On a cold, winter day last year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it was the soft voice of a 9-year-old boy that reaffirmed his life’s mission.
“I was working in a very small charter school made up predominantly of African- American boys,” Porter said. “We were talking about all the things that define being a man and I asked what would happen if we could step outside that man box.
“This boy looks at me and says: ‘Then I would be free.’
The admission stopped Porter dead in his tracks.
“It made me think: ‘If he’s not free then what is he?” Porter said. “What is his day-to-day experience from school to home, or going outside to play? What is this man box he adheres to, not just to get through the day but to survive? And where are we, as men, falling short in giving him his freedom?”
Porter and Ted Bunch co-founded the national organization, A Call To Men, to address and end domestic and sexual violence against women and girls by challenging men to reconsider their long held and long taught gender beliefs -- then take those lessons back to disseminate within their respective communities.
While the field of work that focuses on violence against women is about 40 years old, Porter and Bunch found it troubling that most of the dialogue was coming from women.
“Nine out of 10 times it’s the marginalized group that is speaking out against oppression,” he said. “We had an opportunity to be part of a dominant group speaking out and that became very attractive to us.”
“And as our thinking expanded on this issue, we asked ‘why are we only talking to men who batter? We’ve all been socialized with these same norms so let’s expand this dialogue to all men. Let’s engage the 85 percent of men who aren’t abusive.’ ”
Chris Hall, the Prevention Coordinator at the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, called that a crucial step.
“As with many other forms of social change, men haven’t had a need to be involved in this dialogue because men are typically in positions of power at all sorts of levels,” Hall said. “They’re heads of households; they’re in charge of companies or government.
“But it’s vital to draw in men who are not abusive to create a social source of respect – and to normalize this dialogue.”
Katie Gentile, the Director of the John Jay College Women’s Center in New York City, said that men have an enormous influence on each other’s actions.
“One thing that shows up in all the research is that male peer groups are one of the most predictive factors for whether a man is going to be violent in his relationship with a woman,” said Gentile, whose center develops programs to heighten awareness of issues affecting women students including stalking, rape, sexual assault, ideals of beauty and legal issues around domestic violence.
“One of the consistent messages that Tony and Ted are delivering is making men responsible for their violence,” Gentile said. “It’s always been seen as a woman’s issue but women don’t hit themselves. Tony and Ted are very strong in putting the accountability on men -- telling them that they’re choosing to hit which is extremely important in the course of prevention work.”
In the span of a few years, A Call To Men has grown from a grass roots program outside New York City to a national phenomenon, with 14 stateside events already on the calendar or past in 2011. The organization also held events last year in Brazil, the Republic of Congo and South Africa.
“I am a visionary but in the beginning, this was not my vision,” Porter said. “Initially, I was holding seminars that would draw people from about a 90-mile radius. Most of these people worked in alcohol and drug addiction and they had to get credits to move forward in their work.
“But at some point I decided to gather a group of men who shared my views. I moved away from this notion of holding the bad guys accountable and put on a workshop in the fall of 2003 called “A Call to Men: Ending Violence Against Women and Becoming Part of the Solution.”
Requests to bring that message started flooding in from communities all over the northeast region and, eventually, all over the country.
Porter and Bunch’s message has even drawn the interest of high-profile clients in Hollywood, the nation’s service academies and the National Football League. Porter estimates that he’s worked with 26 or 27 of the NFL’s 32 teams and, in conjunction with the NFL Players Association and the league, A Call to Men helped produce “NFL Dads Dedicated to Daughters,” a book celebrating the bond between fathers and daughters.
“When you start talking about 53 physically gifted guys on a team who have tremendous alter egos, it’s not an easy situation or environment to venture into,” said Vice President of NFL Player Development and five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent, who played 15 seasons for the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins. “Toss in the reality that football is a violent, macho game and it’s not easy to reach everybody -- but Tony does.
“He has this amazing ability to relate to and touch specific moments in your life – to make you stop and say, ‘so that’s why I feel and think the way I do!’”
Last year in Miami, Porter was discussing funerals and the specific ways men are socialized to react to death.
“I went from being 40 years old to being 7 again, hearing my dad say ‘we’ve got to hold it down for the family. We can’t cry.’” Vincent said. “Men aren’t supposed to cry or be emotional but when I heard Tony talk about that and ask what’s wrong with that mentality it made think, ‘how are we raising our young men?’”
Porter admits he was skeptical upon initial contact with NFL players. He expected egos. He expected arrogance. He expected disdain.
“It’s been anything but that experience. They’ve been very receptive and very willing to talk about this issue,” Porter said. “They’re under the microscope and there’s plenty of work to be done when you look at some of the highly publicized cases the league has had, but the work can’t be done by hating them and staying away from them.
“That’s not the way to engage men. That’s the way to back men up against the wall and make them anything but receptive to your message.”
Porter is also cognizant of the widespread impact NFL players can have.
“If I can get them talking about this issue and that dialogue reaches 10,000 of their fans, that’s a lot more than I could ever do,” he said.
At the core of Porter and Bunch’s work is challenging, rethinking and even assailing the collective socialization by which men are trained to view and treat women.
“Domestic violence is rooted in sexism, patriarchy and male domination and that collective socialization contributes to violent behavior,” Porter said. “One of the founding principles of most societies was that women and children belonged to men -- that they were property, and that thinking still exists, to varying degrees, in many cultures.”
And yet every culture has its own set of challenges, whether it’s the Congo or West Virginia.
“In West Virginia there’s a strong gun culture,” Hall said. “Often people think we’re asking everyone to get rid of their guns because the reality is some domestic violence involves guns.
“There are state and federal guidelines for removing guns from homes but this gun culture sort of clouds the issue and creates this odd reality to navigate.”
Porter and Bunch focused a lot of their early work on racial minorities and inner cities, but the organization now does an enormous amount of work in rural communities.
“If we truly want to say we want to end violence against women, then we have to end it in all communities,” he said.
The greatest challenge, Porter said, is getting the message from the seminars to the greater communities.
“We like to reach in and grab a man’s heart and make sure he’s thinking differently about this issue than when he came. But the real work is after,” he said. “It is rare that I’m ever in an audience with men who disagree with my message. The hurdle is to get men to leave the room and put this newfound knowledge into action.
“We’re ever courageous in many respects, and this man box teaches us no fear -- we pretend we’re not afraid even when we’re petrified.
“But this is a different kind of courage. For me, the challenge is to truly step outside the confines of this collective socialization, take this issue head-on and bring it to a place of no fear.”
Porter typically asks each person in attendance to talk to five friends about what they’ve learned. Then he asks them to raise their hand if they’re willing to do that.
“Some do it, some raise it about halfway and others say ‘I’ve got to sit on this for a while. I’m not ready to take this head-on,’” Porter said. “That’s the reality for us in this work. In some respects, it’s baby steps when what we really want to do is take leaps and bounds.”
That desire is fueled by a troubling and enduring reality: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks violence against women as the No. 1 threat to women’s health.
- On average, more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.
- In 2008, the CDC found women experience two million injuries from intimate partner violence each year.
- Nearly one in four women in the United States reports experiencing violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in her life.
- Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States.
- An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
“If women could end this thing it would be over,” Porter said, “but the reality is that the incidence of violence against women has not decreased.”
“The solution lies in the majority of men who are not abusive. It’s our responsibility to normalize this way of thinking so that generations from now my sons can say, ‘my dad told me that’s how they did it way back when but we think it’s ridiculous – and it’s not the way we think about women or men today.”
10 Things Men Can Do To Prevent Domestic and Sexual Violence
- Acknowledge and understand how male dominance and aspects of unhealthy manhood are at the foundation of domestic and sexual violence.
- Examine and challenge our individual beliefs and the role that we play in supporting men who are abusive.
- Recognize and stop colluding with other men by getting out of our socially defined roles, and take a stance to prevent domestic and sexual violence.
- Remember that our silence is affirming. When we choose not to speak out against domestic and sexual violence, we are supporting it.
- Educate and re-educate our sons and other young men about our responsibility in preventing domestic and sexual violence.
- Break out of the man box: Challenge traditional images of manhood that stop us from actively taking a stand in domestic and sexual violence prevention.
- Accept and own our responsibility that domestic and sexual violence will not end until men become part of the solution to end it. We must take an active role in creating a cultural and social shift that no longer tolerates violence and discrimination against women and girls.
- Stop supporting the notion that domestic and sexual violence is due to mental illness, lack of anger management skills, chemical dependency, stress, etc… Domestic and sexual violence is rooted in male dominance and the socialization of men.
- Take responsibility for creating appropriate and effective ways to educate and raise awareness about domestic and sexual violence prevention.
- Create responsible and accountable men's initiatives in your community to support domestic and sexual violence prevention.