Who I am (and why I make people uncomfortable)

In the speech that became A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf told her audience: “When a subject is highly controversial and any question about sex {and I would add power – Joe} is that one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.” For so long, most students have been told that their feelings, and truly their thoughts, weren’t important. Many educators present their subject matter as if it exists separate from them, objective and absolute. Many educators are uncomfortable that they must, in essence, stand naked and vulnerable in front of their students. As a result, most students are resigned that they will never hear an educator speak honestly about their life. Most don’t expect to see any adult speak honestly. Many people who can’t speak comfortably, won’t. Some resent/envy/misrepresent me because I can and do. I’m not uncomfortable when students ask me questions about my private life. I am comfortable speaking candidly. In fact, in the workshops I use my experiences as a male growing up to illustrate important points. The broad details of the participants’ lives are familiar to me, but to avoid the impression that I think I know everything about each of their individual lives, I use my story as an efficient way of getting deep into the material. Many males in groups are unlikely to reveal much important information or even to ask questions. As I discuss the “normal things” I learned as a boy, most participants can see themselves in my story.
    • “I didn’t even think men could be against rape,” a high school girl said after one of my sessions. Most girls and women (and boys and men) have never seen or heard from a man who is passionately opposed to violence against females and males.
    • Several years ago, a high school boy interrupted me loudly in the midst of a presentation. “Just shut up, man.” he shouted. I smiled, like the spider to the fly, and said “Have I touched a nerve?” He continued, “You’re obviously gay; you’re doing this to get sex from women and you hate men.” I paused for a moment to let his wildly self-revealing andslightly contradictory assertion to echo around the room. “Why don’t we also add that I hate women just to cover all the bases.” I said, ever the smart ass. A girl in the class responded: “Well, we don’t think he’s gay.” Several things: While I appreciated her support, I asked her not to “defend” me in response to his “accusation” of homosexuality. Homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is good. Under any circumstances, I refuse to rise to his bait, to take his “accusation” as one. I said to the boy, “Seriously, I appreciate your honest enunciation of your confusion as to who I am and what my motivations are. You are speaking for many people when you attribute motivation for what I say to my presumed sexual orientation. I don’t want to tell you what your motivation for saying something is, but I assume that you’ve never previously heard other men speak as I do. To me, that is sad. I never heard any males speak out against sexual assault either when I was in high school.
  • I have dedicated the last 13 years of my life to educating people, especially boys and men. We expect women to care and do this or similar work (and often, make many weird assumptions about those women’s motivation and sexual orientation). Men doing this work doesn’t so readily “compute.” What is my motivation? When I meet men who do similar work, I don’t automatically trust them. I want to know what their story is, what got them into this “abnormal” field. Unstated, but present, in that boy’s assertion is that heterosexual men don’t stop male violence, they cause it. To me that is sad.
  • Some women have said, “What took you men so long?” While others have said, “How dare you men intrude?” Men becoming active in rape prevention work raises important questions about trust and challenges stereotypes.
  • Some females don’t want to believe, or perhaps feel when faced with this unexpected male creature (me) that they (the women) must trust my motivation. What do you even call me? A male feminist? I don’t personally have any problem with identifying myself as a feminist, but some women and men take issue with such a designation. The name “feminist” has traditionally meant a female so, “male feminist” makes sense. Of course, at this point, some want to argue: “Can any male be a feminist?” One concern that’s been enunciated for years is that once men enter this traditionally female movement they (the men) would/will try to take over.
  • Some people have even suggested that males who espouse feminism would much more readily get credibility from other men who might be much more resistant to hearing the same information from a female feminist. I’m not telling anybody that they can’t question/challenge/disbelieve me. I’ve taken heat and abuse for believing and speaking my mind about masculine violence, rape culture, etc. I’ve been “accused” of (gasp) beinga feminist (or worse) enough times.
  • The presence of males in this movement can cause many women and men to reexamine their ideas of male and female. Some people may feel “forced” to reexamine their ideas and resent me for “causing” their discomfort. Force is not an effective motivator.
  • If there is some ambivalence about the possibility of changing or even educating men, the idea of men working in rape prevention can really present a dilemma. Men’s motivation for being involved has been questioned, celebrated and misrepresented. Can rape prevention efforts encompass the apparent contradictions presented by men’s involvement?
  • For years I’ve worn a button that reads: “Stopping Rape is Men’s Work.” The range of response to that button can help illuminate this discussion. Some women have responded that they feel the message of the button discounts women’s past and future good work towards stopping rape. Some women have said to me that stopping rape is exclusivelyabout women’s work educating girls and women. Meanwhile, many females and males respond very positively to the message. Sometimes, when I use “Stopping Rape is Men’s Work” as the closing of a document, I add the word “too” so it reads “Stopping Rape is Men’s Work, too.” My intention here is to suggest that there have not in the past been enough men who were publicly opposed to rape. Part of my work is to nurture those males who want to take action in whatever way to help end sexual assault. This is not an off-handed slam at those women, who for years have been doing wonderful rape prevention work, but traditional rape prevention did not focus on what boys and men could do to help end rape and sexual assault. Some males and females appreciate the spirit of the message “Stopping Rape is Men’s Work” because it does suggest that there are positive things for males that they can do if they are so motivated. Whether or not there should be a difference, a woman wearing a “Stopping Rape is Men’s Work” button would, of necessity, be sending a different message than a man wearing the same button. A woman wearing a button with that message would be perceived to be scolding men, prescribing certain behavior, telling men what to do (or what not to do). This is not wrong. The message from a man wearing a button reading “Stopping Rape is Men’s Work” might initially be absorbed less defensively by males. “He’s been there, he has thus earned the ‘right’ to tell us what to do,” some males might say. I do not believe that a rape prevention message is automatically more powerful or authentic coming from a male. Women can be intensely effective educators of males as well as can some males.
  • Some women and men make excuses for their unwillingness to confront resistant males by insisting that “it’s impossible to educate men or change men’s behavior.” Some people make their feelings of hopelessness and their unwillingness to question their biases into a something positive or “radical,” as if cutting-edge equals hopelessness about the possibility of change. I have been told flatly that it is not possible to change any male’s attitudes and behaviors in one session or even in ten sessions. Some people, including some educators, argue that prevention has not proven effective. I argue that it has not yet actually been tried.
  • Hopelessness couched as pragmatism is only an excuse for doing nothing.
  • No one speaker’s style speaks to everyone. Some people cannot relate to my style of speaking. It is interesting to me that in instances where I hear about individual people’s issues with things I have said, people rarely take issue with the content of my workshops, speeches and trainings. To me, the content is much more important even while I can understand that focusing only on matters of style may feel safer for some.
  • As educators, we are asking participants to adopt a new, ahistorical, non-violent way of relating. Some rape prevention comes across to students as if they’re being told that their generation invented date rape. The behaviors that we today call date rape, acquaintance rape, marital rape, incest, sexual assault, sexual harassment have existed in, I believe, the same volume in the past as today. That more behavior has finally, rightfully been criminalized, doesn’t necessarily mean there is more of it. I put the abuse of the present into the context of the past. Much rape prevention information can be discounted by participants as motivated by some politically correct “politeness code.” I tell males that our own problematic behavior exists within the context of the abuse perpetrated by males for thousands of years and that this violence unfortunately serves as a model for our behavior. We are responsible for what we do, but also responsible are generations of adults who didn’t see fit to create a positive, non-violent, male paradigm to teach to their sons.
  • I name the pervasive sex-hate of which rape/sexual assault is the most extreme manifestation. Essential to the continuation of this rape culture is the intentional melding of sex and rape/sexual assault. In essence, we know (or should know) that rape is not sex, it’s violence. But neither, I suggest, is sex sex. Most boys in the U.S. continue to refer to intercourse as “ripping off a piece,” “hittin’ it,” “burying the hatchet,” “porking,” etceteras ad nauseam. When over eighty percent of male first year college students responded “true” to the statement “Intercourse is always painful for females,” I don’t think it requires a massive leap of reason to see the violence implicit in the model of sex that most students have learned.
  • An important part of ending rape culture is to celebrate and teach a sexuality that is separate and dramatically different from rape/sexual assault. I contend that the “dirtiest” word is pleasure. It is not by accident that most sex education in families and middle and high schools intentionally omits discussion of orgasm, mutuality, the details of female and male arousal, non-intercourse sexual options, masturbation. Few boys (and girls) are taught what a clitoris is. Is it any surprise that, considering the primacy that television enjoys as a tool of education [sic(k)], many American men are confused and uncomfortable with menstruation? In television advertisements, women menstruate blue.
  • Humor: I use humor in my presentations. No, not rape jokes, most of the humor is directed at the ridiculous and sometimes dangerous things that many boys and men believe. Some participants are not comfortable with any laughter surrounding a subject which for them is fraught only with pain. I’m not telling anybody how they should feel, but most participants appreciate the humor because it helps them face painful topics. Humor can help people create a distance from a painful, personal reality. This distancing can help them achieve perspective. Ironically, humor can also help people get much closer to painful, personal realities. Historically, members of some oppressed groups have used humor as a dynamic, but subtle, way of undermining the system. I use humor to reveal the absurdity of too much of what boys are taught, and what they continue to believe as men.
A chaplain at a school said: “You can bet that some people are going to resent you. You can joke on a really high level and communicate very effectively. Many people can barely talk seriously about these topics.”