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ISSUE 118 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 3/4/2005

Mixed messages on masculinity

By Anne Westmoreland
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 4, 2005

On Feb. 25, The Center for Men’s Leadership and Services at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. held its Second Annual Conference on the College Male.

St. John’s seems an unlikely place to hold an overtly feminist conference, but that’s exactly what the men’s center did this past weekend.

The center, which prides itself on being the first men’s center on a liberal arts college campus, set forth in 2003 to raise awareness of the consequences of gender roles.

One of only four men’s universities in the nation, St. John’s shares its academic and Catholic spiritual programs with the College of St. Benedict, a women’s school only six miles away. Each school is affiliated with the Benedictine order of monks and nuns.

“[We] strive to [recognize patriarchy and] create a more enlightened concept of manhood … Acknowledge our roots with those before us, who struggled for the liberation of all people, we seek to work for justice and better the lives of men and women …” reads the center’s mission statement.

This year’s conference featured an all-star schedule of speakers from a variety of viewpoints on masculinity. The opening keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and internationally recognized author of many seminal books on masculinity, spoke Friday about the myths of discrimination against men that have emerged in the past 20 years. The conference roared to a start during the question period of his talk, as respectful and passionate challenges and questions flew about the great hall.

Saturday morning’s plenary session by Robert Jensen, a feminist activist and professor of law, ethics and politics at the University of Texas at Austin, gave a fiery critique of pornography and its impact on men’s emotional development. Convincingly conflating consumers of pornography with “johns” in the world of prostitution, Jensen called upon the men in the room to identify the sense of shame that come from buying another person for sex, whether mediated or in person.

It is through truly understanding this guilt, he argued, that men can “confront the powers that be and the conflict within themselves.”

Responding to those branches of feminism that seek to reclaim sex work as a source of empowerment for women, Jensen merely said that, as a man, he had no role in that debate.

Jensen’s concern was with the responsibilities of men. His most controversial comment, brought up and debated repeatedly throughout the conference, was that he was not interested in redefining masculinity. As he said, “I want to destroy it. Masculinity and femininity have no place in a society of equals.”

More than 20 speakers from a wide variety of fields and experiences brought the insight of other identities and concepts that complicate masculinity: race, ethnicity, age, religion, mass media, sexual orientation and class, to name a few. Topics of breakout sessions ranged from how masculinity looks and what it means when performed by queer women, to practical suggestions for college counseling centers serving men with hypermasculine tendencies, to the unique perspectives on manhood that monks have to offer. Echoing throughout was the issue of privilege and how to conceptualize it in a way that encourages movement towards equality in human affairs.

The final plenary of the day was a slide show and talk by Will Fellows, winner of the 1997 Lambda Literary Award for his book, Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men From the Rural Midwest.

Speaking on his recently published book, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture, Fellows documented and offered insights on the often noted correlation between gay men and the preservation of society’s past, whether in the form of collecting antiques, refurbishing old houses or recreating the art and theatre of eras gone by.

An eclectic conversation from myriad viewpoints and walks of life, St. John’s Second Annual Conference on the College Male is an idea of which every progressive institution will have to take note. To ignore the conflicting messages men are getting about gender in our society is no longer possible.

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