As we leave Women’s History Month (March) behind, and head into Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April), it seems like as good a time as any to talk about men’s engagement in the work to end sexual and domestic violence. During March, we wrote about the White Ribbon movement and on March 1 observed White Ribbon Day here in Massachusetts. The White Ribbon pledge is a public and concrete commitment that we can make to “not commit or condone gender-based violence” What does it mean to maintain that commitment all year long? And what does this commitment really look like in action?
The organization A Call To Men uses a construct they call the “Man Box” to describe the “collective socialization of men.” Our society instills expectations of boys and men that ultimately support violence – against one another and against women, girls and marginalized groups. These messages are sent both explicitly and implicitly through tradition and media and peer pressure. According to the “Man Box” men are expected to be:
- Powerful and dominating
- Fearless and in control
- Strong and emotionless
- Successful – in the boardroom, the bedroom and on the ball field
There is no room in this box for emotion, vulnerability, sadness, distress or failure. Even without instruction, boys recognize what is expected and accepted when they are punished or banished for stepping outside of the constraints of this the box. This process of socializing boys and men to believe that they are unable to access the range of human emotions means that pain or fear stays bottled up inside – often to be metabolized as anger and violence.
This violence may be self-directed or it might be visited upon family and community – either way, it can be perceived as a solitary experience for those who experience or witness it. “My abusive father,” “my controlling boyfriend,” “my addicted brother,” – that “one bad man.”
We’ve written about the “monster myth” or the myth of “one bad man” as playwright Heidi Schreck describes it. Schreck was on the radio recently, talking about her new play called “What the Constitution Means to Me.” The play is about her conviction – at age 15 – that the Constitution was the perfect document and how her belief evolved as she realized who was left out of that document, who was not protected (answer: women). Similarly, as a young woman she knew her family’s story of that “one bad man” who hurt her grandmother, mother and aunt; an understanding that evolved as she realized the extent of men’s socialization and the violence it begets.
So much of our work at REACH, with survivors and in community, is an effort to open up this understanding. Communities often think that “one bad man” lives, worships, studies, and works somewhere else – not here. In order to really address the abusive behaviors individuals commit, we have to be able to face the ways our systems and communities allow abuse to continue, and must hold ourselves and those we love accountable. People who use abusive behavior are responsible for their actions AND they are learning the behavior within our society. The “Man Box” results in a widespread problem – or as Ms. Schreck described it, “a larger cultural problem, a legal problem, a systemic problem.”
And this is why how we do our work matters. We believe that social norms and individual behaviors can be changed through education and practice at individual and community levels. Attitudes and behaviors are built on social norms, which are shaped through education (media, schools, faith, consumerism, etc.) and practice (what we do every day). Changing attitudes and behaviors requires changing social norms which requires new and different education and practice. At REACH – and with all of you – we endeavor to change attitudes, behaviors and practices because that is what shifts social norms, institutional responses and community actions.
It starts with each of us – what we say, what we laugh at, what we call out.
We are committed to this work every day. How will you join us and show your commitment to ending gender-based violence? Are you ready to have these conversations with family, friends and neighbors?
Here are some ideas:
- Attend our Annual Meeting to learn more about how we do our work and two women who are opening up these important conversations about creating change. RSVP to Lizzy at firstname.lastname@example.org to join us on May 23.
- Participate in our summer training institute starting June 3. Contact Lauren at email@example.com to learn more about this session.
- Host a house party and invite REACH. We can help start a conversation about social norms, media literacy, and healthy relationships. Contact Lizzy at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.