— Kevin Vowles
October was an transformative month thanks to #MeToo and #IWill, and I’ve felt increasingly hopeful, as requests for White Ribbon programming have been pouring in at unprecedented levels. Many men and boys have opened their eyes to the prevalence of violence against women and girls. But despite a massive uptick in attention about the roles that men and boys can play in ending violence against women and girls, we still have a powerful and all-pervasive rape culture to stand up against.
Last week at a high school speaking engagement, I fielded some really tough and challenging questions from young men entrenched in sexism, misogyny and victim blaming. The more boldly I spoke with young men about the need to believe survivors, the more they became emboldened to object. The more I spoke out against victim blaming, the more they seemed to become convinced that they could freely object and insist that women and girls are making false accusations.
These high-school kids are not unique. As far as we’ve come there is still a great deal of denial about men’s violence. This denial grows stronger and more entrenched as gender-based power and systems of violence are disrupted and eroded. As far as the pendulum swings one way, it can swing back just as hard in the other direction.
Sometimes we can engage in a fruitful conversation in which perspectives are shared and heard. When I kick back tough questions to youth, sometimes I get gold. For example, a while ago in a three-hour workshop, when asked how students would intervene to prevent alcohol facilitated sexual assault, one young man boasted he would be a perpetrator, and he didn’t care about the impacts on young women. I kicked it back the whole class, and his peers promised they’d never let him get away it.
Youth are learning to speak out against their peers’ misogyny and sexism. But sometimes they won’t. Sometimes I get silence and I have to help them get there by taking on the hard topic. Students sometimes laugh when I draw links between homophobia, sexism and violence against women. They think that they are gaining power by making a mockery of the work. Young men can be angry and defensive, and I fear for my safety at times. This shows that the work is needed more than ever.
And then sometimes I see young girls crying in their seats in large whole school assemblies. Two weeks ago I was literally mobbed after a school assembly by 15 girls and one young man, many of them indicating they had at some point experienced violence and were grateful that we had come so far to see them and talk about ways men and boys can prevent violence.
Survivors have been empowered to speak out about violence they’ve experienced. A significant blow to slut shaming has been dealt by the bravery of those writing #MeToo. Globally, awareness has grown about the prevalence of many forms of violence. It could be argued that the seed of an unprecedented culture of deterrence has been planted. Women and girls have created hope by speaking out. Men and boys have created hope by saying what they will do. In my experience the tension has never been greater or thicker, and yet the opportunity for positive change has never been clearer.