Yesterday, November 19th, was International Men’s Day. Michael Kaufman and Gary Barker already wrote a terrific piece for the Huffington Post on what makes this particular day problematic and why we should, instead, use all the days of the year to talk about and support gender equality. According to Kaufman and Barker, “why do we need an International Men’s Day when we’ve already got the whole year.” Point well taken. For the same reasons that we don’t need a “White History Month” we don’t need a Men’s Day. But, what if, in the spirit of International Men’s Day, we took a day to talk about the ways in which many formations of masculinity are harmful to both men and women and what we can do about it?
The Fall 2013 edition of Contexts, the magazine of the American Sociological Association, featured an interview with Dean Peacock, Executive Director of Sonke Gender Justice Network. In the interview Peacock spoke of the wide-ranging reasons why we should be talking with men and boys about gender. Sonke, based in South Africa, works with the belief that changing men’s and boys’ beliefs about gender and masculinity can reduce men’s use of violence against women and girls, reduce men’s violence against boys and other men, limit the spread of HIV and, by doing these things, fundamentally shift toward a more gender equitable society. And, as a review of the literature on gender activism in South Africa indicates, the data backs them up.
But this isn’t only the case in South Africa. Men’s notions of masculinity are linked to all sorts of bad outcomes for both men and the women in their lives. As I have argued elsewhere, boys who adhere to traditional notions of masculinity are more likely to bully others. Men who believe that being a real man is about being physically tough, dominant, and sexually aggressive are more likely not only to perpetrate intimate partner violence but also to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as having multiple sexual partners without using condoms. We frequently talk about how these behaviors are bad for the women these men interact with, but we don’t often mention that these behaviors and attitudes are bad for men too. Many of the ways in which we men assert our masculinity are self-destructive. Many of our “masculine” behaviors, ranging from our hyper-violent sports to our dietary choices, reduce our own lifespans. So, having critical conversations with men and boys about masculinity is not only good for women, it is good for us too.
The interview in Contexts raises awareness of how Dean Peacock and Sonke Gender Justice Network are doing this important work in South Africa, but Sonke is not alone in this effort. Michael Kaufman and Gary Barker, already introduced as the authors of the Huffington Post piece, have also been deeply involved in organizations doing this work on a transnational scale. Kaufman was a co-founder of the now global White Ribbon Campaign to end violence against women. Barker was the founding Executive Director of another organization that works with men and boys to promote gender equality, Instituto Promundo. And together they are leaders of a new global campaign for healthy fatherhood, MenCare.
In addition to this great work happening around the world, there is also domestic work being done here in the United States on these issues. Men Can Stop Rape, a D.C. based non-profit, has been providing trainings, workshops, conferences, and media campaigns to promote healthy masculinity since 1997. Another organization, Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), seeks to engage traditional male role models such as soldiers and athletes as leaders in changing our cultural definitions of masculinity. These are only two of the many organizations stepping up to do this work in US.
If we must have an International Men’s Day, I propose we spend it focusing on the ways in which our notions of masculinity need to change and supporting the organizations pushing that change to happen.
Courtenay, Will H. 2000. “Constructions of Masculinity and Their Influence on Men’s Well-Being: A Theory of Gender and Health.” Social science & medicine 50(10):1385-401.
Gough, Brendan and Mark T. Conner. 2006. “Barriers to Healthy Eating Amongst Men: A Qualitative Analysis.” Social science & medicine 62(2):387-95.
Peacock, Dean, Bafana Khumalo and Eleanor McNab. 2006. “Men and Gender Activism in South Africa: Observations, Critique and Recommendations for the Future.” Agenda 20(69):71-81.
Raj, Anita, Michele R. Decker, Ana La Marche and Jay G. Silverman. 2006. “Masculine Gender Roles Associated with Increased Sexual Risk and Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration among Young Adult Men.” Journal of Urban Health 83(4):575-85.