UO Men’s Center helps answer the question: What is masculinity?
When Maj Hutchinson tells people she is the director of the University of Oregon Men’s Center, she is commonly met with two reactions: first, surprise (because she is a woman) and second, confusion (that a Men’s Center exists). “Why do we need a Men’s Center,” some women ask, “when the whole world is a men’s center?”
The answer Hutchinson provides these women with is simple yet startling: men are failing. It was because of this, she says, that Jon Davies founded the Men’s Center more than 10 years ago, and Hutchinson believes it’s this reality that propels the Men’s Center to continue growing. While we tend to evaluate women’s issues, men’s issues are left rarely addressed, Hutchinson said with confidence. It’s about time we start.
When Davies founded the Men’s Center more than a decade ago, working then as a counselor at the University, men were failing academically, socially and emotionally, according to Hutchinson. And today, she continued, these concerns have only worsened. For one, fewer men than women are graduating than ever before. According to the Concerned Women for America, over the past couple of decades, the male-to-female ratio on college campuses has changed dramatically. Women outnumber men by a four-to-three ratio, while men make up only 43 percent of college graduates.
Additionally, men suffer more from alcohol and drug abuse than women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men consistently have higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations than women and are more likely than women to drink excessively. It is estimated that about 17 percent of men will suffer from alcohol dependency in their lifetimes, while only 8 percent of women will.
Men are also the main perpetrators for sexual assault and violence. Ninety-nine percent of rapists are men, according to One in Four USA. Additionally, one in four college women will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime, according to surveys done by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Finally, more men attempt suicide, and succeed, than women. According to the World Health Organization, for every 100,000 citizens in 2011, 17.7 males committed suicide, compared with 4.5 females.
Despite all of this, men are three times less likely to seek help from counseling. According to a study conducted in 2007 by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, only about 2.12 percent of men sought counseling.
“There is a male crisis going on nationally,” Hutchinson said. “Without seeking help for their problems, many men aren’t encouraged to deal with feelings in a healthy way.”
It’s an issue that leads both men and women to ask: Why? Why should the sex that some perceive as the “lucky” sex in our culture, the sex that has historically been seen as the most privileged, also be the one that’s failing the most?
Jackson Katz, a self-proclaimed anti-sexism male activist, has lectured all over the country on topics surrounding this issue and argues that the answer lies deep in ways we view and define the term “masculinity” itself. The way our culture holds an idolized perception of the essence of masculinity, according to Katz, perpetuates these shortcomings of the American male.
In an interview with the Media Education Foundation on his book “The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help,” Katz argues that we live in a violent, sex-driven society that, despite its intended persecution of all unlawful acts, is also a society that encourages these wrongdoings through the promotion of an aggressive and sex-driven male by popular culture. In other words, even if a male isn’t committing acts of violence himself, if he adheres to sexist behaviors and aggressive attitudes, he is contributing to the hyper-masculine culture that drives some men to commit violent acts in the first place.
It was Katz’s work that inspired Brendan Ostlund, a senior at the UO and the events coordinator at the Men’s Center, to pursue an interest in men’s studies. Ostlund watched one of Katz’s films, “Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity,” which explores the issues of heightened images of masculinity in popular media, and was propelled to further explore his and society’s perceptions of masculinity.
“After I watched the movie, it was then that I became aware of the subtleties in our culture that promote a harmful, unhealthy image of masculinity, and that’s when I started to rethink a lot about what I deemed correct culturally and personally,” Ostlund said.
Bonnie Mann, a professor of philosophy at the UO and author of a book-in-progress titled “Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror,” has elaborated on this particular perception of masculinity.
“Though there are various models of masculinity out there, the primitive, animal-like, instinct-driven male is commonly seen in our popular culture,” Mann said. “And when males fail to project this image of masculinity, they risk being feminized — which can be an insult to many.”
This kind of alienation isn’t unusual, according to Aaron Porter, a senior at the UO and the assistant director to the Men’s Center.
“I know a handful of men who consider themselves to be sensitive, emotional men, and they’re regarded as less ‘masculine’ by other men because of the vulnerability they show,” Porter said.
This idea that vulnerability equals femininity, Porter said, is something heavily reinforced by our culture.
“For instance, when I cry, people sometimes have a hard time understanding it. The majority of males are told — culturally or otherwise — to not be ‘wusses,’ to not show emotion. Because, then, you risk being seen as weak. This has a lot to do with how men are socialized at a young age,” he said.
According to “Boys Don’t Cry,” an article by Common Sense Media, a boy’s inability to express his true emotions can affect his ability to make lasting relationships, deal with hardships and, ultimately, be happy.
“This puts some young men in a really horrible position, Mann said, “one in which he is torn between the desire to express his true, vibrant self and the desire to fit in with society.”
So if it’s possible that gender stereotypes play a part in the failing rates of American men, how can we help them? Ostlund said the answer has to do with our awareness and ability to talk about these issues. Talking about these issues, he said, helps promote positive masculinity, a masculinity that is “flexible and as true to our individual selves as possible.”
Places like the Men’s Center, which hosts various workshops and meetings every week, might help do just that. The center provides everything from a Mad Skills program that works with those who have committed conduct violations at the UO, to leadership classes for Fraternity and Sorority Life, to general weekly meetings in which men (and women) can come together and discuss the ways in which we perceive masculinity today and the issues men face because of these perceptions.
“When someone is confused by the presence of a Men’s Center,” Hutchinson said. “I take that as an opportunity to educate them on why it’s important we have a discourse of men’s issues today. We see the statistics: men are failing and they need help. But first, they have to ask for it, and in a society that discourages them from doing just that, that’s a hard thing for some men to do. The best way to battle this skewed mentality is to create a community of discussion surrounding issues that men face.”
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