Standing in a room full of male student-athletes, age 18-22, I asked the question: “to you, what does it mean to be a man?” Immediately, silence filled the room and everyone looked at me with a blank stare. I repeated the question and the young men began to blurt out their definitions of what it means to be a man and 99% of what was said reflected aggressive, violent, dominant and/or loud behavior. Honestly, up until I began my work with A CALL TO MEN, this too was my reality of what it means to be a man and how I defined my maleness or masculinity.
Whether it’s in sports or on the playground, masculinity is coded with phrases like “that’s just how boys/men are,” “man up” or “boys will be boys.” The emotionally damaging “masculinization” of young men starts even before young men and boys have a keen sense of self; often before they even have developmental capacity to fully understand why the color pink is associated with females and blue is associated with males.
“When we talk about the rules of being a real man, those rules aren’t just handed to us on a sheet of paper. They’re pounded into us daily.” - Mark Greene
At A CALL TO MEN, we use this question as a teaching moment to identify how we all can come from different backgrounds and cultural upbringings but somehow, we all have a very similar understanding of what it means to be a man. The collective socialization of manhood is something we all have been exposed to and exemplified in one way or another during adolescence and adulthood. It’s how we’ve defined manhood for so many years. Distancing ourselves from things that are associated with women has allowed for violence against women to persist at staggering rates.
· At least one third of all female homicides victims in the U.S. are killed by male intimate partners
· One out six women will be raped
· One out of five women between the ages of 16-24 years old will be sexually assaulted
As men, we are taught to be emotionless. But when standing in the room with these male student-athletes, I know I must be vulnerable. By doing this, it allows some of them to open up about things they’ve struggled with in their past that they felt they could never share openly among other men. After the session concluded, I encouraged the young men to articulate their own definition of what it means to be man and share it with one another. They can then hold each other accountable and positively impact the youth who currently look up to them for a definition of “what it means to be a man.”
My definition of “being a man” challenges me to speak openly and honestly about my thoughts and feelings. I’m re-learning how to speak from a truly genuine and unapologetic place. I’m identifying safe spaces to speak with other men about my experiences and to hear about theirs so we can move forward to healthier manhood on common ground.
Our society has placed certain cultural norms on men and we’re expected to act a certain way, but I would challenge every man to unlearn what it means to be a man in our society and find a definition that allows YOU to be happy and genuine and live as your authentic self.
- A CALL TO MEN Trainer Syndric Steptoe