Claude Khalife: Universities can combat toxic masculinity

Say the phrase “men’s studies” around a cross-section of college students, and you’ll likely be greeted with eye rolls and exasperated sighs. Yet in recent years, a growing number of academics, writers and mental health professionals have begun contributing to this fairly new academic field. These researchers aim to analyze and treat the causes and symptoms of “toxic masculinity” that is playing a large role in the long-term epidemic of violence, rage and addiction in men across America.

Authoritative mannerisms and aggressiveness, whether they produce negative or positive results, are too often considered male personality traits. And that’s counterproductive to male behavioral growth and the ability for men to reach out for counseling and other help.

GW and other universities can actively change how Americans view men. Students and other members of the GW community must acknowledge and normalize the emotional and mental needs of men and boys. Going to a therapist for depression should be no more shameful than showing up in the emergency room with a twisted ankle from playing basketball.

From infancy, many young men and boys are taught the opposite – even by well-meaning parents. Studies indicate that new parents unconsciously perceive their infant daughters to be more “delicate” and “soft” than their sons, whom they see as larger and stronger.

Beginning during childhood, we are exposed to the concept of what it means to be a man through celebrities and superheroes. For generations, these men have served as the ultimate role models for American males. They have taught us to fight back, protect the weak, demonstrate confidence at the most stressful of times and resist cracking under pressure, which can be valuable lessons in the right context.

But the validity of those lessons is not well translated: We often equate confidence with how many women we can sleep with and how many shots we can pound, while never admitting to feeling weak.

Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist in D.C., believes that the stereotypes of what it means to be a man can stunt behavioral growth and discourage young men from seeking therapy.

“The stereotypes of a man being ‘strong’ and ‘independent’ and non-emotionally expressive mean that when they hit a rough patch they don’t feel it’s appropriate to ask for help or to share with others their more difficult feelings,” Weber said. “In fact for a lot of men, expressing sadness or vulnerability makes them feel humiliated, like a loser or not a ‘real man.’”

Men may hold in their feelings, which can lead them to eventually externalize emotions in negative ways: Men are twice as likely as women to suffer from rage disorders. Ninety-eight percent of mass murders are committed by men, as are more than 90 percent of total murders committed in America. Sex offenders are overwhelmingly male, and men make up 80 percent of all suicides. Boys use drugs and alcohol earlier and at a more frequent rate than women and are more likely to die because of them.

The onus for changing how we view and treat men and boys lies on those like me and our educational institutions. GW can start changing the conversation by promoting the availability of male counselors with whom men can speak more candidly, as well as healthy outlets for negative feelings through writing seminars and public speaking events.

Colleges and universities must play a vital role in understanding and combatting archaic ideas about masculinity. Combatting these stereotypes could lead to solutions for some of the biggest challenges on campuses around the country: sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness.

During my freshman year, I sought help for binge drinking. I have struggled with chronic anxiety and sometimes I find myself crying my way through a particularly heartfelt commercial. Similar experiences are normal for millions of people, and yet I still feel uneasy admitting them, worried that others will view them as weakness.

As college students, it’s likely we’re going to hit rough patches along the way. And it’s important to know that it’s OK. It’s OK to admit stress or fatigue, it’s OK to feel humiliated and it’s OK to say that everything is not OK, regardless of your gender.

Claude Khalife, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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