In a connected community, people feel like they matter and belong in the group and are comfortable being themselves. Connected communities allow all members to call out behaviors that make their community less safe or inclusive. But we know that not all communities allow every member to bring their full, authentic self to the table.

In the aftermath of #MeToo going viral, we’ve been able to have important conversations about sexual violence and how it affects everyone in our communities—online or off. We now have the opportunity to discuss how rigid expectations of masculinity play a part in sexual violence perpetration and victimization.

The Atlantic article “The Miseducation of the American Boy” details the experiences of several young men as they navigate gender and sexuality, social groups and social stigma, and dating and “manliness.” It sparked an online conversation about what it means to “be a man” and how toxic masculinity is infused into many of us from our early, formative years.

Because social standards define “manhood” in very strict terms, many learn at a young age to distance themselves from the warmth and connection they seek. Keeping so much bottled within can be an isolating experience and can potentially lead to maladaptive behaviors, which can then manifest as violent expressions of power and control, like sexual violence. How do we encourage men and boys to break down the confines of masculinity and express a healthy range of emotions?

We can start by building a sense of community. Men and boys who don’t fit in the “man box,” or the stereotypical mold of what it means to “be a man,” are more likely to be excluded by others and may even experience harm. As is highlighted in the article, an interest in musical theater, an attraction to other men, or simply expressing that a breakup has left them upset are just a few things that can make someone an outcast in communities that are defined by toxic forms of masculinity.

Because of the positive effects that connected communities have on individuals, building connectedness and challenging harmful beliefs and social standards in spaces dominated by boys and men help make it less likely that sexual violence will happen. Some of those positive effects are feelings of belonging and higher levels of empathy—which can counteract harmful norms, like isolation and aggressiveness, that may lead someone to commit violence.

Here are three ways we can build community in spaces that have traditionally been dominated by men and boys:

Redefine masculinity and be an active bystander. Everyone can play a part in changing the way we view people in masculine roles. “Manliness” isn’t limited to only dominance, aggression, power, and athleticism. “Being a man” can mean many different things, and we all have the opportunity to show that strength can be found in compassion and kindness. If you’re able to, point out why certain jokes and name-calling can be harmful towards others. For example, calling someone “gay” or a “girl” because they were crying has harmful implications that these identifies are less worthy of respect and ignores that it’s normal to express sad emotions. Children begin to learn and copy the behaviors of others at a young age—the earlier a positive example is set, the better.

Listen to others. Many men and boys have been told to keep quiet and “deal with it” when a problem arises. Instead, take the time to listen to others’ experiences. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what a person is going through because we haven’t experienced it ourselves. Oftentimes, all that someone needs is for another person to hear them out and empathize. If someone you know is going through a tough time, let them know that you hear what they’re saying. In some cases, it may be challenging to talk about problems if the environment doesn’t support that. When you’re able, set time aside to speak with someone privately to offer your support. Try not to interrupt them while they’re speaking and stay away from making any judgments. When it’s your turn to talk, try saying:

“That sounds difficult to deal with. I’m here if you need anything.”

“I don’t know what that’s like, but I’m sorry you’re going through this. Is there any way I can help?”

Continue learning and take on a new perspective. We’ve all had different experiences that shaped us into who we are. Those experiences influence how we look at and navigate through the world. A 2017 study from the Pew Research Center found that “more women have experienced sexual harassment in male-dominated industries compared to female dominated industries – a different of 28 percent versus 20 percent.” If you work in an industry that is predominantly male and a colleague confides a negative experience that they had with you, be worthy of that trust. It can be natural to want to say things like “it couldn’t have been that bad” or “I don’t think he meant it that way, he was just joking,” but comments like that can cause more harm. Actively listening, hearing a perspective that may have been unknown to you, and asking the person what you can do to help is key. Challenge your own beliefs and any comments you hear that stereotype someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, or sexual orientation.

We are all a work in progress, and it’s okay if we don’t know everything. Learning is a lifelong process; there’s always room to grow. When we try to look at things from someone else’s eyes, we start to see more of what we have in common and less of what we don’t.

* NJCASA recognizes that gender is a spectrum and that there are more than two genders. The use of gender-specific pronouns and language is not intended to exclude or assign an identity. We include this language to reflect what has been captured by researchers and practitioners, fully acknowledging it may be limiting.

This blog is part of the NJCASA C.A.R.E.S. initiative.

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