A Saskatchewan university group recently made international headlines for hosting a so-called "masculinity confession booth," which encouraged bros to share their "sins" and change their behavior. This was one of several events planned by the Man Up Against Violence organization at the University of Regina over the course of four days this week. The confession booth was run by faculty and university student union members and sought to denounce "hypermasculinity." Obviously, online commenters inevitably voiced disdain and hostility toward the event, labeling it as anti-male and as social justice warrior rhetoric. Therefore, I went to Man Up Against Violence to find out if the backlash was an overreaction or nah.
I arrived at the Man Up Against Violence social house event at the campus pub and saw a dozen tables decorated with balloons and and pamphlets with messages like "Your bro says he's excited to hit the the club Friday and pick up drunk girls. Do you go along with it?" About 20 people sat around drinking beer and chatting.
As I surveyed the event, I thought about my own masculine sins, wondering if I would be forced to confront them. Given what I'd seen in online comment sections (a reliable source for information) about the booth, a part of me was expecting combative academics to take me down a peg. After all, I was walking into a liberal den of politically correct mind control operatives bent on emasculating the West, wasn't I? Would they make me give up doing my still-topical Borat impressions?
But there was no confession booth on this day.
Instead, I met Roz Kelsey, a faculty member with kinesiology and health studies and the founder of Man Up Against Violence. She called it "a movement" started in 2014 when Jackson Katz, a "gender violence prevention training pioneer," spoke at their first event. The organization now delivers "education, training, partnerships and awareness … to prevent violence," according to their website. Event topics throughout the week include teaching consent, how to be be an active bystander, and how to practice "healthy masculinity."
When asked about the attention they received for the confession booth, Kelsey said, "When you say to someone, 'I'm going to challenge a norm,' they think, 'I'm comfortable with that norm. How dare you challenge it.'" She went on, saying, "The minute men talk about masculinity, it's emasculating." Confessions the group heard ranged from people telling others to "man up" or "women putting someone in the 'friend zone' because they weren't man enough." Kelsey saw the booth as a fun way to start a conversation.
"In no way did we force people to do it," she said, "Even the concept of talking about it gets people upset. It's anger. We get mad when something hits home."
Man Up Against Violence, a university trademarked brand, was established around the time when a tape of Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancee-now-wife Janay Palmer and questions about the death of NHLer Derek Boogaard dominated the news cycle.
Kelsey focused on Boogaard's death as an example of the effects of "toxic masculinity." "Here was a guy in chronic pain and dependant on prescription drugs and subsequent issues from chronic brain injuries because he's a big fighter."
Man Up Against Violence has received funding from a handful of major organizations, including the potash corporation Mosaic, Alliance Energy and the Government of Saskatchewan's Status of Women Office. A spokesperson for the provincial government voiced support for the university initiative, which they funded in 2016. "Saskatchewan's high rate of violence affects all communities and people of all ages, and cannot be tolerated," a statement read.
I spoke to Darius Mole, the event manager with the University of Regina Students' Union. He had just completed the Man Up Against Violence outreach program, which he says gave him the skills to educate others about the cause. He said having an open mind is key, especially for anyone planning to work around kids.
Throughout his time on basketball teams, he said a common insult in sports is to compare someone to a girl. "We have to learn not to generalize women as having weaknesses," he said, "Man Up teaches you that it's okay to feel emotions and it's okay to react in certain ways … It teaches you how to help people open up and help others."
Kelsey said she understands where the misconceptions and criticisms against Man Up Against Violence come from, citing terms like "safe space," which can be used to belittle the campus-born movement.
"I think we get criticised as an organization for challenging power structures," Kelsey said, "Since men hold power, when we challenge them, they wonder what that means. They get a little bit of discomfort … There's the idea we're all snowflakes. We have this resistance that sits upon the terms that identify what challenges something."
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