Bold Moves to End Sexual Violence: How Young Men Can Transform the Future of Manhood

Ms. is a proud media sponsor of the 2018 National Sexual Assault Conference, co-hosted by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. This year’s NSAC theme is “Bold Moves: Ending Sexual Violence in One Generation.” Leading up to the event, we’ll be posting pieces by presenters and major speakers highlighting their plans to make those moves right here on the Ms. blog. Click the banner image above or this link for more Bold Moves posts.

“Most violence wears a male face, and not by accident. But the root causes—and solutions—don’t lie in individual men’s biology or pathology. We must take a closer look at the messages boys receive about what it means to be a man, and provide youth with spaces to transform them.” — Brian Heilman and Aapta Garg, Promundo

We often talk about violence passively—how many women face violence from a partner, or how many young men are at risk of gun violence in their neighborhoods.

By doing so, we’re avoiding a major question: How do we explain the fact that so much of the world’s violence is carried out by men?

Evidence demonstrates that men and boys are much more likely than other gender identities to perpetrate nearly all violent crimes—including intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child sexual abuse, and homicide—and are also disproportionately likely to die by homicide and suicide.

So what is it about male identity that links so undeniably with violence? And how do we break these cycles of violence?

A young boy at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. (Lorie Shaull / Creative Commons)

We at Promundo—a global consortium with partners in over 45 countries—have been taking on these difficult questions for over two decades. Our research has helped demonstrate something that most of us know to be true: boys aren’t born with violence in their DNA. They may learn it, however, from their social environments, especially from messages that come from parents, friends, media, gaming—and virtually everywhere – about how “real men” should act.

Too many young people still accept a patriarchal worldview wherein “real men” must never show vulnerability, only power and anger. Where a young man’s value is directly proportionate to his tally of “sexual conquests,” and where cisgender and heterosexual identities and whiteness are privileged. Where fear, weakness, sadness, or internal doubts must be hidden away while navigating a narrow path of masculine expectations.

Where does this path lead? It’s clear to anyone who looks: when we limit the range of emotions and identities that men are allowed to express, and shame them for showing any vulnerability, we point them directly to anger and aggression instead.

But at the same time, a great many men and boys refrain from using violence, or even actively resist violence and oppression, in spite of these mainstream social and political messages and structures. The connections between masculine norms and violence are incredibly strong, but certainly not unbreakable.

As the most recent of many similar efforts to break this cycle, Promundo and the University of Pittsburgh co-developed Manhood 2.0—a gender-transformative, community-based program for adolescent young men. Manhood 2.0 puts grassroots nonprofits at the center of its efforts; these organizations often have the ability to reach youth at greater risk of exposure to violence and who otherwise have limited opportunities to participate in programs and services like this.

At first, the program targeted 16 neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where we observed a void of opportunities for young men to find structured community spaces.

The program rests on the simple, radical notion—supported by years of Promundo program evidence—that providing safe space for young men to discuss the complexities of masculine expectations with their peers and to support each others’ hopes for the future has transformative impacts on their lives.

The work in Pittsburgh, along with newer programming in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis, Minnesota, are among Promundo’s latest efforts in the U.S. to move beyond the notion that violence is natural and normal for men, instead engaging men as active, accountable participants in the fight against patriarchy. And we’re not alone—organizations like Futures Without Violence, Men Can Stop Rape, the Partnership for Male Youth and The Representation Project, to name a few, also work with young men directly to shift these norms.

Our experiences lead us to believe that it is time for significant changes in violence prevention programming. It is time to retire any model of violence prevention that ignores the roles of patriarchy, power, structural inequalities and harmful masculine norms in driving the perpetration of violence. It is time to talk directly and in as many ways as possible about the gendered underpinnings of sexual coercion, dominance and control, and actively promoting all people’s sexual and reproductive health, rights and agency. It is time to prioritize the voices, preferences and experiences of survivors of men’s violence—especially women and girls—in all research, programs and policy development towards violence prevention and response.

And it is time to engage the great many men, boys, women, girls and non-binary folks who already reject and resist violence as integral contributors to efforts to challenge harmful masculine norms.

Providing opportunities for young men to honestly and directly rethink, redefine, and change what it means to be a man—for themselves—is one imperative step toward detaching manhood from violence and transforming the future of manhood.

Brian Heilman is a Senior Research Officer at Promundo, where his work focuses on eliminating harmful masculine norms, preventing all forms of gender-based violence and achieving broader gender equality and social justice around the world. Brian is a co-author of the 2016 and 2017 State of the World’s Fathers reports; lead author of The Man Box study on harmful effects of rigid masculine norms in the U.S., U.K. and Mexico; and a co-author of multiple reports using International Men and Gender Equality Survey data. He holds a BA in English from Saint John’s University and an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Aapta Garg is a Program Officer with Promundo focusing primarily on Promundo’s U.S. programs. She previously worked at Vital Voices Global Partnership as Program Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean and as a Community Liaison and Legal Assistant at MFY Legal Services. Aapta received her Master’s Degree in International Development with a focus on Gender and Development from American University’s School of International Service and has a BA in Political Science and Hispanic Studies from Vassar College.

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