To use the words “feminism” or “patriarchy” amongst men is to immediately run into skepticism and occasionally deep-seated insecurities. “When you say feminism and patriarchy,” a man calls out, “what you really mean is that men are the problem. You mean I’m the problem. I’m not a rapist/abuser/bad guy.” This is a response heard frequently when men go on the defensive. It’s a response that anticipates an adversarial gender relation, that imagines the feminist conversation as a battle to the death of women versus men. Such responses are common but misplaced. When we’re talking about patriarchy, it’s not to make the claim that each and every individual man is to blame for gender oppression, nor that each and every individual man is a bad or oppressive person. What we are talking about is something larger, an imbalanced social system and the cultural processes that reproduce it. What is mischaracterized as a barefaced assault is actually a re-examination of the terms of becoming; we are not talking about individuals, but the ways in which our culture shapes individuals to be men, both positively and negatively.
Gender does indeed shape the world we live in and the intimate ways we experience it. One only has to look as far as the disproportionate statistics that illustrate the decisive role gender plays in our movement through the world, and in particular a power relation that is skewed toward men: the overwhelming amount of violence that’s committed by men, the staggering percentage of women who experience gender violence, the underrepresentation of women in leadership and the media, the homicides of transgender individuals, as a few examples.
This is a society that privileges and advantages men in certain and specific ways, while denying the same advantages to women and non-male identifying individuals. And while patriarchy and its assumption of male superiority does benefit men, it also exacts profound costs from them: high rates of suicide born of emotional suppression, incarceration and the murder of men are just the other side of the same coin of toxic masculinity.
It is useful to borrow bell hooks’ definition of feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” What’s clear here is that the feminist movement is a movement about gender equity and anti-sexism. It is not anti-male, but a movement in which men have a clear need to be accountable for the violence produced by the patriarchy and have a stake in their own extraction from systems of violence Over the past century, this movement has been led tremendously by women, and men have been largely missing from the gender equity conversation. It’s this legacy that the Duke Men’s Project follows and seeks to speak to.
The Duke Men’s Project is a proudly feminist initiative and one that fixes the patriarchy directly in its sights. It originated within the Duke Women’s Center during the spring of 2016, working from the results of a survey that indicated a desire from men on campus to have a men’s group focused on gender equity efforts. It owes its concept and structure to the UNC Men’s Project, which has both greatly influenced and mentored our mission. The UNC Men’s Project runs a nine-week long curriculum, which sees a cohort of students get together each week to discuss men’s experiences with various elements and intersections of masculinity. In these sessions, they seek to create a male space with conversations focused on inclusion rather than exclusion; to bypass the turning of the shoulder that often happens when men think it’s better to suffer alone in strength than talk in vulnerability, to challenge the way we have traditionally thought of manhood in order to raise the standard of good men in tackling sexism and gender violence.
The Duke Men’s Project is a direct descendant of this concept, a call to action for men in which the first step is to look inwards at where we may be entangled in these issues. If the standard of being a good, normal man is simply a definition by negation, of not being a rapist, an abuser, a bad man—we have to simply ask if that is good enough. Violence doesn’t emerge fully hatched out of the swamp as something extraordinary and isolated; there is a culture that incubates, normalizes, permits it to come to be; gender and masculinity are part of this culture.
We are all part of this culture as products and influencers. For men, we need to ask valuable questions such as what are the costs of “being a man”? Who does masculinity affect and exclude? How are we to resolve masculinity as a knife that can cut both ways, both toward women and non-male identified individuals, and also against ourselves? How can we be both better allies to feminism and better men in general? These are complex questions with no simple answers, and we are forever learning.
While we recognize the value of safe spaces on campus, the Men’s Project is not intended as one. Instead, it intentionally seeks to radically challenge, decenter and destabilize what we might consider normal, to lean specifically into dialogues of discomfort, disagreement and tension in reckoning with sexist systems that allow us unique advantages, while disadvantaging others. This is not to say that masculinity is to be destroyed, but that we need to agitate and rethink its elements and role in an anti-sexist society.
To borrow again from hooks, “Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction. Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility…Come closer and see that feminism is for everybody.” Where women-led initiatives such as the Women’s Center, Duke Support, The Feminist Make-Space, Women’s Collective and so many more have contributed most of the labor towards gender equity on this campus, the Duke Men’s Project seeks to bring men to this conversation. We thank these feminists, womanists and other activists who have led this movement and guided this vision, whose lead we will continue to follow. Now, long overdue, it is time for men to step up to the plate.
Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi is a senior and founding member of the Duke Men’s Project.
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