After #Metoo began, I started a series of monthly 3-hour workshops in my apartment titled: “Men Confronting the Patriarchy.” About 60 men have participated so far.
The workshop aims to deconstruct patriarchy by temporarily centering the male experience. We do not worship the masculine or genuflect to the feminine. We don’t build ourselves up nor do we indulge in self-flagellation. Instead, we dissect terms related to gender, sexuality, and consent, participate in exercises exploring how patriarchy impacts us, and discuss how we’ve used our privilege to get what we want and in the process hurt others. We roleplay ways to confront sexism and commit in concrete ways to improve our behavior. This is healthy “men’s work:” political consciousness-raising and self-exploration in a safe, honest, and judgment-free environment.
Many of the attendees share my San Francisco values and sensibilities; liberal, educated, cosmopolitan, but not all. While many are straight white men in tech, the groups have included construction workers as well as coders, dancers as well as football stars. They have been gay, bisexual, and asexual, Black, Asian, Latino, European, and Middle Eastern. Men who narrowly escaped the toxic resentment of “incel” culture in their youth and men who have been deeply influenced by pickup artists. Awkward, obese men and confident, muscled alpha-types. Fathers in their 40’s and 50’s and single men just barely out of college. Some are exploring non-monogamy, others are getting out of 10-year marriages. Some were raised low-income in Trump country, others were born with every possible privilege. Some are recovering alcoholics, some are vegan, some haven’t always identified as men.
When I mention these workshops, I’ve noticed a reductiveness in people’s assumptions about the kind of men who might attend and their reasons for doing so. People generally assume that men show up either to process guilt over a past sexual assault, to vent some misogynist resentment, or to pay lip service to the #metoo movement. These reactions reveal a common perception of men as at best emotionally stunted, and at worst craven and calculating.
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males,” wrote bell hooks, “is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation.” Yet what hooks calls men’s “emotional crippling” doesn’t mean that men’s emotions are simplistic or predictable when they are expressed. Indeed, I am constantly struck by the range of motivations men have for coming to these workshops. There is immense emotional complexity lingering beneath all that scar tissue.
1. Connecting with other men
Far and away the most common reason men come to men’s work is to spend a few hours in an emotionally safe and honest space with other men. Many don’t have emotionally honest or intimate relationships with their male friends. Holding space for processing feelings still seems to require a woman’s presence, and indeed, many of the men confess that all of their deepest friendships are with women for just this reason. “I’m here because I want to understand my fear and hesitation amongst men,” said one attendee recently. Even in communities that consider themselves “woke,” emotional vulnerability in an all-male space remains a radical act.
2. Personal Growth
For many, exploring masculinity is a logical place to begin exploring personal growth. “The instruction manual for being a man is lacking,” said one man, as he challenged himself to confront the amount of time and attention he gave to women based solely on their attractiveness. Others’ reasons are more existential; one man shared that his motivation for doing men’s work was a deep sense of gender-based angst: “I believe the future is female,” he murmured, “but I don’t know what my role will be.”
Some men have simply never thought about or spoken about masculinity, sexuality, or patriarchy before. They want to learn about gender and discuss the nuances of consent, ally performance, white knighting, or gender identity. Everyone’s confused about pronouns. “I know nothing about this topic,” said one guy.
4. Dismantling patriarchal programming
While most of the men who come have committed themselves to the values of gender equality in theory, they’ve also realized, in part through #metoo, that it’s harder to deprogram themselves than they’d assumed. Many are seeking an approach to sex that helps them escape the notches-on-the-bedpost paradigm, yet find themselves undermined by their own base instincts. “When I’m not getting laid, I stop caring about the rest of the world,” confessed one man. Others aren’t sure they even want to fully deprogram themselves, recognizing how much they have benefited from their male privilege, and confessing to fears of professional failure, social ostracization, and financial failure if they don’t play their assigned role. “When life is good I love the patriarchy,” said one man. “When it’s bad I hate it.”
5. Processing guilt and shame
Especially in the wake of #metoo, men have come for help in understanding past actions in a new light. They use the workshop as a launching point to conduct a personal moral inventory: an honest accounting of a lifetime of small sins. Men have used these workshops to confess, often for the first time, to sexual assault, violence, and intimidation, almost always towards women. These confessions often come wrapped in excuses, denial, and self-abnegation. We’ve been able to do so much harm without consequence that even the best-intentioned men often don’t recognize themselves as violators. “I had a ‘bad moment’ in my life,” said one, “and I lost my best friend.” Confessions are sometimes delivered with stoic sincerity,with tears, and with rueful laughter – they are relieved that they are not alone in having fucked up. They feel guilt, both at the transgression itself and the ease with which they got away with it. They feel shame for having acted out of integrity, and, of course, a fear of retribution, a sense that they could be outed at any time. “I always prided myself on being one of the good ones,” said one man, his head bowed, “but now I’m thinking maybe i’m not.”
6. Processing self-hatred
For others it’s not so much a specific instance as a general demonization of their manhood that they’re grappling with – a sense that their cocks lead them to sin, to hurting women with an indifference and a frequency that they cannot reconcile with their values. Some are deep in the grip of an existential self-loathing and are starting to realize that it will be the women in their lives who will most suffer from it if it continues unexamined. “I am afraid of what I will do if I get close to a woman,” said one young man.
7. Processing trauma
Others come because they are victims: survivors of childhood sexual abuse, dehumanizing frat hazing, beatings by their fathers, brutal military indoctrinations. They know these experiences impacted them, and are starting to accept that their privilege has not immunized them to pain. Some are realizing their their own oppression has not prevented them from oppressing others.
8. Expressing resentment
Some of the men who come have been deeply wounded, and are moving through their resentment. Men who’ve been cheated on, men who’ve been lied to. A man who’d spent his 20’s obese and unloved shared the depth of his self-pity and his resentment of women, and how close he’d come to buying into the rhetoric of the Red Pill community. On the other side of the spectrum, a gay man of color was struggling at work because of the intensity of his resentment of the alpha males in his workplace.
9. Experiencing validation
Some men come to be reminded that all the cultural energy celebrating women, lamenting sexual abuse, and indicting patriarchy are not necessarily aimed at them. The narrative is rarely one of victimization, but some do feel unfairly demonized. One man who’d spent his life actively confronting and educating other men shared his frustration at being told by a younger woman that he had no place on safety committees because of his gender. There is a recurring perception that men have nothing of value to contribute, which can feel the same as being part of the problem. Others are simply resistant to accepting harsh feedback, and need a space to share this difficulty openly, without the shame of knowing they ought to be better at it.
10. Learning to treat women better
#metoo is a major motivator for men coming to the workshop, and one of the major elements of the work is to examine the ways that we’ve hurt women. So much of the hurt we’ve caused has been accidental that although men are often willing to admit their culpability many have to move through excuses and rationalizations at first. One of the deepest lessons learned is always that intention matters less than impact. Many men believe they’ve already learned to treat women well simply by buying into the broader cultural narrative of gender equality, and are only now realizing the necessity of ongoing vigilance and education. They are universally interested in simple, concrete behavior changes they can make and notice. “I want to learn more about what it means to respect women,” said one man.
11. Learning to Combat Patriarchy
Others want to do more than process and are looking for concrete tools. Some want to practice standing up to casual sexism at work or in the proverbial locker room. Others seek the language to explain concepts they believe in intrinsically, like patriarchy, but find themselves failing to describe effectively when asked. Some come for strategies to navigate workplace sexism. Another man said he was looking for a better way of communicating with his older colleagues – men from the “old guard.” “I’m here because I want to be a better feminist,” declared one man. Another came because a man he loved had recently been accused of sexual misconduct and he wanted to better understand how to perform an intervention. What are the best practices for communities to police themselves? He asked. “How do we prevent this kind of thing from happening?”
12. Acquiring tools for organizing
For other men, the goal is to gather resources for facilitating more vulnerable, honest connection between men. “My most meaningful interactions have come from men’s work and I want to facilitate more of it,” said one. Some have studied gender for years and written about it extensively. Others have come for inspiration for starting anti-patriarchy art projects, apps, consultancies, and coaching businesses. We don’t indulge in overly self-congratulatory behavior, but there is a lot of solidarity.
13. Developing a new worldview
For some, it’s less about finding concrete tools, and more about finding a narrative: Many men are wrestling with the ideas of the neo-patriarchs right now. They need a way of bringing up these ideas for critical inspection in a space where they won’t be automatically shouted down. They genuinely want help in figuring out how the Red Pill guys are wrong, because a big part of their appeal is that they can sound really, really right when you’re alone in front of your computer.
Men are searching for a model of participation in our national discussion on sex and gender that doesn’t begin with their culpability or end with their silence.
After each workshop, as the men file out the door, I am left with a lucid awareness of the sheer variety and breadth of men’s experience, and the oceans of repressed emotions that lead to so much of the world’s pain.
It is tempting to dismiss men’s struggles, or simply to demonize men, especially cisgender, straight, white men. After all, even validating their pain can seem like an act of oppression: a way of focusing the limited resource of our compassion on the loudest, yet least-deserving, voices at the expense of everyone else. The genuine need for healthy men’s work will never displace the need for society to acknowledge the suffering of women and sexual minorities. Yet we can’t evolve beyond a patriarchal society without men, and men won’t join a movement that doesn’t recognize their pain and their humanity.
Traditionally, it’s fallen on women to curate these kinds of spaces and to model empathy, connection, and love to men. Women have had to perform the emotional labor required to educate men about the patriarchy and its damaging impact on both genders. This imbalance has damaged both men and women—forcing men to rely on women and women to resent this reliance, and forcing everyone to see men as incapable of sensitivity.
Yet men need connection with other men to heal. Not in some idealized way, either; we literally can’t do this work if we’re only talking to women. The communion that occurs when men engage with other men is rooted in our shared experience as men and in our shared responsibility to use our power to be part of the solution. If we continue to shut ourselves down from our own shame we will repeat our transgressions, and if we continue to share our vulnerability only with women, then we’ll never heal the men who most need us.
Men’s work is critical, and it should not fall on anyone’s shoulders but our own.
Photo credit: Getty Images