I recently attended a presentation by Tony Porter, founder of A Call to Men.
After watching his TED Talk, I was incredibly excited to see him speak because of how he demands of men that we consider the ways that all of us can act in abusive and violent ways.
Seeing him in person, though, was disappointing.
Early in the presentation, he held out his arms, asking us to imagine that his arms represented all men. He then gestured to the distance from his fingertips to his elbow on one arm and said, “These guys right here are the bad guys, the ones who are abusive and who commit sexual assault. Violence against women and girls can’t end until the rest of us, the good guys, call these men out and demand that they change!”
If we, as men, can think of ourselves as “the good guys” and construct a boogey man abuser in our head, then we never have to turn the lens inward. We never have to consider the ways we’ve been socialized to be abusive.
Not long before attending Porter’s presentation, my partner and I got into a heated argument. We were both quite frustrated with a communication pattern in our relationship that hurt each of us in different ways.
After we’d rehashed the same point for what felt to me like the millionth time, I slammed my hands on our dining table as I emphasized my anger, hurt, and frustration.
After doing so, it took me a minute to realize that my partner’s entire demeanor had shifted. She had retreated physically and was speaking in a softer tone. We sat quietly for a second, and then she said something I hope I never forget.
“Jamie, you scared me. That was really scary.”
My initial reaction was callous. “You must be kidding me! I can only express my emotions in ways that are easy for you to hear?”
Before long, though, her words got through, and I could see that I had done something completely out of alignment with the type of man I want to be.
As the realization sunk in, my partner asked me to consider what the impact on our relationship might be if that’s how I chose to communicate whenever we argue. “Jamie, that was violent. I want you to be able to express your hurt or anger, but I need you not to physically explode like that.”
My partner was right. To slam my hands on the table was physically intimidating, and in the context of a society where every single one of us knows someone who’s been abused by a man, my actions aren’t simply mine.
My actions exist in the context of how I was taught to be a man. My actions exist in the context of patriarchy. And patriarchy is violent. Full stop.
Simply put, patriarchy is a system of domination and control that privileges cisgender men at the expense of everyone else (though notably to varying degrees and in different ways, since the benefits of patriarchy exist at intersections of other forms of domination and oppression).
Patriarchy, as is the case with other related systems of oppression like White supremacy, relies on violence (both literal and symbolic) deployed against cisgender women, transgender people, and gender non-conforming people in order to maintain supremacy.
Considering that cisgender men like myself are socialized in the context of the violence of patriarchy, we need to own the fact that cis-masculinity is fundamentally oppressive and violent.
But this is not to say that all cisgender men are the same or that all cis men are necessarily violent. Our masculinity is crafted in the context of other aspects of our identity (our religious or spiritual upbringing, our racial identity and community, our ability/disability, and our sexual identity, for instance).
With this in mind, it’s important that I situate myself within my positionality. As a White cisgender man, the following is based not only on my perspective as a person with many privileges, and as such, my comments are limited to ways that cisgender men are taught to be abusive. Inevitably, then, this article is limited and is meant as a call for reflection and action from cisgender men.
And here’s what cisgender men such as myself need to consider: if patriarchy is fundamentally violent and oppressive, then we have a responsibility to consider the ways that we might be complicit in that violence – simply by living out the patterns of how we were taught to be men.
When men and women in my life first called on me to consider how my actions might be abusive or violent, I was incredulous: “I have never laid my hands on anyone, let alone a woman!”
But we do ourselves a disservice to think of violence only as actions that cause physical harm, as violence can take myriad forms.
For the purposes of this article, then, abuse constitutes behaviors that assert power and control over those with whom we are in intimate relationship – like partners, family members, and friends. Abusive behaviors exist on a spectrum from more subtle and controlling or manipulative to more overt in their violence.
To be clear, this spectrum doesn’t imply that abuse on one end of the spectrum is somehow “worse” or “more severe” than other abuse – it’s all terrible, but abuse looks quite different depending on where it falls on the spectrum.
All of these behaviors, though, are harmful – and when they’re committed by men in the context of patriarchy, they need to be understood as connected to how we, as cisgender men, are socialized within patriarchy to be abusive.
The following, then, are common abusive behaviors that I’ve seen in myself, behaviors that are all too common among cisgender men.
By highlighting them here and offering some alternatives, my hope is that more of us as men can take up the work of cultivating different, less abusive ways of being men.
1. Emotional Manipulation
When I was in 9th grade, a senior on my soccer team took me under his wing in the world of dating and girls. Among many fucked up lessons taught me, he explained that with girls, I always need the upper hand.
“Never be too nice to her – if she knows you’re wrapped around her finger, she will take advantage of it. Keep her guessing. Maybe break up with her and get back together.”
As men, we receive all sorts of messages that tell us to manipulate others in order to get what we want, but this is particularly pronounced in intimate relationships.
One of the more pronounced ways that this shows up is in gaslighting, defined as “an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a [survivor] to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power (and we know that abuse is about power and control).”
I’ve seen this in myself and in the relationships of men in my life in many ways.
Sometimes it shows up in using name calling (often using oppressive language like b*tch or f*ggot) in ways that degrade self-esteem over time. Other times, we might use a person’s love for us (“If you loved me, you would _____”) in order to manipulate partners or other loved ones. Other times, we lie perpetually in order to justify our hurtful behavior, claiming, “It’s not what you think!”
Whatever it looks like, emotional manipulation, like other abuse, exists on a spectrum – and we have to be vigilant about how it’s entering our relationships.
2. Being Dominant, Aggressive, or Intimidating
Compared to some of the men in my life, I think I have a fairly healthy relationship with anger. But this wasn’t always this way. I used to blow up at people I loved and act in ways that, if not actually violent, seemed to imply violence.
And when I think back to why that was, it had a lot to do with the models of masculinity I had around me. From the media icons I had as a kid – action heroes and athletes – to some of the men in my life, I had models that showed that “being tough” was the same thing as “being a man.”
And that toughness translated to aggressiveness and dominance.
As I realized when my partner called on me to consider the impact of my anger on our relationship, even those of us who strive for a more inclusive and less violent masculinity fall into abusive patterns when angry or frustrated.
Considering that many of the messages we receive as boys about conflict teach us to respond with aggression or violence, is it any wonder that abusive anger is common in so many of our intimate relationships?
For some cis men, this aggression shows up in physical violence, but for others of us, we teach partners or children that they need to manage our anger (rather than that our anger is something we can control and manage).
3. Refusing to Listen
I grew up in a family of ticklers, and I think tickling is tremendous fun. My partner isn’t so much a fan. She humors me sometimes, and we laugh together with playful tickling, but I honestly have a hard time respecting the boundary when she asks me to stop.
While this might seem like a trivial example, it’s reflective of a problematic pattern – I was socialized to see something as positive that my partner doesn’t much like, and I’m not always great at listening.
Taken to its destructive ends, this can look like a million different violations of consent.
There are millions of ways that boys are taught not to listen. All of the following are phrases I’ve had men say to me at different times in my life:
“If she says ‘no,’ that simply means ‘convince me.’”
“If she’s mean to you, that means she likes you. Keep trying.”
“You don’t know what you want. You’re too young to know. So you’re going to do as we say. Because we say so.”
So whether we’re pretending that we know what our partners want or refusing to listen to our children when they express their needs and desires, the fact that cis men are socialized to value our own intuition and voice above that of others can play out in abusive ways.
So we have to be careful – and we have to cultivate an ethic of listening.
4. Being Controlling
I learned early on that I could control people around me to get my way. With friends, I would simply dictate to them which “dress up” game we would play – action heroes or soldiers or cowboys. With my sisters, I knew that I could use my status as the youngest – the baby – to make them do the things I wanted.
And I got this message because many of the adults in my life rewarded me for being assertive and controlling. They called it “leadership,” yet so often it’s called “bossiness” in girls.
One of the more insidious messages that we get as boys and young men is that we need to always be in control, whether we’re talking emotionally, financially, sexually, or even in simple social situations – all of which can lead to other forms of abuse, like physical violence.
In myself, I’ve found that I so very often manage to get my way, even when I claim that I’m trying to be accommodating to my loved ones. In listening to women, I realize that this is a common trend in straight relationships, one that I seriously need to work on.
So whether we’re falling into more traditional abusive patterns or are simply finding that we magically are always in control or getting our way, we have to be careful of the ways that our socialization as men can quickly bleed into abusive behaviors.
5. Acting on Jealousy
If there is any message I received from media – the music I listened to and the movies I watched – it was that jealousy was how we were supposed to show partners that they are wanted, that they are loved.
I got this message in such a messed up way that I remember seeing the movie Fear about a violent stalker in middle school, and I couldn’t help but think about how cool the murderous Mark Wahlberg character was.
Looking back, that terrifies me. His jealousy escalated to murder, and I thought he seemed cool.
And the thing that’s hard to address about jealous is that we all seem to feel it at one time or another. It’s totally natural in many ways.
However, while it may be natural to feel jealous, for many of us as men, jealousy quickly translates into harmful behaviors.
From violating privacy of a partner (say, by going through their phone) or pressuring them not to go out and spend time with friends or telling them that they can’t have friends of a particular gender or sexual orientation, there are myriad ways that jealousy can show up in abusive and controlling ways.
And while everyone may feel jealous at one time or another, the entitlement to the bodies and attentions of others that is inherent in misogynistic patriarchy makes jealousy particularly toxic when it comes from us as cisgender men.
Cultivating a Healthier Self In and Out of Relationships
As cisgender men, we need to realize that even though our identities are bound up in patriarchy, we are not patriarchy. As such, we have a relationship to patriarchy’s violence, which means we have agency to choose what that relationship looks like.
Part of unlearning the violence and abuse of patriarchy that is so deeply engrained into mainstream masculinities in the US means cultivating different ways of being, supplanting the unhealthy and destructive patterns with masculinities that can more closely align with feminist and non-violent values.
So now that we’ve looked at some of the unhealthy patterns, here are just a few ways that men can commit ourselves to cultivating healthier selves. Like the list above, by no means is this list exhaustive. Rather, it’s meant to provide a place to start as we work to build different masculinities.
1. Eliminate Violent and Oppressive Language
No – this isn’t about being “PC” – it’s about empathizing with those who are telling us that our language is hurtful and abusive. More than just a simple act of changing the words we use, eliminating words like the “b word,” “c word,” and “f word” demonstrates a willingness to work on ourselves.
It means that we recognize that we’re willing to attempt to change patterns that have told us throughout our lives that we can do and say whatever we want without consequence.
And it means that we are willing to consider that words have tremendous power and that inclusive language matters.
2. Take Time to Reflect On Our Emotions and How We Can Express Them in Healthier Ways
One of the ways that patriarchy truly wounds us as men is that it demands we divorce ourselves from that which makes us human – from our emotions and capacity for empathy and accountable love.
Thus, though it may seem cheesy, one of the most powerful things we can do to challenge our patriarchal socialization is to carve out time in our lives to reflect upon our emotions and to consider what it would mean for us to express them in ways that are healthier and more accountable to those we love.
3. Learn to Listen Openly and with Empathy
The thing about privilege is that those of us who have it can go through our lives never really listening to those who don’t share our identity – we don’t have to.
But those who try to listen across difference know it isn’t something everyone knows how to do well; it’s a learned skill. For those of us with many privileges, it’s even harder to listen because we’ve been given subtle and overt messages about the value of our voice.
Thus, we need to work actively on cultivating an ethic of empathetic listening, and we need to pay particular and careful attention to how this listening is vital to healthy relationships.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to learn to listen when we’re called out and called in about the ways our behavior is abusive. We need to practice pushing through the defensiveness to truly hear those who are calling on us to be better men.
4. Cultivate Relationships with Other Men that Challenge Normative Masculinity
One of the things I love most about my friend Timo’s work to challenge patriarchal violence is how he binds that work up in building loving and transformative relationships with other men. Frankly, the ways he cultivates what he calls “bruv love” with men in his life is an inspiration to me.
Unfortunately, though, so often “brotherhood” (as expressed in media, in narratives from fraternity or sports culture, in “bro code”) is far from transgressive. It reifies patriarchy.
But what would it look like for all men to cultivate relationships with other men that are built on care, love, affection, accountability, and feminist values? Think of how liberating that would be – not only for us as men, but for people of all genders in our lives!
As cisgender men who know that we need to be different, who realize that our liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people, we need to remember that living into our values doesn’t necessitate paternalistic “protection” of women, Trans men, or non-binary folks.
Living into our values means transforming ourselves and the culture of masculinity around us so that our behavior and our very identities challenge the violence of patriarchy.
And for each of us that might look different, as each of our masculinities exist at intersections with other parts of who we are.
But when more of us as men commit to this self work, think of how much less violence and abuse there will be in our lives and in the lives of those we love.
Jamie Utt is the Founder and Director of Education at CivilSchools, a comprehensive bullying prevention program, a diversity and inclusion consultant, and sexual violence prevention educator based in Tucson, AZ. He is currently working toward his PhD in Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona with research interests in the role that White teacher’s racial identity plays in their teaching practice. Learn more about his work at hiswebsite here and follow him on Twitter @utt_jamie. Read his articles here and book him for speaking engagements.