As the #metoo campaign continues, Cormac O’Dwyer believes more men need to take the initiative in dealing with sexual harassment and assault.
“We had a discrepancy where the majority of perpetrators [of sexual violence] are men, but men weren’t getting involved in anti-violence and anti-sexualized violence work on campus,” O’Dwyer said. He is the co-ordinator of the Healthier Masculinities program at the University of British Columbia, a project for men that runs out of the Sexual Assault Support Centre.
While many women are speaking out, including at a rally held downtown in early November, men have been less vocal, something O’Dwyer is trying to change.
Healthier Masculinities is one of a number of initiatives underway at UBC’s Vancouver campus, including by local fraternities and a new social enterprise, trying to get men engaged in conversations about masculinity, consent and sexual harassment. Activities include workshops, sessions on consent and discussions about what it means to be a man.
As of November, Healthier Masculinities launched the “Men’s Circle,” a new initiative for anyone who identifies as masculine. It is a rare safe space for men who want to learn about sexual consent or talk through their past mistakes. The promise is that men can participate without being judged.
That’s something that women working in the field think is necessary.
“There was no real resource for [male students] on campus to deconstruct their toxic masculinity and to kind of work with taking responsibility and accountability,” said Shilo St. Cyr, the manager of the sexual-assault centre. “So that’s where the program grew out of.”
At the workshops, O’Dwyer encourages men to recognize they are part of a system that privileges their gender and that they benefit from it and, in some ways, contribute to it as well. As such, men have a responsibility to take action.
“You need to look around and see that violence and harm is happening,” he said. “Someone needs to do something and if you’re in a position where you can do something then I really encourage folks to stand up and do that.”
Changing the culture
Campus fraternities are also working to change.
For Jeriah Newman, the president of the university’s Interfraternity Council, teaching members to understand the rules of consent is critical, especially in situations involving sex and alcohol.
“Creating that culture of consent is very much ingrained into the new-member recruitment process,” Newman said.
Another change is that frat members actively encourage members to call out their peers when they make derogatory comments. Part of this includes older fraternity members, including fraternity presidents, leading by example.
“It’s not easy to call out one of your friends when they say something derogatory about a woman or say something that is just completely inappropriate,” said Newman. “But if you see that your friend has done it and they still have their social circle, then you might not be afraid to do so.”
This March, Newman introduced a bylaw requiring all fraternity members to complete mandatory workshops run by the campus sexual-assault centre. The workshops cover sexual consent and train fraternity members to become “active bystanders” by taking action when they see a friend, female or male, in a dangerous position.
Despite the new bylaw, fraternities have been slow to follow through. Only three out of the 10 fraternities have already completed a workshop this year.
Newman points out that it will take time for new social norms to develop in the fraternity community.
“You don’t change a culture among young men overnight. It’s done over years,” Newman said. “We are getting there.”
Using technology to tackle harassment and assault
There is another, very different approach.
One UBC grad is turning to technology to get men interested in the issues. In addition to educating, Reza Houshmand is recruiting.
Houshmand is the founder of Bearded Feminist — a fledgling social enterprise dedicated to promoting gender equality. He is inviting men to become feminists through a combination of education, training, and community events.
“What we want to do is start celebrating authentic, wise leaders who we’re calling Bearded Feminists,” Houshmand said. The project is one of the latest additions to a startup-incubator program at the university. His social enterprise, in keeping with others like it, will be run as a for-profit company but will reinvest its profits into the cause it has taken on.
The company wants to create a “pay-what-you-want” digital-media website that produces content showcasing men who challenge traditional gender roles. It will be launched in December.
“These are men who are confident in their masculinity; they do not feel the need to over-compensate; they are not threatened by women; and we’re just going to tell their stories of how they are feminists and how their life is better because they are a feminist,” Houshmand said.
Bearded Feminist will also attempt to tackle gender discrimination in the workplace by consulting with companies to create gender-balanced workplaces.
The company is an unusual experiment in its early stages, so concrete actions are in the future.
O’Dwyer, of Healthy Masculinities, knows that these kinds of initiatives take time to grow.
“There are not a lot of role models,” O’Dwyer said. “Even in Vancouver, where I feel in many ways there is a lot of progressive activist work happening, it’s quite difficult to find other men who are trying to take on this work.”
Angela MacDougall agrees.
“There is not a robust community of men that take action consistently on this,” said MacDougall, who has been working in Vancouver with sexual-assault victims for more than a decade and now runs Battered Women’s Support Services. “There are men that would be willing to speak up if you ask them about it, but there are not too many men that are going to put themselves out there in Vancouver.”
That’s where the UBC initiatives can play an important role. O’Dwyer thinks if more men begin to reflect on their past behaviour and think about the role they can play in influencing a cultural shift towards healthier forms of masculinity, things will improve.
“If you’re a man walking around in this world, you might have a lot more privilege and opportunity to intervene in situations where other folks might not,” O’Dwyer said. “If you start to take the lead on doing that, then you might be opening doors for other people to also be able to have those conversations.”