From GQ ...

My Time Inside a Group Where Men Confront Their Feelings

Each week, at an apartment in Brooklyn, a small collection of guys get together to sift through and discover some of their deepest feelings—their secret fears, their hidden desires, their private shortcomings—in the hope that they can become better men. It's a messy, emotional, imperfect project that's part of a growing movement of men reexamining the expectations of masculinity. And it has changed my life.

By Benjy Hansen-Bundy

October 29, 2019

In a loft in Williamsburg, I joined six men sitting in a circle, our bodies propped up on a variety of chairs and a sectional sofa. The guys had pretty good posture. I was doing my best to stay cross-legged. The smell of burnt sage hung in the air. Bowls of homemade guacamole and hummus and a big bottle of kombucha rested on the kitchen table nearby. Also nearby was a mini trampoline that the host, Nathan, liked to jump up and down on every now and then to get his blood flowing and shake his energy loose.

It was my second night in an Evryman men's group, and much as the trampoline unsettled me—who would sacrifice precious Brooklyn square footage for this hokey self-help device?—I was excited. The previous week, I'd gotten my first taste of the emotional release that this environment can offer.

In an effort to prove that this was a safe space, one in which I could be vulnerable, Nathan suggested that we go around the room and have everyone quickly share their “unspeakables.” I asked what an “unspeakable” was. He explained that it was the thing you had never felt comfortable saying to anyone, not even your therapist, maybe not even yourself.

“I'll start,” one guy said. “I've slept with prostitutes.”

The next guy in the circle said, “I'm uncomfortable with my penis.”

There were murmurs of agreement.

Then: “I've cheated on my wife. And I have a history of shoplifting.”

And: “I was in a cult, and I had sex with a guy.”

It was an agonizing exercise. The guys were not exactly proud when they said these things, but they weren't overly embarrassed, either. I tried to nod at each one in solidarity, but I ended up just awkwardly bobbleheading.

Now, I had been in many all-male spaces before—and when topics like these came up, they often elicited misogynistic or homophobic reactions. But something different happened here. These guys had created something rare: a space where men felt safe enough to let their guard down and express the parts of themselves that they otherwise make little to no contact with—including the parts they're most ashamed of.

Men's groups seem to be having a moment. Late last year, the New York Times Style section did a trend piece that surveyed the expanding landscape of organizations cropping up to foster emotional openness and masculine repair-work. The definition of a men's group can vary. There are expensive weekend retreats to rediscover positive masculinity, like Sacred Sons and Junto. There are shouty boot camps where midlevel executives find their inner warrior, like Warrior Week. And then there are Brooklyn-y support groups where men sit around in a circle with the purpose of getting in touch with—and learning how to express—their feelings, like ManKind Project. My Evryman group fell into this last category. (Of course, none of these self-betterment projects ought to be confused with so-called men's-rights groups, the more hostile of which lurk in the gutter swamps of the web, trafficking in the worst kinds of antagonistic, anti-women rhetoric and even spurring some men to violence.)

The first men's groups showed up about 40 to 50 years ago, after the rise of the women's liberation movement of the '60s and '70s, perhaps in response to the prevalence of women's groups at the time. A 1982 study of men's groups found that the purpose of these was “to encourage examination of how the masculine gender role is experienced by individual men and to explore new ways of enacting this role.” But because the majority of politically, economically, and socially powerful positions were held by men, most guys had a hard time questioning the traditional masculine gender role, even if, on an individual level, they derived little from it. As the study said, “they still have an association with power simply by being men.”

But the patriarchy hurts everyone. While it goes without saying that the far greater toll is levied against everyone who's not a straight male, straight men pay a price too. As far back as the 1970s, research began showing that, for all the privileges conferred on them in society, men were dying younger than women. They were committing and being victimized by more crimes as well. More men also die by suicide and drug overdose on opioids, and they tally a higher incidence of chronic disease than women do. Researchers, authors, and activists have all pointed, in different ways, at the narrow definition of what it means to “be a man” in America—being authoritative, taking risks, hiding any signs of weakness—and how, in their efforts to embody that characterization, men end up hurting themselves and everyone around them.

In 2015, Gloria Steinem put it like this: “Men's life expectancy increases by three to four years if you deduct from all the reasons that men die those that could be reasonably attributed to the masculine role. Death from violence, death from speeding, from tension-related diseases.”

The idea that “patriarchal masculinity estranges men from their selfhood,” as bell hooks wrote in All About Love back in 2000, still feels transgressive, somehow, even if it's accepted in academia and parts of the media. That's because it's a tricky idea. It contradicts the premise that men are in control of what's happening to them. “The popular feminist joke that men are to blame for everything is just the flip side of the ‘family values’ reactionary expectation that men should be in charge of everything,” Susan Faludi points out in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, her deeply reported look into the state of masculinity. “The problem is, neither of these views corresponds to how most men feel or to their actual positions in the world.”

As I came of age in the 2000s, the message I got from the culture and from the other boys on the playground was that masculinity was most easily defined by what it wasn't: gay. My anxiety to avoid doing anything that could be called “gay” was especially strong in middle school. I basically installed a “that's gay” alarm system in my body—and kept it on a hair trigger—to the point where I avoided doing anything “gay,” even in private. Crying? “Gay.” Wearing a Speedo? “Gay.” Getting too close to another guy, outside of the basketball court? “Fuckin' gay, dude.” Since then, I'd been in just about every all-male group context you can think of: sports teams, dormitories, a fraternity, even a men's magazine. Each had varying degrees of homophobia, varying levels of emotional openness, varying forms of acceptable male intimacy. In each, I proved my straightness in different ways.

Fast-forward 17 years, I was 29 and I was all clammed up emotionally. I was recovering from a recent breakup, I'd just started psychotherapy, I was reading bell hooks. But I still felt disconnected from my feelings. When I stumbled upon Evryman, I knew right away that the gooeyness of it, the New Agey earnestness, everything that made me want to run in the opposite direction—all that stuff was exactly why I had to jump in. So I…put it off for three months. But then I hit 30. And when you hit 30, a good question to ask yourself is “What am I holding out for?”