Last semester in a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class, I discovered a group on campus called the UMass Men and Masculinities Center. At first, I was a little confused: I, and many of my friends, had never heard of this group on campus and I wondered what exactly would a center for men do on campus? According to the UMass Student Health and Safety page, the Men and Masculinities Center “supports the development of healthy masculinities at UMass Amherst and beyond from male positive, multicultural, and pro-feminist perspectives.” I was relieved and excited to discover that this center isn’t anything like other men’s movements we sometimes see in media, like meninists, for example, that encourage the mocking of feminist movements and issues. Rather, it’s exactly the opposite: the center works to be a safe-space for men of all identities and circumstances to seek emotional support and adovcate for the rights of women, people of color, people who identity as LGBTQ+, etc.
To learn more about the center, I talked to the Director Tom Schiff (Who got his Ed.D from UMass Amherst!) and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Major Graham Stanley who is currently interning for the center. Here’s what they had to say:
HC: What is the purpose of the Men and Masculinities Center and what is your role as director?
Tom: The purpose of the center, which is in our second year of existence, is to support the development of masculinities that are healthy for individuals and communities, and to support male student success. That last one, student success, means thinking about and working with groups of male students that are more historically or traditionally marginalized on college campus, such as men of color, gay men, veterans, and so forth. So a lot of the work that we do is done in partnership with other organizations, such as the Center for Women and Community, the Stonewall Center, CMASS, Veteran Services, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, etc. My role? *laughs* My role is to do everything. I oversee the functioning, programming, budget, outreach, and also set the vision for the center.
One of the things that’s really important to note is that all of those things I mentioned, like developing healthy masculinities and so forth, is that the perspective we try to take is pro-feminist, male positive, and multicultural. We wouldn’t be existing if it wasn’t for feminism. The idea that masculinities are part of an identity to be looked at comes out of feminist thought and feminist analysis. I think it’s really important to give credit to the folks that came before.
HC: What are some of the programs your center operates?
Tom: One of the leadership programs we’ve started this semester is what we call the Men’s Education Network. The purpose of that is to help expand the conversation of what healthy masculinities means across campus, through a variety of things, like film showings, tabling, and developing resources and workshops about how to have a conversation about healthy masculinity. There’s also Phallacies, which is a men’s health dialogue and theater program. It comes out of this office but it’s also done in collaboration with CMASS. We do a drop in support group called Men Talking for undergraduate and graduate students, and also help co-sponsor a group called Men of Color United. It’s a support group of sorts that’s also more activist-oriented.
The other area of work is conduct. I do work with male students who are referred from the Dean of Student’s office or from Community Standards if they violated something from the Code of Conduct or Res Life standards. I do both individual meetings and group meetings with students.
HC: What do you think are some of the most prominent issues facing college men today?
Tom: I think the hard part about answering that question is the controversy about having a men’s center. And I get the controversy, because I think if we look at men as just a group and call it just “men,” without looking at any of the intersectionality or looking at other identities, then we’re painting a picture of a group that’s not very real.
One issue we see with men is violence. I think the thing we hear about more, and it’s understandable, is relationship violence and sexual violence. I think that’s an issue men need to deal with, with the understanding that 5-6% of men on campuses are doing that. That’s a pretty big number. But that means 94-95% of men aren’t being violent, so part of the issue for those men is to be able to speak out and challenge the guys who are violent.
There are tons of fights and fighting among college men, and some of it’s alcohol related, but some of it’s not. There are plenty of men whose idea of a good time is going out and getting into a fight. (When I say plenty, I’m not talking about a majority.) They’re not just drunk and getting into fights; they have the intention of getting into a fight, and getting drunk beforehand is just part of the entertainment process. And there’s a racist component to some of that, so they may particularly target men of color. One of the things that’s a huge issue for some segment of the population is dealing with privilege. Then there are some folks who are dealing with the other side of that, and having to navigate the campus from a non-dominant identity, perspective, etc.
HC: How would you personally define masculinity?
Tom: *laughs* It’s funny, that’s a great question, you would think that someone who’s the director of the Men and Masculinities center would be able to define that. I mean, I can talk about how there’s hegemonic masculinity. There’s this ideology of what masculinity is supposed to be, and even how that changes over time. But, that’s not masculinity, that’s one small slice of masculinity that’s embedded in power systems and ideas, so it’s embedded predominantly in whiteness, upper-middle class, heterosexuality, etc.
I don’t think you can define masculinity on some level because there are so many ways that it manifests. I think if you were to ask anybody to define what masculinity is, they would kinda do the same thing I just did. There’s this sort of ideal that we have that’s over here someplace, but that’s not the way I perform it or the way I do things. At this point, masculinity that is embedded in a cisgender, white man certainly has some privilege, but masculinity is not just that.
HC: What inspired you to work in this field?
Tom: I grew up in a house with a mom who’s a feminist. She was involved in stuff in the 60’s, and she used to refer to it as the Women’s Movement. So, my mom had a big influence in my thinking about these things, in a number of ways. Over the years, I also worked in psychiatric care, and prior to that, I worked in residential treatment with young boys who had been abused and taken out of their homes. I think one of the things that got me thinking about a lot of it was the amount of violence, and I think I came into the work in a lot of ways through violence prevention and intervention work. I also had a partner who was a rape survivor, and when we got together, it brought a lot of it up for her, and she decided she needed to deal with it. I had no idea what that meant for us and what that meant in terms of being a partner. So I started seeking support for myself also. It was a hard process for her and it was hard for me to figure out how to be supportive. I started seeking out support and I found a group for men whose partners were survivors. I found it was interesting and more worthwhile to think about things from a pro-feminist perspective.
Left: Tom Schiff, Right: Graham Stanley
HC: What work do you do with the Men and Masculinities Center?
Graham: I work as part of the MEN (Mens’ Education Network) to set up programs and workshops that educate people on campus about how to have conversations with men in their lives about toxic masculinity, and how it is damaging to themselves and other people in their lives. We also work to promote the center itself, located at 120 Thoreau in Southwest, and other centers that deal with health and mental health so that these resources can be better known for people who may need them.
HC: Can you explain what you mean by “toxic masculinity?”
Graham: Toxic masculinity describes masculine behaviors, such as repressing emotions or routinely over-drinking due to social pressures, that can negatively affect both a man’s health and the people in that man’s life in very real and potentially physical ways.
HC: Why were you interested in working with the Men and Masculinites Center?
Graham: I major in Gender and Sexulity Studies, and I saw the center as a way to explore the major from a different perspective. I became more interested in it as well after joining Phallacies, also run by Tom Schiff, and further understood how men’s health is important and something that many men don’t take responsibility of. It was also a more hands-on way of engaging with issues that I’ve learned in my studies within the major.
HC: Do you think that working with the center has changed your perceptions of masculinity?
Graham: I don’t think it’s changed them as much as it’s given them more context and helped me better understand how to talk about them in a productive way. It’s also given me the opportunity to engage with other men and women who have these perceptions as well, and those who are curious about the center.
HC: How do you personally define your own masculinity?
Graham: I define my masculinity as neutral. I do not subscribe to the supposed cultural norms of masculinity, such as physical strength, dominance, over indulgence of substances, etc., but not in active defiance of these norms either. I live as myself, with both my natural feminine and masculine characteristics getting equal attention. Defining masculinity in this way is difficult, because it still relies on masculine/feminine expectations. What it really boils down to is that I do what feels right for me, in terms of how I dress/act/speak/etc. without really having to think about living up to any expectations
HC: As a college man, what do you think are the biggest issues facing college men today?
Graham: One of the most prevalent ones I see on campus is the over-indulging of alcohol. College has a huge alcohol culture and many men feel as if they have to keep up drinking with other people to be seen as masculine. This can lead to serious injuries, both physical and emotionally, especially when used as a coping mechanism to deal with emotions. There’s also a lot of pressure on college men in terms of sex and sexual activity. While sex, with consenting partners, isn’t bad in and of itself, when men seek to have sex to prove themselves as men, or rack up their number of sexual partners, they are learning to think of these partners not as women (or men), but as trophies or objects.
If you’re interested in learning more about the center or want to get involved, you can contact 577-4636, email@example.com, or drop by the office in 120 Thoreau. You can also visit the center’s Facebook page!
All photos used with permission from the UMass Men and Masculinities Facebook page or from Graham Stanley.