Content warning: This article discusses gender-based violence.
“Those of us who identify as male most likely learned some behaviors that were very harmful, specifically to women,” Duane de Four, a member of Mending Cambridge who works with universities, the military, and professional sports leagues to end gender-based violence, told 20 participants. “Think about some of the things you learned, that you were told about how you should approach sex and relationships. Were some of them harmful? How did they impact your relationships?”
The men took several minutes to reflect on what messages they had received from their families, their peers, and society about how to engage with people they were attracted to. De Four asked them to write down those messages on pieces of paper, and shared one of the messages that he was taught.
“I wish I could say I was always a feminist or a pro-feminist man—I wasn’t,” he said. “Before I discovered feminism, a lot of the messages I received around interaction with women was that it was my job to close the deal. I had to basically be like a used car salesman, and that really meant that there was a certain pushiness that I was taught that I needed to approach sexual activity with, and that if I didn’t get what I wanted sexually from somebody I was interacting with, it was my fault.”
“I want you to take those pieces of paper and I want you to crumple them up,” De Four instructed the participants after they reflected. “This is our past, this is who we were. We can grow and learn from here. Now I want to be clear, this isn’t an absolution of sins. If there are things that we need to be held accountable for we should be held accountable for those things. But this is saying ‘I am not that person anymore, I don’t want to be that person anymore.’”
The men had gathered on March 1 in honor of White Ribbon Day, a campaign to put the onus on men and boys to end gender-based violence.
Mending Cambridge, a joint effort between the city’s Domestic and Gender-Based Violence Prevention Initiative and the health department that picks apart the teachings of toxic masculinity in an effort to eliminate gender-based violence, led the event.
The participants—including Mayor Marc McGovern, Vice Chair of the School Committee Alfred Fantini, Executive Director of the Cambridge Peace Commission Brian Corr, and members of the police department—stood outside Cambridge Rindge and Latin School to take the White Ribbon pledge, promising to never perpetrate or be a bystander to gender-based violence.
Inside the school, de Four led the men from retrospection to imagining a better set of teachings. Mending Cambridge chose CRLS in an effort to encourage young men to attend, according to group member and Director of Communications for Cambridge police Jeremy Warnick.
“What messages would you tell a young boy, a man growing up today, that might be counter to what you learned, to help them grow and interact with women or those they’re interested in having sexual relationships with, or any kind of relationship with? How can they do it better than what you were taught?” de Four asked.
“What I tell my kids, they’re both boys, is don’t keep score,” one participant answered.
“My son’s always running up behind my daughter and trying to hug her, and we’re trying to get him to tap her on the shoulder and ask if she wants a hug,” another said. “If she says no, then he has to stop right away. So teaching consent from a very young age. Then it’s teaching two lessons: that when she says ‘no,’ she knows that it’s not OK for him to keep touching her, and then learning asking before initiating.”
“My father never had a single conversation with me about sex. If the child gets nothing, then they’re going to get it from peers,” a third participant reflected.
De Four then asked the participants to write down ways that they could prevent gender-based violence and the culture that promotes it in their homes, at work, with youth, and online or in public spaces.
“Let’s think about what can we do from here, how can we move forward from all of this,” he said. “One of the things that men are often concerned about is ‘How can I be part of this #MeToo movement, or what can I do in the #MeToo movement, without seeming disingenuous or without elbowing out women, without overtaking women’s voices?’”
At home and with youths, the participants brainstormed setting consistent examples, having the conversation at all, and sharing a letter to their 15-year-old selves. At work: model respect, be available, and take action. To help change the dialogue online and in other public spaces, they suggested calling out inappropriate language and behavior.
The session was the second of four events that Mending Cambridge is holding surrounding the #MeToo movement. At the first, the participants practiced bystander interventions and read up on recent allegations of sexual harassment to help educate themselves.