cycle by speaking up and making respectful choices. These practices allow men to embrace a healthy manhood and to create healthy relationships with women and girls. I spoke with Porter about how he reframes masculinity for the men he teaches.

Chelsey Goodan: Why do you think a lot of men don't feel responsible for preventing violence and discrimination against women?

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Tony Porter: I'll start out by saying most men are not physically abusive. Most men, though, are silent to the abuse. That silence is rooted in how men are socialized to have a lack of interest in the experience of women and girls. When you look at the collective socialization of manhood, so much of what men are taught about what defines being a man is the opposite of what they perceive to be the definition of what it means to be a woman.

If women have permission to share their emotions, then men don't. If women have permission to express their fears, then men don't. If women have permission to ask for help, then men don't. To most effectively distance yourself, men are taught to have a lack of interest, until boys come of a certain age and then sexual conquest is the priority. When men demonstrate interest outside of sexual conquest, far too often their "manhood" is in question. It's so easy to motivate a boy in athletics by telling him he's "playing like a girl." We have to ask ourselves, "Why does that work so effectively?" For the most part, it's taught so early on, we're just on remote control.

Most men are silent to the abuse. That silence is rooted in how men are socialized to have a lack of interest in the experience of women and girls.

CG: What is the best hook you've found to engage men? Particularly "alpha men," like the professional athletes you work with?

TP: We have a way of putting men in conflict with their traditional thinking and socialization. I've asked men, "Would you be OK with your daughter dating you?" The honest answer is no. We don't want to coddle men; we want to hold them accountable. But our goal is to end the violence, and we can't do that if we alienate men.

CG: What have you seen that works?

TP: We respectfully walk men through the process, no different than any other dominating group would want. We have to love them through this process, because our goal is to grab their hearts through a transformative experience, not an academic experience. We can't be just beating them up and expecting to transform them. We're teaching men the importance of embracing and expressing a full range of emotions. As men, we give ourselves permission to express one emotion, and that emotion is anger. Anger can lead to violence. A Call to Men teaches men that anger is actually a secondary emotion to hide the fear of pain. In this process, we teach men that it's important to talk about what frightens us.

We spend a lot of time with men who have influence over other men. When they speak, men listen, which will expedite our efforts. We want them to use that influence and the platform that they have to promote healthy, respectful manhood. We're very purposeful in our work with professional and collegiate sports and the military. These are organizations and institutions that men have a lot of respect for.

CG: I went to your event A Call to Coaches with my husband, and we were personally so moved to see 300-plus men tap into their vulnerability in ways that we've never seen before. I'm sure you have witnessed many men transform and find healing.

TP: I ask men questions like "Those of you who have never seen your father cry, please raise your hand." Two-thirds of the men usually say that they've never seen their dad shed a tear, or they've only seen him shed a tear once. And we know, because of how life is, that there were numerous occasions where shedding a tear would have been appropriate. Men have an inability to ask for help because it's viewed as a sign of weakness. It's creating an epidemic of violence at the hands of men, while at the same time it's killing men, too. We address this social ill from both perspectives.

At A Call to Men, we give men the space to think critically about their socialization — about how it's affected the women in their lives and their views of women overall. But I think men are often surprised when this process brings healing for themselves as well.

Chelsey Goodan is an LA-based screenwriter who is answering the plea for vibrant and courageous female-driven stories. She is also the founder of the Activist Cartel, a network of men and women dedicated to promoting women's rights and equality.

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