I've had friends of mine bring up this question: do men really need a safe space? As a man who runs workshops on healthier masculinities and consent, I think the answer is yes.
I'm asked to come into spaces where groups of men are having conversations about power and privilege, inequality and discrimination. They're looking to express ideas that deconstruct gender in a way that addresses toxic masculinity. We talk about the different ways that masculinity can embody itself, opening a space to talk about queer identity and consent.
I think we need to shift some of the weight away from feminist groups and women's groups, so that men bear some of the responsibility. Men need to have conversations about the ways men are harming people, and what they can do to support women in our communities. If women are the only ones talking about solutions, that's only half the conversation. How are men holding each other accountable to a healthier idea of masculinity?
Many of the men I work with are really excited to be part of the conversation. They see it very clearly, and they see it affect them and their relationships. We need to talk about ways we've caused harm to other people and recognize it. To put it out there without being shamed, and look at ways to change behaviour.
Some men need to talk about their experience as gay men, or trans men, or queer folks, or non-binary masc-presenting folks, and these conversations may all sound a bit different. When cis-hetero men with lots of privilege gather to discuss these ideas, it's not always appropriate, good or sensitive. It's hard when there are people in the room who would be hurt or triggered when some men talk about where they're at. It makes the conversation harder to have. It involves more feelings, more emotions, and usually what happens is the people with lots of privilege shut down. It becomes less about moving forward, and more of a 'fuck this' kinda thing.
I think it would be great if we could all have a conversation about ourselves and our own behaviour in front of people who are hurting, but I don't think we're quite there yet.
If you offer the space for men to be vulnerable, and role model a kind of masculinity that is more gentle and sensitive, then you notice men perform differently in that space. I notice the ways a man might speak in a group of friends or around new people—performing a more typical confident, opinionated, maybe even slightly misogynistic role—compared to when we're one-on-one.
We know there are men who are resistant to the idea of patriarchy and all the ways it sucks, and we tend to neglect these relationships—we see them as problematic. But then the weight just gets put back on women and marginalized people. They're the ones forced to have these conversations with men, instead of us taking responsibility. There needs to be a way to welcome them into the conversation and be able to hear them.
This can be dangerous when groups claim to be making a space for men, but fall into so-called men's rights activism. The narrative becomes that masculinity is under attack, that we don't get to be ourselves because it's being policed by feminists. They say if we're going to talk about gender equality and violence, we have to talk about assault against men, domestic violence against men, men being imprisoned at higher rates than women, and men dying of suicide. Those are conversations that can be had, but the reality of inequality under patriarchy needs to be very clearly articulated. There is also a lot of misinformation that creates these mentalities, and that's what these harmful groups feed off of.
At the same time, we need to be harder on people that are expressing views that are hateful. We don't need to coddle them. But we can create spaces that role model healthy masculinity.
Healthy masculinity isn't easy to define, and differentiating from what's toxic can be difficult. I remember some of the best times of my life were in high school, on the football team. I loved it because of how aggressive it was, and how we could amp each other up, get ready with loud, angry music. We'd smash our helmets together, go out on the field and throw our bodies around. As a smaller, more sensitive young man, I liked that. Can toxic masculinity maneuver itself through a culture like that? Definitely. We need to recognize that a lot of male-only spaces like sports teams aren't safe places for all men.
Sports culture is an avenue to express toxic masculinity if it's overly violent, if it's disregarding your health and the health of others. That's the line we cross. I think there's a way to stay within those boundaries, but still hoot and holler and grunt and box. It's only toxic when we're oblivious to the ways these ideas cause harm to other people in very serious and unequal ways. I think it becomes toxic when we start to defend an idea of masculinity over someone else's experience of harm.
Those are the conversations that men need to have, to move into a space of 'OK maybe my idea of self identity is wrapped up in a system of power that I don't want to be part of.' That's a step toward healthier masculinity. That and being open to the fact that you can be wrong. I think if someone is telling you you're wrong because you're hurting people, you have to listen. That's not just an opinion.
I do think men should express their views of masculinity, as long as we're open to the fact it could be unhealthy.
Ryan Avola is running a workshop for the Healthier Masculinities student club at the University of British Columbia September 23.