* Note: this piece was originally published in the September 25, 2005 edition of The Manitoban. It is being reproduced here with permission from the author to coincide with tomorrow’s Take Back the Night. Also note that this year’s organizers have also extended an invitation to march to both men and women. Illustration by Alexa Dirks*
What it means to be a man
Every year, a debate encircles the Take Back the Night March in Winnipeg over whether or not men should be invited to participate. Some feel strongly that the March, as a show of solidarity, empowerment, awareness and celebration, should be restricted to women. Others believe that real reduction of violence against women can only be accomplished with male participation.
This year’s planning committee decided to invite men to participate on the periphery of the September 22 event, to offer support, solidarity and remembrance of loved ones affected by violence. It is becoming clear that men do, and must, play an active role in making the streets and lives safe for women. In fact, men should be playing a bigger role in creating change not just on the streets, but in the locker rooms, the dorms and around the pub tables with their friends.
To look at this idea, let’s open it to the question: what does it mean to be “a man”? Every male confronts it as we grow up, enter adulthood, hang with our buddies — as we live our entire lives. Unfortunately, the answers often send us chasing an image lacquered in success, confidence and accomplishments that can be summed up in one word: pride.
When outside a bar spitting threats into each other’s faces we are boiling with it. When showing off our new toys to the boys we are revelling in it. When we refuse to say that we’re sorry for being a jerk to our partners/friends/parents we are hiding behind it — even if we know inside that we really were being a jerk. Whether you argue that the roots lie in biochemistry, mentality or socialization, pride is central to the lives of most men. Everyone has confronted a guy who puts his pride on the “number-one priority” pedestal and gets into trouble — because we all do it.
Our culture teaches us that the inescapable force of pride is to be used for our own interests to impress, awe and control. We are taught that “sucking it up — ” holding in and controlling emotions — is the key to making it in the world and appearing masculine and heterosexual. This makes it tough to confront other guys when you disagree with the way they act or speak, especially towards and about women — stepping out of line could lead to being ostracized or having your masculinity questioned.
Picture a bunch of guys sitting around talking about the night before. One of them starts telling a story about a girl he brought home from the bar: upon reaching his bedroom she was unconscious, but this made no difference to him. Do his buddies confront him on how wrong, disgusting and illegal his action was . . . or are they silent? Comfortable knowing that they are not a rapist, or an abuser of women, they do not see themselves as part of the problem of sexual abuse. Their silence, however, is the issue that we most need to address if we are to combat sexual abuse and achieve gender equity on a meaningful, systemic level.
It seems unfair to blame individual males for accepting the bystander mentality; as painfully easy as it is to go along with the guys, it is a cultural convention to stay out of your neighbour’s garbage. This is not to say that male behaviour cannot be changed, only that we must realize that sexism and abuse have been passed down from previous generations — we didn’t start it, but it is our job to work at stopping it.
Individual males need only look at our use of language to see the role of bystanders in allowing sexual abuse and gender inequality. Don McPherson, the retired NFL player that now spends his time as an activist against sexism, uses a simple story to demonstrate:
“Jack beats Jill. Jill was beaten by Jack. Jill was beaten. Jill is a battered woman.”
What’s missing in the conclusion of the story? Jack. The man has been disconnected from the problem, leaving Jill to shoulder the blame.
Rape, sexual assault, prejudice and verbal, emotional and physical harassment are commonly considered “women’s issues.” This distances men and allows them to take no responsibility for these crimes or any systemic sexism. But, if men are the perpetrators, then these are also “men’s issues,” and must be dealt with by men as allies with women.
Country singer Andy Griggs, a national spokesperson for the Family Violence Prevention Fund, explained the role of men to O, the Oprah Magazine, in October 2002.
“You hear a lot of women talk about sexual violence, but not men. It’s time for men to stand up and say, ‘I will not abuse women, and I will not support violence against them,’” he said.
It might be time to turn our pride on its head. Take a look at the slogans for the Strength Campaign from the Men Can Stop Rape organization:
“My strength is not for hurting. So when I wanted to and she didn’t: we didn’t.”
“My strength is not for hurting. So when I wasn’t sure how she felt: I asked.”
“Our strength is not for hurting. So when guys disrespect women, we say that’s not right.”
All men have women in their lives that they care deeply about, whether they are friends, partners, sisters, mothers or grandmothers. Participating in events like the Take Back the Night March is one way to ally support, but one night a year is not enough as change is needed within us as men, and within our social circles. Violence against women damages all women and demeans all men, so let’s take our pride in a different direction and use it to create a more equal and respectful community. That is what it is to be “a man.”
* Kyle Lamothe is a 3rd year student at Robson Hall. He spent his summer working as a research assistant for Prof. Schwartz and will be clerking at the Federal Court following graduation. If you ever invite him to a potluck, ask him to make his killer foccacia bread.