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Learning from Chris Norton over three decades—Part I

This is the first of a three-post series on the pro-feminist and activist Chris Norton by Michael A. Messner.

The guy at the front of the room was saying stuff I’d never heard a man say before, especially to a room full of young college guys. Through my basketball-player-eyes, I sized him up to be at least 6’5” with the broad shoulders of a power forward. He had medium-length reddish hair and a ruddy face dominated by a bristly mustache that left his mouth a bit of mystery. And what words emerged from this mouth! With a style that seemed simultaneously gentle and passionate, he urged these young guys to think critically about their own relationship to pornography.

Backed up with a slideshow that depicted popular album covers (The misogynist public billboard promoting The Rolling Stones’ album Black and Blue was one of them), he pointed to the links between sexual objectification of women, men’s use of pornography, and men’s violence against women.

This stuff was hard to hear for young men—and I include myself in this. It was 1980. I was 28 and in recent years had come to define myself as a ‘pro-feminist man’. I’d even been in a men’s consciousness-raising group in Santa Cruz. But like many younger men like me who were awakening to feminism, I was still struggling with my own deeply ingrained erotic attachments to conventional sexualized imagery of women, as depicted not only in Playboy and Penthouse, but pretty much everywhere around me. So here was this giant guy standing up there, calling us out—calling me out—on my shit. What struck me most, and what made it possible to hear what he was saying, was how he spoke as one of us—self-reflexively talking about his own immersion in a culture of eroticized sexism and violence against women, how it affected and continued to affect him. He revealed that he was part of a group of men, Men Against Sexist Violence (MASV), that did educational work on sexism with boys and men—in schools, on the radio, in prisons—while also supporting each other to become pro-feminist men.

What struck me most, and what made it possible to hear what he was saying, was how he spoke as one of us—self-reflexively talking about his own immersion in a culture of eroticized sexism and violence against women, how it affected and continued to affect him.

I agreed with everything this guy said in his presentation and I admired his courage. I wanted to talk with him, maybe become friends with him, and for sure I wanted to interview him for my new research project for grad school—in-depth interviews with men in pro-feminist men’s groups. After the talk, I introduced myself. He greeted me warmly and immediately agreed to allow me to interview him.

Chris Norton was his name, and it turned out he was a guy of middle class origin who had moved to Berkeley in recent years, taking up work as a carpenter while also immersing himself in the progressive politics of the time. I had initially imagined he might become a basketball buddy, but we were only two minutes into our interview before he assuaged me of that illusion. When I asked him about his boyhood relationship to masculinity, he said,

“…in sports, I didn’t feel like being aggressive often times and for instance I’m tall and was supposed to be good at basketball, to stand under the hoop and get all the rebounds, and it just didn’t work out—and people’d get pissed off at me for not getting all the rebounds—and then we wouldn’t end up winning and I’d get resentment back, and frustration from people, because I wasn’t doing what I was expected to do and then I’d feel bad about myself and think, “Well I guess I’m a failure, I’m not strong enough or not aggressive enough, maybe there’s something wrong with me or wrong with my masculinity; I’m not a man.”

My 1980 interview with Chris Norton not only helped me to complete a study toward the goal of getting my Ph.D. It also helped to me begin to clarify the sort of person I am. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed thinking of myself variously as a socialist, a radical, a feminist, a progressive, an advocate for social justice. But mostly I don’t do much with these political commitments. Oh, I’ve marched in a few protests and paid dues in some progressive organizations, but I can’t stomach meetings and I hate the grind of building and sustaining organizations. I live so much inside my own head; I read, I write, and the most public thing I do is to lecture and occasionally write an op-ed on some social issue. But this guy, Chris Norton, though he had nearly identical politics as mine, was an opposite character type, a type I admired, even romanticized—a doer, a man committed to acting in the world rather than sitting around thinking about things.

Featured image credit: Women’s liberation march from Farrugut Square to Lafayette Park  by Warren K. Leffler. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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