In light of the powerful stories that have been shared for Sexual Assault Awareness Week on campus, I sat down with UNCG students to better understand their feelings about the issue of sexual assault and the culture of masculinity. The conversations all seemed to have a common theme that shifted towards the role that men play in the creation of a safe campus, for not just their female counterparts, but for themselves as well.
“The onus falls upon men not to assault,” says UNCG student Alán as I sit with her and another student discussing their perception of the culture surrounding sexual assault on campus. “Men feel as if they are entitled to women’s bodies, and at certain frats, it’s expected for us to play a sexual role or else you’ll get kicked out,” says student Taylor.
Other women had similar things to say. I asked resident advisor, Chey, what she thought about the campus culture, and she responded, “When I first came here, I felt safe, now I wonder what if I’m next? My boyfriend even bought me pepper spray.”
These convictions fall in line with many of the conversations that I have had with women on campus. The general consensus was that many men have made women feel unsafe. They’ve been catcalled, grabbed while dancing, or kicked out of parties. In an effort to better understand the motivation behind this behavior, I turned my attention from speaking to women to speaking to men about how they felt about the issues that these women brought up.
“As a man, I didn’t realize that women had to deal with so much [stuff] that guys don’t worry about,” said Will, a UNCG freshman. We were on the discussion of walking to UNCG’s Kaplan Center, almost 15 minutes from the center of campus where most freshmen reside. Will explained that he would walk there at night without a second thought, but realizes that many women don’t have that same luxury. I explained to him how many women fear the situation of being catcalled.
When I asked Will what might motivate this type of behavior from men, he answered me with this anecdote, “When I was in high school there was this type of guy who played soccer, and would project all of his masculinity onto the sport.” When I questioned him why, his simple response was, “Because they feel uncomfortable with who they really are. Toxic masculinity.”
This sentiment struck me hard. I remember being on my high school’s varsity wrestling team, trying to hide the fact that I was also in the school musical for fear that ridicule would follow.
After sharing this with UNCG student, Doug, he said, “We need to teach men that it’s okay to not like ‘traditionally masculine’ things.” Will agreed as well, stating, “As a man, I’m trying to tear away my own toxic masculinity and use my privilege in a way that benefits others.” When asking him if he felt there was a way to curb this kind of toxic masculine behavior, he responded, “We need to redefine masculinity.”
“Why do we need to redefine masculinity?” asked another student named Hank,“We need to change the culture surrounding masculinity.” He recounts being in high school and his school having an all women participated club that dealt with the issues of masculinity. “This breeds a very us versus them mentality; men need to be present in conversations and discussions surrounding masculinity.” Similar to my conversation with Will, I asked him how he felt that he contributed to toxic masculinity. He replied, “Consciously I don’t think I contribute to toxic masculinity, but unconsciously I know that it is a part of me as a man.”
Upon the question of how he counters toxic masculinity, Hank responds, “By being open, even though it can be jarring, that’s how I try to dismantle it. Talk about [stuff] that bothers you instead of holding it in.”
When asked if he could tell men one thing that would he say, he replied, “Have conversations, be open-minded. In every story the bad guy thinks he’s the good guy and so does the good guy. Think of it as I’m learning something while they’re learning something and try to learn the most you can.”
In an effort to get some final opinions, I attended the Mending Masculinity event on UNCG’s campus on Wednesday, Aug. 29, where poets Kavi Ade and Vision spoke about their experiences as a trans man and cis man navigating manhood.
At the event, I sat down with UNCG students Dove, Amil, Mitchell and Jocelyn, all active members of the queer student group No Labels. I spoke to them briefly about their experiences with masculinity and masculinity in the queer community.
“Hypermasculinity is rampant throughout the gay community,” says Mitchell. He tells me that, especially in the black queer community, many men are on the down-low. Dove, who identifies as non-binary, agrees. They tell me that many black men aren’t comfortable with being a double minority, so they opt for obscurity and the privileges that come with being perceived as straight, rather than living out their truths.
This feeling of fear is also pervasive throughout the straight community. In a conversation with the poet Vision, he notes how many men keep their mouths shut when they see other guys doing things like catcalling or they actively participate, even when they know it’s wrong, so that they don’t come off as feminine. When asked how men could help address these issues, Vision responded with, “By asking women how they need us to show up. Whenever a black man is killed there are always trans women and queer people showing up on the front lines, but when a black trans woman is killed, no cishet black man is there.”
Poet Kavi Ade agreed and also noted, “Before I transitioned, many of my male friends would give me a hug without a second thought, but afterward they would only dap me up and felt uncomfortable hugging me.”
He told me he felt this not only demonstrates the fear that many men have of being perceived as something other than heterosexual, but also the different rights that men feel they have towards women’s bodies.
Through these conversations, it has become apparent that the toxicity that surrounds masculinity isn’t an inherent quality, but one that is learned through fear, and perpetuated through silence. Hopefully, through more conversations like these that were held on campus, other men will speak out and break this culture so everyone can feel safer not only on campus but all throughout society.