When yet another mass shooting or sexual assault makes headlines, we talk about the role of guns, religion and alcohol.

Perhaps because most men aren’t violent, what we don’t talk about is the fact that most violence is committed by men.

It’s an uncomfortable conversation. But 98 percent of mass shooters are men, so it’s a discussion we need to have.

What does it mean to be a “real man” in today’s world? Does this notion push some men toward violence? These, too, are uncomfortable questions. Many men don’t agree with tough-guy masculinity but still feel pressure to conform to it by hiding deep feelings and avoiding the vulnerability of emotional connection with lovers and friends.

In their book “Man, Interrupted,” psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe quote a soldier who writes that men’s friendships “are based on what abilities they bring to the group.” In high-risk situations, he must remember that his “life is devalued.” And showing concern disparages his ability to face that challenge.

But this masking of concern for others can be socially isolating. And when a man denies his human vulnerability, it can prevent him from developing relationships with friends and family that provide the emotional support we often find in women’s friendships.

American culture has a lot to say about males who aren’t “real men.” A man who doesn’t live up to the aggressive masculine ideal or who shows vulnerability is often mercilessly ridiculed by peers.

Proving you’re a man often means demonstrating physical toughness and emotional detachment. Hazing is a common initiation into an all-male group.

At other times, masculinity is proved through long work hours and professional success.

In recent decades, there have been radical shifts in women’s roles. We’ve also seen gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy for equal rights. Traditional ideas of masculinity still remain, but often clash with new norms for women and society at large.

Gender equality means sharing power, but this feels like a loss of status for some men. Sociologist Michael Kimmel calls it “aggrieved entitlement.”

Pop culture romanticizes men as women’s protectors. But there’s a dark side as well. A man may feel that his protection and financial support of a woman entitle him to control her. Or that a woman without a man at her side is fair game. And it’s her fault for putting herself in that position. Sexual assault victims hear this too often.

Violence and abuse shatter lives. But the excuse that “boys will be boys” enables violence and implies that we don’t expect much from boys and men.

In today’s changing landscape, however, a man’s value must be more than his ability to earn money and hold his own in a fight.

Zimbardo and Coulombe write that being needed and respected motivates men – but that respects needs to be garnered by “doing prosocial things that make life better,” not by “outdrinking their buddies.”

Men need to be rewarded for sharing power and increasing emotional connection with others.

Instead of solving problems with violence, healthy masculinity is about solving problems creatively and without violence. It’s also about valuing female leaders as equals.

Self-confidence is important, too. But that doesn’t mean being cocky or arrogant.

Self-confidence is valuing your dignity and the dignity of others. Respecting people’s boundaries without having to be told. Admitting you’re wrong without defensiveness. Apologizing without excuses. Respecting other people’s self-determination rather than vying for control.

Cooperation, decisiveness and acknowledging the equal humanity of others is leadership. Understanding sexual consent and putting it into action. Setting boundaries with nonviolent communication instead of verbal or physical retaliation (or limiting self-defense to whatever is minimally necessary to prevent further harm).

A comment that stood out to me at a group discussion sponsored by Maine Boys to Men is that healthy masculinity is about being an emotionally healthy person. Maine Boys to Men runs the Reducing Sexism and Violence Program with boys, girls, men and women to examine sexist attitudes and behaviors that lead to gender-based violence. The program serves entire communities by helping boys reach their potential to become emotionally healthy, respectful and respected, nonviolent men.

As with the participants in the Reducing Sexism and Violence Program, actively discussing and promoting healthy gender perspectives – and healthy masculinity specifically – with our sons and daughters, friends, family, community and elected officials is essential for preventing violence. Ultimately, healthy masculinity and healthy femininity are both reflections of our shared humanity, and key to a less violent world.


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