I recently attended a day-long conference put on concerning general sex education and the positive sides of sex. It is important to note about 5% of the attendees identified as male. During one of the panels on consent and trusting men during the #MeToo era, a question came up with an emphasis placed on the one male panelist to answer. The question focused on how can we get more men to these types of events? To participate in these conversations?
This panel was not the first time I have heard the question or some variation of it.
“How can we get more men to an event on (social justice, gender, ally-ship, sex, sexual violence prevention, masculinity, etc.)?”
“Why are men not part of or willing to be part of the solution?”
“How can we engage men without them checking out?”
“How do we get men to own their behaviors and show up?”
From this panel to personal conversation to social media, I hear and see these questions. People want men to engage. People want to understand how they can get more men in the rooms where these conversations are happening.
The questions on how we can get more men to the table are legitimate. Men need to be a part of these dialogues from talking about sexual violence prevention to owning their privilege of learning how to be a part of the solution and beyond.
Suggestions I have heard range from tricking men into the room, luring them with incentives, all the way to forcing them to the conversation as a part of organizational membership, interpersonal relationship, or through mandated authority. When faced with the question of how we get men to show up, it is important to take a step back and realize the answers already exist.
The bad news is these ideas- tricking, luring, or forcing them- are not going to work. Not in the long-run. They might get temporary attendees, but it won’t create change. More often they fail.
The good news? Men don’t need these things. Because men want to be a part of the conversation.
Men want to participate in these conversations without being cajoled, duped, conned or forced.
Men want to show up.
Over the last five years, I have spoken about sexual violence prevention with an emphasis on masculinity at over 300 programs. Over time, many of my campuses and clients began asking me to run masculinity programs in addition to my SVP work. In the beginning, contacts were worried. Even I was concerned!
Would guys show up? Would they participate?
The answer I found- very quickly- is yes. Men want to have these conversations.
The problem when talking to the men who showed up wasn’t that they didn’t want to chat about the issues. The problem lies in how we market these types of events towards men and the fears these men hold about what happens in these dialogues. Or more so, in their experiences, there is less engagement in dialogue and more lecture talking down to them.
For the last few decades, the manner we have programmed to men was premised on the mindset that men didn’t want to talk. Even more so, to counteract the harm men cause, the programs that were being created relied on messages such as “No Mean’s No” or “Don’t Rape” or “These Hands Don’t Hurt.” From the program names to the curriculum, these campaigns attempted to combat the harm men cause, but the unintended outcome was the infantilizing of men.
Fear-based language does not work, and it is easy to ignore messaging that makes you feel targeted. Those men who encountered these efforts but do not prescribe to these behaviors could easily say, “this is not me” and disengage. And many of the conversations around these pieces catered to the lowest common denominator of men, lumping all men in with these behaviors, the problem that by appealing to the lowest common denominator or the bare minimum, you leave out room for participation or solutions.
The impact of these programs lingers. What I hear from men time and time again is that they do not like coming to events on difficult topics, even around masculinity, is because programs often tell men it is their individual fault even if they came with the intentions to address community or systemic issues. They felt talked down to instead of invited in. Other times, they were afraid of sharing about their ignorance because they felt criticized for trying to find the answers. Men often feel marginalized by conversations that require men to provoke change.
Quick aside. It is necessary, expected, and vital to hold individual men to task for the harm that men as a whole cause. It is fair to ask men to own up to the privilege they benefit from even if they do their best not to perpetuate it. It is essential men who feel uncomfortable recognize this is because of the space they reside in but this discomfort is often an everyday concern for those with a variety of identities.
And it is possible to do all this without making audience members feel like they cannot be involved in the conversation or a part of a solution.
Instead of trying to trick men into a room where they may not feel heard, we need to invite them to spaces designed to provoke conversation openly. Instead of making them feel helpless in the face of the harm all men cause, we must educate individuals on how they can be a part of the solution while owning it for themselves.
And instead of mandating education, we should ask the men in the community we are attempting to engage what would interest them. If you are struggling to get men to show up to an event, maybe it was not marketed to them in the right way. Perhaps it did not pique their interest. Perhaps in our knowledge, we didn’t realize we were not welcoming them to the conversation.
Men want to show up to these events. I have seen this countless times.
They want to have these conversations. I have seen this countless times.
As educators, as advocates, and as survivors who need men to show up, we can still challenge them while engaging them. The key is giving men agency in their engagement, creating a space offering constructive education, and focusing on topics that are relevant to them.
The myth that men don’t want to have these dialogues is ironic, in that it is cyclical. If all we tell men is that they never show up, then why do we expect them to show up when they have a chance to participate?
I have seen countless men engage in my programs. It lies in how I approach them and the language I use. It lies in owning what the conversation is going to be about. It lies in ground rules for the space we are creating and the challenge we will share. It lies in being honest. One of the best conversations I have managed to replicate on countless campuses lies in getting 6 to 8 men together for coffee or dinner and a facilitated dialogue. We talk in depth about one topic facing men. The outcomes are powerful, the shifts palpable.
Is it as many men as I want to reach? No, there are always more. But it is a start leading to more intense conversations with auditoriums full of men.
Because men want to engage. This engagement requires us being upfront and transparent when we invite them to the dialogue instead of obscuring what the event is about or what the conversation expects from them.
Want men to engage? Ask them.
They will show up. They are showing up. We only have to ask them while letting them while being honest. They will be engaged. They will be challenged. And they will be heard.