I sat in a hotel conference room listening to a speaker present on the importance of prevention. Not intervention, mind you, but prevention. The act of preventing a problem before it has even happened. The chairs, with their metal legs and upholstered backing, were stiff. The temperature had a slight chill. The atmosphere felt very familiar, like I had seen it all before. I tried my best to remain engaged in, single, word that was being spoken, and as the facilitator recalled the “River Story”, which I’d heard numerous times, I couldn’t hold on any longer and my mind went adrift.
Do men care about this work, really, I thought. I looked around the room and the scarcity of men felt as tangible as it was telling.
In the time that I have done this work, I have found that, usually, men will not dare say – publicly, at least – that sexual violence is unimportant. (which includes domestic, dating, and stalking violence) I saw this, firsthand, when facilitating workshops on consent, bystander intervention, and healthy relationships in high schools. After an engaging, and often humorous, exercise on consent, I would pose three key questions to the students: First – By a show of hands, who thinks, feels, or agrees that rape is wrong. Everyone’s hand would shoot in the air. There was only one instance where someone did not raise their hand. Even after his classmates challenged him – I remember hearing scuttles of, dude, seriously, raise your hand – this particular guy, in his Army fatigue jacket, did not budge. I made a joke about it, and moved on. (I subscribed to the notion that, professionally, laughter keeps (me) from crying.)
But, by and large, typically, men will agree that sexual, dating, domestic, and stalking violence are all wrong, hurtful, harmful, or at the very least, not good. (I’ll save those other key questions for another time.)
So as I sat through the prevention session at this conference, I could not help but ponder: Do men really, truly care about sexual violence? And if we do, at what levels do we care? Thoughts raced through my mind like cars zipping around a racetrack.
Is it important enough to challenge the ways in which we (as men) teach our sons about sports and sports-person-ship?
Is it important enough that we will donate to local sexual and/or domestic violence agencies? Will we give of our time and run in 5Ks for those same agencies?
Is it important enough that we will elect officials who will see to it that sexual and domestic violence agencies receive state and federal dollars? (Which helps with sustainability and growth.)
Although no person is free from fault, are we willing to draw the line, and not vote for the politician who engages or perpetuates sexual or domestic violent behavior?
Similarly, while acknowledging that no artist is perfect, are we willing to take stands and not support the art of entertainers or the athletic accomplishments of sports figures who engage in sexual or domestic violent behavior?
Will we attend events on victimization?
Do we, as men, care enough to, say, call out another man for their sexist behavior?
Or care to the point that we’ll look at perpetrators and pick apart, and find fault with, every one of their actions. (Instead of doing this to survivors.)
The weight of those questions hung over me like a rain cloud.
Back at that conference I found myself at another equally-ambiguous impasse: If men cared, they’d be at the (figurative) table, right? Right?
Well perhaps if the table was an inviting one.
And by inviting one, I mean: Are we – the people who are the work of discussing, addressing, and leading prevention and education efforts of sexual violence – providing space for men to be at the table. Not in the same room. Not at the kiddie table, next to the adult table. Not even at the table, with mouths covered, so as to be rendered voiceless. But, at, the, table.
Now I get it, this is the space women have occupied for countless years. So one question we must come to terms with is – Is there room at the table for those of all gender identities?
We say, and talk up, this idea of engaging men – but, even as I sat at that training, one of the speakers made a stereotypical comment about men, that was intended for humor’s sake. I let it roll off – time and place, right? But I included the comment in my evaluation of the conference.
The audience gave a collective laugh, but my response was more, are you (bleeping) kidding me?! Talk about incongruity – we cannot sincerely speak of engaging men, and then, without even blinking, simultaneously create spaces where men are not welcomed. And when men are welcomed, they must be comfortable with and able to sustain (what feels like) attacks and put-downs. It’s one thing to speak of men’s violence against women (and indeed, most of this work is preventing men’s violence against and other men); it’s another to suggest you hate men.
As I think deeper on this idea of welcoming men at the table — more than simply asking men to recognize their male privilege, those of us in this work have landed at a place where we wish men would join the table, but only so that we can ridicule. I can almost hear my friends: Let me get this right – you want me to come to one of these events just so I can endure man-bashing?
While we, as men, have a heavy gauntlet laid before us, in how we will rise to the challenge of preventing sexual, dating, domestic, and stalking violence, this one – on creating comfortable space at the table – lies at the footsteps of us doing the work. As preventionists, social workers, care takers, clinicians, and advocates, we can do better.
But back to men…A month or so removed from that conference, I saw a glimmer of hope. Just as I saw the many decisions men have to make in order to show that we, collectively, care about preventing sexual violence, I also see a multitude of avenues for contribution, intervention, and prevention whether talking to your son or nephew about what it means to be a man; calling out your buddy; donating; running 5Ks; thinking twice about buying concert tickets to that artist, and then removing them him from your playlist altogether.
It’s also okay to be a work in progress. A mentor recently shared with me that her training is a work in progress, and I was almost floored! With gobs of experience in this field, I just assumed everything she touched would turn to gold. That there was no part of the work in which was hadn’t already received a gold star, and was working towards platinum. But as I put my own judgments and expectations, I find the line, work in progress, does not undermine or take away from the successes and accomplishments she’d had. That we’re all allowed to be a work in progress in some area or another.
So men, be committed to being that work in progress as long as you stay the course, to borrow another phrase. Remain committed to unlearning all of those stereotypical masculine ways in which we were all raised and acquire new behaviors. Push your gym buddy to get in that extra rep, but without the tint of homophobia. Poke fun of your friends, but without sexist language that disparages girls in the process. Lean away from that urge to rage when setbacks arise, and instead, lean into your poetry or favorite movie or Woosah. And when you falter, own in, apologize (mean it!), and get back on course. Through it all, commit to being a better man and stay the course.
Like you, I am a work in progress. And that progress is not something that will manifest into a finished product overnight (or even, ever). I have learned to accept this. I want so desperately to be that finished product now, but alas, I cannot. Sexual violence is not static and in order to truly care about this issue, neither can we afford to be.