Masculine socialization encourages guys to behave in certain ways, and discourages us from other behaviors. This has been well understood since Bob Brannon described “the male sex role” in 1976: No sissy stuff (reject femininity), be a big wheel (achieve at all costs), be a sturdy oak (disregard emotions to be tough and independent), and give ’em hell (value aggression, violence, and risk-taking). This type of masculinity not only constrains men’s ability to live their lives fully, it also negatively affects men’s health – and while ideas about masculinity have shifted some since then, it is still pretty easy to see how masculine socialization contributes to the subordination and victimization of women.
If Brannon were writing his article today, I have a feeling one of his key phrases would be “Bros before hos.” Part of what masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel calls “The Bro Code,” this phrase discourages guys from intervening in other guys’ sexist behavior, and can make it really difficult to speak up when sexism or sexual violence are happening (in many violent gang-rapes, there are guys around who don’t participate, but also don’t do anything to intervene). Even smaller things like saying that you don’t find sexist jokes funny, or calling out street harassment, can be difficult if you don’t have any sense of how to do it – but they can also be among the most important ways men can show support for women’s equality.
So, this month, take some time in a safe environment to practice your responses to sexist interactions. My friend Marc Rich and his InterACT performance group have shown that if you give guys a chance to think through and practice their responses, they can do a better job of navigating (or rejecting) masculine socialization and intervening effectively. I’ve seen InterACt, and they’re amazing – but you can also do some of this kind of practice yourselves, with just a friend or two.
Here’s how this works: you take a situation where something sexist is happening, and with one or two of you acting as the people being sexist, others get to practice intervening. After each attempt, talk a bit about what strategies worked, what didn’t, and why. Talk about how it felt, too, and what impact it might have. Take turns so that each of you gets to practice intervening a few times; it becomes less scary the more often you’ve done it. So, how would you respond if:
- A close friend makes a sexist joke? Says that a boss or an assignment “raped” them? Calls someone a bitch, a pussy, or cunty? Implies that a particular task or job would be inappropriate for women, or that women are less capable of something basic like driving?
- A new acquaintance, or stranger in a public place, starts describing women as sex objects? Blames women’s clothing, behavior, or demeanor for sexual violence against them? Yells vulgar or sexist things at a woman walking by? Gropes someone in passing, or in a “joking” way?
- An employer or professor treats female subordinates unfairly, talks down to them, or assumes they are incompetent? Calls on or praises you while routinely overlooking or ignoring the women around you? Offers you some kind of benefit (a raise, an opportunity for extra credit or a better position, a chance to display your expertise) that they do not offer to women?
There are also lots of ways to modify or deepen this exercise:
- Use real situations that have happened in your life, or that friends have told you about.
- Discuss why each situation is a problem (especially if some group members disagree about these things).
- Talk about the ways a given situation contributes to the wider sexist social structure and women’s social disempowerment – and also about how the situation impacts you as men, either positively or negatively.
- Practice interrupting racism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. but modifying the above situations: in most cases, just replace “sexist joke” with “racist/gay/fat joke,” or “women” with “Latinos/lesbians/people with disabilities,” or create your own situations.
- Have the guys who are acting as ‘the problem’ respond more condescendingly, insultingly, or aggressively to being called out.
If you have more ideas for situations to practice with or ways to improve the exercise, or if you get stuck and need some feedback from our community, put it in the comments!