This is my friend Asa.
Here’s one amazing thing about him: Through our teens and early twenties, I was madly, desperately, awkwardly in love with him. I was a romantic baby goth and he was a clever, brooding intellectual who read Nietzsche, built angsty Whitewolf characters, and played the guitar. He was also young and unsure of himself, especially when it came to women, intimacy, and sex — and he took a lot of that confusion out on me over the rocky course of our relationship. He would sneak out of his parents’ house for midnight adventures, talk philosophy and make out for hours in the front seat of my car, and then refuse to make eye-contact with me at school because I wasn’t the right kind of girl. We’d decide to try and make it work, go out on “real” dates, but he could only get turned on when I pretended to be someone else. And he didn’t want to talk about it. After several on-again-off-again years, I finally gave up. He had not only broken my heart, he had also decimated my self-esteem.
That’s not the amazing part. This is: Years later, long after I had closed myself off to the possibility of any meaningful connection between us, he found me and apologized. Walked up to me at a friend’s party, where I had been hyper-consciously avoiding him all night, and said, “Hey. I’m sorry for all my shit.” Apparently, while my heart had been in recovery, Asa had been doing his own work. Not long afterwards, he sat with me on the front porch of my house and asked if I wanted to talk about our relationship. I poured out all my unresolved pain and anger and longing and he listened. He just listened. And he asked what he could do to make amends.
One of the things we talked about that night was the structural reasons that our relationship had gone so awry. About the fact that we had not just been clueless kids accidentally hurting each other at random in our attempts to Figure Things Out — that we had been drawing on and reinforcing painful patterns that had been playing out between men and women for centuries. And I talked about how important it was to me for the men in my life to help each other dismantle those scripts. At this point in my life, Asa has become one of my closest personal friends and most trusted political allies. He has a wonderful wife and son, has rebuilt a loving relationship with his family, sought out sources of emotional and spiritual as well as intellectual nourishment, and gotten involved with working for justice in his communities. When I think about men who get feminism, I think about Asa — and about the beautiful 3 year old boy he’s raising. (His name is Athil and he plays the drums and has the very best smile.)
A couple of weeks ago, I made this post on Tumblr about “emotional labor” and why it’s important to gender justice that men learn how to process their own feelings:
In other words: Women are socialized to provide men with free therapy and men are socialized to take advantage of that without realizing it’s happening. In fact, we’re all trained to think of “talking about feelings” as something men occasionally do as a favor to women, rather than something women regularly do for men.
It got over 100 reblogs. That’s a lot for me. More importantly, many people added their own comments, describing personal and painful struggles around doing emotional work with or for the men in their lives. The response surprised me but I think I understand why it touched a nerve…
“Don’t tell women how not to get raped. Teach men not to rape.” It’s a powerful statement. We’re starting to see more people making it a priority to teach young people about consent. Men’s Eagle Council is only one of them. And that’s awesome. It’s not enough, though. Because when I think about what I want from the men in my communities, I don’t just want them to not rape me. Although I know it’s one I won’t see in my lifetime, a world where people can walk down the street, or go to a party, or on a date without fear of sexual assault would be incredible. Still, I also want men to be able to communicate with me, to be my friends, to have my back, to listen when I talk about my experiences and to share their own, to work by my side in the struggle for gender justice.
Our culture bombards us with the idea that masculinity is defined by coercion and violence. Boys are taught to believe that they are either entitled gods or uncontrollable monsters. In the face of these messages, it’s difficult for boys and masculine-of-center young people to develop an emotionally healthy, socially responsible, personally meaningful sense of their gender — much less face up to the privileges that come along with it. The handful of masculine-identified folks I know who have that kind of strong, clear, nuanced, and non-defensive understanding have typically gone through hell and back to get it. This is partly because most have had to do that work in isolation. And I believe that isolation is a large part of why there are so few of them. It’s not that boys don’t want to learn. It’s that deconstructing a dominant identity and rebuilding a justice-oriented sense of self is incredibly deep emotional work. Most people simply can’t do it alone.
When I was a teenager, there were a lot of conversations I wanted to have, but had no place for. I wanted to talk about what the heck manhood was. I wanted to talk about how to have a good romantic relationship. I wanted to talk about how to feel and express my emotions without unnecessarily hurting anyone. Basically, I wanted to talk about how to be a decent human being. But there were few places where I felt I had permission, let alone an invitation, to bring up serious conversations about things that were actually important to me. – Asa Henderson
So, this is the part where I ask you for money. I’ve been writing lately about innovative ways we can use the Internet to fight rape culture. This is one of them. Asa and his collaborators are looking to build online community where youth can come together, along with some experienced mentors, and support each other in working through the complicated messages they’re receiving about masculinity from society and the media. They want to start by shooting a series of videos on topics like date rape, cyber bullying, the costs of masculinity in contemporary society, relationships between men, and power dynamics between men and people of other genders. They need some money to do that.
There are only 5 days left in their Indiegogo campaign. They’ve actually exceeded their original goal, which means the videos will definitely get made, but every additional dollar makes the series longer and more comprehensive. I don’t have a lot of money but I gave them $500. Seriously, that’s almost two months rent for me. I think this project is a big deal. Can you spare five bucks?
Before you click that link, be warned: If your politics are anything like mine, watching their fundraising video will likely get your hackles up. It’s a video of adults, mostly older heterosexual white men, talking about youth rather than with them. There’s not a female-presenting person in sight. Nothing in it suggests that if I were, say, a trans* masculine or genderqueer youth, or a young butch woman struggling with my relationship to masculinity, that this project would be geared to my needs. Even the name, “Men’s Eagle Council,” alongside photos of bonfires and trust falls hints at a long history of white folks appropriating native ritual practices for the sake of our own spiritual growth. And some of their funding comes from a Men’s Movement demographic that tends to regard feminists as “the enemy”.
“I have a pretty firm ‘don’t tell women how to do feminism’ precept. [...] My effort is much better spent creating a space where men can do some of the work that we need to do. I’m honestly pretty OK with women deciding for themselves how much they want to include men in their feminism, even to the extent of complete separatism. My ultimate goal and ideal is synthesis and collaboration, but separation often needs to happen first.”
In fact, one of his explicit intentions with the project — which he’s told me he’ll write more about himself (*nudge nudge*) — is to bridge the gap between some good work the men’s movement, despite their lack of structural analysis, has done getting boys in touch with their feelings and feminist understandings of gender as constructed within a misogynistic culture. Not many other people are attempting to bring these two frameworks together. Even fewer are doing it online for free. One of the things I like best about MEC’s model is that the videos are accessible to anybody with an Internet connection. That includes kids who might want to explore what masculinity means to them but who would never feel comfortable going out and doing trust falls in the forest with a bunch of teenage boys.
So, there are things about “Journey to Manhood” that are problematic. Yes. I’m not going to try and defend any of that stuff. It’s all present in the project. Supporting it means that I have to sit with supporting something that has a lot of room to grow. Still, I think the work they’re doing is vital and I have faith in the people doing it. Specifically, I have faith in Asa’s ability to help young men heal because, over the past ten years, I’ve watched him go through that difficult healing process himself. Giving the Men’s Eagle Council my money, my time, and my critical engagement feels like resisting rape culture and supporting gender justice in a really concrete way. And hopefully this only the beginning of some much bigger conversations with youth of all genders about how social technologies can help humans negotiate our continuously-developing identities.
Apropos to the importance of community, one of the best ways I think I can support MEC’s mission is not just by giving them dollars but by encouraging them, as they’re developing their videos, to connect with and learn from the work of others. For example:
* The Brown Boi Project, “a community of masculine of center womyn, men, two-spirit people, transmen, and allies committed to transforming our privilege of masculinity, gender, and race into tools for achieving Racial and Gender Justice.”
* Gender Spectrum, an organization that supports families, educators, and service providers to create a “gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens [including] children who don’t fit neatly into male or female boxes.”
* Male Submission Art, a long-running project devoted to challenging the notion of masculinity as defined by dominance. Its archives are filled with detailed analysis of sexualized imagery as it reinforces or resists these hegemonic gender norms.
And, finally and perhaps most importantly, I would encourage MEC to involve local youth not just as participants in the project but as part of their production team. The guidance of experienced mentors is important, but there are also things about what masculinity means to today’s youth that will necessarily be different from and, in some ways, incomprehensible to their elders. (C’mon. Bronies?) The joint SPAN/MESA youth anti-violence collective Peers Building Justice might be a good place to start.
Or can you share a link with the Men’s Eagle Council that will help them with their mission to build an inclusive, welcoming, collaborative, co-creative space for young people to engage critically and meaningfully with masculinity? As a good friend of mine says, “Nobody knows the big secret of how to live, but everyone knows some small secrets.” If we pool all our small pieces together, maybe we can put together the whole puzzle.