October 10, 2018

Unlearning Toxic Masculinity, Learning Consent

By Mark Gunnery

University of Maryland football players

University of Maryland football players

As the #MeToo movement moves into its second year, conversations about both healthy and toxic masculinity have become more urgent for many.

Kojo spoke to three local advocates who work with youth about the messages boys and men receive about masculinity, and they had advice for parents, coaches, mentors and educators who want to raise difficult topics like sexual assault, consent, bullying and violence.

Writing in Salon, Amanda Marcotte defines toxic masculinity as “a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.”

David Miller, founder of the Dare To Be King Project, provides training for youth and families to provide social well-being and academic achievement for boys and young men of color. To Miller, healthy masculinity means a focus on men’s responsibilities, whether that is day-to-day living or avoidance of substance abuse and other risky behavior. In his work, which includes curricula for educators and children’s books, he emphasizes teaching boys how to deal with anger, impulse control and decision making, which he feels are key to fostering healthy masculinity.

Jessica Raven, Executive Director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, says that toxic masculinity, on the other hand, is ubiquitous, and goes beyond street harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence. “Often men speak over women, queer and nonbinary people in the conference room, in the workplace, cutting people off,” she said. Toxic masculinity “comes from the way that frequently boys are socialized as young children. If they fall they’re told ‘don’t cry, be a tough guy.’ All of that, I think, is toxic.”

Teaching boys and young men about sexual assault and consent has been at the forefront of many people’s minds in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings. For the middle and high school boys that David Miller works with, though, consent still is “not a term that they’re familiar with.” He says that it is important to be able to talk to young men and have them understand that there are forms of appropriate and inappropriate touching and that they can’t touch somebody without asking for permission.

Debates over healthy and toxic masculinity extend beyond sexual violence, though. After the death earlier this year of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, statements from players and an investigation revealed a culture of bullying within the all-male football team. In light of McNair’s death, questions have been raised about how single gender sports teams can reinforce both healthy and toxic forms of masculinity.

To retired Maret School basketball coach and physical education teacher Butch McAdams, hazing, shaming and bullying are major problems within team sports. He says as a coach he focused on developing leaders who would set an example within their peer group. He believes that sports teams can be places where boys develop leadership and teamwork skills that can counteract negative influences and help them become the men they want to be. “People say that athletics build character,” McAdams said, “but I always say that athletics reveal character.”

Jessica Raven, though, points out that there are limits to how much an all-male sports team can address the problems of toxic masculinity. “Research does show that gender segregated settings reinforce rigid gender norms and belief in rigid gender norms is one of the top indicators that lead men to engage in violent and harmful behaviors. Reinforcing the gender binary is harmful.”

David Miller thinks that there are some athletes who present positive role models for boys and young men. “I love LeBron James,” he said, because he “always seems to present himself as an authentic man who is responsible and who is willing to take a stand.” Another role model for Miller is Colin Kaepernick. “When we talk about manhood, when we talk about responsibility, it’s really beginning to teach young men that there are some things that you have to take a stand for.”

Butch McAdams supports those taking a stand in the #MeToo movement. “Doing the right thing transcends eras. Regardless of what gender or demographic you fall under, if we have respect for one another we can co-exist.”

Talking To Pre-Teen And Teen Boys About Sex And Consent

  • Understand what “consent” means. Consent basically means asking “is it okay?” It’s important for young people to understand before they touch anyone to ask for permission.
  • Discuss the importance of “no.” Even though consent be given it can be taken away.
  • Conversations about touching are important, from slapping on the butt to hitting or touching any other private part. Dispel the myth that this is a game and help young males understand that this is unhealthy behavior that could have legal implications.
  • Ask permission for a hug, kiss and or other forms of touching. Without consent these actions can cause discomfort.
  • Have “sex talks” early and often. Elementary school is a great time to launch these conversations.
  • Explain and explore what healthy manhood and masculinity looks and feels like.
  • Have intergenerational conversations with boys and men about the essence and responsibility of manhood.

By David Miller, M.Ed., author of Dare to Be King: What If The Prince Lives? and Lessons We Learned from Our Fathers