UO Men’s Center

ASUO Men’s Center Responds to Toxic Masculinity

Campus leaders address unhealthy gendered behaviors in era of #MeToo movement

By Jeff Ehren, Sarah Hovet and Zach Wilkinson

“Boys will be boys,” says a line of men standing behind barbecue grills, arms folded. A gaggle of boys stampede through a house, upending furniture, as one boy in the center of the room sobs in a woman’s arms. Teenagers on a couch surf TV channels, taking in scenes of sexual harassment overlaid with laugh tracks.

These images appear in the Gillette ad “The Best Men Can Be”, which the Associated Student of the University of Oregon’s (ASUO) Men’s Center screened at one of its winter term events.

The ASUO Men’s Center seeks to address men’s mental health as well as social justice issues on campus.

“I knew there was something off and that I needed someone to talk to,” University of Oregon student Arjan Warya said of his mental health. “But also, in the back of my head was the environment that I grew up in. ‘Suck it up.’ ‘Boys don’t cry.’ ‘You don’t need help, you’re okay.’”

As Student Director of Outreach for the Men’s Center, Warya works to dispel the constrictive gender roles that often prevent men from seeking help for their mental health.

On Monday evenings, the Men’s Center invites students of all genders to participate in its Be Open to Listening and Discourse meetings, referred to as BOLD Club for short.

During the meeting, students viewed the Gillette ad. The showing prompted a discussion of how media often contains societal scripts of how to act out gender, but anything that challenges those scripts can cause controversy, as with the ad.

Other broad topics of discussion included the way masculinity is portrayed in the media. Moody asked participants to think of positive examples of masculinity in the public eye, and people suggested #MeToo ally Terry Crews and queer actor Ezra Miller. However, they struggled to identify examples of media such as TV shows that feature characters who provide alternatives to mainstream masculinity.

“We try to connect with students at their level on the topic,” Brett Moody, the current director of the Men’s Center and BOLD Club facilitator, said. “We need to focus on those who are most likely the perpetrators. We need to focus on stopping the violence that’s happening.”

Moody intends the BOLD Club meetings to get students of all genders into the room to talk about these issues and think of ways to actively address them. But the meetings’ agendas are mainly student-driven.

BOLD Club allows students to examine things on a more personal level. At one meeting, participants opened up about their concerns of identity and fitting in both at the UO and in the city of Eugene. Warya cited the statistic that men commit suicide at higher rates than women, by 3.5 times, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — a figure that speaks to the heart of the Men’s Center’s origins and purpose.

Nearly two decades ago, Jon Davies, a psychologist at the UO Health Center, recognized a lack of support for young men on college campuses and subsequently founded the university’s Men’s Center.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men were committing suicide at a rate four times higher on average than women in 2002. In light of men’s apparent reluctance to seek help, Davies decided to create a safe space on campus that allowed men to express themselves, gain clarity on gender issues and reflect on their frustrations in a healthy way.

Davies’ research promoted using “possible masculinity” at the Men’s Center to help young men lead healthy lives. Possible masculinity describes an aspirational and future-oriented approach focused on what men want to be in the future, what men require to meet developmental needs and what the community needs from men to foster collective safety and health.

Today, the Men’s Center’s mission has shifted somewhat. The program transitioned from being an extension of the Health Center to being an ASUO-recognized student group. Graduate students oversaw the group each year until Moody was hired as the first full-time director in January 2017.

Now, roundtable discussions like BOLD Club form a large part of the center’s curriculum. The programming changes from term to term and year to year because of the emphasis on centering students’ interests and concerns. Past events included sexual assault prevention presentations from a former UO student who is a sex worker, and a production of the Men’s Story Project.

Moody also has background in facilitating dialogues such as BOLD Club. He served as a residential assistant during his undergraduate years, where he took courses that focused on race, but delved into all aspects of identity.

“I started talking more about my gender, which was something I never thought about before as a man,” Moody said.

Moody started facilitating and continued taking courses on masculinity, gender issues and social justice during his undergraduate years before going on to graduate school. There, he focused on adult development and student leadership and engagement before taking his current position at the UO Men’s Center.

Another major aspect of the Men’s Center’s current mission is examining the intersection of men’s health issues and social justice issues. The center wishes to facilitate discussions about toxic masculinity and how it might affect students.

While that term has entered into the vernacular through the rise of the #MeToo movement, Davies, the center’s original founder, doesn’t condone the term.

“Toxic masculinity is a double-edged sword,” Davies said. “It brings the issue to the forefront. But it doesn’t motivate men to change and it doesn’t further empathy towards men.”

Davies would rather frame the issue using behavioral terms.

“Behaviors may be harmful, but not toxic, such as a reluctance to ask for help.” Davies said.“Men suffer from this prohibition to seeking help.”

This debate over terminology, which has happened on other campuses, is indicative of the larger issue of how a program or center is perceived, an issue Warya feels the UO Men’s Center struggles with. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, rebranded its program last fall after accusations of treating masculinity as a mental health problem.

Warya understands the problems of perception. “I don’t think many people know what we do here at the Men’s Center,” Warya said. Members expressed concern that, taken out of context, the name might sound like a men’s rights group.

In an attempt to overcome this limitation, the Men’s Center redesigned its logo. Every time the name “Men’s Center” appears, it is followed by the words “Reconstructing Masculinity.”

Another crucial hurdle the center faces is having men be willing and active participants in the process of change. Research has shown that empathy is easily elicited within members of a single group, meaning that men will tend to protect other men, even when they are engaging in problematic behavior.

Philosopher Kate Manne coined the term “himpathy” to describe this pattern in male behavior of “exonerating narratives and excessive sympathy of which comparatively privileged men tend to be the beneficiaries,” a phenomenon she sees at work in such high-profile #MeToo cases like those of Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh.

To break through this cycle, campuses such as UO recognize the need to get men on board as allies in discussions of gender. Other examples include Stony Brook University offering a Masculinity Studies masters, and masculinity initiatives being implemented at the University of Arizona.

Best practices in psychology are shifting as well. As recently as August 2018, the American Psychological Association published new guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men, including Masculinity Ideology.

But with this change comes a backlash. With the societal debate over terms and approaches when it comes to masculinity, outreach can be tricky.

The Men’s Center hosts events centered on Movember, promoting men’s health and cancer awareness, as well as movie screenings with discussions after. Moody said the center is heavily involved with campus partners during Sexual Assault Awareness Month and tries to focus on college students leading college students.

Another question the center faces is how to evaluate its progress toward its mission. In the past, participants filled out satisfaction surveys after attending events hosted by the center. Now, the center is shifting toward more of a learning-based evaluation.

“This year we’re going to measure more of ‘what did you learn?’” Moody says. “What did you take from this that you didn’t know before?”