Why Being a “Good Guy” Is Not Enough
Either you’re actively working against sexual violence or you’re enabling it.
In 1993, the bombshell that would change my life dropped quietly. I was in 11th grade when my mother told me of the sexual violence she had experienced and witnessed as a child, memories she had begun to resurrect over time. It was my first Aha! moment about violence against women. Now, at age 40 and in my line of work, I know how common child sexual abuse is and how often survivors repress memories of that abuse. But as a teenager, I simply felt stunned, angry, sad, and at a loss for what, if anything, I could do.
A few years after my mother’s revelation, when I was a sophomore at the State University of New York at New Paltz, I joined a few hundred other students, mostly women, in the Student Union just before midnight. It was my first Take Back the Night rally, a common event at colleges and universities designed to raise awareness about gender-based violence. Over the next three hours, nearly every woman in the room took to the stage and shared a personal story of being abused by a boyfriend, of being stalked, sexually harassed, and/or sexually assaulted. Some of the violence had taken place years before, some earlier in the semester on our very campus. Nearly every woman had a story to share, some sharing for the first time in that packed room.
The experience and power of all those women sharing their stories, the sheer weight and scale of violence against women and girls, was clear to me that night as it had never been before. I remember an almost audible click in my head that night, the click of an Aha! too big to ignore, when I realized that sexual and gender violence was all around me, that my mom’s story wasn’t an exception. And with it came the realization that I was no longer comfortable accepting or ignoring the state of things anymore. It was the Aha! of realizing I have no choice but to act.
I often liken these Aha! moments to Neo taking the red pill offered by Morpheus in The Matrix, a metaphor I came to love years ago while working for Men Can Stop Rape (a national organization based in Washington, D.C.). Once you have that moment, take that red pill, there is no turning back. Once you see the culture of gender-based violence around you, you can’t unsee it. You can deny it, minimize it, or ignore it, but you know it’s there.
As a man, once you acknowledge that gender-based violence exists, people in your life, even strangers, begin to disclose to you stories of the violence they have survived or, sometimes, the violence they have committed. If they believe you are genuinely working to understand this violence, then they are likely to see you as someone they can confide in.
Joe Samalin visited with students at Brown University in Providence Rhode Island this past spring.
YES! photo by Robert Ranney
There is a somewhat hard and important truth that men come to realize in these Aha! moments: We all are either supporting and enabling domestic and sexual violence—directly by perpetrating it or covering it up, or colluding with it through our silence—or we are actively working to end that violence. There is no neutral ground. Most men think they are the proverbial “good guys.” (For years, I thought the same.) Most men make the conscious choice not to commit acts of domestic or sexual violence against the women in their lives, or anyone for that matter. But that is the starting point, not the goal. In a culture that dehumanizes and objectifies women, we view men who don’t commit violence as “good.” But that is a very low bar for men if we are looking to stop this violence. It is not enough.
Once you see the culture of gender-based violence around you, you can’t unsee it.
It took a series of Aha! moments for me to decide that my work had to be focused on preventing and ending violence. For some men, it takes just one moment; for others, a lifetime. How do we get more men to have these Aha! moments in the first place? Men like me, young men in schools in my hometown of New York City, on college campuses in Wisconsin and Indiana? On military bases in Arizona, among business leaders in Japan, and among Native and indigenous men in Hawai‘i? Men who have committed violence and men who want to stop violence (sometimes the same men) and all sorts of men in between? How do we then take them from awareness to action?
These are just some of the men I have worked with over the last 20-odd years, and it still amazes me how often the key, while not always easy, can be so simple: Engaging men very often begins with questions. Most often, I am asked, “Why?”
Why, as a man, do I care about gender-based violence? Why, as a man, do I even know about violence against women and girls? It is a question I get from everyone, but mostly from women. The underlying assumption is that it is not a man’s problem; gender-based violence is still seen as a “women’s issue.” But the question is critical for individual men and the movement as a whole. The answers differ from man to man, but there are definite commonalities, such as my own story—knowing someone affected by violence, not knowing how to support a survivor, being shocked by the statistics. These answers and stories help us get more men involved, which is critical. And after so many years of asking and answering questions of men and myself, I really believe that questions lead to more questions, which, in turn, lead to more effective and accountable work to end violence and oppression.
For a long time, I thought this was the end of my journey: I had arrived. I am a man who knows about gender-based violence, and I have dedicated my life to ending it. My goal was to engage a group of men in a given community to recognize their responsibility to end violence against women and feel fired up to do something about it, whether supporting their local domestic violence shelter, helping a loved one affected by violence, or disrupting violent behavior when they see it. Once that was achieved, I could ride my horse out of town to the next community.
What I have come to realize now is that this is not enough.
For me, there is no final destination; there can’t be. This work is all about the journey, about always doing better. Male privilege, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy—these very systems we are trying to dismantle—are at the core of, and protected by, the violence we seek to eradicate. And it serves these systems when I stop interrogating those things I do to enable violence and oppression, when I stop asking how I can do better.
It takes a lot of work to remain aware of the water we swim in.
Aha! moments are not static. What it means to be a man, the roles we play in perpetuating a culture of violence, the violence committed in our name—our awareness of these is like that of a fish in water. It takes a lot of work to remain aware of the water we swim in: the many ways men as a whole benefit at the expense of equity, equality, and safe, full lives for women and girls. Not all men benefit equally, of course, especially men of color, Gay and Transgender men, immigrant men, and others. But men—and masculinity as a whole—do benefit.
The question “What does it mean to be a man?” might seem simple, but even simple questions we have answered before can change as we ourselves and those around us do too.
What we learn about what it means to be a man is often a factor in our choosing whether to commit violence. But it is also the reason that most men who witness and experience violence never seek the help or support they so often need, why so few resources exist for male survivors. Our ideas of masculinity are key factors in our choosing to support or blame victims and survivors of violence. What society says it means to be a man makes homophobia one of the most common tools used by men to keep other men in check, stuck in the box of uninterrogated masculinity. Asking “What does it mean to be a man?” has layers upon layers of answers.
“How do my male privilege and white privilege enable each other?”
“How can I continue to deepen my empathy for myself?”
“What can I do to hold the men in this work accountable when they commit acts of violence and discrimination themselves?”
“How do my male privilege and white privilege enable each other?”
I am still searching for my next Aha! moment. As I search, I struggle with doubt as I always have, wanting to ensure I do more good than harm, striving to live up to the trust that women and others in this work have invested in me, wanting to do right by the countless victims and survivors I have encountered in my life.
It simply starts with a question (I can suggest a few). And then an Aha! (Let me know when you have them! I love those stories.) And then another and another, until an action you can take to help end violence becomes clear. Followed, of course, by one more question.