Tony Porter Wants Our Boys to Break Out of the “Man Box”

Eradicating violence against women by raising our boys to be whole men

Tony Porter, cofounder of the anti-violence organization A Call to Men, is an educator, activist, lecturer, and author who’s been advocating social justice for more than 20 years. He is an adviser to the National Football League (NFL) and a consultant for the National Basketball Association, and has worked with national and international programs, colleges, and universities to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault—all while encouraging men to lead a healthy and respectful life. He has been a script consultant for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and his 2010 TED Talk has been named one of the “Top 10 TED Talks Every Man Should See” by GQ magazine. Porter is also the author of Breaking Out of the “Man Box” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016) and was the visionary for the book NFL Dads Dedicated to Daughters by Leslie Satchell (Triumph Books, 2010).

Q: Tony, thanks for taking the time to speak with us at ESME and for all the work you’re doing toward eradicating violence against women. Can you define the collective socialization of manhood, aka the “Man Box”?

A: What we are speaking of is how men are collectively socialized. When we refer to this term, we refer to all the ingredients in the Man Box. Some of the ingredients in the Man Box include the thinking behind some of the things young men and boys are taught: women are weak; we are taught not to express our feelings and emotions, but rather to stuff them away; we’re taught that the only emotion we have permission to express is anger; we’re taught to be athletic and courageous, show no fear, no pain, and don’t ask for help, just to name a few.

So much of what we are taught about what it means to be a man is the opposite of how we are taught to define what it means to be a woman. So, in many respects, we define manhood by way of distancing ourselves from what we perceive to be the experience of women. And to effectively distance yourself, you have to develop a lack of interest.

Q: How does this lack of interest impact the larger picture, especially in the arena of violence against women?

A: If we grow up with a lack of interest in the experience of women and girls—but we only make an exception with sexual conquests—it limits our support of the experiences of women. It silences us as men when we talk about violence against women. It becomes very conflicting for us as men, and especially for our boys who are taught early on in their quest to define what it means to be a man. Ultimately, this lack of interest really feeds the objectification of women and girls—teaching less value of them, viewing them as property and objects—and it really numbs us up with respect to having an interest in them, how they think, what’s important to them, valuing them, how they view the world, what they like, and what they love.

Q: Where does your work intersect?

A: In our work at A Call to Men, we spend a lot of time unpacking the “Man Box,” teaching and helping young men to understand what’s good about being a man and holding on to that, and really challenging these notions of manhood to have a real direct correlation to end violence against women.

Q: What have you noticed about Solo Moms raising young men?

A: I spend a lot of time speaking to Solo Moms about raising their boys, and many of them feel that they are at a disadvantage just by raising boys solo and wonder how far can they take raising a boy without having a man’s input. I hear from many Solo Moms who’ve shared with me that once their sons become 12 or 13 years old and are about the same height or taller than them, it becomes challenging.

They say, “My son still looks at me, and he is still nodding his head and saying, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ but I can tell that I’m losing him. I can tell he’s not really looking at me, that he’s starting to embrace the teaching of manhood that tells him to have less value in women, which, at the end of the day, includes me.” I’ve heard this from many Solo Moms, that they are seeking good men to be involved in their sons’ lives, good role models, and that they need that support.

For years I coached basketball, and I could always spot a Solo Mom in the stands. She’s usually the one yelling out onto the court without hesitation, the one who’s yelling at the coach if he messes up the plays, screaming at him, telling her son to stop passing the ball, shoot the ball, etc. But a mom who’s sitting with her husband or partner? She may not even be paying attention to the game. She may have her Kindle out, reading; she might just be there to be with the family but may not necessarily care about the game. But a Solo Mom knows the ins and outs of the game—she studies it because she’s raising her boy on her own. And many might look at her expression of anger and contribute that to why she’s Solo . . . labeling her an angry woman, and no wonder why she’s Solo. But what we’re not saying is that anger is an emotional response to fear or pain . . . and that perhaps she’s afraid. Perhaps raising a boy in a “man’s world” she feels the pain of what his reality will be if she’s not successful, and she knows she’s up against the challenge.

Sometimes these notions of manhood we’re talking about, a Solo Mom may teach it to her son [but] has to teach in a more egregious or extreme way than a couple may teach it to their son. Because of that disadvantage she may believe she has, she might be a bit more extreme in promoting these notions of manhood.

Personally, I don’t feel women are at a disadvantage when it comes to raising young men. I have to say so much of what I know about manhood I learned from women. Because we live in a male-dominated society, many men are on remote control; we don’t study ourselves . . . we just do what we do. But women are students, and they study men. By virtue of listening to [the] teaching and observations of women, I’ve been able to take my experiences of being a man and talk to men about being men.

Q: What advice would you give a Solo Mom on educating our sons to become men?

I’d encourage Solo Moms to promote equality and leadership with their sons, to teach them how to live outside of the “Man Box,” to make sure they understand that living outside of the “Man Box” does not make them any “less of a man,” it makes him a full man, a whole man. And for me, we can release the term “real man” to help him grasp that the expression of his feelings and emotions does not make him any less of a real man, nor does being vulnerable.

Far too often, our boys are taught that being too nice, being too caring, being too loving, being too committed, being too kind [are signs] of weakness. That’s ridiculous. They are taught that asking for help is a sign of weakness, and that’s ridiculous. So Solo Moms can help teach their sons that all of this is OK; he can still be strong and courageous; he can still be a protector, an excellent provider, and still be loving and kind at the same time. I’d love to see Solo Moms embrace those notions of manhood because what we’re really talking about here is humanity. Collectively, as a society, we need to have more investment in humanity versus just binary roles of gender-specific norms.

Q: What message would you like for Solo Moms to take away from your TED Talk, specifically, the part about Johnny and Sheila?

A: That it is as equally as important for women as it is for a community of men to teach our sons such values and principles where not only do they have the courage to not participate, but to not have such acts happen in my presence or have knowledge of it.

There’s this thinking that “Because I didn’t participate, technically I didn’t do anything wrong,” and that’s far too often how our society operates. It limits accountability, and Solo Moms can raise their sons in a way that pushes all men to hold ourselves to higher levels of accountability—where it is understood that being a man isn’t about your individual behavior; being a man is about how you move in this world and what’s acceptable and what’s not.

We all have a responsibility in helping our sons to develop a voice, helping them to be more media literate, helping them to understand the objectification of women and the vast ways it’s portrayed and comes about. It’s also important that we are helping them to understand how to be kind, vulnerable, nice, committed—that these are all characteristics of a whole man, and so often we’re taught that any of these things means being a sucker, and we have to work to reverse it.

And while men are a big part of the solution—women are the centerpiece in helping them get there. So Solo Moms are all over it.

A Call to Men is based in New York City and in Charlotte, North Carolina. For those who are interested in working with young boys and young men to curb domestic and sexual violence toward women, the organization has downloadable curriculum programs. For more information, check out its website.

If you are wondering how other Solo Moms parent their sons, Sister Chat is a confidential place to ask difficult and awkward questions.

Former Solo Mom VersAnnette Blackman-Bosia, ESME’s Resource Guide for Domestic Violence, is a painter, published poet, speaker, and facilitator. Through her business, Soul Revival Healing Arts, she offers original paintings and products, and teaches workshops. Her first poetry collection, Butterfly Spirit, was published in 2015. VersAnnette is passionate about empowering women, eating great food, and traveling the world. She and her family currently reside near Chicago.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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