A UT Austin program aimed at expanding ideas of masculinity has been put on hold after conservative media outlets accused it of treating masculinity as a mental health issue.
The roughly two-year-old program, MasculinUT, was created within UT’s Counseling and Mental Health Center. It's one of the ways the university is addressing sexual assault and interpersonal violence on campus.
Chris Brownson, director of the center, said the aim of MasculinUT was to engage more men in violence prevention work, which is currently dominated by women.
“We know that if we’re not bringing men to the table and bringing them into the conversation about these issues,” he said, “we’re missing out on an important partner in doing this work.”
A big part of that conversation surrounded the idea of masculinity. According to people involved in the program, the notions around what it means to be masculine are often too rigid. For example, there's an assumption that it’s the man’s job to be the breadwinner. MasculinUT argued that being a breadwinner can be a celebrated quality, but it shouldn’t mean someone is less of a man if he isn't.
The program’s goal was to have a campus-wide discussion around the traditional characteristics associated with being a man and expand it to include more nontraditional traits.
“Healthy communication, respect for women, seeking help when you need it,” Brownson said. “Those aren’t traditional aspects, but they’re aspects of lots of people's male identity.”
In September, posters went up around campus showing different ways of expressing masculinity. Each of the “Expanding MasculinUT” posters featured students sharing their own definitions. One poster had a male nurse, while others featured people from the LGBTQ community. In one, a young man was wearing nail polish; in another, the student talked about wearing a dress.
“We want people to know that students, and the kind of things depicted in those posters, are safe on our campus, valued on our campus, and free from harassment and violence,” Brownson said.
But not everyone responded well to the campaign. Conservative media outlets quickly picked up the story after photos of the posters went viral. Once those outlets learned the program was housed at UT’s Counseling and Mental Health Center, a new narrative began.
At the end of April, a conservative blog called PJ Media shared an article with the headline: “University of Texas to Treat Masculinity as a ‘Mental Health’ Issue.”
UT quickly came out with a statement saying it does not see masculinity as a mental health issue. But facing national and local criticism, the university hit the brakes on MasculinUT.
Last week, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly wrote a letter to UT President Greg Fenves letting him know the committee that helped develop MasculinUT was planning to reconvene.
“We’re taking a step back and want to really look at the goals of the program,” Brownson said, “make sure that the activities that we're planning line up well with those goals, and that this program is effectively moving in the right direction.”
In February, the UT Board of Regents approved the search for a program director for MasculinUT, but that’s now been put on hold.
The barrage of criticism is also being felt at the student level, especially for those students featured on the posters.
“I ended up on some pretty conservative blogs and found – I wouldn’t necessarily say they were credible threats – but there were jokes being made about killing us," UT junior Austin Smith said. "That was new for me.”
Smith, who is gay, said his interest in MasculinUT came from his own experience with his late father. He said his dad fit those traditional ideas of masculinity.
“So whenever I came out to him that was tough for the both of us,” he said. “I think we both had to change some assumptions that we’d had.”
Smith said although he doesn’t agree with a lot of what’s being said about the students featured in the campaign and the program, he can understand where it’s coming from.
“You grow up with this idea of who you ought to be. ... It’s just socialization,” he said. “I just want to challenge folks to think really critically about where the ideas are coming from.”
And perhaps, ironically, the controversy around MasculinUT has done just that. People are debating these ideas both on and off campus.
Will Swope, a self-described Texas liberal, recently graduated from UT. He said he agrees with the program’s goal to tackle toxic masculinity, he just doesn't think that happened with the poster campaign.
“I think it’s harmful to discourse to say that anything you want to be masculine is therefore masculine,” Swope said. “We have to have some common sense of meaning.”
Smith said he disagrees.
“I’d like it to be less defined. I think it’s very restrictive right now, and my hope would be that more people feel more comfortable within that label and not feeling as though they have to change themselves to fit some standard."
The UT committee is supposed to come up with recommendations on how to move forward with the program by Aug. 1. After that, it heads to the Dean of Students for review.