Sexual violence is a serious public health issue. In an effort to prevent sexual violence perpetration, some higher education institutions have developed men’s engagement programs, intended to educate college men about how they address masculine gender norms that contribute to rape culture and gender-based violence (GBV). These men’s engagement programs range from being inserted into athletics based teams to stand-alone programs that rely on self selection. However, little is known about these programs, including participants' gender norms after completing the program. This study examined the perceptions of masculinities and masculine gender norms of students who participated in men’s engagement programs conducted at four higher education institutions in the US Midwest region, as part of a federally funded prevention and policy grant. Specifically, the main study aim was: How do college men who have participated in university-run men’s engagement programs describe, enact, and relate to masculine gender norms?
After receiving participants’ informed consent, four researchers conducted seven semi-structured focus groups with men’s engagement program participants at four Midwest institutions, two large public universities, one smaller public university and one small private college. Four of the groups were athletics/team based programs, while the rest were nomination based program participation. When group participation wasn’t feasible, four individual interviews were conducted. After professionally transcribing the audio recordings, two researchers from the team analyzed the data using the collaborative qualitative software, Dedoose, and matrixes to conduct cross-group comparisons.
Several themes emerged. First, participants articulated common attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors associated with traditional masculine norms and GBV. Second, participants described how their social identities, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and spirituality, contributed to masculine gender norms. Particularly, participants described their childhood and ongoing socialization as highly influential in shaping masculine gender norms. Third, participants’ perceptions of healthy masculinity emerged into three themes: healthy masculinity as values-based characteristics, healthy masculinity as self-authorship, and healthy masculinity as social-emotional intelligence. Perceptions of unhealthy masculinity largely reflected the antithesis to these norms. Fourth, participants that were student athletes noted the uniquely gendered expectations associated with playing college sports. Several also noted the need to “switch” masculinities on and off the field. And lastly, participants expressed the need to increase awareness and action among men to prevent and reduce violence against women and girls.
Conclusion and Implications
Men’s engagement programs on college campuses can create an environment where men have space to use masculinity as a lens (e.g., interrogating hegemonic masculinity) to explore their relationship to masculine gender norms and to challenge assumptions related to these norms that may be causing harm to themselves and others. Men’s engagement programs that recognize the interaction between masculinities and other social identities may provide outlets for men to better understand their own lived experiences and multiple identities. Within the context of preventing sexual violence and GBV generally, it is promising that men who participate in these programs express concern toward violence against women and girls and indicate an increased desire to address the issue moving forward.