This past week, I had the opportunity to attend an event titled “Exploring Masculinity” in the Women’s Center here at Penn. The program was designed encourage men on campus to think introspectively about their experiences along the lines of gender and assess the campus climate for furthering male engagement.
Working as a first step in a series of programmatic efforts to promote healthy attitudes about masculinity and how men can lead more fulfilling relationships with themselves and others, it was organized in coordination with the leadership of Vice Provost for University Life, Office of the Chaplain, Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, Makuu, Pan-Asian American Community House and Penn Violence Prevention as part of continuing work on male engagement on campus.
During the event, I was surrounded by the members of Makuu, the Undergraduate Assembly, Greek Life, Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, and others. After we were asked to describe our biggest fears, we were all given three Post-It notes and wrote down what masculinity was for us growing up, what institutions contributed to our self-perception and how we define masculinity today.
While our answers reflected our social, cultural and even economic differences, what moved me was just how similar our answers were. For example, every fear that was mentioned during the event stemmed from an insecurity rooted in masculinity, whether it be a fear of mediocrity, of our own temper or the things in life we can’t control.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, our communities, campus, nation and world teaches people of all genders toxic lessons about what “normal” gender expression is supposed to be and how they are supposed to mold themselves into what is acceptable. Because of those lessons, a vast majority of men are taught to hide their emotions, and I believe it’s an issue that has fallen unnoticed in our discussions around campus culture.
Looking back on my childhood, I can see why, like many men, I found accessing mental health and self-identity to feel impossible. As masculinity affirms ideals of self-reliance, stoicism, sexual promiscuity and avoidance of dealing with insecurity, it leads to a culture of dominance over women that does not lend itself well to emotional vulnerability. On our campus, it has and continues to perpetuate issues such as sexual assault, a vast majority of men refusing to utilize mental health resources and a misogynistic view of women on campus.
It’s important now more than ever to realize that toxic masculinity is not a culture that appears overnight. Rather, it is implanted into men from a young age. Personally, similar to almost every man on campus, I have lost count of the times I have heard parents of young boys diminish their own or other people’s sons for being “too sensitive,” “soft” or emotional. Therefore, acknowledging and addressing how we raise boys is vital in the discussion on masculinity.
This stigma towards sensitivity and emotion is a pattern that continues into Penn and many aspects of our campus culture. Whether it be men refusing to address their mental health issues due to fear of facing their emotions or the patterns of emotional abuse that plague far too many relationships on campus, toxic masculinity is an uphill battle that dawns before we are even aware of it. We must not dismiss the role culture plays in how men view and approach mental health.
In September of 2015, nearly 1 of 4 women had reported being sexually assaulted since their arrival at Penn. While the participation rate in the survey at Penn was only 27 percent, the numbers still present us with a convicting message; our University needs to have honest, constructive and open conversations about how toxic masculinity breeds disdain for women. But first, we need to admit that we have a serious problem. We need to stop blaming women for the sexual assault, trauma and sexism they experience and turn to each other as men and ask ourselves why we let masculinity force us into complacency when the blame is constantly placed on those who are victimized.
Angela Davis once said that “Radical simply means grasping things at the root.” While discussions around masculinity are hard and truthful conclusions regarding its contribution can seem to be “too radical” and far-fetched for men on campus, we must remember that it seems that way because we are addressing the root of an overlooked dilemma on every college campus in America.
Toxic masculinity is a mask that every man has once lived in and impacts every community they’ve ever intersected with. If we are to ever take it off to make our campus an inclusive space for all, we must first acknowledge it exists.
CALVARY ROGERS is a College sophomore from Rochester, N.Y. studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cal’s Corner” usually appears every Wednesday.
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