Society’s patriarchal structure not only implicates the oppression of women, but also puts pressure on men to be the perfect embodiment of masculinity. Crying, expressing emotions and speaking honestly about one’s experience as a man are things which are decidedly off limits for men who want to claim their right to virility.
Last Wednesday, Jan. 22, Vassar’s community confronted these issues during an event called “Are you man enough to talk about men, responsibility, intimacy, fear and interpersonal violence at Vassar College.” The dialogue consisted of five male panelists—Associate English Professor Kiese Laymon, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Luis Inoa, Julian Williams, Mychal Denzel Smith and founder of the NYC radio station, WBAI’s Underground Railroad, Jay Smooth—who answered questions about their experiences as men posed by Sexual Assault Violence Prevention program coordinator Elizabeth Schrock.
But before the discussion began, some students expressed concern over the title of the event. To some, it seemed to be one that reinforced gender stereotypes from the get-go.
“It’s not my favorite. I understand that it’s provocative…but to me, interpersonal violence is about being a good person, not about being a good man,” Shivani Davé ’15 said.
“We messed up. We should have talked about the name and title and what went into [them] in the first few minutes of the panel. If we could do it over again we would talk about it,” said Laymon. “A few folks on the stage weren’t vibing with the title either.”
Though it had its shortcomings, Laymon emphasized that the name was part of their mission to bring people to the talk who might be new to discussions about gender norms: It’s attention-grabbing and it’s tongue-in-cheek. “Around the nation, people are starting these conversations with ‘Are you a man’ and then saying something that isn’t considered manly,” said Laymon.
Aside from the difficulty of picking a name for the event, Laymon felt that some students arrived with unfair expectations. With every student at a different level in their education about gender issues, it seemed to Laymon that some attendants expected a crash course in the topic. “Judy [Jarvis], Elizabeth [Schrock], me, [Eve] Dunbar—we understand there have been countless panels about sexual assault…The attendants of most of these panels are largely women-identified. We saw this [talk] as chapter 13 and some people saw it as the whole book, not even as the first chapter,” he said.
The big question for Laymon and his peers was, “How can we get these men in a room?”
The event certainly lived up to their expectations in terms of the sheer quantity of people who attended and while some students deemed the talk successful in many ways, it was met with some discontent as well.
“I’m happy that the event happened at all. It’s high time for our campus to start talking about these things and I’m really happy to see that panel take the initiative,” said Shivani Davé ’15. “But I wonder how we can have these conversations that allow for critique while still being respectful of power and privilege dynamics.” The panel of speakers consisted of five Vassar faculty of color, speaking to a predominantly white audience, according to Davé.
During the talk, Davé raised some concerns about issues of intersectionality as well as her personal feelings having entered the conversation from the perspective of a woman of color.
“Some of the things they were saying made me uncomfortable as a woman. These were mostly unfortunate realities of men and women interacting with each other, but I should have brought those concerns up in a different context,” she said.
“Oftentimes, I felt, it was a group speaking form a platform of marginalization or oppression without recognizing that they were simultaneously speaking from a place of privilege that couldn’t be critiqued in this forum of a panel discussion,” wrote Abraham Gatling ’14 in an emailed statement.
Though he stated that these students were coming from a place of feeling offended by some of the comments, he would have liked for them to have considered the panelists’ intentions.
Nonetheless, Gatling maintained the talk touched on many salient points for students to walk away with. “I think the greatest takeaway form the panel discussion was the idea of listening and that men will only begin to understand their contribution to misogyny and ultimately rape culture by really listening to women and how they should be treated, which means turning an introspective lens and reckoning with how you’ve hurt women personally by participating in the system of patriarchy,” he said.
Davé expressed optimism about men’s ability to take on the task of listening to women’s voices and understanding the way gender affects people’s lived experiences. “As a woman, I have had very productive conversations with men where they’re receptive to me explaining to them that my experiences are different from them just by virtue of them being a man,” she said.
However, Laymon stated, none of these goals can be accomplished in one lecture. “It’s everyday work. If some men in there decided they were going to start a rally tomorrow, next week you’re still going to do more work. We have to commit to a lifetime of work to make interpersonal violence less of an issue.”
Gatling echoed Laymon’s words, stating, “Jay Smooth said something that I hope every dude took with them. And that’s the idea that being a ‘feminist ally,’ which I don’t believe any man can truly be. The best we can do is try…to rededicate yourself every day to fighting a very strong current that pushes you towards reshaping how you were taught to think about and treat women, yourself, and other people who occupy oppressed social spaces.”
Laymon said he hopes to have more events addressing masculinity, and that they will take the criticism from this event to improve future conversations.
“Everything in this culture—institutionally, structurally and culturally—is encouraging us to be abusers, to be violent, and to not reckon with our masculinity. We have to be willing to do this work in a way that’s not patronizing, patriarchal and do so in a way that’s collaborative and respects the similar and different lives of our queer brothers,” Laymon concluded.