August 4, 2020

It is a Box but It Is Also a Prison: Rethinking Conversations On Masculinity

Jayvon Howard, Engaging Men Coordinator, Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence
Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels

In these times of civil unrest, we have heard global calls from communities on defunding and abolishing the police. I have myself been in many conversations examining the questions of: what would it look like to live in a community without police? What does it look like for survivors in communities where police didn’t exist? I have also been asking broader questions on the prison-industrial complex – the network of policing, surveillance, court systems and incarceration and how this impacts our survivors and prevention work around engaging men.

I recognize conversations around toxic masculinity are important to many individuals and communities and encourage us to continue educating ourselves and one another. I also see this is as an opportunity for us to shift the language of conversations around masculinity to be more precise and intentional. The functioning of masculinity can look parallel to the functions of the prison-industrial complex.

There are ongoing threats of surveillance of men’s actions, attitudes and behaviors. We witness policing those behaviors with the consequence of being forced into a “toxic” masculinity. I want us to not only simply describe masculinity as a “man box” but truly leaning into comprehending masculinity as an incarceration. I would like to challenge us to think of patriarchal masculinities as a pathology based on that assumption of masculinity as a social incarceration.

The “man box” is not simply an abstract concept but is rooted in a tangible experience and could be replicable of a solitary confinement. This description of a prison in the body of enduring psychosocial abuses from an institution that stunt ability to connect, communicate, or express yourself. This degree of disembodiment is a reality that many men must grapple with daily when navigating their masculine expressions and identities. Expanding our definitions also permits discussion of examining masculinity outside of maleness that applies to each of us irrelevant of gender identities.

If men are incarcerated with limited mobility and autonomy, it should be unsurprising that emotionally and spiritually devasted men would follow whichever pathway is provided for them to achieve liberation. The disease that we are all organizing and working against must always be named as patriarchy. Our collective understanding of masculinity teaches our boys and men to believe in order to gain freedom and autonomy, controlling others and embracing domination is necessary.

If we thought of patriarchy as a disease and masculinity as pathology, how we would begin to identify and treat those symptoms? Would this make it possible to extend enough grace and patience to innovate transformative and restorative practices when engaging men even when they do harm?

I acknowledge that it may feel dangerous to rethink masculinity in terms of mental illness because oppressive institutions often minimize the daily struggles of those who live with mental illness. Systemically, we also argue mental illness to evade accountability, which can be seen quite plainly within the prison-industrial complex. But we also must acknowledge that collectively as a nation and as advocates in the anti-sexual violence field, we often don’t know how to have critical conversations around mental illness and disability justice.

We must always remember how masculinity is weaponized as a primary tool to operate patriarchy. But many studies and scholars make clear that though men are “powerful,” they do not individual feel powerful. This disconnection from the reality of power and control systems is where oppression manages to proliferate. If we can truly understand the emotions and experiences that occupy the space where allegiances to patriarchal masculinities are formed we can move toward transformative justice and behavior change. Men are seeking autonomy, love, acceptance, security, and belonging. Our society offers a singular route to achieve this but we must begin imagine alternatives.

I want to see us move beyond a dialogue of innovating “new” masculinities but rather a focus on celebrating men for their full humanness. We must dare to go further. We must dare to encourage behavior changes, to explore healthy coping mechanisms, to explore how our mental health does not exist in a vacuum outside of oppression, power, and privilege. I specifically challenge men to explore avenues that center healing, accountability, and transformation. We need to do more than teach about healthy relationships, “manhood” and toxic masculinity but also teach the art of loving.