How could I not?

In graduate school, while doing an internship with an anti-violence program on campus, I came across the article How can I not? Men’s pathways to anti-violence against women work published in the journal Violence Against Women. Granted I was already on my path, but this article reinforced some of the reasons that I was doing that internship, exploring my own identity, or encouraging others to challenge gender norms and confront violence in their lives. I began to trace the thread through my experience: an interest socialist thinking as a subversive and progressive force for good, studying history; especially focused on civil rights and oppression in the United States; teacher preparation and the exploration of privileged positions in the K-12 education system; gender identity development theory and the relationship with student misconduct and systems of oppression in higher education. By the fall of 2010 I had fully committed myself to try something–anything–to do what I felt was right for me and for the community I was in.

What I have gained–as nothing is purely selfless–has made every step worth it. I have a greater understanding of who I am and the person I am ever-evolving in to. My partner and I have a stronger relationship, built on interdependence, trust, mutual support, and cooperation, where we can challenge each other on gender roles and norms, expectations, and our behavior. I regularly think about what type of father I want to be to my future children and what kind of son I am to my parents. And I consider how my male identity, intersecting with my other identities, influences my worldview in a multicultural Midwestern city and my work at a large and diverse university. I didn’t know what the benefits would be at the outset. I just knew, from the moment the issue was laid bare before me by some very gracious women in my life, that this path was the right one. That women’s rights and men’s liberation from hegemonic masculinity are inextricably linked, and for the betterment of society, I have a responsibility to undermine inequality at every opportunity. Women have been working at it for decades, centuries. Sure I didn’t build the structure of society that has often privileged men and now that I’m aware of their efforts and sacrifices, it would be sexist of me not to join the movement and challenge the status quo.

Contrary to stereotypes about women’s liberation or radical feminism, men do have a place at the table and a stake in this effort. We may not be always invited, but we can do things together that advance equality in our society, liberating us all from the shackles of sexism. Together, men, we can build a middle way that helps men break free of the restrictions of a narrowly defined masculinity and realize our full potential as loving, caring, and responsible men who support a social fabric of equality across gender, race, sexuality, social class, and ability. The first step is the hardest, but together we can make vast changes with men in our lives.

Sexism Illustrated

Last week I received an offer from Sports Illustrated for a cheesy mass-produced NFL team jacket if I subscribed to their magazine. It’s been years since I’ve read an issue of SI, but this whole month of February, I had had the recurring thought about the Swimsuit Issue and its role in men’s development (as experienced through my own adolescence) and its larger place in our society. Receiving that mail in offer was the catalyst that I needed to actually sort through what I thought and how I felt about the Swimsuit Issue. Not only did I come to view it through my own lens of developing a masculine identity, particularly its role in sexuality and idealizing female archetypes, but also as it relates to the larger issue of gender equity in sports and sports culture. The latter topic is so broad it deserves its own post so look for that, bu the personal is stake we should all feel in this is what I think is most critical.

When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated for around three or four years. Each year, I looked forward to the annual Swimsuit Issue, because, in case its not obvious, as a heterosexual teenage male, I viewed the female models as objects that existed solely for my self-gratification. But what wasn’t apparent to me was that I was supposed to view them this way. It definitely could be argued that the very public imagery of the models reinforces existing media efforts to restrict women in American society to fit a certain ideal. That feminist critique is valid certainly, but in this space I’m concerned with the impact that the magazine has on our young men and their expectations for women’s appearance.

Each year, we’re given a new issue filled with women in bathing suits (or body paint) and posed in sexually suggestive positions. In the same way that pornography warps men’s expectation of sexual intimacy, the swimsuit issue warps are view of the ideal woman (in line with most mainstream media outlets of course). That the Swimsuit Issue is more readily available to young males, even with access to the pornography-overrun internet, a young teenage male could easily spend the cover price and pick up the magazine at their local 7-11. Thus with access to this lone magazine, young men and boys are starting to do what society wants them to do. View women as objects, lust (not necessarily in the biblical sense, just the animalistic desire sense) after these models, and by extension other women, and begin to habitually imagine sexual acts with these and other women. When researchers suggest men think about sex every seven seconds, if those men are anything like I have been, they’re imagining sexual acts with strangers they pass on the streets—a tough habit to unlearn. The Swimsuit Issue functions as a gateway of sorts. Once one starts objectifying women in the Swimsuit Issue, how easy does it become to go browsing the internet for porn?

In the digital age the Sexism Issue may be an outdated attempt at boosting revenue, especially with access to bonus content for magazine subscribers, but it’s just one piece in a very large web that serves to keep women and men restricted. Women are supposed to fit an ideal and their athletic (or professional) success is irrelevant. Men are supposed to lust after women, after all its only natural, right? That SI’s swimsuit issue is just taken as normal is indicative of how pervasive the problem has become. We are numb to the things that reinforce the Man Box and keep us trapped by this narrow definition of men.

Instead of subscribing, let Sports Illustrated know that you are disappointed in their exploitation of women. Tweet at them at @SInow or contact them. And you can do what I did if they solicit subscriptions. Send back a note asking them to change their sexist ways. As women’s history month begins this weekend, think about the progress that’s been made and how this magazine is just one of the many remnants that still needs to be swept away as we look to build a more equitable society.