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Men Need To Step Up

Dani Meier

I spoke yesterday at an event recognizing International Women's Day. As a man who's been involved in mental health treatment and prevention activities for a couple of decades, I was asked to speak, I believe, because in recent years and months, there have been prominent stories about epidemics of domestic violence and sexual assault on college campuses, in the military, in the NFL, and appallingly it seems, almost anywhere that Bill Cosby might have been between the years of 1965 and 2008.

Historically, as we know, charges of sexual assault and domestic violence were turned on the victim. "Why did she go out with him if she wasn't asking for sex?" And "what did she do to make him so angry?"

The culture of blaming the victim is not gone, but it is changing.

For decades, rape allegations against a cultural icon like Bill Cosby got no traction. Today the tide has shifted in a way that may not result in a single prosecution, but reflects growing awareness about date rape.

For decades, athletes were protected by a macho culture of unspoken immunity. Today, only the most fossilized of dinosaurs could see that elevator video of NFL star Ray Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious and imagine she must have done something to deserve it.

The fact is, nonetheless, that women can't do this alone. And more importantly, they shouldn't have to.

I believe in my heart, that most men would agree. We are talking about preventing violence, after all, towards their daughters, mothers, wives, sisters, friends and co-workers.

Inevitably, however, there is a small handful of men who are like the crying baby on a plane: They are louder and more annoying than their numbers suggest. They'll say things like "Oh sure: ALL men are bad. We're all violent rapists."

No. That's not the point. In fact, that's exactly the opposite of the point.

The point is that most men aren't.

When we examine violence against women in the military or on college campuses, and in society at large, it is a small percentage of men most commonly perpetrating these crimes. And they are repeat offenders.

For those individuals, we need a responsive and effective criminal justice system.

But prevention is preferable.

And that involves reaching out to the other 90-95% of men.

Too many of those men are bystanders. They oppose violence against women but don't feel empowered to do anything about it. They don't realize they have the power to help that drunk sorority freshman at the frat party. They have the power to reach out to a coworker who shows signs of abuse.

A new public awareness campaign in the UK uses a high tech billboard that shows the bruised face of a domestic violence survivor. The words next to her say "Look at me."

As people stop to look at the image, through the miracle of modern technology, the bruises on the woman's face start to clear. If no one is gazing at the billboard, the bruises remain. The message that flashes on the screen says "If you can see domestic violence, you can stop it."

That is the first step. One we haven't finished. Improving awareness. Building knowledge.

Blaming the victim was an effective way to silence the victims and silence promotes ignorance, denial and inaction.

As most of us relearn every New Year's Day, change is hard enough when we know what needs to be changed. We make resolutions to change things we know with certainty would make us healthier. And still, making those small changes can be monumental.

Change on a societal or global scale is far harder, especially if the culture around us doesn't even acknowledge there's a problem. So we have to keep getting the word out there. Violence against women is real.

It's real in India where the brutal gang rape and murder of 23 year old medical student Jyoti Singh broke the silence about rape in that country.

It's real in Nigeria where hundreds of girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, a group whose name translates to "Western education is a sin." Especially the education of girls.

And it's real in the U.S. where a Rand survey revealed 20,000 sexual assaults in the U.S. military in 2014, an estimate that is likely on the low side given underreporting of rape.

The effects of this violence ripple through society, here and globally, in ways that inhibit the broader quest for gender equality.

Last year's World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report showed a 6% improvement on closing the gap on women's political and economic participation since 2006. At that rate of change, it will take another 81 years to close the gap completely.

We can do better than that. The process of change needs to accelerate and men need to be part of that global transformation for gender equality.

Change begins on a personal level where, as Gandhi says, we can be the change that we want to see. How many of us lose sight of the ways that our own actions don't always reflect our values? It's one reason I like being a therapist, to help individuals create alignment between who they are and who they want to be. For their own good and the good of the world.

Change also evolves on the grassroots level where we are starting to see men and boys shift their attitudes and behaviors towards women. This was the focus of the Real MEN's Project I cofounded in 2003: start young, with fathers teaching their sons that violence against women is unacceptable, that being a real man stands for something different. There's the "Not in My Squad" campaign started by an Army Sergeant to engage male soldiers in ending sexual violence in the army. There's the White Ribbon campaign which has spread now to 40 countries. And just a couple of weeks ago, men in Turkey took to the streets to protest the death of a 20 year-old Turkish woman who resisted a sexual assault and was murdered. The men wore miniskirts to refute the notion that there is any excuse for rape.

As for institutional change, that's often the slowest change of all. But there is a saying that if the people lead, the leaders will follow. The leaders at the NFL would have preferred to keep quiet about domestic violence in the NFL. But when that elevator video went viral—through the democratizing effect of the internet—the people spoke. And the NFL leadership had no choice but to acknowledge the need for change. And change will come.

For those of us in leadership positions in business, education, health care, government,– we have an opportunity and an obligation to make sure we don't just follow, we lead.

We lead by example, demonstrating that our companies, our schools, our institutions stand up for what's right in the workplace and in the world.

That cultural transformation is ongoing. And men need to be a part of it.

Men need to be part of a cultural tide that replaces hurt with healing, replaces submission with success, replaces equivocation with equality.