Extras: Men’s Stories Project

The Men’s Story Project

By David Michael Newstead.

Jocelyn Lehrer may have been ahead of her time when she started the Men’s Story Project in 2008. Ten years later, the project is positioned to fill an important role as our society begins to seriously confront destructive forms of masculinity from sexual harassment in Hollywood to incel inspired violence and more. Could the Men’s Story Project offer a healthy and inclusive path forward? To find out, I recently spoke with founder Jocelyn Lehrer on her efforts to create dialogue and develop a much needed forum. Our conversation is below.

David Newstead: How did the idea for the Men’s Story Project first come about? What was going on at the time?

Jocelyn Lehrer: My background is in public health. I had been working for some years doing research related to adolescent sexual health, mental health, dating violence, and sexual assault. I also spent eight and a half years co-facilitating an HIV support group, mostly with young gay men and trans women who were living with HIV in San Francisco. I spent some time after college working with a gang risk intervention program in public schools in San Francisco, and I also spent time working with San Francisco Women Against Rape, which is San Francisco’s largest and oldest rape crisis center.

And when you work in these areas of gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, LGBT issues, violence between men, and sexual health, all the roads start pointing to the topic of masculinity, where if we could shift social notions of masculinity toward healthier notions, it would help to prevent a lot of unneeded suffering for people of all genders. And yet, where’s the public dialogue? This was 2008. So I started the MSP with a hope of helping to foster more public dialogue on these topics, but through men’s own stories so it wouldn’t be like a soapbox.

To describe the MSP’s format a bit, each live event has between five and fifteen men sharing personal stories with a live audience, on topics that relate to the nexus of masculinities, health and social justice (e.g., men’s violence, homophobia, gender equality). The events are accompanied by a facilitated audience-presenter dialogue and a resource fair where people can connect with local resources for personal support and activism. The events are filmed to create locally-relevant films, social media, and accompanying curriculum. After the events have taken place, the project teams are also encouraged to consider forming an ongoing masculinities or gender justice group on the campus or in the community, if there isn’t one already, so as to continue building the community that has formed around the project, and that more folks can join.

David Newstead: From the early events to now, can you describe some of the stories that stuck out to you that were especially powerful or memorable?

Jocelyn Lehrer: Sure. As an example, there was a young man who shared a story of having been physically abused by his father and also being taught by his father to fight with other boys. His father would tell him, “You never let someone get back up! How could you lose? Didn’t I teach you never to lose?” Then this young man also talked about how he perpetrated violence against a female partner of his, and his journey of personal change. He was also abusing substances and harming himself, and he got to a point where he realized his life had to change or it was going to end. So he sought help. He started going to support groups and talking with other men and allowing himself to feel. He talked about the people who helped him along the way. And he closes the piece by saying, “It’s time for men to share their stories, because there is no need for this pain and this legacy must not continue. I am my brother and he is me.” That’s just one very powerful story.

Other men have also spoken about their own journeys of change. For example, there’s a man who shared a story at St. Louis University last month about how he used to tell sexist jokes at work and how he commits to not doing that anymore, and realizes that he has work to do on the journey to becoming more of an ally to women. There’s another guy who shared a story last month about realizing that he’s learned things from his father that he doesn’t want to perpetuate, so he has more unlearning to do around verbal abuse. He was also bullied as a kid, and he shared a commitment to letting his kids be who they are and not trying to censor them and their expression.

There have been stories of self-assertion and pride in the face of homophobia and transphobia. In Chile, the first person to legally change sex from female to male shared their story. It was a story of basically going from isolation and despair to being a father in a loving family and starting a major activist organization for trans rights. There’s another man who shared a powerful poem called “What’s Really Scary,” asserting that even though some people view him as scary and tell him so, he is a loving individual and what’s really scary is people’s prejudice and fear.

The key themes of the Men’s Story Project are “celebrating” and “challenging.” The celebrating is about giving thanks for sources of strength and beauty and joy and love in your life. And the challenging is, let’s challenge these rigid, stale notions of manhood that foster harm for men themselves and the people of all genders around them. Let’s also challenge the stereotypes and various forms of oppression that exist, like homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, and classism. Let’s challenge the stereotypes that exist, for example, of black men or men of Arab descent. Let’s challenge xenophobia. I describe the MSP as an intersectional, feminist, anti-racist project about men and masculinity. It’s aiming to foster a dialogue on healthy masculinities in a holistic way, through people’s own stories.

David Newstead: You’ve heard many men’s experiences and perspectives. Is there something that stands out that you’ve learned from this over time? What have you taken away from it personally?

Jocelyn Lehrer: One thing I’ve come to believe is that most men, if not all men, have probably, at least at some point in their lives, felt uncomfortable with some aspect of how they were being pressured or taught to be as “men.” The stereotypical notions of masculinity that pervade our society are socially constructed and changeable, and many are inhuman and costly. That’s one.

Another thing I’ve learned about is the power of permission. I’ve been really moved to see how willing presenters in this project have been to share their stories when they understand that we want to create a space, a forum, for the sharing of personal stories with unusual public candor. The invitation here is, “If you could really say it, what would it be?” And I’ve been moved by the power of that simple invitation in terms of men’s response to it and their willingness to bring the candor, the stories – their willingness to take the leap of faith to be part of that. I’ve learned that it has been high time for this kind of project for a very long time.

David Newstead: On that note, 2008 when you started and 2018 are worlds apart in a lot of ways. How do you see the Men’s Story Project adapting to our current landscape and challenges?

Jocelyn Lehrer: I think the model for the project has a certain timelessness. It’s people sharing their stories on a public stage in front of their community however defined: their campus community, their geographic community. Right now, with the #MeToo movement and a lot of very salient examples of toxic masculinity (look no further than our president), people are asking the question all the more: “What about the men?” The number and scale of projects that address the topics of men and masculinity has been increasing in the past several years – the profeminist men’s movement began some decades ago. So the MSP is more accompanied now than it was in 2008 by a greater number of efforts that are helping people reflect, but I’d say it’s still quite uncommon and novel for people to be exposed to this kind of dialogue. In the general public, there’s still a pretty strong dire need. It’s hardly the case that the public is saturated with this kind of dialogue.

Given that the #MeToo movement is leading people to ask, “What about the men,” I think this is a really good moment to respond and to talk about men and masculinities in a holistic way – let’s talk about all the things that men do in the name of being “men.” So, in addition to discussing how male norms foster sexual assault and harassment, let’s talk about homophobia and transphobia and bullying and hazing. Let’s talk about the perpetuation of gender inequality across society: the workplace and policy and leadership. Let’s talk about men who don’t seek mental health care when they need it, which results in higher rates of men’s suicide and substance abuse compared to women. Let’s talk about how inequitable gender norms and relations foster the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. So, there’s a wide range of issues at this nexus of masculinities, health, and social justice. And with the #MeToo movement, it’s important to seize this moment to talk about masculinities writ large. Gloria Steinem said, many years ago, that women are dying for men to have their movement. And this effort to engage boys and men has been going for decades, but it has been gaining more visibility now. It’s important to seize the moment to bring this work front and center and engage more people in it.

David Newstead: What’s your ultimate vision for the Men’s Story Project?

Jocelyn Lehrer: I’d like to see it happening on hundreds or thousands of college campuses around the world every year. I’d like to see it happening regularly in communities, through community groups and organizations. I’d like for people from all parts of society to participate: students, activists, leaders, people who have never spoken publicly, celebrities. I’d also like for films, social media and curriculum to be created from each live production, and for that media to spread widely. People can also create curriculum or discussion guides to accompany their films. I’d like for the project to really become so pervasive that it is a social phenomenon – I’m thinking about the Vagina Monologues or One Billion Rising. I’d like for the project to become an ongoing part of the social landscape in the places where it’s happening, so people know there is a social option for men who want to engage and learn and be active allies for gender justice and social justice.

David Newstead: What’s the next immediate step for you on that path?

Jocelyn Lehrer: There are some exciting conversations underway. Several universities are planning new productions in the U.S. and abroad. There are conversations at hand with a major news outlet, with Hollywood, with some UN groups and national organizing groups. So I think the Men’s Story Project is approaching its tipping point. We just had two evaluation studies accepted for publication in leading peer-reviewed journals. With that taken care of, I feel like the project is ready to spread and scale.

David Newstead: How can people get involved?

Jocelyn Lehrer: I’ve written a step-by-step MSP Training Guide and worked with lawyers to create a license for groups that want to create their own MSP productions. So I provide groups with a set of resources which includes the training guide, the license, in-person training if they want it, and on-going coaching as they create their work. Then, when their live production happens and they film it, we create a video playlist of their work on the Men Story Project YouTube channel and we also create a page for their work on the MSP website, to show this linked set of emerging initiatives, far and wide, of men who are taking a public stand for health and justice. Folks can check out the website at www.mensstoryproject.org and email me at jlehrer@mensstoryproject.org.

Some Handmaid’s Tales Reading

Men and #MeToo

By David Michael Newstead.

Last month, I attended an interesting event focused on the role men can play in the #MeToo movement. And although all the panelists offered good insights, one part stuck out to me in particular and those were comments made by the activist and educator Jackson Katz.

Jackson Katz: Guys do come these conversations often defensive and they think they’re going to be lectured and they think they’re going to be told what NOT to do. None of us who have been doing this work, I can speak for those of us that I know, we never do that. That’s not how good education works. You engage people where they’re at. You engage young men. You talk to them about how cultural ideas about manhood have impacted them negatively as well as contributed to them harming other people.

Michael Kaufman, one of our colleagues, wrote an article 31 years ago. It’s called “The Triad of Men’s Violence”. The triad is: men’s violence against women, men’s violence against other men, men’s violence against themselves. And all three are connected. I mean, for example, people don’t make these connections normally, but you have rape on college campuses where young men are raping their fellow students – women and men and others. But you also have men over 50 committing suicide by gun. Gun violence is a huge problem in this country. Some people don’t even realize that the majority of gun violence is suicide. And older white men are the primary category of men committing suicide by gun. In other words, violence turned inward.

The same system that produces young men who rape women on college campuses is the same system that produces older men that take a gun to their head. And when you talk to men about these kind of things, you make these kind of connections and a lot of men realize this isn’t just about altruism although that’s important. It’s not just about social justice although that’s important. It’s also about self-interest. It’s also about taking care of themselves and their buddies. When you broaden the conversation in that way, a lot of men relax. It’s like “Oh my god. I’m not being bashed in this moment. I’m actually being challenged in a way to look inward, to be introspective.” And then, to take that introspection and that new self-awareness and go out and do something about it. Because that’s, by the way, the other piece. It’s important that men have personal self-reflection and critical self-awareness and personal growth, but it can’t end there because with privilege comes responsibility. So, you have to have growth personally and then take whatever you’ve learned about yourself and others and then go out and change the world and change the spheres of influence that you have in your life whether it’s young boys in their peer cultures or men at the highest pinnacles of cultural and political power and authority.

Watch the Full Discussion

Extras on Toxic Masculinity

Revenge Porn and Domestic Violence: An Interview

By David Michael Newstead.

Revenge Porn and other forms of harassment online illustrate the disturbing gap between our laws and an increasingly digital world. And while people sometimes shift the blame to victims of Revenge Porn themselves, this obscures the fact that anyone can become a target via photo-shopped pictures, a hijacked webcam, or a romantic relationship gone wrong. Recently, I spoke with a woman whose abusive ex-husband continued his attacks on her years after their relationship ended through Revenge Porn. In the aftermath, she was forced to navigate an outdated legal system that seemed poorly equipped to protect either her privacy or her safety online. My conversation with “Gladys” is below.

David Newstead: How did you first learn about these posts?

Gladys: I got a random email from an anonymous account that had the title ‘you know these are out there right’ and the body of the email was the link. I also got an email from a prior business client saying someone sent them the same link. I was completely embarrassed.

David Newstead: What did you do next? Like what were the initial steps you took?

Gladys: I was in complete shock. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I called up one of my friends was visiting me and told her the situation. I called up a couple of other close friends and I really just was clueless. No one had any advice for me. They just felt bad for me.

I was really hurting. I spent most of the day in bed, crying. I was afraid to leave my house. I was even feeling suicidal. Men were finding me all over the world to message me about my photos: showing interest, giving warning, just ‘wanting to chat.’ They found me on Skype, my business website, Facebook, email, you name it. Along with the photos, it even says the town you live in. So, this was no longer just embarrassing. It was dangerous. I had no idea where these photos could end up or what sicko might take this information to his next level.

David Newstead: Do you know who was responsible?

Gladys: The person who put up the photos was somebody I knew. It was my ex-husband from eight years prior.  He was extremely abusive. The marriage only lasted ten months because of the intense amount of abuse. I had folders of photos, police records, restraining orders. He even went to jail. I did everything I could legally. And that day, eight years later, it felt like the abuse was never going to end and I couldn’t fathom putting up with his abuse for the rest of my life. It was terrifying.

Up until that year, I had made myself invisible. I changed my number several times. I change my address several times. And no information could be found on me online at all. What changed that year was I started a business. I had to get myself online and visible to grow my business. I thought eight years later he had moved on with his life. I figured I was safe. But he had proven once more, it wasn’t.

David Newstead: What happened next?

Gladys: I cried for about a day. Then I decided it was time to face this. I couldn’t hide forever. This is when I started the research. I googled everything I could about this. This is the first time I had ever heard about Revenge Porn. I couldn’t believe it was legal, of all things.

The website will allow you to ‘buy your photo back’ for $800. But they cannot guarantee that they won’t put it back up once I’ve done this. Blackmail was all I could think of. Followed up with a ‘fuck you, you won’t get my money.’

After more online research, I found a legal team that specifically deals with this situation. I can’t remember the lady’s name, but she literally saved my life. They could take my case for $600. We traced the person that sent the link by finding a fake Facebook account. She said ‘copy and paste this link and don’t say a word’ the link was to an address or something. It was supposed to scare him. She said that will shut him up. I sent it and it worked. He deleted his fake profile and I never heard from him again. I didn’t ask questions. I was just relieved!

Next, she said she would get the photo down within 24 hours. She also said not to read the comments section under the photo. People can be mean. I confided in her I felt suicidal over all of this. She replied ‘People kill themselves over this. This is why our firm exists. We will stop them, but you have to be strong okay?’ I felt empowered. For the first time.

She also explained how the legal structure currently works we have no rights to take any actions against my ex-husband. But what I can do is talk to my local government about passing a law as it was coming up for vote in my state. I had a lobbyist friend who connected me to all the most powerful people. I posted a petition on Facebook. I wrote all the people I could, the ones who wouldn’t take my calls. I didn’t have to share my story publicly, no one took me up on that offer. At the time, I felt relief. Now, I think I have a different view. These stories need to be acknowledged.

A few months later, the bill was passed. Revenge Porn is now illegal in that state. But remember it’s state-to-state. It should be illegal everywhere.

David Newstead: Were the people you spoke to sympathetic? And did they understand the extent of the problem?

Gladys: The one guy who spoke to me was. The rest, I left messages with their secretaries.

David Newstead: Earlier you said it was your ex-husband. How were you able to determine that and were there literally any repercussions for him at all?

Gladys: I knew, because that photo was a photo I sent him while we were still married. Also, where the photo was taken and the fact that I dyed my hair blonde and kept it short back then.

To your second question: Nothing. We legally could do nothing. Since he was in one state and I was in a different state, that fact alone. But also, it’s completely legal to take any photo you want that someone gave you and use it in any way you please. There is no expiration date nor are there restrictions. It boggles my mind.

When I first saw the photo online, I didn’t even recognize myself. It was that old. I recall saying ‘That’s not me, but damn that’s embarrassing.’ And slowly it all came back to me. The conversation I had had with him right before, the room I was staying in, who I was back then. Everything.

It’s a state-to-state law. So, anything done by someone else in another state is untouchable. Because it was still legal in the state he lived in, at least when I checked four years ago during research. Also, nothing can be done to the company that hosts the photos. Because they have an IP address in China and it’s hosted overseas or somewhere else. Also, the company isn’t putting up the content, so they aren’t liable. The site is called ‘myex.com’. They can shut it down, which I believe they did, and someone will start a new one.

David Newstead: So for more substantial legal responses in the future, the Feds basically have to get involved and figure out what to do?

Gladys: Yup. It has to become federal law, not state-to-state. And there isn’t enough concern.

David Newstead: What do you mean?

Gladys: This is why it happens to celebrities too. Because it’s legal. The federal government doesn’t care enough to pursue it.

David Newstead: So, you don’t think the Feds view this as a priority or as a problem?

Gladys: I don’t think they even bother one way or another. There was a case where someone’s computer was hacked into and the naked photos were collected and distributed. It’s legal. There was this one gross guy who did it to all the time to celebrities. I forgot his name. He was all over the news. This guy!! I think this was him. I haven’t done any research or given it any thought in four years. I think I wanted to put it all behind me. I’m feeling accomplished that I helped at least one state.

David Newstead: Without many legal options, how do you think someone can safeguard against this? Or is it even possible to safeguard against this kind of thing?

Gladys: I’m not sure what the new info is on it. There has to be a federal law. That’s about it, because at this rate you can take my public photos off Facebook and use them for whatever you want.

David Newstead: Or hypothetically hack someone’s camera or just superimpose their faces onto other photos. I’m confused why peeping tom laws and things like that wouldn’t be applicable. Did you ever talk to police about this?

Gladys: They can’t do anything. I didn’t even try. I can’t imagine calling them up and say ‘Hey for personal safety of a threat that may or may not come to fruition of an online threat made by my ex-husband of eight years that lives in another state. Can you keep an eye out for me?’ Cops need hard evidence and an immediate threat.

David Newstead: How did your friends, family, and business contacts react to everything?

Gladys: I didn’t tell my family. I was too ashamed. Lots of shame in this process.

Everyone else… they just felt really bad for me. One friend went through Google to make sure my photos weren’t public and she shared the petition to end Revenge Porn. I only told four people at the time. Then, a couple of dudes who asked for nude photos in my relationships, including my now husband. I still won’t do it.

There are a lot of men and women who shame people who share nude photos. They say it serves us right. I can’t say I disagree. But I also can’t fully support that way of thought. It’s important to not judge people, until it’s you. I work on this daily.

David Newstead: Well, it could be done to anyone even those who don’t take nude photos of themselves. So, I think it’s important for people not to blame the victims.

Gladys: True.

David Newstead: Also, your ex-husband sounds like an extremely toxic person.

Gladys: Evil. Really. But I chose him! I had to do a lot of soul searching at twenty-two years old: how in the hell I got there and how to never choose that again.

David Newstead: Do you see this incident as an extension of the abuse you went through during your marriage to your ex-husband?

Gladys: Absolutely! Actually, it was kind of nice. Keeping invisible in fear of him for eight years was another form of abuse. To have my fears realized and then finding the strength to stand my ground and make a positive social impact, I think that’s when I finally began to truly heal.

David Newstead: Is there any advice you’d give to others based on your experience?

Gladys: You can take your power back! Don’t give up and let them bully you. It’s not your fault, you are not a bad person.

Crash Override: Book Review

By David Michael Newstead.

Crash Override recounts author Zoe Quinn’s experience at the center of GamerGate in 2014. Yet you don’t have to care anything about video games to recognize her ordeal as a case study on gender and technology’s dark side. So if the underbelly of the internet ever decides to make your life hell, Quinn outlines the weapons at their disposal. These include:

  • False and abusive comments online
  • Threatening phone calls
  • Posting your address, social security number, and other personal information online
  • Detailed threats of rape and murder
  • Revenge Porn
  • Stalking and cyberstalking
  • Hacking your accounts
  • Setting up fake accounts in your name
  • Tricking police SWAT teams into raiding your house in the middle of the night
  • And targeting your friends, loved ones, and contacts with all the abuse listed above

This opens the door to discussions about a whole range of important things from lack of responsiveness on the part of government authorities to tech giants not enforcing their own terms of service that would help to address these problems. Another aspect to this abuse is how it can mirror and exacerbate issues surrounding violence against women and discrimination faced by people of color and the LGBTQ community who are the most frequent targets of online abuse.

For me, two facts standout when thinking about this and they’re interrelated. First, that there is a well-documented lack of diversity in the tech industry. And second, that the internet has become central to our lives in ways that public policy hasn’t caught up to yet. Because of that, just telling someone to quit social media in response to attacks like this isn’t a real solution (and wouldn’t stop the abuse anyway). Access to and participation in all the positive things that the internet has to offer is no longer optional in our society. So then, the ability for everyone to enjoy what is essentially a public good takes on real significance. In the book, Quinn writes:

GamerGate wasn’t really about video games at all so much as it was a flash point for radicalized online hatred that had a long list of targets before, and after, my name was added to it. The movement helped solidify the growing connections between online white supremacist movements, misogynist nerds, conspiracy theorists, and dispassionate hoaxers who derive a sense of power from disseminating disinformation. This patchwork of Thanksgiving-ruining racist uncles might look and sound like a bad joke, but they became a real force behind giving Donald Trump the keys to the White House. Online abuse is by no means uncommon and can affect just about anyone for any reason, including totally normal people minding their own business. However, just because it can happen to anyone doesn’t mean that it strikes totally at random. The less you look and sound like a 1950s sitcom dad, the more likely it is that you’ll find yourself where I did – having your life torn apart by neo-Nazis.

In vivid and horrifying detail, Quinn describes everything that happened during GamerGate. The most admirable thing about the book though is that the author explains the tangible steps she’s taken since then to help other victims of online abuse (including former perpetrators of it) through her organization Crash Override. And even when discussing possible policy solutions, her measured and thoughtful perspective illustrates that she really does value the integrity of these online platforms. Whether these platforms value their own integrity seems to be an open question.