Michigan Men program sparks conversations about masculinity on campus

Monday, October 28, 2019 - 3:01pm

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Design by Kathryn Halverson

Michigan Men, a University of Michigan program designed to promote open conversations around masculine identity, is preparing to welcome its second cohort of students to a seven session series exploring definitions of manhood. The initiative was founded two years ago as a collaboration between the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, the Office of Student Conflict Resolution and Fraternity and Sorority Life. 

OSCR Case Manager Jim McEvilly launched the program after being made aware of general interest, especially from the U-M Interfraternity Council, in masculinity work. McEvilly, who is also a clinical social worker, said he’s always been interested in masculine gender socialization and its real-world impact, so he began brainstorming with individuals within Greek life organizations. 

“Any time you’re doing community work, you never want to go to a community and say, ‘Hey, this is what we think you need, so we’re going to do this,’” McEvilly said. “You always have to partner with the community.”

Michigan Men is loosely based on a similar program at Northwestern University, but McEvilly said it’s been adjusted to the specific needs of U-M students. Within the last year, Michigan Men began offering sessions to organizations such as fraternities who express interest in talking about masculinity. Michigan Men offers two formats of discussion: Michigan Man Box, a one-time 90-minute session, and Expeditions of Manhood, which consists of several sessions. 

In Michigan Man Box, participants explore expectations and messages they’ve experienced surrounding masculinity. McEvilly said two common themes that emerge during these sessions are the expectations of dependability and lack of emotional expression. 

Expeditions of Manhood consists of seven sessions that dig into the concept of masculinity more deeply, using Ted Talks, activities and open discussion and questions. McEvilly said participants work on creating their own definitions of masculinity and discuss self care, consent and healthy relationships. They also evaluate how masculinity plays out in their communities, particularly in fraternities. 

Engineering junior Ian Ross, who participated in the first cohort of Expedition of Manhood this past summer, said he believes men don’t talk about masculinity and masculine socialization as freely as they should. The program is designed to be peer-facilitated, making the conversations much more relaxed, honest and open, Ross added. 

“I feel like conversations about femininity happen on a more frank and open level,” Ross said. “Men don’t feel like having those conversations because it’s been programmed out of them, and when you start having them, it’s actually very, I think, freeing and rewarding because you get to look at yourself and your community in a very different light.”

McEvilly said it’s important to talk about masculinity because the effects of masculine socialization manifest themselves in a number of alarming ways. For example, men have high rates of substance use and abuse, are 3.54 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide, have a higher representation in campus judicial proceedings and are more likely to commit sexual violence. In addition, men form less complex social support systems than women and are less likely to reach out for help, especially from other men. 

“When you look at those stats, clearly something is going on, there is some kind of impact being felt,” McEvilly said. “Those are very, very powerful trends.”

Ross heard about the program through his Beta Theta Pi brother Sebastian Capp, one of the organizers and student facilitators for Michigan Men. Touching on why the Greek community has been so involved in Michigan Men, Ross said fraternities provide a unique environment because they put so many masculine-identifying people in the same place, all under a common set of ethics. According to SAPAC, membership in all-male groups is linked to higher rates of sexual violence, one of the factors McEvilly linked to masculine socialization.

“There are definitely aspects of the Greek system and how masculinity plays into that that are interesting,” Ross said. “I think the fact that you have a lot of men in once space, the fact that you’re dealing with people at such a pivotal time in their life — the undergrad age is that across the board — and the fact that they’re all in that one space together, especially because they are under the context of a set of values.”

In particular, Ross said, he was struck by a session focused on male vulnerability.

“As men you’re taught not to be vulnerable, you’re taught to be very stoic,” Ross said. “Just having to have a space to talk about why it’s a good thing to be a little more raw and a little more candid about your emotions can be a very positive and productive thing.”

Although the program was designed for male-identifying people, and Michigan Man Box is offered solely to men, McEvilly said Michigan Men is open to connecting with people of different identities. For example, he’ll soon be holding an informational presentation for a group of cisgender women. 

“When it comes to designing this program and implementing this program, I don’t feel that it should ever just be cis men doing the work,” McEvilly said. “It needs to be informed by anyone who would like to inform the work. No one group could ever have complete ownership over this type of program.”

McEvilly said he wishes Michigan Men could reach more people on campus, but he and the other facilitators have to be realistic. Even if they involved every single masculine-identifying person, McEvilly said, Michigan Men couldn’t completely reverse all harmful societal trends. He said the goal of Michigan Men is to at least start a conversation or spark some initial engagement. 

Commenting on how societal perceptions of masculinity are shifting, McEvilly said he hopes more men will start thinking about definitions of what it means to be a man. 

“I think conversations around masculinity are slowly, slowly changing.” McEvilly said. “I would say from the time that I’ve been alive, over the last thirty years or so, the general popular or cultural awareness around masculinity seems to be shifting and I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. I’m cautiously optimistic that as awareness grows, interest will also grow.”

LSA sophomore Maira Gajda echoed McEvilly’s sentiments, saying she thinks the idea of talking about masculinity is valuable in an ever-changing cultural environment.

“What it means to be a man is changing so much nowadays, that it’s really important for students to take a proactive approach to make the definition of masculinity something productive for themselves, for their communities, and for their loved ones and everyone around them,” Gajda said.

According to Ross, Michigan Men stands out because it doesn’t prescribe a certain set of beliefs or tell men who they should be. He said the main goal of the program is to help participants think about what aspects of their identities are intrinsic versus prescribed by societal expectations, so they can live their most authentic lives. 

“I think a lot of program offerings that the University has, students think of it under a certain context,” Ross said. “It’s the University saying XYZ, or there’s a clear opinion trying to come through the program. The thing I like about Michigan Men is that it’s about the people going through it, it’s about their identity, it’s about the conversation that you get to have. It’s you just having frank conversations about what you think, and no one’s going to tell you, you have to think a certain way.”