How Men Create Their Own Safe Ports

Male-only spaces can foster candor and emotional honesty.

My last blog post on where and how men could do their best gender work has stimulated a lot of discussion and reflection. I asserted that men can’t fully build their gender awareness and skill by learning and working in contexts in which women set the norms for the work. For example, I wondered if an organization like Catalyst could effectively foster the dialogue and learning about gender that men need to undertake.
My experiences in the past month have reinforced my belief that while some gender work for men and women must be done in partnership, men also need their own “safe ports,” male led and male. These are places where they can have open, frank conversations in which they express themselves with candor and emotional honesty.
Last week, I worked with a group of men and women on gender in organizations. My colleagues and I split the room into all male and all female groups and let those same-sex groups talk together for a period of time before reconvening the groups for a plenary conversation. In facilitating the men’s conversation, the toughest moments came when some men talked about how they believed women intentionally manipulated men and that women really had no legitimate gender grievances. In fact, they argued, women were the ones who had the upper hand. These sexist perspectives, we later learned, mostly flowed from their personal experiences of injury in interactions and relationships with women. But as I cringed at some of the attitudes expressed, I realized two things. First, these men needed to express themselves in a gathering of men coming together to intentionally address gender (as opposed to talking off-handedly in a bar or at a gym). These sexist views did not need to be censored, but rather expressed and, hopefully, influenced to change.
Second, these men would never have spoken these perspectives if they had not been in a men’s safe space. As one man said, “We censor ourselves around women. It’s not that they are doing anything to us to make us clam up. We just won’t say these things when they are around because we don’t want to be seen as bad guys. But this stuff really is part of how we feel.”
Men’s space is important for another reason. Women’s presence in gender conversations often feels dangerous to men. In the situation I was in last week, some women would—justifiably—have been enraged by what those men said. Men’s sexist perspectives actively injure women on a day-by-day and minute-by-minute basis. That is the reality of gender oppression in our society. But this justifiable outrage does not diminish the value of men being able to express their perspectives. This opportunity for men to speak their truths and be constructively challenged is a valuable method for creating change.
I offer these observations as an entrée into my modest attempts to respond to the two questions I posed in my last post:

1) Where can men do their gender-focused work?
2) What, exactly, is men-focused gender work, as distinct from woman-centered gender work? 

I think the right spaces for men to do the best gender work will have the following characteristics:

  • Men can have the opportunity to interact only with other men;
  • These interactions are initiated and owned by men;
  • Men have the opportunity to interact in mixed-sex groups with both men and women. These interactions may be sponsored by men or women AFTER the men have had their own space;
  • Men are explicitly invited to explore what gender would mean if we were not talking about women at all;
  • All of these conversations include men who can ably facilitate learning productive ways for men to manage their identities and their relationships with women:
    • These facilitators are self-aware and conversant about their experiences as men;
    • They have highly effective personal and professional relationships with women. 

These two blog posts were stimulated by my simple insight that equality between men and women comes from empowering men and women. This empowerment means supporting them to speak their truths and thereby engage with others who may live different—even seemingly opposing—truths. My experience in my visit to Catalyst was one in which I did not feel fully empowered. It was not Catalyst’s fault. It was just that I needed—and I believe many men need—a different point of departure for their learning and development as men.
Posted by Martin Davidson on May 23, 2013 4:42 PM America/New_York

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Beautiful piece, Martin. We absolutely need safe space on our own terms as men, to explore our previously unexamined normativity, and the reality that many of us as men are not as fluent as women are with gender matters. I also find that most women would welcome that sort of personal responsibility from us, where we commit to becoming part of the solution and not part of the problem.
  • Posted Thu 23 May 2013 05:11 PM EDT
I agree, Chuck. And I think most people aren't familiar with well-designed safe space. With careful forethought, it can really be a powerful learning environment for men to explore gender and to explore who they are as people. Thanks for the feedback!
  • Posted Thu 23 May 2013 05:13 PM EDT
Martin, thanks again for another candid and thought-provoking piece.

As a woman who cares deeply about both sides of the gender equation (both men's and women's experiences) and sees them as being integrally linked, how do I engage men for my own learning and to partner with them to change a system that frankly isn't working well for men or women?

I totally understand the value of men engaging with each other on the gender question. I get that--and our research bears this point out. At the same time I believe that it is only with better partnerships between women and men that we can really make change--we both need to be empathetic to each other's experiences and that won't happen if we aren't talking to each other. So how do we get to this part--faster? As you can tell, I'm impatient :)

Lastly, I have to admit that both of your posts leave me feeling disempowered--the way you described feeling when you visited Catalyst--even though I don't believe that's your intention here at all. Implicitly, I get the message that I/other women shouldn't be trying to ask men about their experiences (we should worry about the women's side of things) and should wait for signals from men as to when they're ready to engage with us...I hear stand back. How do we go about this work in ways that both women and men feel empowered in forming partnerships across gender lines? It might be uncomfortable but that doesn't mean we shouldn't still try, right?

Your post also makes me wonder how you think this all translates to the issue of race relations--if at all? Do white people need white-only safe spaces to talk about race before they can partner with non-whites?

Again--thanks for getting this important conversation started! I'd love to hear from other MARC members on this!
  • Posted Fri 24 May 2013 01:09 AM EDT
Jeanine, your comments really stimulated my thinking on this and I have been writing notes for an hour now, trying to respond to your important insights. I am so grateful to you for your candor and honest expression of your experience. I will try to capture my musings as concisely as I can.

My intention with my posts is to put in the foreground the importance of men working with men. This in no way precludes or diminishes my belief in the power and value of cross-gender partnerships. I agree with you wholeheartedly that we must learn from each other. Men cannot fully work with gender without understanding the experiences and perspectives of women. And we can’t fully deal with gender if we don’t address inequity, injustice and the yet-to-be-achieved vision of empowering, productive and generative relations between men and women.

My concern is this:--the absence of mindfully designed men's spaces actually impedes progress toward this vision. Men must be fully empowered as whole people in order to be fully engaged partners in gender work. Certainly that full engagement means men must come to grips with—and hold ourselves accountable for—sexism, and misogyny. But that cannot be the defining characteristic of gender work. And sadly, most men (and some women) believe that it should be.

I think that the best gender work is about co-creating new possibilities. It’s about inventing new ways of relating that honor the best of who we are as women and men. Part of that is definitely facing and correcting systemic wrongs. But it is also about encouraging men and women to more clearly define who they want to be and how they want to collaborate. The ability to do so starts with “safe port” work (for both men and women) and moves from there to women and men working together to envision the new possibility. Neither group can prescribe how members of the other gender should behave. Rather, we must negotiate together how best to move forward.

Your comment about feeling disempowered raises one more reflection for me. I share your impatience with what seems like the slow progress this male empowerment entails (conceding that I’m probably a little less impatient since I benefit explicitly and implicitly from the inequitable status quo). But I submit that all of this male only safe port stuff it is not necessarily as slow as it looks from a woman’s perspective—assuming the men’s work is rigorous as I outline in the second post. I believe this attention to men’s learning also creates a new set of learning opportunities for women. How do you, as a woman, cultivate patience and empathy for this part of men’s work? Especially when the prevailing script is that when men get together in the absence of women, they simply reinforce the dominant power structure that excludes women? Absent explicit monitoring and control of men’s gender work, how can you as a woman verify that we are on the right track?

I do not pose these challenges to women lightly. I can imagine how it sounds for me as a man to demand that women be patient with me. It reeks of yet another male power play. But I come to these insights from both my experience as a man in the gender context, and as a black person in the racial context. I have found this multiple identity mindset to be a powerful vantage point for these conversations. As a black person, I am uneasy with the idea of white empowerment (it even sounds like white supremacy and the Klan). But I also realize that white people doing their own rigorous work is essential for creating sustained change. Of course, I want to be involved in that work in some way. How can I possibly trust white people to get it right when they have shown repeatedly that they cannot? But I also must acknowledge that there are powerful and energizing elements about whiteness that I will never fully grasp because I am not white. And I must be willing to trust that white people can discover and name those elements through engaged interactions among themselves. I’m not sure how else it can happen. It's not easy to step back in this way. But I believe it is necessary.

Thanks again, Jeanine, for your thoughtul comment.
  • Posted Fri 24 May 2013 03:09 AM EDT
Hi Martin, Your thoughtful article is appreciated.

I’ve mentored many men. The safe space men seek has nothing to do with women; it has to do with men themselves.
Do men need time to be, think, discuss, and enjoy community? Of course.
The verbal violence men commit toward women is simply a projection of the violence they commit to themselves.
Men have to learn to be safe with themselves before they can be safe with others. I hope each and every man learns to do so.
Manhood isn’t something that simply slips away from men. It’s something many throw away.

You’re right: “The justifiable outrage does not diminish the value of men being able to express their perspectives.”
Expressing one’s perspective is one thing. Expressing one’s perspective in hatred just breeds hatred.
It’s called cause and effect. If you spew hatred, you reap the results of that emotional violence.
It does, however, hopefully teach men to tame their hatred, and perhaps look inward to see how to address it.
If you don’t want an encounter to feel interpersonally dangerous, don’t bring threat of violence or fear with you.
ANYONE (man, woman or child) can speak their truth without emotional violence toward another.

It feels “dangerous” to certain men because they’re unaware of the emotional violence they both bring and create.
They need to become aware of it. It’s a great, highly reliable feedback system; and a fine impetus for growth.
If you throw a rock into the air overhead and it comes down & hits you on the head, you learn to do a different action.

The number of remarkable, aware men in the world is growing. I applaud each and every one who emerges.

We’re all human first, and foremost. So many aspects of life really have so little to do with gender.
  • Posted Thu 30 May 2013 01:35 PM EDT
Tracy, how do you learn men to be safe with themselves?
  • Posted Fri 31 May 2013 07:38 AM EDT


Do you know a man who has taken more than 10 days of paternity leave?

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