The Man Box
Date Published: March 30, 2021
Author and educator Ted Bunch talks about healthy manhood and raising resilient boys. Mr. Bunch is co-founder of A Call to Men, an organization dedicated to preventing violence against women and promoting healthy manhood. He is also co-author of "The Book of Dares," which contains 100 challenges for boys based on the work of A Call to Men.
Ted Bunch: 00:00 What healthy manhood is is really about being our authentic selves, not having the restrictions that this collective socialization, these things we've been taught, these rigid notions of manhood that are very antiquated and never have been really helpful. So it's really not even about redefining manhood. It's more about undefining it.
Host: 00:27 From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience, a podcast about facing adversity. I'm Jon Earle. My guest today is Ted Bunch. He's the co-founder of A Call to Men, an organization dedicated to preventing violence against women and promoting healthy manhood. A Call to Men provides training and educational resources to companies, government agencies, schools, and community groups. They've worked with the National Basketball Association, the U.S. Army, the United Nations, and many other groups. Ted is also the co-author of "The Book of Dares," which contains 100 fun, inspiring challenges for boys based on the work of A Call to Men. In our conversation, we talk about the collective socialization of manhood and how to raise boys to be resilient men. I hope you enjoy it. How did you get into this line of work? What's your background?
Ted Bunch: 01:17 Well, my background is social work. But before we started A Call to Men, Tony Porter was the original visionary for A Call to Men. He came to me with this idea 20 years ago, but he and I had been working together at least five years before that working in the area of domestic violence, specifically with men in batterer's intervention programs. Like many things in our society, whether it's gender issues, whether it's racial issues, something has to happen, and then we want to intervene and do something about it. And we believe at A Call to Men, Tony and I at that time said, we gotta go upstream to prevention where it never happens in the first place. So I was running the largest batterer's program in the country, in New York City, for an organization called Safe Victim Services, it's now called Safe Horizon. Six hundred men a week, all court-mandated men, 20 classes in English, 10 classes in Spanish. It was huge, but it wasn't ending domestic violence or even putting a dent into it.
Host: 02:19 It was reactive.
Ted Bunch: 02:21 It was reactive. And we really had this analysis that we were developing, Tony and I, around manhood. But the analysis was informed greatly by the work that we were doing with women who were advocates for domestic violence or survivors of domestic violence. Advocates meaning for domestic violence survivors. So we're learning a lot about domestic violence, but not only that, about violence against women and how male dominance plays out in those relationships. So then we decided, while the overwhelming majority of violence against women is men's violence, what's also true is that the majority of men are not violent, but we're silent about those that are, and that's as much of the problem as the violence and abuses, so let's speak to the silence. Let's break the silence. Let's educate those men, the majority of men, the well-meaning men, the guys in our communities who are doing the right thing, about how we're part of the problem. So then we started to talk about the collective socialization of men.
Host: 03:24 And I think that's a perfect place to start, because I want to start by understanding what this thing is, the man box, traditional masculinity. What are we talking about, exactly? And when I was reading your book, I was reflecting a lot on what I was raised with, the ideas, and I grew up in the 1990s. What I heard, and what I recall, was there were some "be" statements, the ones we're all familiar with: be brave, be aggressive, be courageous. There were a lot of "don't" statements. There were a lot of like—and I'm going to use a lot of air quotes in this conversation—don't act like a girl, don't throw like a girl, don't fight like a girl. And the other one was, again, air quotes, don't act gay, don't dress gay, don't talk gay. Don't do things that aren't considered traditionally male. Your favorite color has to be blue. Can you believe the pressure for your favorite color to be blue? It's completely absurd. And so that's what I was raised with, and I think that that set of ideas about what it means to be a man, that's what you term the "man box." Is that right?
Ted Bunch: 04:28 Yes, correct. A Call to Man coined the phrase, the "man box." And that's really our abbreviated version of that collective socialization of manhood, and how we pass that manhood down to the next generation of youth, male youth, and boys. And your experience, Jon, is just like every other boy's experience. And that is that all the "be" statements you talked about, but all the "don't" statements you talked about, you almost talked about what not to be, what a man should not be more than what a man is.
Host: 04:57 Yeah, it was more fear. It was like you were living in this container surrounded by electric wires. And all these wires you could hit that would cause you to be ostracized, to be cast out, to be thought of as not manly.
Ted Bunch: 05:09 Exactly. So it's like, this is really important stuff. Because this man box is killing men, and it's killing men because we're forced to live in these restrictions. You call them electric wiring or electric fence? And if you push up against it, boy, you get shocked. And what that fence does, or that box does, is teaches us that you have to be all of those things. Be strong, be tough. Don't ask for help. And even don't offer help up to a certain point. You might see a guy in pain and you know he's in pain and you ask him how he's doing, "Hey, how you doing?" He's going to say, "I'm good." Because he's not supposed to say anything else, because if you say something else, then you're weak.
Host: 05:52 Yeah. Well, another "don't" is "don't be nurturing." Nurturing is not a thing that men do.
Ted Bunch: 05:56 That's right. That's right. So you're not supposed to lean into that at all. You're not supposed to be nurturing, don't be vulnerable. And the other things within that is don't show any emotion except for anger. And so when we tell our little boy at four years old to stop crying, to man up, to suck it up, all those things, right? And we'll tell them, don't act like a little this or a little that, right? And you can fill in the blanks. Everybody knows what those blanks are. We're telling him not only to stop crying in all those different ways, but we're telling him to stop feeling, and he doesn't know the difference. So he grows up without any emotional literacy, without any way to solve problems that are through their words and expressing what you're feeling. And as a result that anger literally continues to be stuffed down, down, down. We grow up into these men who are dying from stress-related illnesses six years earlier than women. And not only that, but on top of that, we're taught to not ask for help so that when things come up—yeah, please go ahead.
Host: 07:01 I just want to jump in because you're hitting the resilience button. The resilience button is that this is not a cultural commentary conversation. We're making a commentary about health. And this affects the health of men. Studies have shown a connection between these ideas, let's call them "man box" ideas, and a resistance to mental health care, resistance to preventative care, things that cause men to die earlier. And then an equally big issue is violence and attitudes towards women, which is something we can get into as well. So there is a real health and resilience component to these ideas. They have actual real-world effects.
Ted Bunch: 07:38 It's all connected. That these rigid notions of manhood and not only killing women, children, and the queer community, but men and boys as well. And you bring up a great point because that mental health piece, Jon, is so important. Death by suicide with men is three and a half times higher than women. Suicide with male-identified youth is higher than female-identified youth. And then when you look at the youth that are questioning or in the queer community, their suicide is even higher because they're punished so much more and humiliated, demeaned and kicked out so much more because because of these rigid notions of manhood, and again, the man box, the further you are outside of that man box, and that's a heterosexual construct as well, so that the glue that keeps the man box together is homophobia and it is heterosexism.
So when we look at this collective socialization of men and manhood, and you know what, Jon, let me be clear here because I can hear some listeners now getting a little tight, especially men, and what I want to say to them is this is not an indictment on manhood. It's an invitation to men to do things differently, that we've been misinformed about some things. There's a lot that's wonderful, but there's some things that we need to change and tweak, and we impact people in different ways and we need to be aware of that and the same with our boys. And that's what the "Book of Dares" is about, which we'll talk about a little bit later. But we're all taught on some level as men, and we pass this teaching down to boys, that women and girls are seen as having less value than men and boys. That's why wherever we are in the United States right now today, Jon, if I'm anywhere in the U.S., Main Street USA, and I see a man hitting his wife or girlfriend, and I walk over to them and they say, "Knock it off," in 2021, with all that we know about domestic violence, and I say, "Knock it off," to them, Jon, what do you think he's going to say to me?
Host: 09:36 None of your business.
Ted Bunch: 09:37 That's right. Mind your business. You know that. This is our first time talking, Jon, but you know all the answers because we've been taught the same thing. That's our collective socialization. It's in the air that we breathe. And then the final thing is sexual objectification, that we're taught to objectify women and that they are sexual objects and so are girls, and we pass that down to our boys. Let me share this quick story and then I'll pass it back to you because I know you want to ask—.
Host: 10:06 They're just piling up in my head.
Ted Bunch: 10:10 Imagine anywhere in the United States, a high school kid, great young man, good kid, 17 years old. He's a junior in high school, his name's John. He's gonna take Keisha out to a movie. Keisha's also a junior in high school. John gets on a group text with a couple of his buddies. Now this is his first time spending any time with Keisha. John gets on his group text with a couple of his buddies and says, "I'm taking Keisha to the movies. I'll hit you guys up later." And they give him some crap for that, you know, taking Kesha to a movie, all that stuff, they have a little fun with him. And then he goes to the movie, takes Kesha home, he's the perfect gentleman. He gets back on the group text and says, "Hey, I'm back from the movie." Is the first thing those good boys ask him is, "How was the movie?"
Host: 10:59 Of course not.
Ted Bunch: 10:59 Right, because they're not supposed to ask him, "How was the movie?" And he's not supposed to be interested in the movie. He's supposed to be interested in what they ask him, which is, "Did you get anything? Did she put out? How was it?" All of those things. So where do those boys learn that from at 17 years old? And they're good boys. These are our kids in our community. Where do they learn that from? They learn it from our society. They learn it from the men in their lives. They're taught that girls are supposed to be seen as sexual objects. That's why so many men were on their heels in this post-#MeToo era because we know that all of us have done it in some way or another at some point in our life. I have not met a man who hasn't either done something or said something that sexually objectified a woman, or witnessed another man doing it and did nothing about it. And I can say that confidently because one of the ways that we prove that we are men in this man box society is to objectify women.
Host: 11:58 I have actually two questions. I want to bring this down to the concrete, to your own personal experience. I'm wondering if you could share with us an experience of encountering the man box in a really visceral way.
Ted Bunch: 12:09 So my oldest son, he was probably about 11 at the time, now I'm doing this work for a long time. I'm going out and doing this eradicating sexism work, promoting healthy manhood work. I'm doing it, man. People are hiring us to go out and do presentations. Like we're, I'm putting this in quotes, "experts." And so I was getting ready to go and get onto a flight, and my oldest son would always walk me out to the car. I'd say goodbye to everybody, but he'd be the one to walk me out to the car. He'd pull my laptop bag behind him. And that was a real father-and-son moment, Jon, right, dad getting ready to go out of town for a trip. The oldest son is walking with me, and this is a bonding moment between dad and son. And I leaned down to him and said, and I probably did this 50 times before, and said what so many dads say in that situation, which is, "Okay now, son, take care of things around here. You're the man of the house. You got it, son?" "I got it, dad." Well, Jon, he doesn't have a thing. What does he have? He's 11 years old. Now, it occurred to me in that moment that I'm teaching him—well, the lesson is, I want to teach, like all fathers in that situation, we want to teach our sons to be responsible, to be accountable, to be a protector, those things are good things to teach. But it occurred to me in that moment that I'm teaching him that at the expense of his mom. I’m saying, "You got it, son. Because she must not. You're the man of the house. Because she needs one." Right? "Take care of things around here, because she can't." Any man who's married to a woman or lives with a woman, I would bet when you're not there, she got it. And actually when you're there, she makes sure you got what you're supposed to get. So it isn't that women are not capable, actually they're extremely capable, and we act like they're not. And in that moment, I'm literally passing down the entitlement and privilege that I have as a man in this society to him, I'm literally saying, "This is all yours. Take care of it." So even with all that I know, I'm not cooked yet. This is still stuff that we're learning and peeling back the onion of.
Host: 14:39 Yeah. I had the image in my head of passing the crown. And you're like, literally, "Here you go. Here's the crown. You're the king now. This is your domain."
Ted Bunch: 14:46 I'll get it back when I get off the flight. That's exactly right.
Host: 14:53 So we've talked a bit about man box masculinity, and I want to put a pin in what a beautiful thing these ideals of masculinity can be in the right time and place. You know, what a beautiful thing sacrifice, courage and bravery and these, you know, quote unquote traditionally masculine things, although certainly not the domain exclusively of men, it goes without saying. So let's talk about the alternative that you propose in this book, this wonderful book that you've published. What is healthy masculinity, what is healthy manhood?
Ted Bunch: 15:21 Thank you, thank you. I appreciate that so much. Yeah, it's never an indictment. I believe that men are really doing the best they can based on what we know, and when we know better, we do better. I really believe that. And even when it comes to harm that men or anyone else may cause, you know, that hurt people do hurt people, and that there's hope for everyone. And we certainly have hope and healing for men. That's really so important. We're in so much pain. We walk around in so much pain as men, we really do. And we don't stop to focus on it or take care of it, and there's detrimental effects as a result that are physical, that are mental health issues and other things. So what healthy manhood is, from our perspective, is really about being our authentic selves, not having the restrictions that this collective socialization, these things we've been taught, these rigid notions of manhood that are very antiquated and never have been really helpful. So authenticity is really the key. It's really not even about redefining manhood, it's more about undefining it, expressing our full range of emotions, being able to do that and teaching that to our boys. Not saying or doing things that denigrate women, girls, or members of the LGBTQ, transgender, nonconforming community. Seeing women and girls as friends if you're a man or a boy, not just as sexual objects. Embracing our full, authentic self.
For instance, your audience can't see it, but there's flowers behind me. And I always have flowers in the house. And I'll share that it was probably within the first 10 years of my marriage, Jon, I would bring flowers home for my wife every week or every two weeks, and she would like that and she'd appreciate it. And if her girlfriends were around, they'd be like, "Oh, 10 years later, he's still bringing you flowers!" All that kind of stuff, which was all nice, but honestly, if I didn't bring flowers home, she didn't ask, "Where are my flowers? You don't love me anymore?" She never said anything like that. She didn't pay that much attention to it, honestly. But it occurred to me 10 years in, why am I bringing flowers home? Because Ted likes flowers. I like the colors. I like the way they smell when I come into the house. But it took me 10 years to recognize that I'm bringing flowers home not for her. It's under the cover of her because men are not supposed to bring flowers home, they're not supposed to appreciate flowers. What would that mean? If I appreciated flowers and let people know that? So once I embrace my full, authentic self, now I'm going to the florist, and I'm choosing the flowers much differently. They're not putting them in a vase. I'm saying no, "I'll arrange them when I get home." You know why? Because I love flowers. So like all of us as men have something like that that we didn't do, didn't go after, didn't express because we were afraid of being shamed by this man box, being seen as less than a man, being seen as like a woman, being seen as a gay man—and gay men are men, trans men are men, but again, this man box is a heterosexual construct, so if you don't fit within that you're punished, you are seen as less than.
Host: 18:39 Oh, there's so much to respond to, Ted. Where do we start? So for me, when I was growing up, it was dance. You wouldn't dance. Or if you dance, you dance in a certain way and you didn't do theater. You didn't do these other creative things. You dressed in a certain way, kept it real buttoned up, and that was the way to stay in the man box. It was the authenticity part of the book that really got to me the most. In fact, I wrote down one of the dares, there are 100 dares in the book about how to be a healthy man. The one that actually got me, like really got me a little bit, was a dare to do something you love, even if it's not something boys are supposed to do. And I'm just going to read this one. "Because that's being real. And being real means doing the things you love even if other people don't understand why you love them. Shutting down parts of yourself because you're afraid of how others might perceive you is unhealthy and prevents you from being your truest self." That was like, yeah, hit me like a ton of bricks.
Ted Bunch: 19:32 That hits everybody. You just gave me chills. And by the way, so the book is 100 dares, 100 ways for boys to be kind, bold and brave, but they're in three different categories: healthy masculinity, gender equity and inclusion, and authenticity. So even though we wrote it with boys in mind, there's only a third of it that's really focused on healthy masculinity. Those others, like authenticity, like the one you just read, can really apply to all people. But certainly as male-identified men and boys, that's something that we're not allowed to do, to dance, for instance, take theater and why can't—if he's interested in football, great. But if he's interested in theater, great. So authenticity is the key.
Host: 20:21 Connect the dots for me between what happens to the kid who doesn't get to be his authentic self? How does that kid grow up, and where does that begin to cause problems or can cause problems for an adult?
Ted Bunch: 20:35 So that's a great question, and the book actually addresses some of this because we asked—one of the dares is dare to share three emotions you experienced today. Because we want our boys to start articulating how they're feeling and know that it's safe and okay to talk about your feelings and being vulnerable. Dare to share something that you're afraid of is another dare. But when we don't, when our boys aren't allowed to be their full, authentic selves, they shut down part of their selves. And then what happens is depression comes in because I'm not living my life. I'm seeing people doing something over here, I want to do that, but I can't do it because my parents say I can't do it, our society says I can't do it, or I'm being shamed by a big brother, you know, whoever. So it shuts down part of them, so anxiety comes in, depression comes in. It's very high among male youth. It also is high among adult men, suicidal ideation, drug use, alcohol dependency, all of those things come, other mental health issues. All of those things come into play because we're not able to be our full, authentic self. Does that mean, you know, I didn't let my son, this is hypothetical, I didn't let my son take a dance class, he wanted to take a dance class, is he going to go jump off a bridge? Probably not. But he's also not going to be able to learn what he would have learned by expressing that and not shutting that part of himself down. He's going to be freer and more open in other areas of his life because he has a certain freedom. And that's where we really need to allow our boys to grow and to find who they are. And again, the book allows boys to actually re-imagine what being a boy is. That I can actually be on the golf team and be in the school play and I'm still who I am. I don't talk differently. I don't walk differently. And so that's really what we want is full authenticity.
Host: 22:40 On a purely anecdotal basis, it seems like things have changed over the last few generations. I don't know a ton of people in Gen Z or whatever comes after Gen Z, but certainly the sense I get is that there's a lot more acceptance of people just being themselves, of boys just being themselves. You've been doing this work for a long time, and I was wondering if you see that change, and where you see it.
Ted Bunch: 23:08 I do. I see it with my kids, with their friends. I see it with the conversations they're having just around gender and the gender spectrum. Gender is spoken about in a whole different way now than it probably even was when you were—you grew up in the '90s, you said, which is the same age as my oldest daughter. It was talked about much differently. And then with me, in my generation, it was the binary and that's all there was to it, and it wasn't safe for people to be anything else. So I think things are very different, and also just around acceptance and tolerance of each other and a sense of belonging. And I think it has a lot to do with the images and the social media and everything that's coming up, they're exposed to so much more, our generation today.
But there's some things that are a thread that are still harmful. And the issue of less value for women and girls is still there. The issue of property is still there. Objectification is still there. Dominating women, girls and others is still there, including men and boys. It's still there that we really are more performative-based than authentically-based, that it's about performance more than let me share with you who I am. Vulnerability is still something that we tend to stay away from. It's very superficial, still. So there's a lot of work to do. Are we in a different place? Yes, but we have a lot more to go.
I mean, domestic violence and sexual assault has not decreased. We surveyed boys from all around the country, high school boys, and we asked them a few things. One of the things we asked them, and I'm talking about boys in affluent communities, in financially challenged communities, in white communities, in black communities, and all the communities in between, including an indigenous community in Minnesota, we asked all of them: Can you define consent? Only 19 percent of boys could define consent. Eight out of 10 boys did not know what it was. So that informed us. It told us a lot. It explains sexual assault on college campuses. It explains sexual assault in the military. It explains why girls and women between 16 and 24 are at the highest risk for being sexually assaulted. Our boys think "no" means try harder or get her drunk. So where did they learn that from? They learn it because we don't have conversations with our boys about respect or value for girls or boundaries. When the little boy is on the playground at five years old and he hits the little girl, we'll say, "Oh, he must like her." No. We need to put that in check. It's a boundary issue. And we need to do that much more than we have with boys. So girls are still in danger. Women are still in danger. So not enough has changed.
Host: 26:02 I want to talk about bringing this into practice. So I want you to talk to the parents who are listening and are there a few pieces of advice that you could give them that are actionable, that somebody could start doing today, tomorrow in terms of how to talk to their boys differently?
Ted Bunch: 26:17 So I would definitely say order "The Book of Dares," and just leave it out, you can give it to the kid or just leave it on the table. He'll pick it up. You don't have to read it from front to back, you just open it and right on one page there's a dare, and then on the other page, opposite, is the explanation. But it also is an entry point. It opens up so many different conversations around gender, inclusion. There's one on dare to understand my privilege. And it kind of unpacks what privilege means. So I would say get the book, but I'd also say, as things come up, when you're watching a show with your kid or you see them watching a show, or they're playing a video game, something like that, you see something, have a conversation with them about it. I'm not saying stop the show, but save it for later, make a note of it. And when you're driving them somewhere, you say, "Hey I saw you were watching X, Y, and Z, and they brought this up. What do you think of that?" To have an informal conversation with kids and just talk about those things. And ask them, "Are there other things you want to do? You're involved with this activity, what about this or that?" And bring it up. "What about theater? What about this, what about that?" Bring it up as if it's okay to talk about it. Because he may not say, "I want to be involved in theater." But if you bring it up, he might say, "You know what? Yeah, I would like to."
Host: 27:38 I think that's great advice, Ted. Thank you.
Ted Bunch: 27:40 Thank you, Jon.
Host: 27:42 That's all for this episode. Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's produced by Nicci Cheatham, me, Jon Earle, and our executive producer, Lucia Lee. From all of us here, thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.