Rob Okun: Engaging men is a necessity for engaging bystanders

Dear Engaged Bystander: I want to introduce a leader in the men's movement, a trusted colleague and a good friend (yes I do have a strong bias here), Rob Okun. Rob has been involved in pro-feminist, anti-violence men's work for the last two decades and is currently the editor of a wonderful magazine, Voice Male. I had the chance to ask his perspective on men, violence and the opportunities offered through bystander engagement.

Joan: How do men develop a pro-feminist, anti-violence perspective? How did you get there?

Rob: I have always believed that this perspective is the doorway to men's role's in challenging violence against women and creating a just and egalitarian society. Although it has been inside me my entire life, the change truly began when I became a father. From the moment my daughter was born, the tenderness and warmth in that room and inside me made me feel complete as a person - and at the same time, complete as a man in a very new way. Through raising my two children, and, later, two amazing step-daughters, I was able to access the feelings and connect to the tender side of myself in a way that we don't see and don't celebrate in men in our society. As a writer, editor, and radio commentator, I did what was natural and began to write about it.

A quarter century ago, this was a stark contrast to the traditional ideas of masculinity. I remember that David Stockton, a wunderkind and the budget director for Ronald Reagan had a baby about the same time my first child was born. At the time, I read an article that celebrated his achievements and quoted him boasting that his son was born at 8 am and he was back working at his desk by 2 pm. What was he thinking? Why would a father want to be celebrated for that kind of decision?

Joan: If this is the message to men, how do open the door for men to live in a new way?

Rob: When I speak about this to groups, I often ask what courage means to them or ask for an example of a courageous act. The image that is often offered to me is of a firefighter rushing into a burning building and coming out with a child safely in his arms.

I then challenge them to think about a circle of men hanging out and then one guy makes a racist, sexist, or homophobic joke. The easiest thing to do is to just ignore the comment, look away or say "I've got to go..." But what if the image of courage was the guy who takes a stand and says, "Hey, I don't like what you are saying, in my house we don't talk that way." When a group talks about this level of courage, it expands the definition of what the word means and opens up the possibility for change.

This is the bridge to moving from passive bystander to an engaged player.

Joan: Can you talk more about how men can become engaged in challenging violence?

Rob: The more men talk about these issues, the more we realize that by our silence, we are colluding with those who perpetrate violence and we're giving their actions validity. If we can shift that, if we find the allies we need to chart a different course, we can become a part of a movement making the conditions better.

Not that everyone has to become activist, but it does require an awakening and some self examination.

And one of the most difficult issues for men to confront is this simultaneous truth. While it's true the majority of perpetrators are men, it is also true that the majority of men are not perpetrators. We are a gender raised to be suspicious of other men, to be competitive with other men, and to go off to war and kill other men. I certainly know I was not given messages of trust. This is not what most men grow up with. So we need to unlearn the worst aspects of these messages, of traditional ideas about manhood, and begin to claim the best aspects - our ability to want to help, to do the right thing, to be there for other, to find within ourselves the resources for change.

Joan: How do you live by these principles of engagement every day, day to day?

Rob: I have been fortunate. Our household was a lively one, with three feminist daughters and a profeminist son, and my wife's work integrates inner growth and social change. Also, for the better part of two decades, I have been able to practice my ideas, by working for many years at a pro-feminist anti-violence men's center where I wrote and edited a magazine that reported on how that movement was developing. Now, I am concentrating solely on speaking, editing and writing. I am editor of Voice Male, a publication where a wide variety of ideas about the social transformation of masculinity have a home. I hope to put these ideas into as many hands as possible - for personal change and/or as an educational tool.

I have found that the numbers of men, particularly younger men, interested in new definitions of masculinity, are growing; it's a slow process but it's a steady one. Even in the midst of achingly painful stories I feel encouraged. I've long believed that bad news takes care of itself. It's our job to make good news, share it, elevate, and then to spread it far and wide.

Background on Rob Okun

In addition to his work as editor and publisher of Voice Male Magazine, Rob Okun is psychotherapist, writer and justice of the peace. As a lecturer, presenter, workshop leader and panelist on issues related to men, masculinity, and fatherhood, he has appeared at a number of universities and colleges and his editorials and opinion pieces have appeared in a variety of newspapers and websites including Ms. Magazine online, Women's Enews, Alternet, and Vday. or 413.687.8171.

To inquire about ordering multiple of copies of Voice Male, or to inquire about inviting Rob to speak before your group or organization, contact him at

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