Max Harris: Oxford Talk by Tony Porter Prompts Discussion of Masculinity Today

by Max Harris

On 26 February 2015, Tony Porter spoke to a crowded audience, dominated by students, at Milner Hall in Rhodes House, Oxford.  Porter is the co-founder of ‘A Call to Men’, an organization seeking to change dominant ideas of masculinity.  He is an activist, educator, and father – and, in an interactive and compelling presentation, Porter shared insights based on research, conversations with men and women, and his own personal experience.

Porter set the context by discussing the problem of domestic and sexual violence, which he said had reached “epidemic proportions” and was becoming a public health concern.  We know that in the United Kingdom alone, at least 1.4 million – or around 8.5% of – women have suffered domestic violence in the last year, according to figures released by the Office of National Statistics in February 2015: a rate that has remained high even as general crime rates have fallen.  In the 2013/2014 period, 64,205 sexual offences were also reported, the highest number since 2002/2003.  And both figures are likely to underestimate actual rates of domestic and sexual violence. Only a minority of men commit domestic and sexual violence, said Porter, but we should ask: what’s the role of manhood in all of this? Porter argued that if women were able to address domestic and sexual violence alone, the problem would have been eliminated by now.  But it remains.  Therefore, we need a new coalition of men and women to address the root causes of this epidemic.  

Porter then began a tour through some possible root causes, drawing on attention-grabbing slides (showing movie posters and male icons), comments from the audience, and one entertaining conversation at the front of Milner Hall with the Warden of Rhodes House, Charles Conn.  He asked Charles to talk candidly about his own relationship and why Charles admires his partner, Camilla; Charles agreed that men do not speak enough about their love for their partners.  Springboarding off this conversation, Porter went on to speak about the “collective socialization of manhood”, a process that is sustained by lessons passed down from generations, and media images of masculinity. 

One part of this socialization, said Porter, is the notion of a ‘Man Box’: a set of sentiments and feelings that society encourages men to cling onto.  According to Porter, this ‘Man Box’ tells men to avoid weakness, has a definition of strength that is “wrapped in muscles”, and most importantly, distances men from the perceived experiences of women.  Porter tried to show how the Man Box affects our everyday understanding of male activities by asking whether men in the audience enjoyed romantic movies, and if so, why.  He argued that most men find it difficult to admit that they appreciate romantic movies, because of the way society discourages men to engage with feelings.  Porter then used interactions with men in the audience to suggest that romantic movies are an important source of insights on love and vulnerability.

Towards the end of the talk, Porter turned to ideas about objectification and the male focus on the penis – points he made with reference to popular t-shirt slogans.  Ultimately, Porter stated that violence arises when women’s experience isn’t valued, there is an idea of women as property, and women are objectified.  He ended the session, memorably, by asking all men in the room to stand at the front of Milner Hall, and to hear messages imparted to them by female members of the Good Lads Workshop team.  The female members of this team encouraged the men in the room to apply Porter’s insights in their daily lives, and to make a greater effort to listen to the voices of women.

Porter’s talk was wide-ranging and engaging.  His focus on speaking directly encouraged those attending the talk to abandon the academic phrasing and cautious expression that can characterize life at Oxford.  And his willingness to draw on his experience as a father, and as a son, invited others to be similarly personal – and to reveal vulnerability, something that Porter said men tend not to do in modern society.

Without wanting to retreat back into academic approaches, it is true that Porter’s talk may have told a somewhat simplistic story (what academics might call an essentialising account) about men and women today.  He sometimes assumed that all men in the audience were heterosexual, and did imply that most men were drawn to ideals of strength and power, when this might not always be the case.  It is certainly arguable that in some contexts – including in the largely academic setting of Oxford University – men might not be so attracted to notions of physical power.  It would have been interesting for Porter to explore how a desire for intellectual, rather than muscular, power can also drive men to harmful perspectives and activities.  It may have been more powerful, too, for Porter to spend more time on how sexuality is understood in modern society, and men’s approach to sex specifically.  In addition, Porter might have usefully discussed what the way forward is for men – should the Man Box be abandoned altogether, or is there just a need for the qualities and characteristics inside the Man Box to change?

Porter did not have the time to answer all these questions.  And even if there was some lack of nuance in Porter’s presentation, maybe this was necessary to drive home a clear message (what other academics could call ‘strategic essentialism’).  The clear message was that there are dominant images of men in our society today, that these images do overlap in the values and features they associate with masculinity, and that the images have a bearing on men’s interaction with women – and on domestic and sexual violence. 

People of all sexes need to reckon with these insights.  And Porter, in the way he delivered the presentation, set a powerful example for how we might all begin to confront these challenges: with courage, sensitivity, and honesty.  I found myself in the days following the talk reflecting further on my interactions with women – on the number of female friends I have (as opposed to male friends) and on whether I devalue women’s experience (for example, by not reading more writing by women).  I am sure similar questions reverberated in the minds of all those in attendance at Tony Porter’s talk.  We are all richer for being able to consider these pressing issues of our time.

Max Harris is a Rhodes Scholar (New Zealand & Balliol 2012) and is currently an Examination Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford.