Reflections on the importance of involving fathers to end sexual violence.
Insights from the Sexual Consent Conference in Peterborough, ON.
I remember asking participants in the room, “How many of you work with fathers on a daily basis?” Over three quarters of the hands in the room went up. “You see, we are everywhere,” I responded. However, the question that was left hanging, even after the session, was why don’t we involve fathers more in ending sexual violence? If fathers occupy such space in our society, there must be a role for them in the work to end sexual violence. By the end of the session I hoped that we had created a forum for people to think about engaging fathers and the importance of involved fatherhood.
This was the landscape of a recent conference at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, focusing on Sexual Consent. The conference was very much a litmus test for our current society and our current way of thinking about sexual violence and sexual consent. I will admit, on the face of it, a session dedicated to a discussion of the role of fathers seemed out of place at the very least. However, over the course of the two day conference, I was convinced that our session offered an opening for discussion about a topic and an area that is largely ignored in both the academic research and the practice setting.
There is a growing body of academic research that highlights the importance of fathers and impact that engaged and involved fatherhood can have on both boys and girls. For boys, involved fatherhood can lead young men to increasingly challenge the ‘classical’ stereotypes of masculinity and potentially reject toxic masculinity. These young men are better equipped to enter into healthy and equitable relationship with their partners as a result of having a healthy role model in their lives. For young women, the benefits are equally substantive. Young women who have involved fathers are more apt to engage in pro-feminist thinking at an earlier age that leads to seeking more equitable relationships as they grow older. For young women, a healthy male role model provides an example of how women can, and should, be treated – a benchmark of sorts from which to consider their future relationships. Despite these benefits, for many young women, talking about sex with their father remains territory that is avoided. As a result, many fathers are left ‘outside’ of the opportunities to discuss the more emotional aspects of the lives of their daughters and we can only wonder what the impact of this is if their daughter becomes a victim of sexual violence.
This is where there exists a gap in the knowledge related to fathers. We can identify the importance of fathers as role models and allies but what about in response to sexual violence? The academic literature is devoid of any material that explores the experiences of fathers whose children are survivors or perpetrators of sexual violence. As a result, we know very little about the potential role that fathers can play in responding to sexual violence.
Facilitating together with White Ribbon at the Sexual Consent Conference in Peterborough was an entry point into this discussion. We did not come with answers as most attendees might have been hoping. Rather we were looking to create space for a dialogue about a topic that does not receive the attention it warrants. Fatherhood is a unique and special time. As a society we have only really begun to consider the experiences of fathers and the importance of promoting involved fatherhood. However, the issue of sexual violence is at the forefront of our social issues right now, and in order to truly work on prevention and responses to sexual violence, we must engage fathers as part of the dialogue in order to ensure that our overall response is as effective and impactful as possible.
White Ribbon explored the It Starts With You initiative to share concrete tips for dads to promote gender equality and how to respond and prevent gender-based violence. Some tips included:
- Exploring meaning of consent with their children (particularly boys) across the life cycle
- Sharing own key learning moments on equality, consent and healthy relationships
- Use “teachable moments” from news and media to keep up the conversation and gage how their children feel and think about gender-based violence
- Believe your child when they come to you with an incidence of abuse or violence (across different forms)
- Communicate that you prioritize their healing, well-being and show your ongoing support when they disclose an incidence of violence
- Participate with your family in local gender-based violence or social justice events in your community
On this Fathers’ Day we encourage all dads to check out It Starts With You (and to follow us on Twitter and Facebook) to learn more about how you can promote gender equality and prevent gender-based violence.
– Ian Degeer & Kate Bojin