Men & Boys in the Movement Against Sexual Assault - A Personal Reflection

Derek Owens is new to the Prevention Education team at MCRCC and started facilitating MyStrength clubs at Marina, Seaside, Salinas, and Gonzales High Schools at the beginning of September.

As the new MyStrength facilitator at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, the majority of my time is spent facilitating sexual violence prevention curricula to groups of young men throughout Monterey County. Since July, when I took the position, I’ve been spending time reflecting on the experiences that inspired my passion for this work. Having grown up in a home where my feminist mother directed dinnertime conversations, I’ve had countless discussions about the prevalence of domestic violence, low rape conviction rates, the media’s influence on gender stereotypes, and myriad other topics related to gender equity and gender-based violence. I’m incredibly thankful to have had my mother’s strong influence, and I attribute much of what I believe now to those discussions throughout my childhood.

I remember one such discussion vividly - it has allowed me to put myself back into the mind of some of the young men I work with, and will hopefully provide me the opportunity to help some students change the lens through which they see the world. It was an argument we had in the car while driving to a cabin in the woods of North Carolina for our annual holiday vacation. I was 18 years old and had just finished my first semester of college. Although I’d been strongly influenced by my mother’s ideals, my socialization as a straight white man was in full swing after having spent a few months without those frequent evening reminders of the pervasiveness of unhealthy masculinity in society. My mom and sister were engaging me in a conversation about toxic masculinity and rape culture on college campuses and I snapped back -

“I’m sick of being associated with all the guys who do messed up, creepy stuff! I’m not like them, and I don’t appreciate you generalizing it by saying, ‘men are the ones perpetrating violence.’ I’m not one of those men, but I’m still a man and you’re offending me!”

The conversation ended abruptly to stifle my defensive attitude to the theme. I’m not sure why it’s this argument that stuck so firmly in my mind, but it likely has to do with the fact that I have frequently revisited and reflected on it, coming to understand that my stance on the issue was misinformed and troublesome. Looking back, I feel frustrated that I didn’t recognize my privilege as a straight white man, and that I was unaware of my complicity in the systematic and institutionalized oppression of people of other genders resulting in the perpetration of violence by men. I’ve since chosen to use my frustration as motivation for action, calling attention to the issues that arise when viewing the world through such a problematic lens.

I’ve learned that it is not uncommon for men to react defensively, similar to how I did in that moment. We see this defensiveness through men’s response to stories shared by survivors of sexual violence. Frequently, including in response to the #metoo movement, #notallmen begins trending on social media, acquitting any man who hasn’t committed rape of his guilt in the continued existence of rape culture. This hashtag creates a false binary of “good men” and “bad men,” and allows anyone who uses it to remove themselves from the fight to end gender-based violence. Men need to get rid of this passive and short-sighted attitude, expecting praise for simply not sexually assaulting and harassing people. Instead, we need to listen to survivors, educate ourselves and other men, and work actively to end a culture that allows the existence of gender-based violence to persist.

MyStrength is MCRCC’s Rape Prevention Education club geared towards high school students who are men, trans, or gender non-conforming.

My new position at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center has provided me a new opportunity to actively work to end sexual and gender-based violence. MCRCC facilitates two high school clubs, MyStrength for man-identifying students and My Life for woman-identifying students. These clubs take place weekly at six schools across Monterey County as a part of our Rape Prevention Education program focused on the primary prevention of sexual violence. The objectives of the MyStrength club curriculum are: (1) recognize attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate sexual violence, (2) unpack toxic masculinity and challenge traditional gender roles, (3) discuss the elements necessary for healthy relationships in-depth, and (4) provide examples of role models that broaden and enhance club members’ understanding of manhood and masculinity. By accomplishing these objectives, we hope to foster a generation of men who actively work alongside women, trans and gender non-conforming folks to dispel rape myths, end rape culture, and create a world without sexual violence.

As someone who grew up trying my hardest to fit into the “act like a man box” despite my awareness of its existence, I anticipate how difficult it will be to convince high school students that they don’t have to constrain themselves to a false paradigm - especially at a time in young people’s lives when they want nothing more than to fit-in. I do, however, believe wholeheartedly that sowing these seeds in the minds of today’s youth will result in a fruitful harvest that we can all share tomorrow.

Primary prevention approaches aim to stop sexual violence before it occurs; preventing initial victimization and perpetration. -