Men must encourage healthy masculinity to curb gender-based violence

Justin Atkinson

Donald Trump’s “locker-room talk," brought to light by a 2005 recording that surfaced last week, is a metaphor. The locker room represents the space where men can feel safe from the pressure to respect women while they’re alone. This talk, along with more and more women coming forward to speak about the harassment they encountered from Mr. Trump, has led to a surge of condemnation of violence against women in mass media. 

Naturally, interpersonal violence is a common topic on college campuses. National stories like Trump’s and that of convicted rapist Brock Turner have pushed anti-violence work more into the spotlight, prompting student leaders to put a lot of energy into critiquing acts of sexual assault after they happen. But, of course, violence is wrong and no one should commit rape — that’s a low bar to expect of people. Student and university efforts to address these issues often focus only on risk reduction, i.e. stressing the importance of “being safe” and taking steps to protect yourself from danger. These strategies aren’t causing any harm, but they also aren’t the most helpful.

There’s a bigger picture and one that we need to zoom out to understand. Rarely do we talk about the cultural reasons that lead to men, specifically, perpetrating these acts. Men are often left out of a conversation centrally about the violence we are the ones committing. When our culture overvalues or emphasizes traits such as dominance and emotional repression, it’s no surprise that young men grow up failing to value not only their own healthy attachment needs, but also the humanity of people of other genders. 

Last year, our all-men’s service organization, Texas Blazers, started the MenCanEnd project to talk about college sexual assault in a way that focuses on men and their role in gender-based violence. We’re doing our best to emphasize the positive traits of what we think of as masculinity, traits such as emotional intelligence, compassion and self-love. To change our culture, and to do so in a way that fundamentally challenges commonly held ideas of masculinity, means more than just telling men, “Don’t rape.” Change is about having conversations where we let our guard down and talk about how we were taught what manhood is and isn’t. It is about understanding how restrictive masculinity is directly tied to our culture that normalizes and excuses interpersonal violence. And it’s about understanding that masculinity isn’t inherently harmful, but is nonetheless a social construct that deserves to be looked at through a critical lens. 

Cultural change doesn’t happen in a day, and Texas Blazers is still learning how to be better allies from experts in this field. It’s important that men do this work with other men because the responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on women to both educate and survive the violence of men. We must stay engaged in the work already being done by campus groups such as Voices Against Violence, and invite our community, our brothers, to work with us.

Atkinson is a government and women’s and gender studies senior from Sherman. He is a member of Texas Blazers.