This week, rejuvenated and enthusiastic statements of support thrusted the Duke Men’s Project back into the headlines. This Women’s Center initiative includes a nine-week program during which men are invited to openly discuss toxic masculinity and male privilege. The project aims to tackle norms of masculinity by “creat[ing] a space of brotherhood fellowship dedicated to interrogating male privilege and patriarchy.” Unsurprisingly, last year, upon pioneering the project, the Women’s Center faced backlash from major conservative news outlets like Fox News, which critiqued the program as a “place for men to gather and contemplate why they’re such horrible people.” Touted as encouraging men to assume “false” identities, the program has had its share of dissenters. Despite these criticisms, the program has returned with gusto, with more outward and public support from male leaders on campus. Today, we reaffirm our own support for a project that is both “admirable and necessary.”
On a campus where 40 percent of women report being sexually assaulted, the project searches for the root causes of this shameful statistic. It grapples with the foundational behaviors, the ingrained thought-processes and the power dynamics that are taken for granted to envision a solution for a problem whose existence we have come to tacitly accept. Despite the misconceptions of many critics, the project has no problem with males or masculinity; it simply grants its participants another lens through which to view their place in the world, removing the blinders of privilege to provide clarity.
Most notably, one of the statements of support for this initiative comes from the president of the Interfraternity Council. IFC has pledged to engage with the project and its ideas, a groundbreaking endorsement for the fledgling organization. Last year, IFC came under fire for its own “landmark” initiative —the Sexual Assault Task Force —a project that fell short of every expectation. Nonetheless, we are hopeful that the group’s engagement with the Duke Men’s Project will be met with more commitment. With the support of IFC, the Duke Men’s Project will be able to reach more male students on campus, especially those who may not choose to engage with such issues on their own.
With so much focus on the relationship between masculinity and sexual assault, it can be easy to assume that gender-based privilege only manifests itself in violent situations. The reality is quite the opposite. Conceptions about masculinity and femininity affect the ways in which men and women interact on campus, as well as in the outside world. In a study commissioned by former Duke president Nan Keohane, researchers found that Duke women were on average less confident after graduating from Duke than their male counterparts. Colloquial and politicized terms like “manspreading” and “mansplaining” describe patriarchal behaviors that discourage women from occupying certain places on campus, often to a psychologically damaging degree.
The Men’s Project remains unpopular among conservatives, especially within the national media. In many ways, this negative news coverage for the program validates its purpose. The issues the project tackles are meant to be uncomfortable since they challenge our notions of gender and privilege. By leveraging the isolation of the Duke bubble, the project has carved out an important space for self-reflection. While the world outside our walls may be pushing back against us (and while not all individuals among us may support this project), we wholeheartedly embrace it. It is time we push ourselves to challenge even the most uncomfortable notions here at Duke.
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