Category Archives: gender roles

Turning The Page On Violence Prevention and Gender Identity Development

I apologize, this is a personal post and a bitter sweet one at that. This will be my last blog post in my professional capacity with the Men’s Anti-Violence Council.

Still, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the many papers, conferences, programs, people, places, and things that I have observed in my year and a half and offer a few notes on what I’ve seen.

Historically (and still to this day), the anti violence conversation has been dominated by conversations about how NOT to be a victim. Blue safety lights, improved reporting schemes, buddy systems, safe rides, personal defense class, and rape whistles came to symbolize all that Universities were doing to combat sexual assault. I think it is safe to say that these methods alone were not doing the trick. In fact, Dr. Emily Greytak has some poignant things to say backed up by her research in “Beyond Blue Lights and Buddy Systems.”

The Don’t Rape movement came next. Clarifying campus rules, social norming campaigns such as “My Strength is Not For Hurting” and campus wide programming such as performing theatre and videos exemplified this pedagogical shift. While the research on best practices in this area are mixed, it was a significant evolution because it rejects at its core the fact that victims somehow “choose” to become victims.

Any student in the North Carolina education system can tell you how victims have been turned on their head and systematically made perpetrators of a different nature – perpetrators of speaking out about their attackers.

Bystander education was developed as a value added component of the Don’t Rape movement. It addressed all students, of any gender and sexual orientation as active agents to prevent violence. At its core is the principle that we all have a responsibility to speak out about cultural and behavioral red flags of violence. It gave every person a voice and power to stop violence in some way shape or form. The efficacy of this approach is seen in the addition of the Campus SAVE act which MANDATES bystander intervention trainings not just for students, but faculty and staff.

But in all of my limited time working in this field, I have yet to see a good response to the phrase “boys will be boys.” Some have argued that boys “shouldn’t” be boys or that boys can be better than “that” (a synonym for boys being, by default, “bad boys”) but there has never been a credible counter narrative about what boys CAN and WANT to be. This is especially true given the varied lived experiences of boys from differing cultural, racial, religious, socio-economic, or geographic upbringing not to mention the experiences that gay men have and continue to face in the United States.

The Men’s Rights groups might argue that this stigmatization is where misandry and women are somehow oppressing boys, but I reject this claim as well because it merely reinforces that violence is somehow a part of being a boy and that all men must “reclaim” this heritage. In other words, man up boys, because otherwise women will get you and other men will mock you. Once again, using the threat of demasculization in the eyes of other men to transfer responsibility.

So let me offer you an executive summary of “the next page.” Real Men, at least according to the media, men on the street, Men’s Rights groups, and Suzanne Venker (in her work The War On Men) are the following: Strong, independent, handsome, sexually attractive and sexually active, heterosexual, bread winners, and otherwise dominant.

According to my sources (think little kids on the school yard, fraternity men, and athletes), any threat to these skills are considered bad. Like Sandlot, throwing “like a girl” is the WORST of all possible insults.

So we hide our fear, we don’t admit our weaknesses, refuse to ask for help, drink, drive, fight, and have as much sex as possible to prove ourselves. Or claim that others are less masculine than us.

Let me offer a counter narrative – being a cisgendered male / man is about being you without being measured against impossible standards of daniel-craig-as-James-Bond-esque behavior. Being a man is about being authentic, being honest, being open with others and yourself. Being a man is less about your biological sex and more about how you perceive your own masculinities. Being a man is about accepting yourself for who you are and accepting others as well. Being a man is about being ok with femininity in yourself and others and being ok with others regardless of biological sex being masculine in their own way as well. Being a man is NOT about NOT being a woman, it is about who you are in your gender identity and not about your sexual orientation. Despite a societal fascination with coming of age stories and rituals, being a man isn’t proven, it’s developed and understood through personal exploration.

But what does healthy masculinities have to do with violence prevention? Have you ever heard the phrase “make a man out of you?” Yeah…so have I. In Game of Thrones, it is often accompanied by a gratuitous sex scene. This is not uncommon. So often sex is closely associated with graduating from boyhood to manhood. It is an entitlement and barrier of sorts. 40 Year Old Virgin, American Pie, Sex Drive, Eurotrip, and Superbad have all tried to make this point.. Real men (see Don Draper or James Bond) are never turned down. Only weaklings, boys, and gay men can’t get women to have sex with them.

It’s time we reject this narrative as well. Sex (and physical/emotional intimacy) is a joint conversation between partners of any gender. It has nothing to do with coming of age of men through sex, violence, or financial coercion. The “nice guy” has no more entitlement to sexual gratification as the man in the mask who takes a person’s freedom at weapon point and no person in between.

Long story short, If I have learned anything this past year and a half, it’s this. Let’s talk. Let us talk openly, honestly, and in a safe environment. Boys and Men WANT to talk about issues of sex, manhood, and healthy masculinities. So often I have heard the refrain “no one has ever asked me.” So let’s ask. Let’s ask young boys what it means to be a man. Moreover, let’s ask ourselves, our friends, our media content providers, and the systems around us.

I think the answers might surprise us. In a good way I imagine, but some not so good ways too. But that, ultimately, is a good thing. At the very least, we’re not letting the conversation be dominated by the few and the hostile.

Together, we can create safer communities and supportive environments for all gender identities.

This is Jacob Oppenheimer, signing off.

The Challenges with the Perpetrator/Victim Approach to Prevention

There is no silver bullet to violence prevention. No one approach, no one target audience, no one tagline that will solve gendered or interpesonal violence in the United States and abroad.

Sounds kind of depressing doesn’t it?

In a National Review Online story, one general seems to echo a consistent diatribe against the current slate of prevention work. “We’ve added more [educations and trainings] after every incident…but the trainings aren’t working. We’re wasting people’s time.”

In an time when Congress sees itself as so poor that it cannot afford victims services, then prevention becomes increasingly important. This was highlighted recently by a report by the US Armed Services academies showing 23% increase in reported cases of sexual assault.

There is a silver lining however, and one that belies the above mentioned General’s claim. More people feel comfortable reporting crimes that are already happening according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). This is, as bad as the situation still is, a positive development.

That does not negate the worries of generals, school administrators, parents, friends, and family. Rape, and gender violence, is still prevalent in word and deed in the United States.

Which brings us back to the issue of whether our education is working or not and why?

Traditional risk management education has focused on telling men not to rape and women how not to be raped. In other words, it focuses on a gender binary and perpetrator/victim model.

This model also assumes that men will always be rapists or violent and women will always be victims.

This educational model is based upon a sometimes spoken, often unspoken, assumption that “there may be a limit to how much gender-sensitivity training can do to reengineer some brutish but basic human impulses in an institution still at least formally dedicated to a high-testosterone activity.”

In other words, men are genetically coded to engage in violence channeled through training essential to the survival of our soldiers. Moreover, according to the National Review article and many others, this is somehow preferable to continuing to engage all people in conversations about healthy and respectful behavior.

While no one can deny that there are biological differences between men and women, I find it personally and professionally insulting to be told that I am just one bare shoulder away from turning into some sort of beast.

For that reason alone I support the continued education, specifically engaging men. For one reason, the current model makes assumptions about me and my behavior purely based on my gender. I’m uncomfortable about that. But two, these assumptions are not unfounded. Department of Justice statistics show a significant trend that Men are the perpetrators of violent crime ON THE BALANCE. This does not mean that men are the only perpetrators or that women are the only victims, but the trends are pretty slanted towards that intrepretation.

You can see the impact that has on people in this well written blog entry about street harassment.

There is a third reason that I support engaging men as bystanders in violence prevention. The research supports a bystander model. While not perfect, a second study conducted by the Department of Justice and published through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service shows that there is an increasing efficacy in the developing bystander models promoted by programs like the Mentors in Violence Prevention program and Coaching Boys Into Men. More specifically, these programs show results in increased knowledge, stronger attitudes, and changed behaviors regarding gender based violence.

Finally, the current model while useful to some degree, makes assumptions about violence that does not comport with today’s violent actions. Violence does not just have to be physical. It can be verbal or emotional as well. Violence is also pervasive, not just the effect is has on victims, but on the chilling affect it has on communities. It creates fear, panic, and prejudice where none need be present.

Violence prevention does not have one solution. No one person or organization can tackle such a broad issue. However, together, working on intersecting issues of mental health, access to violent instruments, promotion of violent behavior, and acceptance of violence in society, we can create a violence free future.


Healthy Counter Narratives and Violence Prevention 3.0

Many of you may have already read about the tragic wisconsin spa killings that left seven women dead including the seperated wife of the male perpetrator who had only recently renewed a restraining order on her husband.

On the tale end of domestic violence awareness month, the story reflects similar paths of aggression in relationships publicly and privately across the United States.

Rather than dwell on Wisconsin in particular, or the theory of male aggression, heteronormity and privilege in general, what if we changed the script today? What if today’s blog was not about facts, figures, assessments, or research but instead asked for stories, thoughts, concepts, and conversations? With that in mind, I want to pose a potentially controversial idea based in ideals and dreams.

Maybe it is time we reconsidered our definition of prevention work?

In my introduction to violence prevention work, I was introduced to prevention 1.0 as a consultant in my national fraternity. “Don’t break the law assholes” as my boss jokingly put it. Basically, prevention 1.0 was about educating students about the laws of the land and telling men not to rapists (or perpetrators) and women not to be victims. To date, we still do some of this prevention 1.0 work through campus affirmative consent campaigns, self-defense classes, buddy programs, or safe rides.

That is not to say that we as society should abandon self-efficacy and policy education. It offers a solid foundation for the many non perpetrators to maintain their current behaviors.

So then we introduced prevention 2.0, or how to move from non-perpetrator/non-victim to an active bystander model engaged in promoting campus safety. This model has had noticable impacts on college campuses and communities across the country. It is reflected in the number of “speak up” campaigns, the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program, the Coaching Boys to Men, and the Green Dot program among many others. Bystander education is a fundamental component of the model that the Men’s Anti-Violence Council utilizes in its own professional development and educational programming. But at the same time, bystander behavior is also predicated on the perpetrator/victim binary but adds a tripod to help stabilize what was once a very dangerous campus and community climate by giving so called “non-engaged” participants a voice in violence prevention.

What if we looked at the noticable changes and said that what we were doing wasn’t prevention work at all, per se, but rather intervention work at the systematic level? What if we wanted to redefine what prevention actually meant and instead focused on fundamentally redefining the system in which we lived? I ask this question because both prevention 1.0 and 2.0 work is fundamentally grounded in the idea that violence or inappropriate behavior of some form or another WILL occur. But SHOULD it occur? Can we even imagine a world in which verbal, emotional, or physical violence in some capacity is NOT the norm? On one hand we might call them interventions of sorts, but I do believe there is a significant role for prevention work 1.0 and 2.0 in the foreseeable future.

Participating in the Healthy Masculinity Action Project’s Healthy Masculinity Summit in Washington DC was an eye opening experience for me personally and professionally. It forced me to ask this very question because, I certainly do not want to abandon the necessary work we’re doing now, but is prevention 1.0 and 2.0 work ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don’t offer some other world vision. Even if we did offer something different, what would prevention 3.0 look like?

I am still not entirely sure, but the summit certainly offered a few stories that offered an alternative. I think the most compelling of these stories was shared by facilitator and guest panelist Cole from the Brown Boi Project (I would HIGHLY encourage you check out their work) around the idea that there was not just one masculinity, but MANY masculinities. It correlated with the many stories I had heard in the research from Jackson Katz’ “Macho Paradox” and Michael Kimmel’s “Guy Land” and William Pollack’s “Behind the Masculinity Mask.” In all of these books and in the stories I hear on a day to day basis, there is a constant need to prove, to yourself, your best guy friends, and compared to men around you that you are somehow “man enough” in today’s society.

The Brown Boi Project asked a different question. Do you feel healthy, whole, and you? None of those questions depended upon others for healthy or positive responses. None of those questions required the denegration of others as affirmation of your own responses. In an effort to seperate sexual expression and identity from gender expression, it offered the first true counter narrative to mainsteam masculinity that I had been working with in my short time in the field of violence prevention. For the first time, it offered a world where masculine and feminine were not diametrically opposed statement of values but societal descriptors of strengths that could be inhabited by any gender or sexual identity .

Most importantly, these strengths could be values neutral and more or less appropriate based upon the individual in the context of a given task or situation.

If strengths, in the context of the StrengthsQuest persuasion, not just physical strength, could be values neutral, then could we have a society that values cisgendered men who demonstrated feminine strengths, a trans man who demonstrated mixed masculine and feminine strengths, or a cisgendered woman who demonstrated masculine strengths?

Furthermore, if strengths no longer needed to be affirmed by others and reinforced though gender and sexual binaries, what role would violence have in society? Other than perhaps the organized spectacle of sports, violence would no longer be the last resort of the binaries out of control assuming that we could foster a true counter narrative in today’s society based less on affirmation through others in the binary and instead focused on promoting respect, integrity, and compassion for everyone.

As I said at the beginning of this blog entry. This narrative is by no means complete. It may even be pretty inarticulate. Counter Narratives and healthy masculinities on a spectrum conversations are not easy put in a box with a catchy slogan and shipped from campus to campus. Moreover, the conversation is only in its infancy, so to speak. But if we are serious about violence prevention, is it not worth exploring our own stories about what a world without violence might look like? Rather than focus so much on what people SHOULD NOT do (or look out for others doing) what happens if we spend a little time each day talking about what we think ourselves and our communities SHOULD be doing and how we can help each other do those things?

This blog entry is the personal reflection of Jacob Oppenheimer and certainly does not reflect the policies and practices of any of my respective organizations, however, I chose to post on the MAC blog because I think it is important that men in particular, spend more time now thinking about what does it mean to be a healthy masculine guy to whatever degree we feel appropriate for each of us. Moreover, when we next think to laugh about something “frilly” or “overly sensensitive” or otherwise “unmasculine” what does that say about our own discomfort about masculinity.

I don’t think it is a bad thing to be a man and / or have masculine strengths. I just think it’s time we spend a little time loving our own masculinity and re-affirming what positives our strengths bring to ourselves and our community and how we benefit from working with many people with many strengths.

Let’s create a healthy and whole counter narrative as Cole told me. Let’s start talking about what prevention 3.0 might look like!

I invite you to continue the conversation here on this blog, on other forms of social media, in your community, and with the organizers of the Healthy Masculinity Summit. The Men Can Stop Rape Organization is a wonderful collection of professional practitioners and researchers and the Healthy Masculinity Action Project is only in the beginning of its two year time frame. Check it out here!

Poor Excuses and Missed Targets: A Response to Boyce Watkins

According to NewsOne, Brown and his crew had it out with Drake’s entourage at a New York City nightclub:

According to eyewitnesses, the melee involved flying bottles and swinging fists. The fight allegedly broke out because of a conversation that involved Brown’s ex singer Rihanna. According to TMZ, rumors have swirled in the past that Drake and Rihanna were an item at one time (NewsOne).

Brown’s beloved face was cut during the fight and, of course, he tweeted a picture of his lacerated chin.

     The fight is only the backdrop to this post, as I’m mostly concerned with Dr. Boyce Watkin’s response. Some of you may know Watkins, also called the People’s Scholar, for his insightful commentary regarding race, economics, and American culture.  Earlier today, Watkins posted his reaction to the fight in an article titled “Advice to Drake and Chris Brown: Only Punks Fight Over a Woman.” In the piece Prof. Watkins rightfully defines the altercation as a “N*gga Moment” (a reference to the animated series The Boondocks) where “otherwise rational African American men get involved in a clearly avoidable confrontation over something really stupid” (Watkins). The “something really stupid” in this case is male bravado, but Watkins would have us believe that Rihanna is the problem. According to the Watkins, the fight was about “two perennial alpha males with enough swag and money to choke a horse, risking their freedom, their careers and their lives to fight over a woman who seems to want everyone to believe that her body is for public worship” (Watkins).


When did a case about grown men acting like unrestrained children become a springboard for critiquing Rihanna? Further, how does “public viewership” of her body somehow make her less respectable and their actions justifiable? Apparently Watkins believes Rihanna is a man-eating woman gnawing on the bones of successful black male entertainers. Aaannnddd, since she likely won’t end up mothering Drake or Brown’s children defending her honor is simply a waste of time.

It’s sad and frustrating that instead of holding these men accountable for their actions, Watkins resorts to the antiquated, yet all too familiar excuse that it’s the woman’s fault. Why not interrogate the cultural codes of conduct that led these men to resort to violence? Why not implore readers and fans to hold these entertainers and their crews accountable for their lack of decorum?

Watkins goes on to offer this simple gem of wisdom to Brown and Drake:

“The downfall of most great men usually involves a woman. A good, loving nurturing and supportive woman can make you greater than your wildest dreams. But a bad woman in the wrong situation can turn your life into a living nightmare. Fighting over a woman is one of the many no-nos that men should keep in mind when it comes to protecting everything you’ve worked hard to obtain.”

Soooo…what have we learned? Great men should be supported by a great women who, in this logic, sacrifices her aspirations to support that man and be the proper trophy. A bad woman can ruin a great man’s life by refusing to uphold a mantle of respectability that affirms black men’s patriarchal chokehold on racial representation.  And, when resorting to physical violence to solve a problem, men’s portfolios are more important than people.

How about this: men should not be celebrated for policing women’s bodies, nor should they use women as warrants for engaging in senseless violence. As fans, critics, and readers we have a responsibility to make known the issues that affect our social quality of life. When we (scholars) misread the motivating factors that propelled Brown and his fellas to battle Drake’s crew, we miss the opportunity to cast a critical light on the real problem: violence. We must recognize that Watkins’ critique misses the mark by focusing so heavily on Rihanna’s role in this situation. More importantly, though, we have to abscond from such shaky and oppressive theses and focus instead on preventing violence and gendered oppression.


Mobile Masculinities project film viewing in April!

The Men’s Anti-Violence Council, in collaboration with the Career Leadership Academy (CLA) class at The University of Iowa, created a film project about masculinity. Mobile Masculinities was created by MAC member, Derrais Carter, in order to create discussions about masculinity among men on campus and in the community. In addition to creating interpersonal discussions, the video clips also serve as online resources.

You don’t need fancy recording equipment or studio space to have authentic discussions about masculinity. You can use a camera on almost any mobile device (e.g. cell phone camera, laptop webcam, tablet, etc.) and record men discussing masculinity.

The CLA students were incredible in supporting, advertising, recruiting, and editing material for the project. There will be a public viewing of the project on Tuesday, April 10 in Room A of the Iowa City Public Library starting at 6 p.m. There will be a panel discussion afterwards about masculinity in our community. The event is free and open to the public. Click on the image below for a larger version of the flyer. 

You can see our first Mobile Masculinities video clip with Jackson Katz here!

Happy International Women’s Day!

As most of you have already heard, March 8 is International Women’s Day. This year the theme is Connecting girls, inspiring futures. Take some time today to reflect how you are supporting the women and girls in your life and community, as well as how you can assist in empowering them across the world. If you cannot name anything specific that you are doing to help, follow some of the links in this post for ideas about how to get involved and be part of the solution.

Soraya Chemaly’s piece, International Women’s Day: 10 Reasons Why Feminism is Good For Boys and Men, provided me with some inspiration. Besides highlighting some important positive aspects of feminism on men and boys, there was a video produced by high school boys in Australia through the Gender Equality Project. Watch the video below and take a cue from these boys. Listen to the women and girls in your life about their experiences, educate yourself about the issues, and speak out to others as a supportive and active ally.

10 Responses to the phrase “Man Up”

You can check out more of Guante’s work at his website and his YouTube Channel.


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