S2 Bonus 3 Toxic Masculinity with Jean Semelfort, MA, LPC

On this bonus episode, special guest Jean Semelfort, Jr. joins Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin to discuss toxic masculinity. Jean is a licensed professional counselor and owner of the private practice CACTUS in Montclair, NJ. He is a consultant who has worked with many universities on healthy masculinity and sexual assault prevention, and he has shared his expertise in his excellent TED talk "Rolling with Rejection."

The professionals break down the definition of masculinity, the social implications, and intersectionality. Tune in, you won't want to miss this episode.




Pete: Well, another exciting guest and opportunity here at When East Meets West. Nikki, this is a good one.

Nikki: I know, I'm really excited, because I just got to chat with our guests a little bit. And I've watched his TED Talk. Anyway, I'm really excited about today, because I think I'm going to learn a lot.

Pete: Well, today we have with us Jean Semelfort Jr. He is a licensed professional counselor. And what I will say is he is a dear friend colleague and I have had the privilege to supervise and watch Jean grow. He's currently practicing at his own private practice called C.A.C.T.U.S., and what I really love about the C.A.C.T.U.S. Center in New Jersey, and I'm going to maybe ask him to explain it. But the C.A.C.T.U.S. came to mind because we're developing tougher skin and spikes to protect ourselves from problematic situations. He has a TED talk on toxic masculinity. And he's a consultant for many universities in the New Jersey area of which I'm very familiar with because I have tapped him many times to come help me with some of the teams I work with. So Jean, welcome to When East Meets West.

Jean: Thank you both for having me. It's a pleasure to be on this show and speak to both of you. But yes, Pete and I go way back, way, way back. So…

Pete: Well it’s not that long.

Nikki: Pete's always like, ‘don’t age me'.

Pete: It’s not that long. But I mean it, so Jean, I thank you for this. And it's so great to that we're still here. And like Nikki said, we're just thankful to learn today, we're both looking to learn from you. And maybe, where do you want to start? Do you want to start with just defining toxic masculinity or how you got into this work?

Jean: So maybe I can start by just describing how I got into this work, in particular. So I'm the youngest of three. So I have two older sisters that are twins. And I was raised in a household with myself, my two older sisters and my mother. And so when I tell folks that I had to hear a problem, I heard it three times if I do something problematic. And there's a nine year difference, so I'm almost like a only child slash younger sibling. But nonetheless, I've witnessed a great deal of interpersonal violence, that my sisters, and my mother has sustained abuse in many different forms in many different ways. And so for myself, I felt always helpless, in some ways, because I was the younger brother. And I was always small in stature. So this idea of being physically menacing or protective wasn't a part of my tool set. So one of the things I learned was to be sort of compassionate and empathetic and supportive to my sisters. But in that process, I've been super sensitive around gender, just kind of gender expectations, gender stereotypes, gender norms, things that sort, and I’ve carried that with me throughout my career. And it wasn't until probably undergrad that I started really exploring my own gender. I had those feelings, but I never had the word or vernacular or the theological explanations to really describe my own personal experiences. But it was working in a women's center at Ramapo College, where I got my start in my introduction to feminist, black feminist thought and theory. And all of those things just felt like a checkmark on a checklist. It was like, ‘Yes', ‘yes'. Yes, I connected very much so with it. And I think from then it just kind of went on to the point that I've tried to incorporate into my clinical practice. And in anything that I do, I'm very particular to just identities in general and the intersections of them.

Nikki: That's wonderful. And I'm always so appreciative when, especially a clinician is willing to share about how their own personal experience has informed their lens and the work that they do. Because obviously, Pete and I talk a lot about this, I'm sure you guys have had many conversations about context, context is everything, especially from a behavioral science lens. And, I'm always sort of perplexed when clinicians are willful around discussing and getting curious and identifying how their own context informs how they think about things and what they bring to their work. So I really appreciate you not only of course, actively using that to inform what you do, but to talk about it.

Jean: Of course, I mean, it's necessary, right?

Nikki: Yeah, I think so.

Pete: And I'm sitting here wondering, how many people would be confused by that, because I'm also wonder if you share, because this is a podcast, not everyone can see. So Nikki and I, when we talk about like, privilege we’ll be like, we're two white people, for those who maybe can't tell, like I wonder if you would talk a little bit about your identities and how, gender because I'm thinking that there might be like another man out there being like, ‘well, how is a man thinking about gender and studying black feminist theory?

Jean: Yeah, I mean, I think I share it in the sense of just recognizing that disclosure, to some extent has some power, of course, right in clinical practice, but I do think it humanizes the individual that's providing the services, that person, which I think, in many ways, breaks down that barrier and allows for just relation and connection. So folks would kind of see me talk about and reflect on gender and understand what impassion me to kind of come into this work, then I think they're more likely to sort of connect with it. But I also think it informs my work significantly, and I have to be cognizant of gender, because, in many respects, gender plays a part in some of these attributes and characteristics and belief systems that we particularly internalize, because they've been sort of just, we've been bombarded with them in so many ways, to the point where we almost feel that a part of our survival is to hold on to these things. So I think it just feels essential, to really identify like, who I am as a person, not just kind of my presenting identities that maybe can be assumed. Sure, in some ways, but just who I am.

Nikki: Your values too, who you are. Yes, totally. Well, and Jean, I’m wondering if kind of going off of that, because I think now maybe would be a really helpful time, if you could define for our listeners, some of these belief systems that you're alluding to that kind of exist in the world, so if we could actually talk really concretely about toxic masculinity, because I would say, like, maybe that's a little bit more in the sort of, like lexicon of the world now, like, some people sort of hear it a little bit more, which is helpful. And I would say it's more newly utilized, that some people might be listening, going, like, what does that mean, toxic masculinity?

Jean: Absolutely. So I mean, I think there's varying definitions of toxic masculinity that exists, right, and some people might not even use toxic, they'll use traditional or hegemonic at as a description, but I think the part of the toxicity is more so what characteristics that are existing within toxic masculinity that we're holding on to that impacts sort of our own, how do you say, our own development, our own health, but also our interpersonal skills and relationships with others. So in the toxicity piece that I like to describe it is that I'm holding on to these characteristics so much that I myself feel and suffering from the toxicity of those characteristics, but then those around me are also being poisoned by the kind of toxicity that's emanating from my pores, to some degree. And some of those characteristics tend to be things like, I mean, the age old thing, like boys don't cry, men don't cry, we don't express emotions, almost dominating particular pieces where I have to dominate in every space, I have to present as intellectual. I have to be a master of all things. I have to be handy. Or if we  become,

Pete: Are you?

Jean: No I’m not. Interesting enough, I think I've observed it a lot. So I can do it if I need to do it. But I don't want to do it.

Pete: Yeah, I only asked, because I'm not. And you're right. Like, if there was a gun to my head, maybe I could hang your shelf. But I'd rather just have someone else do it because I know it's not going to fall if someone else hangs it, but if I hang it, it might fall. But I appreciate that example. I think that people will connect with that. And then what about intersectionality then? Because I think before we dive deeper into masculinity, you mentioned this term intersectionality. And I'm thinking Nikki, that's probably like, in that similar lexicon world,

Nikki: Totally agree that, people hear it, and people are like, “I kind of maybe get a sense of what that means, but maybe don't sort of, haven't been given the opportunity to really hear like the definition of that.

Jean: Yeah, absolutely. So the intersectionality was a term coined by Kimberly Crenshaw. And so the way in which it was described is that all of us hold various identities, and so if you meet at kind of the intersection of these identities, you'll find particular things. So it's almost as if you're imagine going to like, if you're going to someone's home, and they say, “Oh, I'm on 16th Street, intersecting with like Eighth Avenue”, in some way. And so there, you can kind of pinpoint them. And I think in family systems, they may be referred to as like social locators, in some ways. And so it's these varying identities that we hold, but also add new ones. An additional flavor to maybe specific experiences. So, for example, if I'm talking about masculinities, recognizing that there are various forms and expressions of masculinity, and so there isn't just one, although all of them across the board may hold similarities, but it may vary based on ethnic identity, racial identity, religion identification, socio economic status, ability, physical ability, in some ways. And so for me, just recognizing that as a black man, Haitian American, all of those things inform my masculine expression. And even some of the lessons or belief systems that I've internalized and hold on to that may vary from someone who may be white, identify a white person, Sis, or LGBTQ person.

Pete: Well, I think it was, Nikki Go ahead, but I think a bunch of emoji’s with the head blowing up just happened with masculinities.

Nikki: Yes, totally. And, of course, Pete's going to laugh at this, and Jean, in a listen to some of the episodes, so maybe you will, too. It's like, of course, the word that came to my head is like dialectics everywhere. It's like dialectical. So many dialectics. And acknowledging that there are going to be similarities and differences and making space for all of those pieces to be curious and identify all those and recognize it's not going to be the same across, I’m going to say it again, across contexts.

Jean: Absolutely. Yeah.

Nikki: Yeah. So I would say, do we want to go back to sort of like diving in a little bit…  

Pete: Yeah, go deeper with the... So like, I think what I'm hearing is, it's the idea that society places pressure on men in this example, well so if we're thinking about gender, so… Oh, I'm going to make sure I'm thinking about…so… Because masculinity. So this is the thing that might be helpful for listeners, it's not just male, female, and that's certainly in the Western world, we have made this very binary. And so let me ask that. Is there space for fluidity, as we talked about, as you've done all this work around toxic masculinity? Is there space for fluidity between masculine and feminine?

Jean: Absolutely. I mean, I think a part of the work is to create that space and to break down those particular barriers. Because a part of the toxicity is the rigidity of it as well, is this boxing in forcing people to kind of add here to particular characteristics, just because we identify with certain things. So because I'm male identified and I align with that particular identification, that somehow that means I have to perform in these ways. But it doesn't feel natural to me, that what tends to happen, unfortunately, is that we sort of police each other back into that box. It's like almost the snipers set up at the roof to keep the prisoners at bay, and keep them confined and contained. And I think it's a similar thing. So and that's, unfortunately, where we kind of get into the anti feminine language, the homophobic or anti LGBTQ language that comes about to kind of push men identify folks back into those box or to adhere to those particular characteristics or ways of being. But yeah, I mean, the purpose is to definitely break down and recognize that there is fluidity.

Nikki: Well, and to move away, what I'm also really hearing is, like moving away from rules, and rule governed behavior. So it's cultivating, I mean this is sort of a synonym to fluidity is like, is getting the flexibility around it. And honestly, it's interesting, what was coming to my mind, as you were speaking, as I was imagining that there are probably, not probably, maybe there are some listeners, even clicking on this episode are beginning to hear us have this discussion, thinking that, like, ‘why are we?’ And again, this is a general judgment narrative that exists in the world. ‘Why are we talking about men? Like there's the patriarchy, why are we talking about men? Why are we prioritizing’, because I hear that, by the way, because I hear that from patient, female patients sometimes. And it becomes a conversation I have with them. And obviously, I'm the most assist female in this conversation. And I think what's really important about what Jean is talking about in the work that you do, Jean, and I think you're beginning to sort of identify this, it's like these rule governed behaviors, it's not just about the impact on men in or sis men. It's like the impact on, I don't know, I'm going to get broad here, on humans on functioning, that these rules are, I mean, do you agree with that, are on the right track there?

Jean: Yeah, of course. Yeah. I think it's an impact, one, we want to recognize that when folks are impacted, especially when we're thinking about trauma work. But I'm impacted from my own trauma, I'm going to, in some ways, develop these particular coping strategies that are maladaptive, that are problematic. And I'm going to, in some ways engage with folks from that particular place. And so I think with men, there are a set of things that we internalize and abide by that are even just problematic for ourselves, and then translate into our relationships and are super impactful in those particular areas. I mean, if we're looking at sort of just even suicide rates, if we're looking at just lack of access to mental health services, not even talking about, well medical services is what I meant, including mental health, but just medical services in general going on. There's even just a lowest percentage or if we're talking about survivorship of sexual assault, or interpersonal violence, that there are men who also are victims of it as boys, and as adult males, but don't seek out services, don't report, don't discuss these particular things. So that's one portion of it. And then we're looking at other pieces of it when we're thinking about perpetration, and just the gender identification of those who maybe are perpetrating particular crimes. Looking at percentages in those particular areas. So I think on both ends, we're recognizing that there's a crisis, in my opinion, that needs to be adjust, that needs to be acknowledged and needs to be discussed. So I think earlier when we were talking about just masculinities, and just embodying that, that it's not just men, who kind of internalize things, but it's everyone across all genders, who internalize what we believe a man should be and how they should move and how they should interact.

Pete: Well, it's like, sometimes I'll say to Nikki, she's dressed like a tomboy,

Nikki: I’m dressed like that today.

Pete: But that feeds into it. So I think we're also trying to model there's like, we all have that story. In psychology, we might call that an implicit bias. And so I think it's just been such an amazing, at least for me, as like an audience kind of watching you grow professionally, in this work. Can you maybe think of like, a really powerful time or like a powerful group? Obviously, we have confidentiality. So sometimes we can't speak specifically to the group or the moment, but maybe some, for our listeners, like illustrating how this can actually impact others, if you can think of like a time that you could share?

Jean: No, absolutely. So I have… and I would say, this doesn't even single out a client, because so many of like, my male identified clients come in, and there's a similarity in existence. But one thing that stands out for me is just thinking about the expression of love, or even affection, and communication of emotion. So a lot of my male clients will say, “that's not what I grew up on, that wasn't my household at all. And in fact, I was suppressed or told, like, ‘shut the EFF up', ‘man up', ‘suck it up', ‘deal with it', ‘what are you crying for?’ ‘I'll give you something to cry about',” which is usually a physical threat, saying that whatever issue that wasn't physical isn't enough to particularly express or have a genuine emotional reaction to. So in turn, what tends to happen is that they're so disconnected from emotional experiences that are happening before them within their partners or their kids, that there's an intense reaction to that. So when there, there's an expression of very authentic justified emotions, based on something that they did, there's an intense reaction and result on their end, because it's almost like what's the big deal? Like, what is the big deal? Like, why are we having this particular emotional expression? Is it necessary? Then the engaging of minimizing so if they’re so disconnected, and that even their empathic capacity is debilitated? In some ways, and that emotional intelligence in some ways also stunted.

Pete: Totally.

Nikki: Right. That honestly, it's like, and I can share, it's like, that is the thing that I mean, like that breaks my heart. Like when you said that, when you said, like the expression of love,

Pete: Are you going to cry?

Nikki: I'm a little teary actually talking about it. And I don't know if, I don't think Pete told this to Jean before, but I'll share and I'll clarify, obviously, I'm not the expert here. I defer graciously to Jean but my dissertation was actually on adopting cognitive behavioral therapy for at the time, I prefer to it as traditional, a traditional masculine gender identity with cisgender men and the reason, obviously, I'm a sis woman how I think the reason that always interested me was because, it pains me so much to see that those stories and those ‘shoulds' and those rules impact a human in that way. And that's what, I’m working with male identify patients with, that's something I talk about all the time, I'll say, “you're a human being”, like, yes, they're going to be differences in your biology and that's all true, I'm not denying that. And I was like, “the stories that you're told”, I'll say, “are different than the stories that I'm told. And you deserve to experience love just as much as I do and express it”, and that, so I'm just I'm very, like I'm so grateful that there is someone like you that's doing this kind of work, and especially from, and Pete too, would say, we need more male identified clinicians, actually, that's another problem is that there are, we have a very female dominated, sis female dominated field,

Pete: Well there's a dialectic, because it started off as very white male dominated.

Nikki: Well, that's right that it did.

Pete: And then the pendulum has swung to like, primarily female, and so forget about, like issues of ethnic or racial diversity in provider. The word that keeps coming to mind for me is vulnerability. So I can, again, part of why I tapped into Jean and with some of the teams that I work with, is just to really help to just…because sometimes I joke, I use humor, and…

Nikki: You? No.

Pete: Oh, stop.

Jean: Oh, yeah, own it.

Pete: I own it. But I joke, sometimes I say, I feel like such a good psychologist, sometimes around some of these men, because really, once we could, when we build trust, and we can just teach a little bit of this, like, they're able to go home and like, connect with their partner in a more effective way. Or they're able to ask open ended questions, it is really rewarding. And I can even get teary eyed about it, Nikki with you.

Nikki: Yes, see.

Pete: It does feel really good. So Jean, do you have like any tips or like, kind of ways in which you have found beneficial to help some people work through this?

Jean: I think one of the things that sticks out for me is, and I think it's just a general clinical practice, but just mirroring an appropriate emotional reaction to a particular situation. So even as you talk about, like, joking, I know for myself, some folks like I can minimize the severity of the issue through jokes, because of the discomfort that I'm experiencing by actually recognizing the severity of that particular issue. So for a lot of my male clients, my male identify clients, it's just really, in the times where I find that they want to go to a joke, or that they want to minimize the severity, I stick with the emotional expression or the feeling of what's happening to kind of help get them to understand that it's okay, to really feel the intensity, but not only is it okay, it's safe here to do so. Because I think a part of it that happens is a dismantle of their safety, to say that I can safely go into an emotional place. And in some ways, it doesn't impact my gender identification. And so I think one of the tips for me that I utilize, and definitely would encourage people, which is being able to model that and I think what's even more impactful is when you have male identified clinicians doing that with other male identified...

Nikki: That’s what I always say, I'm like the modeling, that's what I have like two people I can refer to, and I'm like, “they need”, I was like, “I want the modeling”. I'm like, I can only model to a degree, you know what I mean? It's not the same.

Pete: Yeah, sometimes we try, and just for listeners, like sometimes we to try and connect gender, or there's mixed research around whether gender fit, racial fit, religious fit, if that works in therapy, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't like a good dialectic, like we talked about here.

Nikki: Right, whereas the say, it's not a one size fits all though there, it can definitely be helpful. I was wondering if we can maybe bring in, because I think what Jean’s sharing, is a nice segue into this is like, some of the Eastern stuff because I think, Jean, tell me if I'm wrong, I think really what you're describing too, is like, a very mindful approach.

Jean: Oh of course, yeah.

Nikki: Like inviting somebody into like, the mindfulness of emotion in the moment and tolerate the discomfort. And I mean, I guess it's a question for both of you guys, like what are some of the additional maybe Eastern practices you weave in to target this but also what does like Buddhism say about this?

Pete: Yeah, well, that'll be a nice way to kind of bring this to a wrap too. But like, maybe thinking about it with your permission, Nikki, to spirituality in general, like if Jean has found space for spirituality in the practice?

Jean: Yeah, so I think for me in a lot of my mindfulness practice, I have to transparently say I've learned from Pete.

Pete: Shocker…

Jean: Yes, I've definitely found like just value and grounding work, just getting folks to be able to be present with the here and now, but not just kind of subjecting it to this idea of just meditation or this traditional look or way of meditation, but just recognizing that activities can also be moments of meditation, and just being present and being connected with that particular thing before you. So I think that's one thing that I've kind of fall to where a lot of my male identified clients, there's a discomfort in doing the grounding exercise in the beginning of our session, but then, because when it's one of trust, it's closing my eyes in front of you. I've never had a guy asked me to meditate or do a grounding exercise with him…

Pete: Because it’s intimate,

Nikki: It’s intimate. It's the same point it can feel very exposing, and vulnerable.

Jean: Which is contrary to masculinity, fear is contrary to masculinity, it’s society of exposing vulnerability, feeling. So I think that's one part of the reason why we don't find as many male identified clinicians within a work. But then I also think that's why probably therapy also acts as a barrier for a lot of men identify folks to access because it's like, “I'm going to go talk about my feelings, for what?”

Nikki: Right, it's like, it doesn't make sense? Like, what's the point?

Pete: Well, this was… well, we could obviously keep going.

Nikki: Well, but can you say just a little bit what Buddhism says about any, like, the concepts of masculinity? I feel like there's maybe something to say?

Pete: Well, there's always something to say, Nikki. We might be at a time, so might have to wait for another episode.

Jean: In the next episode.

Nikki: Damn, yeah.

Pete: It's a cliffhanger.

Nikki: Oh it’s cliffhanger. I'm like, “wait, I need to know more.

Pete: Well, you're always seeking knowledge. But Jean, I really appreciate you coming on today. This was really such a pleasure. And you're doing such good work, and I am honored to get to know you and to be your friend and colleague.

Jean: Absolutely. Thank you both for having me. And Pete, you know I love you. You're one of the greatest guys that I know. So thank you to constantly be in this.

Pete: You say that to everybody. I love you too.

Jean: No, I don't, trust me.

Pete: I know. There's that masculinity thing. I love you too. Thanks, man. Appreciate it.

Jean: Thank you.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.