Inside the Movement to Reprogram Masculinity
Through classes and workshops, men across the United States are attempting to unlearn "toxic masculinity"—for society and for themselves.
Graphic by Michelle Thompson.
In 2006, 56-year-old Nathan got in a fight with his teenage stepdaughter, Mandy, over the way she was doing her chores. Things got physical; he shoved her backward onto the floor. They’d always fought, but things had never gotten this out of control before.
“It was one of the worst things I’d ever done,” Nathan tells me. “It was like I left my body. My anger just exploded out in this horrific way that was completely disproportionate to the situation. I have to say, the way I reacted must have scared me almost as much as it scared her.”
After that, Nathan realized he needed help processing his emotions. He was the sort of liberal, ordinarily compassionate man who raised money for Planned Parenthood, walked out of violent movies, and acted nothing like the archetypes of "toxic masculinity" that saturate politics. But he had, like most people, grown up with the idea that physical dominance was a desirable male trait. As a lifelong football player, suppressing pain and acting tough had always seemed like the way men were supposed to act.
A few months after the fight, Nathan discovered the ManKind Project, a nonprofit training and education organization that hosts “experiential personal development programs for men.” He enrolled in a three-day intensive training, then followed up with a 10-week “integration group.”
Branding-wise, ManKind caters to a traditionally masculine demographic—their initiations are called “New Warrior Training Adventures”—but they spend a lot of time working with stereotypically “un-masculine” things, like emotion. Through the program, Nathan learned to study his feelings and figure out exactly where they were coming from, he says. He was also given tools to conduct proactive check-ins with himself and taught how to de-escalate his anger.
“It took a lot of self-reflection to understand how I’d been projecting my frustrations about my home life onto [Mandy],” he says. “I’d always known things like taking responsibility and doing emotional work could be facets of masculinity, but putting them into practice in my own life completely changed how I related to my family.”
When news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October 2017, Google searches for “toxic masculinity” jumped 50 percent. Almost overnight, the movie producer—who was eventually accused of sexual harassment and/or assault by more than 80 women—became the poster-child of what has come to be known as “toxic masculinity,” the narrow, bullying form of manhood that glorifies sexual conquest, violence, and the subjugation of others.
While the reckoning that followed through the subsequent #MeToo movement made it seem as if a turnkey moment in discussions of accountability and gender dynamics was imminent, the events of this past year—from deadly “incel” attacks to Brett Kavanaugh’s behavior during his confirmation to the Supreme Court—prove we still have a long way to go. Still, there are a growing number of men across the country who, like Nathan, are attempting to travel the distance.
The ManKind Project is part of a nationwide genre of classes and programs—run by gender researchers, social justice groups, NGOs, and artists—that have come to be known as the “healthy masculinities movement,” a grassroots effort to reshape the way men define and embody manhood in order to curb the problems its more toxic expressions can create. And while that often starts with curbing anger and aggression, it typically comes to encompass far more.
“Progressive masculinity is about being in touch with your emotions and not being afraid to be vulnerable."
It’s not clear exactly how many of these programs exist, but some, like Promundo and Men Can Stop Rape, claim to have reached millions of men looking for healthier ways to express masculinity. They do this primarily by offering men a new definition of masculinity—often referred to as “progressive” or “modern” masculinity—that rejects the narrow scope of what’s traditionally considered “manly.”
“Progressive masculinity is about being in touch with your emotions and not being afraid to be vulnerable,” says Stephen Hicks, who first learned about this new type of manhood from the program ReThink Masculinity, which he now co-directs. “It’s asking for help when you need it, showing up, taking accountability, and doing the emotional labor to support the communities and people whose hard work you’ve benefited from. It’s realizing you’re not entitled to anyone’s body or time, understanding consent, and affirming the richness of personhood, diversity, and masculine expression.”
Developed through a partnership between advocacy groups Collective Action for Safe Spaces and ReThink, along with the DC Rape Crisis Center, ReThink Masculinity (RTM) is a two-month long course in Washington DC that aims to promote equality and intervene in gender-based violence by teaching men “progressive masculinity.”
Each week, the 20-odd participants are assigned articles to read on subjects like emotional labor, micro-aggressions, and structural violence. Then, they come together to process the material through group discussions and exercises, which are usually facilitated by past participants.
Hicks tells Broadly that the week four unit, which focuses on consent and rape culture, is typically the hardest for students. Lead by an experienced rape crisis counselor, the men start off by discussing what role they might be playing in propagating rape culture. Even if they haven’t been perpetrators themselves, RTM facilitators encourage them to think about how they might be part of a larger system of inequality that makes sexual assault a rampant problem and give them real-world ways to intervene. RTM has a very strict confidentiality policy, and wouldn't allow Broadly to attend a class. Hicks shared that, typically, a tense and complex portrait of participants' relationships to sexual consent and assault emerges over the course of the unit. Some men reveal themselves to be perpetrators, he says, while others come out as survivors—some both.
After students share their personal stories, the group relates their discussion to larger cultural moments. They talk about things like #MeToo, people like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, and question whose voices are being heard and whose are being silenced. Finally, after checking in with each other about how they’re feeling, it’s on to an exercise in active listening, then role-play scenarios that teach them how to navigate consent. “We teach that ‘no’ can be a point of security and confidence,” says Hicks. “Knowing you gave someone an opportunity to choose what was right for them is a point of strength.”
Hicks says that the skills he learned from RTM have become particularly useful in his other role as a bouncer. Like most bouncers, he used to use aggression and physical dominance to keep the peace in bars and clubs—a form of “occupational masculinity” that has been shown to increase violence between bouncers and clientele. Now, when something happens to one of his guests, their needs are his first priority. He gets them water, finds their friends, gets them a Lyft or taxi if they need it, makes sure they're stable, and makes a report to the manager on duty. Sure, he wants to pummel whoever dosed, assaulted, or otherwise disrespected one of his guests, he says, but he doesn’t.
While Hicks saw the light of progressive masculinity in adulthood, a healthy masculinities program for middle and high school students called Maine Boys to Men attempts to engender this same philosophy in boys during the crucial, self-forming period of puberty. Early education is not only for the benefit of those around the boys, but intended to help them live more fulfilled lives: Young men whose attitudes and behaviors embody stereotypical masculinity have proven be more likely to engage in violence, abuse substances, be delinquent, insist on unequal roles in heterosexual relationships, and have poor mental health.
MBTM’s four-week middle school program is aimed at giving male students a space to express the full range of desires, emotions, affinities, and interests. The coursework isn’t so different from that of ReThink Masculinity, although the methods are tailored for younger participants. Like all their programs, it starts with a “gender box” exercise. The facilitator draws a box on a whiteboard, and students call out stereotypes of masculinity that go inside—tough, bully, angry, fighter. The consequences of behaving outside the box are written beyond the perimeter—laughed at, beat up, dumped. The completed drawing leads into a conversation about how confining dominant definitions of masculinity can be and how that can affect boys and girls alike. Other exercises include group storytelling that prompts questions about consent and gender dynamics.
According to a third-party evaluation by the University of Southern Maine, immersive learning exercises like this one are highly effective at steering boys’ attitudes about gender, violence, and equality. MBTM’s program director, Heidi Randall, says she sees students put these attitudes to use almost immediately.
“One pair of boys in the program overheard another student being called ‘gay’ in a derogatory way, and they stood up for him,” she says. “After, they initiated a whole discussion about why that wasn’t okay in class.”
Another student, a typically macho-presenting athlete, admitted to his group that he liked to wear makeup, says Randall, while a third brought his father and younger brother to MBTM’s screening of The Mask You Live In so he could “engage in an open and ongoing conversation about masculinity with the men in his life.”
Each iteration of healthy masculinities training has its own unique recipe for teaching “progressive masculinity”—some focus on emotional intelligence; others educate about consent and non-violence. Artist Daniel Crook’s classes focus specifically on vulnerability, a learned quality that he says can make a huge difference in changing how men relate to themselves and treat others.
After growing up with the kind of father who he says would break someone’s nose for looking at him wrong, Crook became morbidly fascinated with the violent, typically alcohol-laden brand of masculine expression that the men in his rural, conservative hometown were using to assert their manhood. A femme-presenting queer man who got into alternative gender expressions at an early age, Crook couldn’t understand why they had to fight people to feel like men. At the same time, he found himself wanting to help.
“They were so fragile and angry,” he says. “It was very clear to me that they were acting this way to fall in line with what they thought men should be like. I’d found a gender expression I was happier and more secure in—provided they wanted to, couldn’t I help them do the same?”
As an adult, Crook began to put this into practice through art. He invites straight, cis men to his studio to model for nude portrait sessions in which he attempts to (consensually) deconstruct and reconstruct their sense of masculinity through the type of intimate discussion that far transcends typical man-to-man chats. He asks questions like, “Do you remember the first time you were discouraged to touch, hug, or be emotional with your male friends?” and “How does it feel to be called a ‘pussy’ or be told to ‘man up?’”
“It was very clear to me that they were acting this way to fall in line with what they thought men should be like."
The vulnerability of answering these questions while naked—in front of the type of man they’ve been socialized to think poses a threat to their sexual reputation—can have a transformative effect.
“I think it pushes them over a ledge they’ve been holding themselves back from,” Crook says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the room with a man who just really needed some tenderness.” Crook recalls the time a model collapsed into his arms after getting angry at himself for crying over the death of a loved one. There was no reason for anger in that moment, but he could see why the man reacted like that—he hadn’t had a good hug in five years, he told Crook.
Another subject of Crook’s tells me that the vulnerability he felt while modeling allowed him to finally grapple with a part of his psyche that had damaged his relationships his whole life—his attraction to much younger women. And yet another says he felt emotionally dead and hadn’t cried in a decade until posing for Crook helped him let down his guard. “It’s a relief to discover you don’t have to be any particular way as a man,” he tells me. “Sometimes, you have to get a little vulnerable to find that relief, but you come out so much stronger.” (Still, both men requested that their identities be kept anonymous.)
“When men learn how to recognize and interpret their emotions and the emotions of others, and that there’s strength in vulnerability, they tend to feel more secure in themselves and their place in society,” says Ronald Levant, University of Akron psychology professor and co-editor of the book The Psychology of Men and Masculinities. “This makes them less likely to lash out and harm others in an attempt to assert their authority.”
A wealth of research also shows that men who subscribe to gender roles that favor male dominance, entitlement, and emotional repression are more likely to suffer from untreated mental illness. It appears that healthy masculinities programs could have a broader impact, too— studies have proven that exposing men to more expansive definitions of masculinity reduces violent behavior and oppressive beliefs in them. Interestingly, there’s even some evidence that more progressive expressions of masculinity can curb climate change and pollution and create more economically profitable societies.
“It’s all about planting seeds, little by little,” says Hicks. “You can’t change the world overnight. But if you can make one guy’s life healthier and more positive, you make two; four; eight; 16 and so on better. It’s an additive effect that’s making a real difference.”