“I’m the boss of me!” It’s something I, like many others, probably first shouted as a child. The booming declaration can feel like an instinctive response to a overwhelming mix of frustration, defiance, and self-determination. If you can’t remember the last time you’ve belted out this mantra, please step away from your screen, make sure you’re outside, and let it out at the top of your lungs all in the name of feminism.
What has continuously driven me to the values and beliefs associated with feminism(s) is my reverence for the notions of self-definition and self-expression. Nothing feels more infuriating than to let someone or something other than me define who I am. After all, I’m the boss of me. Though many people might agree with this on the surface, we often acquiesce to the ubiquitous forces that tell us who to be and how to act based on our gender. A man shouldn’t wear his hair long. A woman should shave her legs. A boy should strive for success on the sports field. A girl should play dress up with dolls. We let each other and these intangible beliefs consistently boss us around.
The fact that traditional gender roles get to define our behavior, how we express ourselves, or how we interact with each other seems more than silly, it seems unjust. We celebrate the idea of the self-made man, we worship artists who pour their souls into their work, we use a justice system that relies on the logic that individuals are responsible for their own actions. The clues would lead to the conclusion that we value those who take the time to be deliberate in their actions and to be in control of who they are. And yet, we limit each other each day by perpetuating traditional beliefs about gender that define the ways we get to move through the world.
For me, being feminist and being a man is standing in opposition to the fact that the way men are taught to behave in their own right, in their interactions with one another, and in their relationships to women is harmful. It’s harmful to society, to women, and most importantly for me, it’s even harmful to men. We live in a culture of violence that teaches young men to solve their problems with fights, that sends them to be killed or maimed in international disputes, and that celebrates the destruction of their bodies in violent sports. We tell men it’s not right for them to communicate their anxieties, their hurt, or their affection, putting up boundaries that stop them from asking for help, grieving through their pain, or loving those close to them. We limit the way men are able to express themselves through dance, or music, or clothing, or hair, until we’ve told them they can’t engage in activities they might well desire because their masculinity is at stake. We might even communicate to men that being a feminist isn’t for them.
In some ways this is the double-edged sword of #FeministMen. While recognizing the fact that men can engage positively in feminism, we also reinforce what we’re trying to combat. By noting that a man being a feminist is in anyway remarkable, we reify the belief that feminism is for some people and not others, just as much as we show it is for everyone.
Perhaps this is why my feminism is driven by my belief that individuals should get to decide what is right for their lives, rather than by rules and regulations around identity that we are born into. For me, I am a feminist. I am a man. These intersect in many ways, but do not form a cornerstone of identity as a feminist man, but rather as a feminist human being. You either hold beliefs that people should have equal opportunities and be treated with respect regardless of gender, or you don’t.
The underlying premise to my work in sexual health education and healthy relationships is do unto others. I began producing materials and programs that were specifically for young men because I saw a gap in resources that were built with this audience in mind. I wanted guys to be able to find information that was relevant and meaningful to them. Without resources like this, they were too often left to fall back on expectations of how men are supposed to act in sex or relationships that we get from the world around us. Very few of these expectations are healthy.
In the public health sector, we regularly see the effects of young men not being equipped with the knowledge and skills to make responsible and informed decisions or with the support to act responsibly or communicate openly. We see it in rates of unintended pregnancy, STI transmission, dating abuse, sexual assault, and homophobic bullying. Usually the only tools we give young men to navigate these spaces are what they observe in the relationships around them, in TV, in the news, or in pornography.
I’ve worked in sexual health promotion and relationship advice with a heavy desire to unsettle the norm. I work to create a space where men feel comfortable admitting they might not know it all. I reinforce the idea that we, as men, don’t get to opt out of things that are often deemed “women’s issues” because we are just as much involved in reproduction, sex, and relationships as anyone else. My goal has been to provide men with information that is honest and engaging, but also works to push the boundaries of masculinity. At times the goal is to subvert the notions of what it means to be a man, while at others it is to throw those notions out the window. When it’s done right, this work is just as compelling as the media and world around them, but pushes them instead to perform their masculinity deliberately, thoughtfully, and respectfully. The goal is to help them be the bosses of themselves.
As we all work to be in control of our own paths and identities, we set examples for others to do the same. We get a chance to collectively be the boss of the society and the culture we inhabit. In recognizing that men hold feminist beliefs like anybody else through #FeministMen, we have the opportunity to break free from the way we currently let gender rule our lives.
About the author: Colin Adamo currently serves as the Coordinator of Young Men’s Initiatives at Advocates for Youth, directing a network of young men to engage their peers in the promotion of sexual health and healthy relationships. He has worked in sexual health for 8 years implementing sexual health programming, training educators, writing for sex and relationship blogs, developing online resources like Hooking Up & Staying Hooked, and serving as the youngest member of Trojan’s Sexual Health Advisory Council.