Reflections on Masculinity: The Evolution of White Ribbon Day Ambassadors

Reaching the 5-year mark of Jane Doe Inc.’s Massachusetts White Ribbon Day (WRD) Campaign prompted us to step back and ask how the campaign is making a difference. We had our own theories and had in fact seen evidence of the WRD Campaign’s impact in terms of the public dialogue on the issue, involvement of more men in local and statewide efforts, responsiveness in the policy arena and elsewhere. What about the impact of the campaign on men themselves? In the fall of 2012, Jane Doe Inc. (JDI) convened a diverse group of male thought leaders who have been active Ambassadors in the White Ribbon Day Campaign and asked them to share how their own thoughts, perspectives, and commitments have evolved over the course of their involvement.

“JDI is so grateful to these men for opening themselves up to a group conversation that explored their own personal journeys in understanding the limitations of existing frameworks about manhood and embracing their roles in ending violence against women,” said Mary R. Lauby, JDI’s Executive Director.

The conversation reflected a deep and shared commitment to addressing root causes of violence against women in particular and sexual and domestic violence in general. As men from diverse backgrounds, they discussed how their own lived experiences required integrating race, class, culture, and sexuality with their efforts to redefine the social construct of masculinity. As one participant noted, “Masculinity sounds and feels different for men across race, class, and culture.”

For many of the participants, early awareness of violence against women and sexism created pivotal moments and laid a foundation for their own understanding of male privilege. For some, their emerging understanding of being raised in a culture of violence created the context for this awakening; for others, raising daughters was a portal to this process. Another participant’s description resonated with all of the men: “it’s about waking up to injustice and becoming aware of an imbalance.”

The men described their own process of change as both a public and private experience, an epiphany of sorts where these connections made sense. They also realized that this was more than an individual revelation yet there were few, if any, socially acceptable opportunities for men to talk with one another in deep and meaningful ways. Their intentional engagement in efforts such as WRD reflected their decision to become “less invested in others’ views of my masculinity” and more involved in creating a healthier human experience.

Regardless of their backgrounds, each of the men has struggled with societal messages that has taught and reinforced what a “real” man was supposed to be. “Breaking out of the box” and internalizing new constructions of masculinity has often meant learning to “accept the vulnerability of being whole.” This includes the need to work with men who have experienced trauma. In the end, these men all agreed that the kind of masculinity they believe in, the kind of men they want to be undefined in their personal and professional realms “is a choice to be made.”

The men also acknowledged that “there is a lot of privilege and benefit to being a man and if you open yourself up, it can be a risk and it is hard. For men, it’s a hard thing to say I am going to challenge masculinity. Men give up privilege when they take a stand.” These men aren’t looking for credit (“I don’t want to be put on a pedestal because I am a good man.”); they are looking to hold themselves and each other accountable.

Craig Norberg-Bohm, “The goals of JDI’s White Ribbon Day Campaign can only be achieved if we meaningfully engage men and boys in a safe and welcoming manner to overcome their fears, their internalized homophobia, and their inertia to redefine masculinity as a source of strength for non-violence, respect and justice.”

This gathering of amazing and thoughtful men fostered a deep and rich discussion that was both hopeful and promising. There was a strong acknowledgement about the hard work that needs to be done to address the social norms of masculinity that don’t contribute to making the world a peaceful place. Norberg-Bohm noted, “The consensus was clear that through the White Ribbon Campaign we are fostering a sustained vision for bringing men together to celebrate new social norms and taking a stand against violence against women and in connectedness to one another.”