For the first 13 years of my education I went to school with the same 60 individuals. One might think: “Wow, 60 people, sounds like a veritable smorgasbord of diversity!” On a college campus, potentially. In the private Catholic school system? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I was privileged to be provided with a quality education and was offered numerous opportunities during my schooling. Exposure to a diversity of thought and experience just wasn’t one of them. It should come as no surprise upon entering college, feminism and gender studies were about as familiar to me as navigating the lunchroom was to Cady Heron. Luckily, I was blessed with some rad queer compatriots who taught me where to sit, and why referring to a group of people as “the cool Asians” was problematic. I spent much of college unlearning and decolonizing a lot of what I was socialized to believe about roles men and women could and could not fill and the different challenges they face as a result. Which is partially why anytime someone brought of the term “men’s center” you were likely to hear me shouting, “ALL OF CAMPUS IS A MEN’S CENTER!”
So what’s changed?
A few years removed I would say my initial reaction is as accurate as it was then, but requires more critical thought. If colleges and universities are still (they are) dominated by (white) male perspectives, how do we as educators begin to combat patriarchal hegemony? For decades, Higher Education has invested in women’s centers as resources for support and advocacy. They do extremely important work providing college women with safe spaces for education, socialization, and comfort. However, many have also been tasked with educating men on the unique struggles of female-identified college students. I’ve begun to wonder if this is fair. Is it the responsibility of minoritized persons to educate the majority? I think most agree: no.
Is there a case to be made for college and university men’s centers? To be honest, upon first hearing the term “men’s center” my mind immediately wandered to a roaring bachelor pad. In a pretty overt way I micro-aggressed myself and all college men. I thought of flat screens, Super Bowl screenings, walls papered with Sports Illustrated cover models, and competitions to see who could finish a can of Cheez Whiz fastest. Ok, maybe the last one is just a personal goal of my own. Either way, I was doing a disservice to what could potentially be a powerful and healing space.
When we talk about creating sustainable change within ourselves and students, one of the first necessities is a safe space. Somewhere people can feel vulnerable and supported, challenged without feeling attacked, and wrong knowing they are not alone or judged. I wonder if there is a space for men on college campuses to experience this? In college I was a member of a panel for an event about violence against women, and was surprised at the large turnout. What I was not surprised by, were a number of men who felt the way a woman dressed was somehow indicative of her sexual willingness. I was outraged. Rightly so were a number of women on the panel and in the audience. We were all quick to silence the men and point out some very legitimate realities about what it means to be a woman on a college campus.
Looking back, I wish I had done things differently. I can say with almost certainty that those men never attended another similar event. Were the women in that room right to be angry? Absolutely. Their reactions were entirely warranted. However, in retrospect, it was clear that those men truly didn’t know better; an opportunity for a real breakthrough was missed. In order to know that the way a woman dresses in no way correlates with her sexual tendencies, to know that it is in fact her body and her choice, they must first be able to ask the question. They need to be educated and taught the same way I was: by a group of peers and friends. This is why – when revisiting the topic of men’s centers – I need to be more critical in my analysis. Maybe a physical center is too far of a leap to take. Maybe it begins with: men’s discussion groups; safe spaces for men to unlearn what they’re socialized to believe; education about positive masculinity; and lessons about how societally feminine traits are in fact universally positive qualities. I’m not saying this all needs to be handholding and butterfly kisses. There needs to be a balance in delivery between hard truths and mild voices. I think RuPaul said it best:
My goal is to always come from a place of love, but sometimes I just have to break it down for a motherf%&ker
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 4, 2011
Where do we go from here?
Women’s centers are doing powerful work, often with limited budgets and staffing. Is there room to find space to educate men without taking those resources away from deserving and necessary programs? Can we do it without relying on women to educate them? Beyond that, how would we generate the buy in for programs and spaces? I can’t say I know. I do know this it is an avenue worth exploring.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Dan Tillapaugh on Men & Masculinity