It can be uncomfortable for men to talk about manhood or what it means to be a good father; as well as showing that men can rise above this and decide the issues at hand are too important to stay quiet.
What do you get when a punk rocking sociology professor, an engineer turned international humanitarian relief worker, an international economic development and women’s empowerment expert, and a global banker walk into a classroom?
No, it’s not the beginning of a joke—it was a rousing discussion on fathers, sons, and manhood. This discussion took place at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s 65th Annual Conference on World Affairs. A week-long conference where the panel topic titles range from ‘Strategic Uses of Soft Power’ to ‘Growing Old’ to ‘Looking for God in the Particles’ to ‘Vampires!’ to ‘Manhood.’ And the expertise of the panelists ranges wider than that.
In the session, ‘Fathers, Sons, and Manhood,’ each panelist went around and gave a brief summary of their opinion on the topic and then the floor was opened for questions from audience members.
Ross Haenfler kicked off the conversation by sharing the four aspects of masculinity that his punk rocker friends had taught him as an adolescent.
1) Give ‘em hell.
2) Be the breadwinner and the sex-god.
3) Be like Jason Bourne and remain calm in all manner of stressful situations.
4) No sissy stuff—ever.
Haenfler said the problem with this “classic” view of masculinity is that it’s no longer possible in the world that we live in. He said it leaves men who accept this view of how they should be with few options. Often boys will delay ‘growing up’ and stay in a ‘frat-like’ mindset to avoid the pressures this idea produces or, worst case, they might resort to violence.
Then Andrew Goddard spoke about his experiences as a father and a husband. He spoke of his wife, whom he had believed benefited greatly from the women’s movement and seemed to have a better idea about what it meant to be a mother than he did about what it meant to be a father. He talked about how when his son went off to college, he believed he’d given his son everything he needed to become a man.
His son was then severely injured in the Virginia Tech shootings, and he realized he’d have to do things for his son that he thought he was done with—like teaching him how to walk and helping him bathe. Goddard stayed in the dorm room with his son while he recovered because his son didn’t want to miss out on the community of friends he’d built at Virginia Tech. Goddard slept on the floor in a sleeping bag so that he could be available for his son whenever he needed him.
Goddard’s tale brought a tear to more than a few audience members’ eyes (mine included) and was also quite a heroic picture of a father who would do anything for his son. At the end of it, he said that no one talked to him about what it meant to be a father or a man and he just had to learn. For this reason, he thinks we’re in need of a men’s movement.
Following the momentum set by Goddard, Judithe Registre gave her full support for a men’s movement. She spoke about all of the different cultures and countries she has observed and how one thing she noticed is that there is no discrimination on the negative impact of growing up without a father. She shared some scary statistics about how many children in America and worldwide don’t have fathers around. And she talked about another trend she had witnessed across the globe that she believed to be dangerous—the idea that we are at the end of men.
Registre said it’s dangerous to speak about the end of men as if men are somehow disposable or unnecessary. She believes that this conversation exists because many women operate under the notion that women can do everything that needs to be done—that women can be both man and woman. Registre said this is a notion women need to throw away because women cannot do everything and women do need men. We need women to be women and mothers and we need men to be men and fathers.
In a call to action for a men’s movement, Registre said we need a billion men rising to address the issues of fatherhood and manhood.
To finish up the introduction to the panel, Peter Lighte touched on his experience as a gay father of two adopted girls. He spoke about a moment that will forever stand out to him when he was interviewing with schools for his daughters. He recounted for the audience the time that he told one headmistress that he, his partner, and his girls were a very ‘special’ family. The headmistress nodded and said that his family was indeed special–they had two parents.
Each panelist began to shape the picture of the masculine identity crisis and the need for a revolution. And then the questions began.
While there were plenty of thought provoking questions asked, the first in the way of salacious discussions came by a young woman who asked the panelists what they thought about American culture being big on self-defense classes for females as a preventative measure for rape—something seen as outlandish by other western countries because it places responsibility on rape victims.
Registre talked about how male violence against women is not just an American problem, but a world-wide problem that doesn’t have one simple solution. Rather, it needs to stop being accepted by men and women. She said that our silence against such crimes is our consent for them to continue.
Haenfler said he hates how self-defense classes do seem to put responsibility on rape victims. He then made the proclamation that he believes instead of self-defense classes, universities should offer a course on “How to Not be a Fucking Rapist.” His response was met with loud cheers and whoops of agreement. But his response prompted a question in my brain and before I knew it, my hand was raised and then the microphone was in my hand.
“Um, hi.” To stand up or stay seated? I chose to stay in my chair. “I know that you [Haenfler] recommended checking out the Good Men Project. Something I’ve noticed is that whenever they try to address controversial issues like what breeds rape culture or the need for a men’s movement, they’re often met with a lot of resistance. What would you say are the main barriers for the men’s movement?”
Registre emphasized again that she thought it was because women believed they could do it all, so they weren’t even trying to have the conversation. The microphone then moved on, and I felt my question was largely unanswered. Until, something serendipitous happened.
Having avoided most of the questions, Goddard suddenly took the microphone in hand and shared that his internal experience while on the panel was a good picture of what happens with many men when thinking about the question of masculinity. He said it’s uncomfortable. Men aren’t used to talking about such issues because it’s rarely brought up. Whereas women are almost conditioned to have discussions on what it means to be a woman or a mother—men are taught to keep their feelings to themselves.
And just like that, I had the answer to my question. Goddard’s experience showed that it can be uncomfortable for men to talk about manhood or what it means to be a good father; as well as showing that men can rise above this and decide the issues at hand are too important to stay quiet. An audience member, an endearing elderly man, had said something similar at the beginning: we need to teach boys the benefits of being tender. I think we also need to teach them the benefits of becoming a man—and the hardships and difficulties that may come up while trying to figure out what that means for them individually.
To end with a quote from that same man, “It takes one tough son of a bitch to be tender.”
Photo: Craig Sunter/Flickr