The following article is an interview with Jean Semelfort, the director of the Men’s Allied Voices for a Respectful & Inclusive Community (MAVRIC) Project, with questions concerning healthy vs. toxic masculinity, particularly on Princeton’s campus.
Sexpert: What concern does your group specifically hope to combat, especially on Princeton’s campus?
Jean Semelfort: We want to be a part of creating a culture that is free from any form of oppression-based violence. A part of doing so requires that we, Men-Identified folks, take a critical look at the social constructs around toxic masculinity and its contribution towards interpersonal violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, homophobia, and transphobia. The hope is that challenging toxic masculinity both at a systemic and individual level would innately cause us to be active contributors to a community that is much more inclusive and respectful. A community that is truly inclusive and respectful is a community that is safe for all its members. Within MAVRIC, we are trying to set a structure that allows all who participate to be a part of this work.
S: What do you think people’s conceptions are about the male-identified role in sex?
JS: Based on gender-expectations it seems that we expect Men-Identified folks to be “hunters” within the role of sex, meaning that we believe men should pursue and obtain which, without realization, makes the person being pursued more of an objective than an actual person. This may also contribute to why sex for some men becomes more of a conquest than it is about establishing connection. In addition, it also seems that we expect men to be experts in sex. Our current construct of masculinity does not allow too much room for men to be emotionally vulnerable, which means that within this system boys or men who are scared and/or nervous around having sex for the first time don’t have the space to express nor have it validated. We do not pay it too much attention. The enforced messages become that he should essentially get over it because that’s what “real men” do.
S: What are some sources of toxic masculinity and how can we prevent it?
JS: Toxic masculinity is everywhere! It’s in movies, music, barbershop, fraternities, eating clubs, sports teams, it’s in us. We all, in many ways, reinforce toxic masculinity, often times with little awareness around it. I think the first part of prevention is increasing our awareness towards what is happening and how it is happening. I’ve heard the author Bell Hooks say that we cannot address an issue if we are afraid to call it what it is. It is important that we call out toxic masculinity when it is present. Participating in discussions on this issue is important. Listening to the voices of others and their experiences with Men-Identified folks gives us a perspective outside of ourselves. Listening to the voices of men and creating safe spaces for their emotional experiences with toxic masculinity allows them to be heard. It is a movement for men to own and the community to support.
S: What normative ideas of masculinity contribute most to unhealthy or aggressive behaviors?
JS: There are so many. One of the most common ones I’ve come across were that men cannot be emotional. We teach this at a very young age. We tell boys “Stop crying”, “Be a man”, “Stop acting like a girl” to shame them back into the box of masculinity we believe they should operate in. Emotional repression does not give Men-Identified an opportunity to develop an emotional language, nor does it give them an opportunity to practice how to regulate overwhelming emotions. Within this structure, Men-Identified are allowed to connect with anger. Unfortunately, we have too many examples of anger and rage being connected with aggressive behaviors. We also make a very direct connection that true masculinity is anti-femininity, which I believe creates a disgust for femininity and devalues its worth.
S: What qualifies as a healthy expression of a male-identity?
JS: Healthy expression of male-identity should be liberating. Getting rid of this idea that there is only one way to be a “man.” It is to fluidly operate between the spectrum of femininity and masculinity without the world shaming you for it. I truly believe that healthy expression of male-identity will not come at the expense of others or the person who holds that identity.
S: How is the male role changing?
JS: In so many ways, conversations around masculinity are causing people to rethink how they approach life and interact with others. Some individuals are making intentional choices to both identify and challenge toxic masculinity day by day. Some men are becoming much more open to mental health therapy, some men are assisting in creating an emotional safe space for themselves and their partners. Some men are becoming much more aware and cognizant around healthy practices of consent, causing behaviors to fall in-line with those ideas. There are many more examples out there then there were before on how men can operate in varying roles and still maintain their gender identity. The definition of “provider” can include nurturing practices. The ideal is that this expansion in roles becomes the standard for Men-Identified.
S: What role does your group play in the movement for gender equality?
JS: MAVRIC is calling out to Men-Identified students, faculty, and staff to come critically think about masculinity and make a commitment to challenge the problematic parts of it. Toxic masculinity is not about gender equality. Toxic Masculinity is both repressive and oppressive even if the individual’s intent is not to operate in such a manner. I believe that men’s violence is greatly linked to men’s pain. In having Men-Identified folks from the Princeton Community develop awareness around this and make a commitment towards addressing it, we are inherently creating a space for gender equality. The hope is that MAVRIC is also modeling what it’s like for men to own the work of addressing toxic masculinity and being mindful allies to various marginalized identities.
Learn more about MAVRIC, including ways to be an ally.