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The Conversation Continues: Tony Porter

This week, we’re thrilled to share a Q&A with Tony Porter. The co-founder of A Call to Men: The National Association of Men and Women Committed to Ending Violence Against WomenA Call to Men supports healthy manhood, and challenges men to reconsider long-held beliefs about women, with the goal of a more just society. Tony is a visionary role model for both men and women.

Tony’s 2010 talk had the TEDWomen was one of the most beloved by the audience.  He spoke vulnerably of his own experiences as a son and as a father, reminding us how profoundly personal questions of manhood are, and how the prevention of violence against women is a responsibility that impacts us all — no matter what our gender.  We’re very excited to have the chance to ask Tony a few questions:

In your TEDWomen talk, you told a very powerful story of how you responded to your two young children crying — allowing your daughter to cry as long as she wanted, but giving your son limited time, encouraging him to “be a man.” How did you become aware of this difference? When did you know that engaging with men and women to end violence against women would be your life’s work?

I worked for many years as a director of addiction services in a hospital in New York. The community I worked in had a very strong collective of feminist thinking women. This group of women began to engage and teach me about the experiences of women in a male dominated society. They taught me about domestic and sexual violence and the needed role that good men could play in ending it. Through these relationships, I began to pay close attention to issues associated with the collective socialization of men. Since the early 1990s, it’s been my life’s work.

One of the many great things about your talk is that you take something that sounds abstract, “the collective socialization of men,” and make it recognizable. You shared with us “The Man Box” — how it has “in it all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man.” These beliefs about what it means to be a man/woman are formed so early.  With A Call To Men, you go into schools and work with students.  What’s the youngest age group you work with?  What do you think is the most effective way to make a call to boys?  And as education reform continues to be debated in the U.S., do you find that this is part of the conversation?

At A Call to Men we work with boys from the age of eight.  Unfortunately, even at that early age, they have been socialized to prescribe to the tenants of the Man Box.  When asked by men and women how soon should they began to have these discussions with their sons, we say, “Five is the age they get on the school bus.” It’s at that age that others begin to teach and influence our sons. So we say don’t wait, if you do, what you’re actually doing is giving others permission to teach and influence your sons. It’s not whether they will learn, it’s more about who will be their primary teachers.

We believe the conversation (teaching) does not change that much between boys and young men, we just use age appropriate examples to have the discussion. We believe it’s essential that discussions on manhood become part of the education process. A large percentage of the trauma and ills of men are a direct result of the aspects of manhood requiring change.

Do you have any advice for women attempting to talk with their sons, brothers, fathers, friends, boyfriends, husbands about manhood?

Be direct, but with love; hold them accountable, but with love. We have a saying: “We invite men, not indict men.” In addition, it’s important to make it personal for men. It’s best initially to engage men regarding the women they love, their wives, mothers and daughters. Our favorite question for men is asking them to “envision the world you want to see for your daughters, how would you want to see men acting and behaving in that would.”

You’ve worked in a wide-range of environments where being a man is highly valued (to name a few, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Navel Academy at Annapolis). How do the men you’ve worked with respond to your call to re-define what that manhood means?

Our experience with men has been overall very positive.  When you approach this topic with men in a non-accusatory manner, you help them to personalize it. As we would say at A Call to Men: “Reach in and grab his heart.” We have found the men to be very welcoming to the discussion.

In your work internationally — in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and your work with the U.S. State Department — do you see a different Man Box in each country?  Or is the expectation for men to be strong, in charge, and without any fear or sadness a universal part of The Man Box?

Most aspects of the collective socialization are the same. Though it is true that in many countries it’s more pronounced, resulting in the violence being more regular and severe.  We tend to be cautious when having such conversations. We don’t want to create an environment where we are comparing “which men are more violent.” We also don’t want to create the myth that we as American men have it all together. While we are basically good men we have a tremendous amount of work to do. Men’s violence against women in the USA is at epidemic proportions.

Role models are so important, and through your TEDWomen talk, you became a role model for many in the TEDxWomen community. Though things are changing, a trip to the local movie theater shows the continued power of the idea that men should be strong and emotion-hiding, while women are to be sexy and have-no-needs-but-yours.  We’re curious, which men inspire you?  Who do you look to as positive examples of how manhood can be redefined?

President Obama, former baseball player and manger Joe Torre, Peter Buffett, head football coach of the Carolina Panther’s Ron Rivera and Vice President Joe Biden are a few well known men. And of course the other co-founder of A Call to Men: Ted Bunch.

Your daughter is approaching her teenage years, a hard time for teens of any gender! High school hallways can be a challenging place, full of pressure to fit into socially defined roles. What advice do you offer her, as she enters a time in life when it can be hard to value oneself? Likewise, what do you say to your son?

As a family we have a wide open door on communication, that’s important. Modeling for her and him, healthy manhood. Supporting her in all her endeavors that don’t fit in traditional gender roles. And the same with him.  Having open conversations with their close friends and parents. We are also a Christian family so a lot of praying also helps.

We loved how you said “my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”  So that we’re all in this together — and that men and women can both celebrate the “wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man.”  For you, what was the greatest surprise, joy, after stepping out of The Man Box?

That I’m still a man, enjoying many of the things that men like doing: basketball, football, fishing (friendly poker games, with my buddies).  That I can do all of this and still support a world that’s safe for women and girls.

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