Wisdom//

What Healthy Manhood Means to Me

The CEO of A Call To Men on what America gets right—and wrong—about teaching boys to be men.

Tony Porter, Chief Executive Officer of A Call To Men.

Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. As part of it, we’re asking a wide range of men across industries, ages and background to answer 6 questions about what masculinity means to them. Read more about the project here

I once asked a 12-year-old boy, a football player, “What would happen if the coach said to you, in front of all your teammates that you were playing like a girl?” I expected him to say he’d be mad, sad or angry but instead he said, “It would destroy me!” I thought, “Oh, my God. If it would destroy him to be told he was playing like a girl, then what are we teaching him about girls?”

As an educator, activist, author and CEO of A Call To Men, I spend most of my time – and have spent most of my adult life – thinking about and talking about what it means to be a man. I have worked with men all around the world for the past 20 years. That’s a lot of handshakes, fist bumps, high fives and hugs. There are some wonderful aspects of being a man, like the pride we take in working hard, being providers, loving husbands, partners and fathers. But there are also aspects of manhood that are far more destructive.

We are teaching our young football player that if he is like a girl, he is less of a man. At A Call To Men, we educate men all over the world on healthy, respectful manhood in order to decrease all forms of violence and discrimination against all women and girls. We use the concept of the “Man Box,” to identify the limitations on what a man is supposed to be and what he believes. In the Man Box, men are supposed to be powerful and dominating, fearless and in control, strong and emotionless, and successful. In the Man Box, women are objects, the property of men, and of less value than men. The teachings of the Man Box allow violence against women, girls and other marginalized groups to persist.

Research by the World Health Organization shows that men and boys who adhere to rigid, traditional notions of gender roles and masculinity are more likely to report having used violence against a partner.

In reality, sexism and inequality not only hurt women, but imprison men.

We are held hostage to the norms of the Man Box, and it has a profound impact on men’s health and emotional wellbeing. When boys are told not to cry or feel, there are long-term lasting negative effects on their health and relationships. Research by the Harvard School of Public Health found that those who suppress their emotions are one-third more likely to die prematurely than people who regularly express what they are feeling. Issues of rage, anxiety, depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms can manifest. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate is four times higher in men than in women. The Man Box, to mix metaphors, cuts both ways: psychologically wounding men, and physically hurting women. 

Men’s violence against women is the leading cause of injury to women in this country. Every 3-6 seconds a woman will become victim of domestic violence in this country. And 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during their time in college.

The overwhelming majority of men in this country don’t perpetrate violence against women. The majority of men are good men who would not assault a woman, who believe women should be respected, who value women and girls, and who believe in equality.

As it is, the collective socialization of manhood—the way we raise our boys to be men —provides the foundation for violence and discrimination against women and girls, and allows it to persist.  We men and boys define ourselves by devaluing women and girls. We have been taught—and we teach our boys—to be tough, to be strong, to be courageous. We have been taught—and we teach our boys—no fear, no pain, and to only express anger. We do this through colloquial sayings and phrases so ingrained in our culture we don’t give them a second thought: “You throw like a girl,” “Only little girls cry,” and “Man up.” 

Rejecting rigid notions of masculinity and embracing and promoting a healthy, respectful manhood prevents violence against women, sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying and many other social ills. But men are also healthier, whole, authentic men when they embrace healthy, respectful manhood.

A Call To Men’s work with middle and high school boys validates these outcomes. A Call To Men piloted its LIVERESPECT Coaching Healthy, Respectful Manhood Curriculum in 12 schools across the country, reaching over 500 high school students. What we found is for me, very exciting.  

  • Pre-curriculum, 68% of boys see that the Man Box exists and dictates how they should act and feel. Post-curriculum, that number increases to 99%.

  • Pre-curriculum, only 16% of boys agree or strongly agree that boys are taught to view women as having less value. Post-curriculum, that number increases to 74%.

  • Pre-curriculum, only 21% of boys agree or strongly agree that boys are taught to view women and girls as the property of men. Post-curriculum, that number increases to 90%.

  • Pre-curriculum, only 19% of boys agree or strongly agree that they know what consent means. Post-curriculum, that number increase to 75%.

There is still work ahead of us, but these results suggest that our LIVERESPECT Curriculum shifts attitudes and behaviors that prevent violence and discrimination against all women and girls. I am inspired by the young men in our pilot who were willing to think critically about their manhood – about the very things that men of my generation have passed down to them.

There are, thankfully, good models for manhood out there: I have drawn a great deal of personal inspiration from President Barack Obama, who I do not know personally but who I deeply love. I admire his authenticity, his empathy and his swagger. I love that he is surrounded by women and openly expresses tremendous appreciation, love and value for his wife, daughters and mother-in-law. Men like President Obama are blazing a new path and creating space for men of all ages to be their whole, authentic selves.

My work, my hope is that all men will evaluate what manhood means to them. I ask men to embrace and promote the Principles of Healthy, Respectful Manhood.

  1. Embrace and express a full range of emotion.

  2. Do not conform to the pressure to always be fearless and in control.

  3. Value a woman’s life, treat all people equally and promote the betterment of humanity.

  4. Do not use language that denigrates women and girls.

  5. Model a healthy, respectful manhood.

This is the work that’s in front of us as men. For the women we love and care about, for our communities, for the betterment of humanity, but also for ourselves.

Tony Porter is the co-founder and CEO of A Call To Men. Tony is internationally recognized for his efforts to prevent violence against women while promoting a healthy, respectful manhood. He is a leading voice on issues of manhood, male socialization and its intersection with violence, and preventing violence against all women and girls. Tony’s 2010 TED Talk has been named by GQ Magazine as one of the “Top 10 TED Talks Every Man Should See.”  

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