Sitka, Alaska, is a unique place. Spread across parts of two Pacific islands in southeast Alaska, it is four times the size of Rhode Island and distinguished with the title of largest incorporated city in the U.S. Yet Sitka is home to just 8,700 people and only 14 miles of road.
Bloomberg Fellow Amanda Capitummino landed in Sitka two years ago, after graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in public health, when she accepted an Americorps VISTA volunteer position as a violence prevention specialist at Sitkans Against Family Violence. The nonprofit organization works to prevent violence, in part by eliminating acceptance of gender-based violence.
Addressing — and changing — gender norms that reinforce power inequalities between men and women is an important focus for Capitummino, who is also pursuing a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In Alaska, about half of women will experience intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetimes. Researchers have found that gender expectations can play a role in violence against women; the pressure of being perceived as “masculine,” for example, may increase the risk that a man will physically abuse a female partner.
We talked to Amanda about the public health risks of traditional gender norms, the importance of changing what it means to “be a man” and what restaurants have to do with violence prevention.
What is traditional masculinity and what risks does it present to public health?
Traditional masculinity is stoic. He thinks of himself as the sole breadwinner and decision maker, and the anchor that provides stability to the family. He is scared to get close with his guy friends because he thinks that’s “gay” and that homosexuality diminishes manliness. This kind of masculinity affects multiple factors of public health. Men are less likely to acknowledge their own mental illnesses because they think they’re strong enough to simply get over it. And yet, significantly more men are committing suicide than women. Masculinity also increases risks of domestic violence. [A perpetrator] thinks that he is in charge and [his partner] has to listen to him, so he feels entitled to use force to make sure she does. From suicide to drug and alcohol abuse to gender-based violence, deconstructing masculinity decreases the risk of all these public health issues.
How do you deconstruct masculinity?
Our violence prevention program teaches young boys about emotional health, how to have good friendship with other boys, and creates a safe space for them to play with toys that aren’t necessarily marketed for their gender. Creating a culture where boys feel comfortable reaching out when something is bothering them reduces their chances of perpetrating violence in the future. Lessening the burden of masculinity helps them learn to be positive and feel good about themselves. To do this, we’re getting adult men engaged with the program to serve as mentors to show boys there isn’t just one way to “be a man.”
What are you looking forward to bringing back to Sitka from your studies?
My capstone project is going to be a bar and restaurant initiative. The more you drink, the more likely you are to commit acts of violence when you go home. I haven’t decided which approach to take, but the idea is that if bars had to close an hour earlier or train staff to know when someone is combative, we can stop alcohol-induced partner violence. We need to find a way to stop him from going home angry and fighting with his wife.