The rising power of emotions in modern masculinity.
“You should join a men’s circle,” my wife told me for the 50th time.
I’d been complaining to her about my worsening relationships with men. Why was I so distant from my friend John? Why was I so jealous of my friend Frank’s promotion? Why did I feel like all the men around me were just competition?
The common thread in each of these problems? Some form of separation from other men. Perhaps connecting with them was key. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”
So I went to one, and it wasn’t what I imagined. I’d envisioned some combination of playing bongos in a circle, crying on the shoulder of some guy I didn’t know, and eating peyote with my spirit animal. In reality, it felt more like group therapy, plus a crash course in gender studies.
We sat in a circle, sure. But there was a vocabulary sheet, discussion agreements, and a schedule of topics. We shared feelings about our masculinities. We talked about times we felt insecure. There were hands on shoulders and murmured acknowledgements of “I know what you mean, man,” but nothing so maudlin as I had imagined.
“Men’s groups are fundamentally anti-patriarchal,” my friend Mischa, who hosted the circle I attended, recently told me. “They are a place where men come together in order to talk about the things that society does not want them to talk about in groups. Men’s circles are a place where deeper healing around intimacy and relationships can take place.”
I’ve been to a number of these circles now, and I’ve invested time studying men’s groups, both on and offline. These kinds of male gatherings can not only be transformative for the individuals who attend them, but also places to bring forth personal change aligned with feminist ideals. They can allow men to face and often heal the most toxic aspects of their masculinity. They give men space to do emotional labor for each other. They allow intimate male bonds to form, which can take pressure off their relationships with women. If, that is, they’re done right.
Men’s groups vary in form and function. They can range from self-improvement-oriented programs such as Evryman to “woke” groups like ManKind Project. Cigar-smoking “old boy’s clubs,” locker rooms full of jocks comparing their latest conquests, and power hoarding secret societies like the Masons or the Bohemian Grove aren’t exactly about questioning toxic masculinity. Alt right groups touting beliefs that feminism is to blame for the plight of modern men are just the latest evolution of this dark side.
Looking out across this multifaceted landscape, a few crucial differences emerge between the sort of transformative, pro-feminist work I’ve experienced in men’s circles and the toxicity of other groups. Negative men’s communities tend to take place on the internet, often with an explicit goal or enemy: “How can I score with more chicks?” “Why is feminism so anti-man?!” Positive ones tend to be in-person, focused on personal growth and healing; they create a circle of safety in which meaningful internal investigation and growth can take place.
In the era of #MeToo, few men find themselves without a couple skeletons in their closet, and our society is notoriously bad at giving its members tools to clean that closet out. Men’s groups offer a judgment-free space to present shame to others and learn how to work through it. The presence of women in such a space may make it impossible for men to muster enough strength to bring out their darkness—and this darkness is precisely where healing needs to take place. Processing these issues with other men protects the oppressed from having to heal the oppressor.
Men are facing a moment of crisis. They are increasingly isolated and prone to substance abuse, suicide, and depression. Traditional masculinity has not prepared them for complex feelings around sexuality, love, and relationships. Our society prizes stoicism, strength, and power, but above all, independence—the ability to overcome obstacles alone. However, this is often a false premise, and when men inevitably need to deal with their internal discomfort, they typically turn to women.
Within the safety of a men’s circle, I felt that I could share my feelings around my personal issues: problematic substance use, feelings of inadequacy around dating, deep fears of losing financial stability and plunging into homelessness. As I disclosed these sentiments, I found that I was not alone; I was heard by others who could relate not just as people, but as men. The validation and empathy of other men who shared my feelings allowed me to be vulnerable in a way I had rarely, if ever, felt before. In this space, I could viscerally feel myself becoming more whole, replacing the discomfort of fear with the comfort of being witnessed.
“What could be more feminist than men coming together and talking about their feelings?” says Mischa. “To become a person of integrity, a contributor to the community, and a better loving partner, men need to come together to hold each other accountable and to process their emotions.” Our goals were humble, to be sure. We didn’t solve pay inequality, hire more female CEOs, or put an end to sexual assault. But we came together, felt together, and challenged each other to grow. We took the first steps towards undoing the impact of a lifetime of emotional self neglect, toxic masculinity, and deeply inculcated shame. In recognizing and processing our emotions, we became better equipped to serve the women in our lives, each other, and ourselves.