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

A Nation of Immigrants, Revisited


By David Michael Newstead.

Before his presidency, John F. Kennedy wrote A Nation of Immigrants. The book discusses the different origins, motivations, and numerous social contributions of immigrants arriving at different points in U.S. history. It’s a short book, but a meaningful one since Kennedy himself was a descendant of Irish immigrants. What’s especially noteworthy though is that later in the book JFK advocated for more open immigration policies and an end to the discriminatory national quota system which had been put into place in 1924 to limit immigration in general and non-white immigration specifically. And while Kennedy would not live to see his proposals enacted, America today is much more diverse because of them.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, to underline that contributions to American society by recent immigrants have only continued since Kennedy’s time. Second, this increase in diversity going forward is an asset, not a curse. And third, the racial makeup of the United States was kept homogeneous for so long through means which were blatantly racist at the time and would be completely unacceptable today. This includes things like the Chinese Exclusion Act and as soon as such policies were abandoned, America became more multicultural.

The other reason I mention A Nation of Immigrants is that I have my father’s copy of it sitting on my bookshelf. He was an immigrant to the United States. And while there’s nothing harrowing about his story compared to Syrians and others, it makes it pretty hard not to sympathize with a group that practically everyone’s relatives belonged to once upon a time.

Fatherhood and Feminism with Nikki van der Gaag

By David Michael Newstead.

Last year, Nikki van der Gaag co-authored a groundbreaking study on the world’s fathers after realizing they were absent from most research. This year, she’s honing in on fatherhood in specific regions and delving into the cultural context behind men’s involvement in their children’s lives. Today, Nikki van der Gaag joins me to discuss her research, gender equality, and Ryan Gosling.

David Newstead: So, this June is the anniversary of the first-ever State of the World’s Fathers’ Report. In the time since its release, do you believe that that research has had an impact? And if so, how?

Nikki van der Gaag: Yes is the answer and far more than I thought when we set out to do this work. The whole thing came about because I was doing an evaluation of the global MenCare campaign. And it just struck me that there’s a State of the World’s Mothers. There’s a State of the World’s Children. I’ve been involved in several State of the World’s Girls’ reports. But there was absolutely nothing that looked at men.

I knew there was a space for it. I knew that issues around how you can get men involved in gender equality were coming to the fore and bubbling up in various different places. But I don’t think when they decided to go ahead with it that Promundo and the MenCare campaign had any idea it was going to have the impact that it did. And that’s always partly serendipity. But I think it’s partly that it’s an idea that people were interested in. It’s now been translated into numerous languages and there have been a number of other fathers’ reports in different countries and regions. I was in Kosovo last week for the launch of the State of the Balkan Fathers’ Report. The most recent is the State of America’s Fathers, launched just last week. So, it’s one of those ideas that just took off.

So, we’re really pleased. I think there were eight launches last June in different countries. It was just an idea whose time had come at that particular point.

David Newstead: Do you see the research better informing implementation of different projects? Or how do you see it going from research data to some sort of applied or scaled up version?

Nikki van der Gaag: I think it works both ways. What we were mainly doing was to look at where there was already work on the ground or research or policy and to try and influence both policy and implementation. So you know, being very clear for example that in so many countries it’s either prohibited by law or it’s not culturally acceptable for men to be present at the birth of their child. Provided that the mother wants it, which was an important proviso. But many men wanted to be there and many women wanted them to be there too.

And research was saying that when they were present helping during pregnancy, there for the birth, and there after the birth in many cases it really helped their relationships with their children as well as supporting their partners.

The reports are trying to feed into policy. Sometimes doors are closed and sometimes they are open. And I think looking at fathers is one piece of the jigsaw. One way in to looking at how men can be involved in gender equality and what needs to change, structurally as well as individually. And it’s a way in that people find easier than some of the other ways in perhaps. So, we’re hoping that it will influence both policy and practice on the ground in a number of different, very specific ways.

David Newstead: You’ve been working in this area for a while now. Is there something significant you learned from the report or from your subsequent research related to the report that you didn’t already know? Like did something stick out that was very surprising?

Nikki van der Gaag: I think the most surprising revelation was simply the fact of how little there was out there that was looking at fathers. You know, we had a lot of problems finding the research that we were looking for. And we didn’t realize it was going to be so difficult. So, that initial thought that we need to see what’s out there and to make something of it was the biggest revelation as far as I was concerned.

And since then, I’ve been involved in quite a lot of other projects where we’re trying to nuance that work on men and gender equality. And there are quite a lot of debates on how fatherhood is one way in, but actually doesn’t always address the more difficult questions around the involvement of men. So if you work with fathers, what does that actually lead to?

For example, in the Balkans last week they had done this lovely film of men looking after their babies and their children, which in a context of a society that’s very patriarchal it’s just not something that men do. And the young people had done this amazing play around a father and two brothers not daring to pick up their baby and not knowing what to do. They’re in a very different place than we might be in the United States or in the UK.

Fatherhood is a way of being able to think about what it means to be a man, because it’s often the point at which either gender norms get far more entrenched or actually it opens men’s eyes up to “Hmm, I want to be a bit different than this.

For example, I was talking to men a couple years ago in the Dominican Republic who had come together, because they were worried about violence in their communities. They were concerned by violence against women, but they also had their own experiences of violence. If they had a violent father, they didn’t want to be that kind of father to their own children. So, it’s about personal motivation and also about motivating others to change. And fatherhood is a good way into that, but it’s not the only way. That’s one of the things I’ve been pondering on in the last year. The MenCare campaign is now thinking about a second report to build on that work.

David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I wanted to ask about your book. You wrote a book called Feminism and Men. And my question regarding that is – If there is a place for men in the Feminist Revolution, who embodies that role in the world right now? Like who should men be emulating basically?

Nikki van der Gaag: I’m slightly suspicious of the idea that there’s ever a perfect role model. We’re in a culture where celebrities have a very big influence one way or another, which is not necessarily a good thing! I was reading a book this afternoon, I Call Myself a Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty. And there’s a young man at the end writing who talks about the fact that his ideas on feminism were triggered by Ryan Gosling. We all have to come to this in a different way. So, within different communities there are people you might look up to.

I’m just thinking about some of the young men that I visited when I was in South Africa as part of the research for the State of the World’s Fathers. So, going to some of those fathers’ groups and talking to some of the very few male counselors who were also part of that project. There are people that you meet in your life as you go along it that you can take as role models at different periods of time. You know, for some people their own fathers’ are their role models. For some people, they are definitely not. But these days we’re all shaped by so many different factors. I don’t think there’s ever just one. Sometimes, it might be that you happen to read something. You know, you might happen to read David Newstead’s blog and that might trigger something in you that takes you to do something differently.

David Newstead: I was curious what work you’re focusing on now or what projects are going to be coming up in the near future for you?

Nikki van der Gaag: So, I’m continuing on my work with men and gender equality. I’ve just been helping the global MenEngage alliance with an e-dialogue that they did a couple weeks ago where they were trying to look at the issue of accountability to women’s organizations. We had more than hundred people contributing from about thirty different countries. It was absolutely fascinating. So, I’m continuing to do bits and pieces of that work and to help with that.

I’m trying to clear the decks a bit, because I’ve been commissioned to write this very short book called The No-Nonsense Guide to Feminism. Which will have a strand about men and gender equality, but will look a little bit about where the state of feminism is internationally. It’ll be interesting for me, because I’ve mainly been focusing on men’s involvement for the last few years.

David Newstead: I realize you have much more research left to do. But internationally, do you feel good or are you wary about the state of feminism across the world?

Nikki van der Gaag: I generally feel good about it. I mean, I’m old enough to have seen it come in different phases. Not so much the whole First, Second, Third-wave thing. But if I think about ten years ago and I said I was a feminist, everyone kind of took a step backwards. And now, it’s much more acceptable, though hugely contested. Plus there’s all this horrible stuff on the internet. I got some really nasty men’s rights comments when I did the Tedx talk. But in some ways that shows that people are sitting up and taking notice and trying to work out what this means for them.

I feel hugely encouraged by the younger generation of both young men and young women who are either call themselves feminist or pro-feminist and who are genuinely in search of how they can contribute to gender equality. In every part of the world. I’ve visited lots of different countries in the course of my work and I always meet the most amazing young people. They don’t necessarily call themselves feminists, because feminist is also seen as a kind of western import. But they certainly would act in ways in order to support girls and women in terms of empowerment. I feel encouraged. Not unadulteratedly encouraged, but encouraged nonetheless.

David Newstead: Nikki, thank you for speaking with me today. Do you have any final thoughts?

Nikki van der Gaag: There are some interesting threads that I’m trying to pull out at the moment. I think whenever an issue becomes more popular for example, campaigns like the HeForShe campaign or celebrities talking about feminism or about men and gender equality, there’s always going to be some backlash of one kind or another. And the women’s groups I talk to are worried about men taking over resources and spaces that are already shrinking. But most of the men that I work with or I talk to are incredibly aware of that I think and are really trying to negotiate as I said with this e-dialogue the issue of accountability. So, I feel not only hopeful about feminism. I actually feel hopeful about the role that men will be able to play.

One of the next steps need to be finding ways of working with men in more powerful positions. There’s some interesting work going on, for example, with religious leaders in different countries. I mean, we’re never going to persuade the Trumps of this world, are we? But there might be other men who actually do hold those levers of power whether at the international level or the national level or the local level who men can reach more easily than women can. So, the next step is reaching men who have influence. And that might be celebrities, going back to our earlier conversation. But it also might be politicians or business leaders or a whole range of different men who we need to persuade to buy into these changes.

Read about the State of America’s Fathers 2016

State of America’s Fathers 2016


By David Michael Newstead.

There’s new research out today that shines a light on the wide-ranging issues affecting fatherhood in America. On one hand, the State of America’s Fathers 2016 discusses demographic changes and social progress, while also making specific policies recommendations to address the challenges that remain. Notably, the report underlines the need for paid family leave in the United States as both mothers and fathers struggle to balance the obligations of work and childcare. The need for criminal justice reform is also prominently featured as research shows the connection between astronomical incarnation rates and the negative impacts these have on America’s families, particularly people of color. To learn more about the State of America’s Fathers, check out the links below.

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Download the Report


Beasts of No Nation

By David Michael Newstead.

Beasts of No Nation chronicles a young boy’s transformation into a child soldier. Although it takes place in an unnamed African country, the film is clearly meant to be reminiscent of the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone – conflicts that were famous for rebel factions, brutal violence, and the exploitation of young people by warlords like Charles Taylor. The main character, Agu, is forced into an army of child soldiers after the death of his family. And as the movie progresses, the group’s leader is shown to be a perverse figure father who provides a sense of belonging and discipline, while also ordering the boys to commit numerous atrocities. For Agu, we’re left to wonder if he can ever regain his humanity. For the audience, we’re left to reflect on the lasting traumas of war.

Watch Beasts of No Nation

Digital Ghosts

By David Michael Newstead.

When I was a kid, my dad died. And for years, we kept receiving mail that was addressed to him in one form or another. Usually, it was junk mail or things like that and not anything of substantive importance. But it kept showing up regardless.

I moved away after high school, but periodically relatives would confuse our names and they’d end up giving me my deceased father’s mail, thinking that it was for me. At the time, I found these mail mix-ups very irritating since this continued well into my late twenties and it served as another reminder that my father was absent from my life.

I mention this story now, because, in part, it’s the analog version of a phenomenon that’s mostly moved online and I’m left perplexed whenever I see it.

For example, I was on Facebook a while back and I looked at the People You May Know section. Confused, I immediately called a friend and asked “Didn’t John Doe die like five years ago?” And he had. Yet, there he was. A profile suspended in time, outlasting its namesake and abandoned by the internet.

Of course, even for the living, it’s not as if everybody takes the time to delete their AOL instant messenger account or their Myspace page. One day, they just stopped using it and moved on to other platforms. Again and again and again. So now, our digital selves are scattered all over the internet in bits and pieces from throughout our lives.

To what end? I don’t know.

For how long? I wonder sometimes.

About two years ago, a girl I went to college with passed away suddenly. I hadn’t spoken with her in a long time and I’m still not clear about the circumstances surrounding her death. But to this day, I still occasionally receive junk emails from her email address with spam links to some website.

And it’s a very strange feeling.