Across the globe and particularly in rural, midwest America, young men struggle with what mainstream western culture dictates as healthy masculinity. Current cultural trends promote the idea that men are to be strong, dominant, rich, and powerful. Men are to strive to achieve this at all costs. These ideals of what a man should be are often unrealistic and harmful. These ideals do not encourage men to explore and express their more empathic, sympathetic, kind, emotional selves. Raising young men in a culture that promotes the rejection of “feminine”, non-“masculine” qualities and domination over others is detrimentally harmful and normalizes gender violence. The gender roles portrayed by the media are most often overly sexualized, with men dominating over women and women submitting, rarely with any sign of verbal consent. Our organization wants to promote a culture where we are all valued and where violence is not normalized or expected from half of our population. We strive to promote a culture where consent is the norm and people feel safe to be themselves.
To promote a more holistic and less violent view of manhood, we encouraged a group of young men to get together to discuss and explore different aspects of themselves. The discussions are teen-led and usually the topics are chosen by the teens. Their topics have covered a wide array of subjects, including what it means to be a man, objectification, consent, climate change, and growing up. One or two adult staff members attend to help move the conversation through lulls, to occasionally chime in with a thought-provoking question, or to suggest other resources. Sometimes the kids seek introspection or want to hear what the adults’ experience has been with certain situations. The youths’ goal for all their discussions is for them to be inclusive and free of judgment, while at the same time analyzing behaviors and thoughts that can be harmful or oppressive toward others.
The group started meeting in June of 2016. The group’s initial meeting was inspired by a group of young women and gender nonconforming youth: Youth Against Misogyny and Sexism (YAMS). YAMS formed three years ago out of inspiration to seek education on sexual assault prevention, gender issues, reproductive health and much more which they were not receiving in school. The YAMS created a space where they could not only learn about these topics but also safely and freely discuss these issues more openly and personally than they could in the classroom.
Occasionally, this group would host workshops that were open to male youth and the larger community. Routinely, the desire for cis-male allies was brought up by the members of YAMS. They believed that though many of their male classmates were good people, they did not have healthy models in our society to look up to or a safe space to question the unhealthy imagery that bombards them. The YAMS recognized that sexual assault affects us all and that in order to create a consent culture, young males must be involved in discussions and education on how to change the current culture. We encouraged the YAMS to express their thoughts and feelings with their male classmates on why it is so important to have male allies and how they could become one.
When male youth attended YAMS functions, the YAMS and our staff welcomed them and encouraged their questions and curiosity to explore topics. We let them know that if they wanted to form a group for young men, we were here to support them and that we wanted to nurture a space where young men are encouraged to be compassionate, emotional beings who have the power stand up as allies against sexual violence. One member of our staff was also engaging with youth of Athens City Schools through other school and community programs. This staff member utilized connections built at these events and promoted the idea to the students, faculty, and parents.
Eventually, one particularly motivated student organized other young men through an online poll to see when students were available. He set up time with us to use our cozy office lounge and organized with our male staff members to facilitate the group. Our building is conveniently located in the town center, so students can use school or public transit to access the location and parents can easily pick up or drop off their kids.
At the last YMDA meeting, they invited other genders to attend their discussion group. The week prior they had been discussing objectification of women and felt having peers to discuss it with would give them a better perspective. The adults who were facilitating were impressed by how openly the youth shared ideas and experiences and how comfortable they felt talking. When I asked one of the core members of YMDA what he have gained from these discussions they replied, “Self-perception, exposure to others’ views, a place where we can be open”. He expressed that he felt very comfortable having the group be mixed genders and looks forward to creating discussion spaces where all genders are included to gain perspective on various issues.