(CNN) — About a year ago, I began a quiet one-year residency at a prestigious American university, invited because there were endless allegations by female students about rape and other forms of sexual assault by fraternity members and male athletes on campus. School administrators were red-faced and eager for outside help.
My task: work with young men on campus and get them to rethink what manhood means, in a way that would lead, hopefully, over time to their viewing women and girls as their equals. If we were lucky, a few of these male students would become vocal allies in the work to end gender violence, particularly since the vast majority of cases involve men and boys attacking women and girls in some way, in the U.S. and on our planet.
In my initial interactions, I spent a full week meeting with every fraternity on campus and captains of various sports teams, including the nationally ranked football team. I knew the guys were not comfortable with these mandatory gatherings, so I started each with a simple question: What is a man?
Sighs of relief and phrases such as “leader,” “protector,” “caretaker,” “responsible,” “head of the house” fell from their mouths. Each session, I told them that they had just described my single mother and most women I’ve encountered in my life. These young men would grow quiet.
I then asked them to name at least 10 women in American history. The usual list: Rosa Parks, Betsy Ross, Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller and Florence Nightingale, and they would inevitably stall. Pressed to tell me something about each of these women, only a handful could ever answer that question. When you don’t know something about a group or people, any people, people different from you, it becomes very easy not to honor them as your equals, easy not to respect them, easy not to love them, easy not to see their lives as valuable as yours. And easy to directly and indirectly participate in hurting that group, with your language, with your deeds, with your ignorance and reckless disregard for their humanity.
Manhood: A crisis of epidemic proportions
This is why when I think about manhood in our 21st-century context, I think instantly of mayhem, confusion, violence. These things have come in the form of one mass shooter after another, murdering people at work, on military bases, on college campuses, in grade schools. These things have come in the form of misogynistic comments from men as different in pedigree as billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump and Grammy Award-winning rapper T.I. These things have come in the form of my travel as a speaker and activist, reading local newspaper stories of men and boys, more aggressively and brutally than ever, raping or killing women and girls, oftentimes their girlfriends or wives.
It is clear to me that manhood in this nation is in deep crisis, our growth stunted at epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, few are talking about or doing anything remotely close to addressing the issue. When we brace ourselves for the next mass murder, we are quick to cite gun control and mental illness, but rarely do we ask, Why are the overwhelming majority of these mass shooters men? When we see poor men in poor communities blow each other away with guns, quite a few of us utter a litany of socioeconomic factors, but rarely do I hear, Why are these boys-to-men doing this to themselves, to each other?
As I led the sessions with these college men, work I have done now for over 20 years, I spent many restless nights pondering the irony of this part of my activism. I grew up as most heterosexual boys did: I played every sport possible. I learned early on the rite-of-passage of seeing girls as sexual objects, as playthings, as anything except my equal. I fought because boys were taught to fight, be rough, antagonistic, to never show weakness, not even to cry, at least not in public. I digested every kind of pop cultural icon one could name, on television, in movies, in books, in my beloved hip-hop culture, who represented the mighty male figure that armies of us were instructed we must become.
This behavior led to catastrophic results for me. I had no clue how to express a balance of emotions for many years: It was either thunderous silence or raw explosions of rage. I did not know how to give love to myself or women and girls, and by the time I got to college, I merely did what other young males on my campus did: I had sex as casually as I slipped on my jeans and sneakers, and often did not give much thought to the woman on the receiving end. And I eventually pushed a girlfriend, post-college, into a bathroom door as we were arguing, the culmination of years of backward and very warped definitions of manhood imprisoned in pain and trauma.
A movement rooted in peace, love and healthy definitions of manhood
I got help, in the form of years of therapy, my ever-evolving spiritual faith, a circle of women and men who mentored me, over time, to understand the damaging effects of manhood rooted in the characteristics I explain above. Some think that being physical toward a woman or girl is the only form of violence. I have worked with both female survivors of domestic violence and male batterers for whom the violence was emotional, verbal, financial or all of the above, anything to maintain control.
This is what made those sessions with the young men at that university so difficult. Many of them, I’m sure, will go on to become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, elected officials, leaders of various industries and professions, but very few of them even knew the histories of their own mothers or grandmothers or sisters. Few had a clue about pay inequality or sexual harassment. And fewer still could understand why we spent so much time discussing consent and why coercing a woman to have sex while she is drunk is rape.
I do not know what will happen to those young men I worked with for a year. What I do know is this: Just as the feminist movement in America has challenged male domination in every form, a men’s movement is needed now more than ever before. The movement must be inclusive of males of all ages and backgrounds, rooted in peace, love and healthy definitions of manhood that include viewing women and girls as our equals. It should be a movement that is not in opposition to women, not trying to return to the days of “the rugged man,” but one that makes room for every kind of man possible (including men on the LGBTQ spectrum), where we can be vulnerable, emotionally available, truly free.
That movement needs to include a re-education of men and boys, no matter the demographic, where we actually learn about the contributions of women and girls to every aspect of American society. It must teach boys about manhood, about womanhood, as early as their preteen years, and it needs to be a part of sports culture early on, too. It should be in our schools, in our faith-based institutions, in our mass media culture. We need to see this movement as critical to the future of our nation as the civil rights movement was: an effort to shift from ignorant and despicable behavior toward love for human beings different from us.
Finally, I have many men say to me that they respect women. Respect is not enough at this stage, even if you are not the kind of man who would ever call a woman the b word, or make disrespectful or derogatory declarations about what women and girls can and cannot do, or should and should not do. Even if you would never punch, kick, bite, spit on or fight a woman, or rape a woman, stab or shoot and murder a woman, you have men and boys in your family, in your community, in your fraternity or political group or spiritual institution, or in your workplace or places of play, who do or have done these things. And when you say nothing at all, you become just as guilty.