The Pixel Project is pleased to welcome our annual guest “16 For 16” article from our partner MenChallenging, an organisation that challenges men to prevent gender-based violence and support its victims and survivors.
For a while now I have framed men and boys coming to awareness of gender inequity and gender-based violence as a series of “aha moments”. Both professionally and personally, I try my best to help create opportunities for men and boys to have aha moments of their own around these issues, and to take full advantage of when they happen to me.
It took me some time (and a woman in my life to point it out to me; more on that below) to realise that while aha moments are important teaching opportunities, they also embody the exact privilege and male supremacy that create epidemic levels of violence and inequity in the first place. That is, for many men, it is often very difficult to see that gender violence even exists unless it affects someone close to them. This is why it remains so easy for men and boys to deny, minimise, ignore, defend, and commit violence, and perpetuate inequity.
With that, I want to share 16 of my aha moments on this issue and the lessons I have learned from them. Hopefully this will remind you of some of your own, or inspire you to create some.
[Content note for discussions of sexual violence]
Written by Joe Samalin, co-founder of MenChallenging.
Aha! Moment #1: My Mom
When I was a senior in high school, my mother started to recover memories she repressed about having been sexually abused as a small child by men in her family, and shared that with my dad, my brother, and me. At the time I did not know what to do with the information. I think I was generally supportive, but it was new information to me that such violence could happen, that people could forget about it, and that those memories could come back. Lesson Learned: There are many ways to support victims/survivors of violence and to support and hold accountable those who might be/have been perpetrators of such violence. Given that statistically everyone probably knows someone affected by gender violence, it is a good thing for everyone to learn about!
Aha! Moment #2: Social Change for Women
After heading off to SUNY New Paltz for college, my mom’s disclosure was still a confusing reality for me. How could I support her if she needed it? What did I think about my grandparents and others in her family who were complicit or covered up the abuse? I had no resources to think about these questions until I happened to run into members of Social Change for Women, the feminist women’s group on campus. I “discovered” that other people were out there thinking, talking about, and taking action on issues just like this. I became the “token” guy in the group and learned more about the issue of gender violence and some things I could do about it. Lesson Learned: There are people you can talk to about these issues, resources for questions you might have, and actions you can take to challenge gender violence in your community and across the world. Seek them out and get to know them a bit before you might need them!
Aha! Moment #3: Take Back the Night (TBTN)
The first time I attended Take Back the Night in college was a big aha moment for me. TBTN events raise awareness of and publicly challenge gender violence in a given community, and are usually composed of a rally, a march, and a speak-out, where survivors share stories. The speak-out hit me like a literal ton of bricks. It felt like almost every woman present went up to the mic and shared a story of surviving sexual violence, domestic or dating violence, childhood sexual abuse, or other such traumas. It was a huge wake-up call for me to realise that gender-based violence is committed and colluded with at epidemic levels. Lesson Learned: Seek and believe the facts about gender-based violence and how often people–most often men–commit it and collude with it. It can be overwhelming and scary, and can make you feel terrible to realise the scale of the problem, but it will never go away if we ignore it.
Aha! Moment #4: SUNY New Paltz Men’s Group… Sort Of
At a subsequent TBTN event, we decided to make the speak-out a space for women only, and ask men and other aspiring allies to do something else during that time. The aim was to make a more supportive and safer space for those who chose to participate. I was left with a group of about 25 men and realised that I had not thought about what I was going to do with them when the speak-out started! We found a space and started chatting organically about what the rally and march had meant to us, what feelings, if any, it brought up, why we joined in the first place, and more. The conversation was a powerful experience for everyone there. Lesson Learned: Most men and boys are hungry to talk about these issues. Talk to men and others in your life about what it means to be a man, check how you feel about it, look critically at what messages you get and which you have internalised, which you want to keep or replace. Such conversations may even lead to a lot of other aha moments as well!
Aha! Moment #5: Columbia Men Against Violence and Leadership
After college, I enrolled in a master’s programme at Columbia University, studying contemporary Japanese feminism. While there, I joined a pro-feminist men’s group. When the head of the group graduated, I took it upon myself to take over the group. Years later I did the same in an anti-racism group I was a part of. My aha moment came in hindsight when I realised I did not stop to consider whether there was anyone else–women, trans folks, or folks of colour–who might be a better fit. It also means there were times that I unintentionally did harm to a group or organisation I was a part of. It has taken me a long time to be comfortable with making decisions to apply for leadership positions and it requires vigilance to ensure I do so with accountability. Lesson Learned: Check your assumptions, especially about yourself in leadership roles. We all have more and less privileged parts of who we are, and we have to work consistently and constantly to minimise the unintentional harms we might commit, even and especially with the best of intentions.
Aha! Moment #6: Men Can Stop Rape
While trying to run the student group Columbia Men Against Violence, I soon learned that I did not know much about the work–about talking to other men about these issues, educating myself and others about masculinity and violence, and recruiting men to step up and challenge the violence we see around us. Luckily, I stumbled upon an organisation called Men Can Stop Rape. They offered a three-day training on engaging men and boys in violence prevention, and I jumped at the chance to take it and educate myself. Lesson Learned: There are people who are committed to ending gender-based violence. Seek them out! Take training! You don’t need to be a professional activist to learn more and educate yourself. Make sure to acknowledge where your knowledge and skills come from, and be accountable especially to the women of colour who have been challenging oppressions for so long.
Aha! Moment #7: Feminist Men who Commit Violence
One of the most shocking aha moments for me was the first time a woman I know in this work disclosed to me that another man working to end gender-based violence had sexually assaulted her. Over the years, a number of women have disclosed similar stories to me, all of them asking me not to say or do anything about it, but just to hear and support them. The most important point I make when presenting on gender-based violence is that men in this work are NOT ANY LESS LIKELY to commit such violence in various forms. We as a movement must do better at addressing it before and when it happens. Lesson Learned: Anyone working to end abuse and violence must practice what we preach. This is specifically for men in this work but applicable more broadly as well. All our work and beliefs about equality and justice are not worth squat unless we work towards accountability for the men in our life who choose to commit violence. It has to start with us.
Aha! Moment #8: Checking Myself
I have had to confront the times where I failed to live up to the standards I believe in and strive for. Former romantic partners who said they felt pressured at times while we were dating, colleagues and bosses who tried to hold me accountable for assertive or aggressive behaviour, family and friends who help me to hold myself accountable to doing better. Most often these disclosures are a surprise to me (though they should not be). This work is an ongoing journey. Lesson Learned: Check yourself regularly and consistently. Being told you have acted a certain way that does not gel with how you see yourself can be a real kick in the butt, but we can take such information as a gift and a challenge to try and do better. especially men and white folks who care about these issues. We must learn to be open to such feedback from those around us.
Aha! Moment #9: Listening to Women
Many of my aha moments occur only when I realised later what I had done and the impact of my actions. The majority were pointed out to me by women in my life. So I have learned how important it is to listen to and uplift the voices of women and LGBTQ folks. It is also an important part of challenging victim blaming which happens all too often to survivors of domestic or sexual violence. Most men and, indeed, most people are taught not to value or even listen to the voices and experiences of women, which is a key factor in violence against women and girls. Lesson Learned: I was taught not to value women’s voices, and so I have to work hard to unlearn that behaviour. It takes conscious and consistent effort to listen to women in a culture that devalues women’s voices at almost every turn, especially on issues regarding gender-based violence and inequity. Make and give space for women’s voices to be centered and make sure you really listen. It is a learned skill, so like any skill there is training available and you need to practice!
Aha! Moment #10: Anger Management
Years ago I took a class on how to work with men who have committed domestic violence. A few key sessions of the class focused on anger management and emotional intelligence. For one assignment, we were supposed to think about and report back on what things make us angry in life, and how we deal with or express that anger. I worked hard on the assignment, but came up with very little – I felt that I really didn’t ever get angry. The next week, the facilitator stood behind me and said that I was the person that you had to worry the most about. I was floored. He explained how we all have anger, and those men who are violent or abusive and are so disconnected from their emotions and emotional intelligence that they even deny they have any anger at all. Lesson Learned: Educate yourself about emotional intelligence and improve your own. Emotional intelligence refers to how well you understand what you are feeling at any given moment, and how to best express your emotions in healthy ways. It is not easy in a culture that does not encourage men to be emotional, but the benefits are enormous.
Aha! Moment #11: Checking My Privilege(s)
My first job in this field was working for a small non-profit in New York City, giving presentations on healthy vs abusive relationships to young folks in public middle and high schools. It was during my third or fourth presentation, when I looked out at the incredibly racially diverse group of students I was trying to understand and connect with, that I realised my go-to line of “dating violence can happen to anyone no matter what race you are” was absolutely not enough. Young people called me out time and time again. I needed to better understand the roles that whiteness, race, ethnicity, immigration, and other issues play in gender-based violence, and life in general. Lesson Learned: We have to do the internal work to better understand our privileges and to minimise harm done because of them. It is not easy but we must be accountable to the ways our ignorance on certain issues and privileges can and will cause harm.
Aha! Moment #12: The Silo of Men
I was at a conference about engaging college men when the keynote speaker, a brilliant academic feminist, a young Black woman, gave the men in the audience a massive collective aha moment. She noted that almost all of the resources and organisations on engaging men are created and staffed by men. She pointed out that it means that the voices of those most often directly affected by gender-based violence and those who have done almost all the work to fight it are missing in boys’ and mens’ learning and experiences on this issue. This greatly increases the chances of replicating patriarchy and sexism in the very movement trying to end it. Her words stuck with me and my friends at the conference for decades. Lesson Learned: I try to call out when I and others make the assumption that only men can do men’s engagement work, or that we as men know how to do it best. It can be a delicate balance, ensuring that men take greater responsibility in this area without excluding women and their leadership on these issues, but we must be vigilant about not creating a silo of men.
Aha! Moment #13: My Dad and Choosing Change
When my mom first started dealing with the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, my dad, in trying to be as supportive as possible, came to an aha moment of his own. He realised that his own childhood had been pretty violent, and that he was replicating some of the same patterns of behaviour his father had. My dad made the choice to go to therapy, and started to work through his issues, and make different choices as a father and a husband. Lesson Learned: Men can change. We don’t often do it but the men in my family managed to go from perpetrators of sexual violence to activists against it in one-and-a-half generations. I am not saying it is easy, but it must be done. If you have concerns about your beliefs and behaviours, or anything you may have experienced, there are resources and support available, you just need to have the courage to go and find them and take advantage of them.
Aha! Moment #14: My Dad and Me and Recognising Patterns
I argue, especially with women, just like my dad does. I recently heard my mom and dad arguing and it shook me to the core. There were small ways in which my dad was passive-aggressive and directly aggressive that I immediately connected to. I had been working on these issues recently for myself through therapy and talking with friends and so they were on the surface for me when I saw exactly the same things coming out of my dad’s mouth. Even though I know how these attitudes and behaviours are passed down generation to generation, it was still incredibly shocking to see it so clearly. Lesson Learned: Identify what traits, beliefs, and behaviours you have received from men in your life, especially those who had a hand in raising you. Look critically to see which you agree with and which you may not. Then do something about it! Change is not often easy, but it absolutely can and must be done, and there are limitless benefits to doing so.
Aha! Moment #15: My Grandpa and Hard Conversations
For a few years while my dad was in therapy, he cut off contact with his parents. Eventually, my dad reached out to his father to say he wanted to meet with him and talk some things out. We were all surprised to learn that during this time, my grandfather had educated himself on family violence and reflected on who he was as a father, a husband, and a man. He revisited the violence he experienced at the hands of his own mother as a child. He apologised to my dad, and took responsibility for what he had done. We were all floored when my dad told us what had happened. Lesson Learned: It is never too late to learn and to take accountability for something you have done and, further, it is crucial to do so. Even though it can be incredibly difficult to do, we must also talk to those in our lives who have committed violence, or still do. Tell them how we feel about it, and why it is not okay. It can be easy to just cut someone out of your life, and sometimes it is necessary; but we must also work hard to have the hard conversations, for everyone’s sake.
Aha! Moment #16: My Meta Aha
My aha moment about aha moments is that they are the essence of privilege. This was first pointed out to me by a woman who was participating in a training session I was giving. Meta on meta on meta. My use of aha moments as a framework to engage men is still evolving and will continue to, if I am doing the work right. I am still learning more about how to do the work while minimising the harm I do. Lesson Learned: I try hard to stay humble as a person in general and specifically as a man who cares about doing my part to end gender-based violence. Good aha moments remove the proverbial scales from your eyes and, once experienced, cannot be unseen. That is where change happens, when enough people (men!) see the truth and take action to make real lasting change. So stay alert for your moments, share them with others in your life to better understand them, and do what you can to make a difference.
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