Voice of Reason: A Conversation with Rob Okun

By David Michael Newstead.

For decades, Rob Okun has been a leading figure in the pro-feminist men’s movement through his long-running publication Voice Male. Today, Rob Okun joins me to offer some perspective on men, feminism, and the problems we’re still struggling to overcome. Our conversation is below.

David Newstead: It seems like there’s a limited number of pro-feminist men. They have some good ideas, but it makes you wish more people were out there making these points.

Rob Okun: I’d agree with you. And it’s very frustrating, particularly when things happen out in the world like mass shootings. You know, there’s been some variation of the same op-ed that a handful of us have written I don’t know how many times over the last 20 plus years. So, that definitely is frustrating. However, I think that this moment that we’re in right now is a real opportunity for men’s voices to be in this conversation about sexual assault and overall attitudes.

I was listening to the New Yorker Radio Hour and David Remnick was interviewing author bell hooks. She wrote a book in 2004 called Masculinity and the Will to Change in which she’s positing it’s really not individual men that we have to be thinking about, but the whole system of patriarchy that warps how men think about how they get to be in the world. So, being a class-half-full person, I’m hopeful this is going to be one of those moments where our voices are finally going to get some traction. I’m hopeful.

David Newstead: You’ve been working in this space for a long time. 30 plus years. So because you’re hopeful, would you say that even though we’re grappling with a lot of difficult issues right now that things are getting better than they once were?

Rob Okun: That’s a complicated question. I mean, I guess overall I would say yes, because there are certainly a number of younger men who have become involved in this work. There’s a whole generation of guys in their 20s and 30s that are stepping up, while those of us who have been doing this for a long time are getting older and some are changing their orientations. So, that’s definitely a positive. There’s been this uptick, small though it might be, of new men coming into the field who are doing this more professionally. That’s one aspect.

But I think the other side of that is the number of men who are awakening through the portal of fathering. There are a lot of more involved fathers than there were. You know just picking a point in time… When I first became a father 30 something years ago, there were not a lot of dads at the playground. There certainly weren’t changing tables in men’s rooms. So, there are all of those kinds of shifts where men are taking space as involved fathers. Fatherhood has been a place where many men have found a way to wake up to their responsibilities and how they want to live their lives. And some of the research that has been on expectations of men in their 20s who might be thinking about marriage and family show that the expectation now is that “Of course, we’ll both be working. And of course, I will be a fully involved part of the caregiving and domestic chore responsibility in my family.” Those are shifts that weren’t there when I first started doing this work.

David Newstead: Do you recall when you started identifying as a feminist or a pro-feminist? Or if there was a specific incident that motivated that when you were younger?

Rob Okun: There’s a couple of ways I can answer a question like that. One is that in the early 1980s, I became interested in feminist art. My partner at that time was identifying as a feminist artist. And I used to look at a lot of art that women were making that, if not overtly feminist, had women’s empowerment themes. The whole notion of what was happening in the women’s movement like the level of support women were providing to each other, understanding of their plight having been an opposed group for so long – all of those things and how they were addressing them were very appealing to me. So, I was like “Oh, this is interesting what they’re doing. This is exciting!” Then, seeing that through the lens of feminist art in the 1980s like Miriam Schapiro and Cheri Gaulke… There was just something about what was happening that felt resonant to me.

And then, I wasn’t aware of this until I got more into my work, but my own father was kind of unusual as I see it now. He was gentle, soft-spoken, very relational, and just passed on a legacy of being more available in the family than I subsequently learned of others’ experiences. You know, your dad is just your dad. So, you don’t really know what other people consider to be normal. You just know what you know. He was an older dad. He was 43 when I was born, which is these days more common. But back then, he was way older than a lot of the other dads.

So, I think that kind of prepared me to think about redefining manhood and masculinity and those issues. It kind of prepared me for that orientation. Years later, I ran groups for men acting abusively in their primary relationships. Batterer intervention groups. It was only after listening to man after man after man in these groups talking about how hard their relationships were with their fathers and how distant they were and in many cases how abusive they were that I got more than a glimmer as to what a gift I had be given with my dad. And you know I realize that’s not the kind of thing that I could easily talk about with them, because it was just so foreign to their experience.

David Newstead: Did a lot of these experiences inspire the launch of Voice Male? I know it was originally created through an organization at the time, but you’ve been doing this for 30 years now. So, there’s a lot of personal initiative that goes into that I would imagine.

Rob Okun: When I decided I wanted to be more intentional about my involvement with “men’s work”, that orientation towards feminist art and towards being an involved father that was just part of the thread of my daily life. But it wasn’t my work at that point. You know, I was maybe doing some radio commentaries about dads. But it really wasn’t until I became actively involved with the Men’s Resource Connection (MRC), which we renamed a couple times. It wasn’t until I became really involved with the MRC that I looked at the funky little organizational newsletter and having started my work life as a journalist, I saw the potential for this to play a larger role than just being a publication of a center with mostly activities of and around what was going on locally. I saw the potential for it to be more of a voice.

There were a couple of years where I was involved peripherally and then closer and closer. And then, 20 something years ago, I started editing it. And then, it’ll be 10 years in 2018 since I began publishing it independently.

David Newstead: Over the years, what kind of reactions have you gotten to the publication since it takes a pro-feminist stance?

Rob Okun: You know, a lot of people when they discover Voice Male are happy to see it like women who are involved in women’s activism. A lot of my colleagues would say that there’s always a happy surprise when women discover what some men have been doing for a really long time. Then, there are men who range from skeptical to positive. Occasionally, there’s some strong negative reaction. The term manginas gets thrown around as a slur to describe men who are promoting the feminist agenda and are able to articulate the benefits of feminism for men. Of the people who find us and read us and are involved, there’s more of a positive response. But there’s certainly are those members of the men’s rights movement or any of that aggrieved part of the white male population that has become so much of a discussion point since 2016 who are pretty angry and upset at feminist men. I just got something this past week in response to an op-ed I wrote about mass shooters that just talks about how we keep missing the most obvious common denominator among all the shooters and this guy just really laid into me. It’s pretty nasty, saying that you’re anti-male basically. And it so misses the point of what the work is.

We’re really pro-male. We don’t hate men. We value men. We appreciate men. The reason we’re doing this work is for our sons and our grandsons and our brothers and fathers. And it’s for our mothers and sisters and daughters. This movement has been unfolding since the late 1970s. And it’s a pretty substantial body of work if we look at the number of books and some of the films that have been made and some of the activist projects that have been engaged in. But on the back of my book says “One of the most important social justice movements you may never have heard of.”

David Newstead: With the anthology and Voice Male in general, you’re providing this platform for different men’s voices. You’re seeing this cross-section of different experiences. Since you’ve been involved in this for a while, what do you think the future of masculinity is?

Rob Okun: Being a glass-half-full person, I’d like to say that what’s happening now will be looked back on as the beginning of this shift of men redefining what masculinity is. I don’t know how long that’s going to take. And I don’t know how many men who are in positions of power are going to see the value of relinquishing that power or sharing that power in such a way that it makes it clear that the old definitions of what it is to “be a man” are suddenly going to change. But I think that there’s a portal that this moment has opened that any man who actually is brave enough to walk through can see what their life will look like that doesn’t presume their privilege and doesn’t presume their entitlement. You know, some men are naturally fearful of what any of these new developments could mean. For a lot of us who have been doing this work, it’s not surprising what’s been played out here. What’s surprising is how surprised the media and the pundits are about women’s experiences. If anyone would be willing to listen and take them seriously, then they would have said “Of course, this is what’s happening.”

So, we’re in a moment. We’re in a moment and it won’t really completely open up as this transformative moment until (or unless) more men are willing to give up the privilege and the entitlement that they have simply by the luck of the draw by arriving on the planet in a male identified body that gave them extra privilege and extra entitlement and created a very slanted and unleveled playing field. If they’re willing to give that up and risk what their life might look like if they redefine their ideas about power and equality, then this glimpse into a more egalitarian future offers some very optimistic scenarios. But I don’t know if we can get there. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there. Ironically, the most powerful men can afford to give up privilege and power, because they can still keep some of their privilege and some of their power and a lot of their money and still create change. They can still be change makers. So, we’re not even in the first chapter. We’re in the prologue of this story. But the fact that women are being believed, that’s a totally different cultural moment than when Anita Hill was speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.

The majority of men are not behaving in a toxic way. I mean, that’s a powerful word meaning poisonous. There’s a lot of men who are confused. The landscape has shifted. The rise of women does not mean the fall of men. The rise of women means that there’s an opportunity for there to be a rise of men. And I think that whatever the portal that we walk through as men whether it’s being a coach or a father or a mentor, all of that is up for reevaluation. Seeing men with lots of power and lots of influence out in the world being brought down in this moment is not in my mind a sign of toxic masculinity as much as it is a sign of a hopeful moment for men with the will to change. We’ve all been socialized to be men with a message that undermines and compromises the full expression of our humanity. We can do better. The ways that a lot of men have been acting out in our culture have shown some of the worst of what we can be. We don’t hear about the coaches and the mentors and younger activists working on campuses. We need to be looking for those examples as we go forward and they’re there! There’s been a movement that’s been articulating these messages for over 40 years. And it’s time that we come out of the desert and into the communities that we’re living in and saying that this is the moment for men to change.

David Newstead: If you could give advice to younger men about how to be a better man and how to improve themselves, what would you tell them?

Rob Okun: I’ll paraphrase my father. You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so you should listen more than you talk. So, you should listen more and speak less. You should not physically invade space. That would be one thing. And another would be to look for opportunities to have conversations with other men that are deeper and more meaningful than talking about sports or politics. Look for opportunities to connect and go deeper in your emotional life. And for those who identify as straight, don’t look just look to your female partner as your source of emotional support. See what it would look like to have men in your life who you could turn to.

In the latest issue of Voice Male, there’s an interview with an older and a younger men’s group. And the older men’s group has been meeting for like over 30 years once a month for the whole day on a Sunday, which is kind of extraordinary when you think about it. But those men have been facing each other through all kinds of life changes: deaths, divorces. They’ve been there for each other. So, having the courage to find your emotional center and to plumb it and to go there. I think that some of our language is gendered and that while the word courage might be gendered male and nurture would be gendered female. I think that some of the most courageous things that a man can do would be opening up to his own vulnerability and thinking about it and looking at those places in his personal life where he’s shutdown.

You know, we all arrive on the planet with the same potential to be nurturing and loving and compassionate. And those words are not female words. They’re human words. And that’s where I think we’re going. The bridge for expressing our full humanity has to start with those of us who male identify going deeper and not being afraid of that. When you see this epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assaults, you have to ask yourself what is the need, what is the insecurity, what is the problem that is going on with these men? What would it mean to challenge those negative behaviors and to hold each other accountable? I think some of the richest and most important conversations could be entered be into by men. We can’t say to women “You organize these workshops and you organize these panels and we’ll just show up.” Doesn’t work like that. We’re going to have to find within our own community of men enough leadership and enough risk-taking to address these issues at the gym. At weekly pickup basketball. Over beers. We need to check in with each other. It may require college administrators to get involved or faith communities. And it may require creative and innovative managers or Human Resource people. And it may just require some of us to say if no one else is doing it, I have to step up.

Read Voice Male