Duke Men’s Project examines masculinity; some in conservative media are critical

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. AP

As allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump have started a national conversation about men’s treatment of women, a new project at Duke University is examining how men view masculinity and interact with women.

The Duke Men’s Project, launched this fall through the Women’s Center, hopes to dispel the myth that feminism rejects men’s involvement, said Conor Smith, one of the student leaders of the project. A recent Facebook post from the group noted that its work “is especially relevant in this moment,” given Trump’s remarks in a 2005 tape released this month in which he bragged about kissing women without consent and attempting to have sex with a married woman.

“What’s perhaps more troubling than the explicit vileness of his comments (which were actually a confession of sexual assault) is his playing them off as ‘locker room talk,’ ” Duke junior Tanner Johnson, another student leader of the project, wrote in an email. “It delivers a message to boys that degrading women is not only okay, but also normal, even for prominent figures in power.”

The project includes a nine-week student-run “learning community” for the 14 men who applied. The men will meet for two hours a week to discuss a variety of subjects and will also host public events.

Johnson, who was on Duke’s track and field team his freshman and sophomore years, said that in locker rooms that he’s been in he’s heard “countless ‘jokes’ about recent sexual conquests, disgusting critiques of women’s bodies, hypothetical what-I-would-do-to-her’s, and more.”

These “jokes” matter, Johnson said, because sometimes they translate to actions. Although Trump insisted after the tape was released that his remarks were “just words,” at least nine women have since accused Trump of sexual harassment

Johnson, who is from Boise, Idaho, added that he has also witnessed “the embodiment of these words in real life” as he’s watched teammates interact with women.

“Those what-I-would-do-to-her’s become non-consensual look-what-we’re-doing’s,” he wrote. “At parties or other social events, the possibility of sexual assault in those scenarios isn’t a far leap to make.”

Smith, a senior from Oregon, added that he hopes discussions will encourage men to “think critically about how masculinity and masculine behaviors are cultured, which of those are healthy and which of those are not.”

Limbaugh criticism

The project has faced criticism from conservative media outlets, including commentator Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Limbaugh discussed the project at length on his radio show, and Fox News covered the project in an edition of “Campus Craziness.” Brit Hume, the anchor of Fox’s “On the Record,” described the goal of the project as “providing male-identified students a safe space where they can contemplate their toxic masculinity.”

But Smith, a public policy major, pushed back against that description, noting that the specific goal of the project is to create an environment that might sometimes be uncomfortable for students.

“It’s so ironic that the phrase ‘safe space’ has come out a lot in the coverage around this, because it’s not a safe space,” Smith said. “That’s just such an easy narrative to attach to it. But our stated goal is to create a destabilized space.”

Smith and Dana Raphael, a columnist for Duke’s newspaper, The Chronicle, said that the reaction on campus has been largely positive.

Raphael, a senior majoring in political science and women’s studies, said that although some conservative outlets and the “anti-political correctness crowd” are “furious,” she thinks the program has been well-received in the Duke community.

“It’s not like anyone is making men do something they don’t want to do,” Raphael said. “It’s a group of men leading men.”

‘Concepts of masculinity’

The Women’s Center is a university program dedicated to ensuring “the full participation and agency of women students at Duke.” It declined to comment on the Men’s Project and directed all inquiries to Duke’s communications office.

Keith Lawrence, Duke’s executive director of news and communications, said the program is based on a similar one at UNC-Chapel Hill and that many colleges offer “opportunities for students to examine issues related to masculinity.”

“Men who sign up for this program can explore concepts of masculinity and how those concepts influence the world around them,” Lawrence said. “The program will also explore difficult societal problems, such as sexual assault and gender violence.”

Smith said the criticism from conservative media outlets speaks to the “power of the work” being done by the program.

“When you present such a strongly stated threat to the system that privileges men, there is such a strong response to what you’re trying to do because so many people have a vested self-interest in trying to uphold the patriarchy,” he said.

Rachel Chason: 919-829-8946