To kick off Sexual Assault Awareness Month at the beginning of April, sherights partnered with the Good Men Project and the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault for a Tweet chat to launch our #feministmen series. Johnson-Hostler has been the executive director of NCCASA since 2001, and has been working to end sexual and domestic violence for the past 15 years, both on the local and national level. A focus on this work has included working with the NCCASA Engaging Men and Boys Project. Read on for more from Monika!
From early on, men and boys are taught that they should be strong and that they should be in charge. What message does that send to/about women and girls?
Often, the things we don’t say are more powerful than what we do. In most instances, boys don’t hear the things we say to girls about strength, and vice versa. That alone sets the tone that boys are stronger than girls, coupled with their physical abilities and attributes. The message regarding strength is often absent for girls in any context, and leaves strength and power out of their realm of possibility. It creates a culture in which boys are supposed to be strong, which is the opposite for girls. For example, boys hear crying is weak and “boys don’t cry” versus that crying is a natural part of our range of emotional expression. The messages are ingrained early on: boys are strong and girls are the weak and those messages are reinforced throughout their formative years.
How much does our definition of manhood influence men’s willingness to identify as feminists?
By definition alone, manhood is contrary to all things feminist. Websters dictionary defines manhood as not only the transition from childhood to man/adult but it also uses words such as courage and strength as synonyms. The result is that those words are absent from womanhood just as strength is absent from the messages about womanhood. I checked online to see if someone had updated those definitions and – it comes as no surprise — it hasn’t happened. Therefore in 2014 we are still using archaic definitions of manhood and masculinity, and it hinders our efforts to fold men into feminist work.
Culturally, manhood and womanhood are often acknowledged by puberty, which creates another limitation for men. Although I am disheartened by the definition and practice of how we talk about manhood, we also have to examine the other side, and this is where we may spark some healthy debate. Feminist also has some history that isn’t appealing as a label to some. The definition alone is about women’s rights and women fighting for their rights. Doesn’t that leave men out? The earlier feminist movement was not necessarily talking about rights for all women either. While the movement was the catalyst to my only career as an anti-violence advocate, the definition was expanded early by women like Sojourner Truth with “Ain’t I A Women.” However, the same thing didn’t happen with men earlier in the movement and for good reason. There were (and still are) many men who didn’t think women were equal regardless of race and class. Now as men join women as allies working towards equality and the elimination of gender bias, more men are joining the movement. This includes work to end violence against women, promote access to reproductive health and rights, strengthen women’s political participation, and support economic justice efforts like equal pay, to name a few. Although some are not using the feminist label, they are living the principal that women are equal.
How do you think concepts of masculinity affect men’s willingness to stand up against VAW?
After working on our Engaging Men and Boys project for the last three years, I continue to explore the concepts of masculinity and how we define it. For example masculinity is about the characteristics of men very similar to the definition – strength, courage, power. However we have seen men do the opposite. Rather than use their “masculine” characteristics to intervene as a by-stander, we have seen those characteristics used for hurting or ignoring the violence and further perpetuating a culture that hides sexual violence and blames women for their own victimization. The film from our Engaging Men and Boys project is eloquently titled “My Masculinity Helps.” The filmmaker we worked with did a great job portraying masculinity and specifically that of African American men with survivors talking about how we can exist in a world together free from violence. This will also require us, the movement-makers, to accept men where they are and be a part of the change. Not every man will come along with us but isn’t it worth it to try if we change one man who will impact another man or boy along the way?
How can men take a proactive role in helping prevent VAW and sexual assault?
Men, both those programmed with the message or not, can and are active in efforts to prevent VAW. They are able to do it just like anyone new that comes into their movement by understanding the value of equality for all people. Those who reject the notion that there is any sort of hierarchy of people by gender, race, and class are a part of prevention VAW. They can own and embrace the work it will take to de-program the messages. Men can understand that women’s right and equality isn’t just about saying “women can do what men can do” but it is more about the women’s right to choose, the basic right to be autonomous. Men working to end sexual violence don’t require a huge change. It’s as simple as asking the women and girls in your life, “What can I do to help?” and listening to their answers. Preventing sexual violence requires a commitment to do the work every day in the smallest ways, from challenging language that is disrespectful to women or intervening when a friend makes a rape joke. It’s all important work. Do the homework. Ask the thousands of women who have committed their lives to ending sexual violence/VAW.
How can we shift the perception of men as part of the problem to part of the solution to VAW?
People are dynamic, complex and multi-dimensional living in a global society. We must recognize that we can hold more than one label and one philosophy in our heads. Men and boys can change the way women and girls are devalued and hypersexualized by choosing to be make conscious decisions to support the choices of our children and foster their individuality from birth. That clean slate they are supposedly born with doesn’t remain clean very long. Gender socialization starts very early. This doesn’t mean we send the messages that are sent to girls now to boys, but rather allow our children to make the decision without the messages. I believe that we can simultaneously raise a new generation that is void of the aforementioned messages, while we work with men who want to use their masculinity to help while deconstructing it along the way. I can do this work everyday because I do believe we can end sexual violence and not all men have or will commit violence. The shift requires everyone to stop the messages that can tie violence to masculinity. Don’t condone or ignore violence. Silence is a part of the problem and our voices and actions are the solution.