Duke University Goes After Men’s ‘Toxic Masculinity’

College is 'recruiting' guys for a program that questions 'male privilege and patriarchy' — this is 'troubling,' says one psychologist

by Michele Blood | Updated 14 Sep 2017 at 10:21 AM

The Duke Men’s Project, sponsored by Duke University’s Women’s Center, is a nine-week program charged with “interrogating masculinity through an intersectional lens.” No, we’re not making this up. This college program is currently recruiting two groups of about 15 “male-identified or masculine-of-center” students to participate in a learning community, and the deadline for applying is 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

The group is dedicated to “interrogating male privilege and patriarchy,” says its Facebook page. It plans to discuss masculinity as it exists “under multiple spheres of oppression (like patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, cisssexism, and rape culture).”

In the recruitment materials, the group indicates it wants the program to “flip the paradigm” in which “some [male-identified individuals] are rarely made uncomfortable, while others are made to bear the weight of their identities on a daily basis.”

In laypersons terms: The goal appears to revolve around instilling a sense of responsibility and commitment toward changing the behavior of all men for the behavior of some men. The verbiage suggests the existence of masculinity in general results in oppression — including but not limited to violence, racism, and sexuality-based forms of bias and prejudice.

In an interview with LifeZette, psychologist, counselor educator, mother and grandmother Dr. DeAnne Terrell of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, said she finds Duke's program "really troubling." She said that while the program was likely developed with good intentions, it is based on a false premise.

Said Terrell, "To pair toxicity to masculinity, or any singular group or category of people, is offensive and shortsighted and likely to actually hinder the more helpful dialogue required for such complex issues. Toxicity is a reflection of brokenness and should not be linked unnecessarily to any 'group.'" She added there are different "conversations" that need to occur, unrelated to masculinity.

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It's precisely the false pairing of toxicity and gender — and toxicity and other human characteristics — that renders these issues so thorny to discuss. In expressing opposition to any individual, organization, or movement claiming to champion a particular group, the opponents risk vicious, knee-jerk and often unwarranted attack.

The argument generally runs this way: If you oppose, question, or criticize a group who says they are fighting for women's rights, you are therefore sexist. Looking deeper, however, you may discover that the ideological bases driving some of these groups' goals are flawed. Or worse — they are patently harmful or dangerous.

Typical college-aged students are at a developmental stage in which they are grappling with establishing and cementing unique identities — politically, spiritually, emotionally, and in many other ways. When students at this vulnerable stage encounter institutions or programming such as the Duke's Men's Project, they may incorporate and "own" a false identity. That false, psychologically damaging message is that they are, at their core and by virtue of their gender, naturally violent and oppressive.

Related: Masculinity in Peril on College Campuses

Some men, without a doubt, are indeed violent and oppressive, as are some women — and some heterosexual and homosexual people. And some black, white, Native American, and Asian people. And some Iraqis, Italians, Israelis, and Indonesians. And some Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, and independents. The list is endless.

In other words — linking tendencies toward violent, oppressive behavior to a gender, race, sexual expression, or political party is itself an expression of bias. If we're ever to truly move forward, we must acknowledge this and reject efforts to suggest otherwise.

LifeZette's attempts to secure comment from those involved with the program went unanswered as of publication time. LifeZette reached out to Duke's department of Student Affairs, its counseling center, the public safety department, and the Women's Center staff.

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Though Duke's program may have been established with laudable intentions, its implementation may inadvertently cause students more harm than good. Here, in part, is a direct line from the program summary: "The Duke Men's Project facilitates a nine-week Learning Community, where a group of 15 male-identified students unpack expressions of masculinity through a feminist lens ... We also hold larger talks and discussions for all genders to engage with conversations that are linked to masculinity and male privilege. Past events have focused on pornography and rape culture, male privilege and taking up space, and gender disparities in emotional labor."

Michele Blood is a freelance writer with a passion for children's literature. Based in Flemington, New Jersey, she leverages her background in psychology in her work for publishers, businesses and NPOs.

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