As a 12-year-old in the Bronx, Tony Porter came face-to-face with rape. Instead of confronting his friends, who encouraged him to sexually assault a woman they’d already raped, Porter remained silent, afraid to get outside his “man box,” as he recounted in a 2010 TED Talk.
The shame, regret, and awareness he felt pushed him to help start A Call To Men, an organization focused on issues of male socialization to help prevent violence against women and girls.
Porter, who is the group’s CEO, believes the vast majority of gender-based discrimination and violence exists because of men, and that it’s up to men to re-educate and re-socialize themselves in the hopes of building stronger communities.
Porter has focused much of his efforts on collegiate and professional athletes, as he believes that they can be positive role models of healthy masculinity. He advises top sports leagues (the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB ) and has worked with the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis to promote violence prevention and healthy manhood training. He’s also an international lecturer for the US State Department, author of Breaking Out of the “Man Box”: The Next Generation of Manhood, and a script consultant for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In conversation with Quartz, Porter explains why his own liberation is directly tied to women’s liberation and why listening is the best way to be an ally.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
I founded A Call To Men with Ted Bunch almost 20 years ago. Since that time, our organization has been educating men all over the world to better understand how their collective socialization shapes their views on manhood, women, and girls. Nearly all men are socialized to view women as property, objects, and as having less value than men. That collective socialization lays the foundation for all forms of violence and discrimination to persist. Workplace gender inequality is just one of those forms.
Having been a part of this movement for so long, the pervasiveness of the problem that #MeToo brought forward was not shocking to us. I think the most important development is that now, society at large can no longer say we didn’t know. It is painfully apparent that nearly every woman has experienced some form of harassment and discrimination, and far too many have been victims of sexual assault and predatory behavior. We have spent a great deal of time calling men out, and accountability is a very important part of this process. Now, it is time to call men in. We are asking men to step forward—to move beyond their fear and uncertainty—and become part of the solution to end widespread violence and discrimination against all women and girls.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
Yes, I’m a feminist. My liberation as a man is directly tied to the liberation of women. By creating a world where all men and boys are loving and respectful and all women and girls are valued and safe, we will create a world free from domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, male gun violence, suicide, and all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination.
3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?
At A Call To Men, we work to promote healthy, respectful manhood and shift attitudes and behaviors that devalue women, girls, and other marginalized groups. We have programs for middle and high schools, colleges and universities, athletic programs, professional sports leagues, the military, corporations, and grassroots organizations. We are working virtually anywhere and everywhere you find men and boys.
4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
Holding onto rigid notions of manhood is one of the biggest threats to men in America today. When boys are told not to cry at such young ages, it teaches them they should not feel, which has long-lasting, negative effects on their health and relationships. Men who suppress their emotions are one-third more likely to die prematurely and face issues of rage, anxiety, depression, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. According to the CDC, the suicide rate is [nearly] four times higher in men than in women.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
When we work with men, we let them know that their ideas about manhood, women, and girls have been shaped by their collective socialization. The messages that the media and culture bombard us with tell us that women are objects, property, and have less value than men. Our job is to make men and boys more conscious of their collective socialization so that they can think critically about how they might be reinforcing or passing on these harmful beliefs and so they can challenge those beliefs in other men.
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
My greatest anxiety about being a man comes from continuing to challenge myself to a higher standard of manhood. Many people look to me to set that standard and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
7. What do you wish your female coworkers, and women at large, knew about you?
I want women to know that I am still listening and learning. There were a handful of progressive, pioneering women that set me on this path. I owe my life’s work to the investment they made in me very early on and I’m forever grateful.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
#MeToo has brought about an era of forced self-reflection. Men have been required to examine past behaviors and think about the impact it might have had on women in their lives. It’s uncomfortable. Men can use that discomfort to create change. We are living in the tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. Men can use their influence and platform to move us to the world as it ought to be. We want to help them do that.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
Before A Call To Men, I was a social worker working with chemically dependent people. I had a clear understanding of the impact race and class had on one’s life, but it took many years before I also understood the impact that sexism and male domination had on the lives of women I had the responsibility to serve.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
The best advice I’ve received is the same advice I most often give today: to listen. We must listen to women, believe them, and validate their experience. That holds true for any anti-oppression work, whether it be racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, or ageism.