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Profeminist Men: Don’t call it a comeback — they’ve been here for years

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, stands beside some of his favorite books at his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, takes a call in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, works in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Some of Rob Okun’s favorite books, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bulletin board in the Amherst office of Rob Okun. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the author of “Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement,” holds the book at his office in Amherst. He is also the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun displays some of his newsletters from the 1980s and 1990s at his office Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Okun’s magazine, Voice Male, and other materials in his office. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Posters in Okun’s office. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rob Okun, who is the editor and publisher of Voice Male magazine, in his office in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jackson Katz delivering his popular TEDx talk. YouTube screen shot



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Saturday, January 06, 2018

 

When Rob Okun is asked about his activism, he sometimes begins with a quote from Gloria Steinem: “Make no mistake about it: Women want a men’s movement. We are literally dying for it.”

That men’s movement has defined the better part of Okun’s life, though the 67-year-old uses the term “profeminist men’s movement.” 

What exactly is a profeminist? A definition from the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Men and Masculinities Center provides some understanding: “Being pro-feminist, at the core, means being informed by feminist analyses of society,” and challenging sexism and women’s oppression.

Okun’s wispy white hair and matching, neat goatee are an indication of how long he has been chronicling that movement as a writer. His magazine is called Voice Male — a play on a technology that, at the time of the publication’s founding, was relatively new. Founded in 1983 as a one-page newsletter (Okun became editor of the magazine in the mid-’90s, and he now oversees a staff of eight), Voice Male has all along documented the efforts of men trying to support the women’s movement — and women in general. 

Okun’s office is tucked away inside a picturesque yellow house on Prospect Street; the building belongs to the Peace Development Fund. When we met on an arctic afternoon in late December, Okun was at the small desk where he has put the magazine together for the past nine years, in a room kept toasty with a space heater running full blast.

“From the mid to late ’70s up to the present, there has been and continues to be a growing antisexist, profeminist men’s movement,” Okun said in his confident, soft voice that seems to have been molded from years of difficult conversations with fellow men. “People are unaware that there have been men that have been doing this work.” 

As the #MeToo moment sweeps through the nation and calls intensify for men to speak out against misogyny and violence, the story of the men’s movement has largely stayed out of the headlines. It’s perhaps fitting that Okun’s book — “Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement,” just out in an expanded edition — touts the profeminist men’s movement as “one of the most important social justice movements you’ve never heard of.” 

But Okun’s office is a testimony to its existence — filled with yellowing copies of Voice Male, with cover blurbs like “Men and the Fear of Hugging,” “When Your Partner Has Breast Cancer,” “A ‘Good’ White Man Faces His Hidden Racism,” and “Remembering Andrea Dworkin.” In a large scrapbook are old photographs and clippings, documenting everything from batterers’ intervention programs to protests. As the writer-activist Jackson Katz once put it: “It is our ‘magazine of record,’ playing a role analagous to the one Ms. magazine plays in the women’s movement.”

Thirty-five years ago, Voice Male’s newsletter prototype was a product of the Men’s Resource Center, founded in 1982 as a social-service agency and a social-justice organization challenging traditional visions of masculinity. 

“It was one of the first antisexist and antiviolence men’s centers in North America,” said Okun, who was once the Men’s Resource Center’s executive director. “Its focus from the get-go was supporting men and challenging men’s violence.”

Okun took over Voice Male after editing the alternative-energy magazine New Roots and the Yiddish Book Center’s publication, The Book Peddler. Around 10 years ago, Voice Male became independent, and it is now a glossy quarterly distributed to subscribers, many of which are antiviolence, profeminist organizations nationwide, such as the Georgia-based organization Men Stopping Violence and the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“I do believe that Voice Male magazine has an important role to play — as do other initiatives that engage and invite men in substantial numbers to become part of the solution to stop gender-based violence,” said Judy Norsigian, a renowned expert on women’s health concerns and one of the authors of the landmark book about sexuality and reproductive health, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” A member of Voice Male’s advisory board, Norsigian said there now exists a clear opportunity to inspire more men — “even those who might not identify as ‘profeminist’ ”— to get more actively engaged in that movement. “Although the work is far from done, I do see more men — including younger men — becoming more involved.”

In the Valley, men have been involved in the fight for gender equality for a long time. “We live in a very interesting area. It has a long and strong history of social consciousness and activism across many different issues, and certainly the women’s movement has been strong here,” said Steven Botkin, who co-founded the Men’s Resource Center in 1982. 

Eventually known as the Men’s Resource Center for Change, Botkin’s group — like many groups in the men’s movement — put much of its focus on preventing domestic violence, offering workshops, classes and support groups for men and boys.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the Men’s Resource Center merged with the group Men’s Resources International — also founded by Botkin — to form the still-active Florence-based organization MERGE for Equality.

And Botkin and Okun aren’t the only prominent voices in the profeminist men’s movement whose roots are in the Pioneer Valley.

One man has reached near-celebrity status. That would be Katz, the writer-activist and cofounder of  MVP Strategies — MVP stands for Mentors in Violence Prevention, in addition to most valuable player — a company that trains men to help stop misogynistic behavior when they witness it. In 2013, Katz gave a TEDx talk, “Violence against women — it’s a men’s issue,” which has gotten more than 1.8 million views on YouTube. 

Katz’s work as an educator, activist, filmmaker and academic spans decades, but he is perhaps best known for his work introducing the “bystander” approach to the field of gender-violence prevention. His MVP program, first started at Northeastern University in 1993, has since been implemented in many popular professional sports leagues. In 1997, Katz created the first gender-violence-prevention program in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, and those efforts were soon expanded to the Air Force, Navy and Army.

Originally from just outside of Boston, Katz, who was something of a football star in high school, has strong ties to Amherst. He was the first man to minor in women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he recently moved back to town after many years in southern California.

“We’re all in this work for the long haul, knowing it’s a long-term movement,” Katz said. There are a small, though growing, number of men actively engaged in the movement, he added. “Now there’s a moment when people are actually paying attention.”

Okun, Botkin, Katz and other activists all say their work exists because of the women’s movement and give credit to feminists for creating the very men’s movement they are a part of.

Those women activists, including many prominent second-wave feminists, have been blunt about the need for a men’s movement. Famous feminist playwright Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” is one of the members of Voice Male’s national advisory board and didn’t mince words in a recent interview with the Huffington Post.

“First, let’s remember that violence against women is a men’s issue,” she said. “We don’t harass and rape ourselves.”

The writer and activist Lindy West, of a younger generation of feminists, made the same case in The New York Times on Wednesday in an article titled “Why Is Fixing Sexism Women’s Work?”

“Only 2.6 percent of construction workers are female,” West wrote. “We did not install this glass ceiling, and it is not our responsibility to demolish it.”

An important part of #MeToo, Okun said, is understanding how it fits into a broader system of male violence.

A former reporter for The Union-News in Springfield, he added that it is journalistic malpractice that some news outlets don’t focus on the fact that almost all of the mass shooters that continue to haunt the public consciousness are white males. “It was always odd to me why we refer to these by geography — school shooting, hotel shooting,” Okun said. “We never looked at the one common denominator, which is the gender of the shooter.” It is those issues that Voice Male continues to attempt to bring to the fore, though Okun said it feels like he has had to write that same op-ed too many times now.

And, Katz added, it’s important to see the correlations between male aggression and how it shapes national conversations around everything from climate change to U.S. foreign policy. At the center of the current political moment, he said, is President Donald Trump, whom multiple  women have accused of rape, assault and harassment, and who was caught on tape openly bragging about sexually assaulting women.

While I was writing this article, as if on queue, Trump composed a tweet about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that underlines Katz’s point: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Botkin said he views the current moment — a time of #MeToo, but also Trumpism — as a tipping point, and society could tip in any direction with a strong enough push. He believes, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. But not without lots of difficult work. 

“It’s a long arc, and in the ’60s, it felt like we were at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius,” Botkin said. “With the new regime in place in this country, it feels like we are at the dawn of the Dark Ages.”

But there are encouraging signs for the Valley’s old guard of the profeminist men’s movement.

“It’s incredibly encouraging that the work that so many women have been engaged in, and a smaller number of men, is finally taking center stage, in some sense, in the cultural conversation,” Katz said. “One big difference, I think, is that there are a lot more men involved today than there were back then.” 

Katz mentioned the large male contingent at women’s marches across the country after Trump’s inauguration last year.

“That’s a big change in my lifetime,” he said, adding that a similar march in 1985 would not have looked the same. “There wouldn’t have been anywhere near that many men at a march called the Women’s March.”

Norsigian, the women’s health author, also mentioned Massachusetts White Ribbon day as an example of what is currently being done to involve men and boys in the profeminist struggle. As part of that day, men and boys take the campaign’s pledge to become part of the solution to end violence against women.

The work of the profeminist men’s movement has now gone global, too. Voice Male and Botkin’s organization, MERGE for Equality, are both actively involved in the international MenEngage Alliance — a network of hundreds of NGOs working toward gender justice. At the network’s last global symposium in New Delhi, India, Voice Male was in the complimentary tote bag for all 1,100 participants from 95 countries.

In contemplating the next steps for profeminist men, Okun says he has been thinking about why so much angry male behavior has been present in our national political climate — and why a female president ultimately wasn’t elected.

Speaking recently during an interview on North Carolina Public Radio, Okun found the end of his book to be the most salient expression of where he sees the men’s movement headed in the near future.

“Sometimes, before a species goes extinct, it has a last gasp, a final burst of energy,” he wrote. “I believe history will record this era as both patriarchy’s last stand, and feminism’s next chapter.”