I presented at the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma on August 24, 2015, where I also attended many workshops. One was about engaging men, as several usually are these days. I’ve written quite a bit about efforts to engage men in preventing violence against women and girls. My writing about this is known to take the form of critique. As with my MPA capstone, it is a critique intended to improve such efforts, to improve our chances of attaining our goal – creating healthy, thriving communities where there is no place for violence against women and girls. What I’ve learned over the years (that include running a statewide engaging men project) is that there is no place for critique. I was reprimanded in my most recent place of employment for it. My coworkers were retaliated against for supporting my critiques. We can’t afford to make men mad, I was told. There, I learned quickly that women must keep their mouths shut when it comes to the behaviors of men in the “movement” to prevent violence against women and girls. It was no different at this conference session.
As soon as I sat down, right in the middle of the room, I realized this would be a session consistent with my critiques. Immediately, a man from the National Network to End Domestic Violence began talking about his work with men and boys. The session was full of the typical, paternalistic idea that men and boys need to take care of women because they have mothers, daughters, and sisters. I sat there nodding and smiling because the speaker kept looking directly at me, directly into my eyes. I felt I owed him. I was complicit, a fact that infuriates me. Why are we, as women, so quick to protect these men? Well, one woman from a prominent and highly respected organization wasn’t. She raised her hand and said that while she agrees with the importance of engaging men in prevention efforts, she finds the tone of this session paternalistic and problematic. This approach, she asserted, perpetuates the very thing at the root of what we are working to prevent, patriarchy. Bad move.
Upon her comments, the speaker became very clearly agitated and defensive. He made no attempt to hide it. As the commenter was sitting behind me, I felt as though he was talking to me. Or rather, yelling. He reprimanded her for speaking up, for challenging him. This is what works for him, he contended, in clear agitation and anger. I witnessed a verbal beating. I witnessed a woman in the room vocally support him, saying what the critic said wasn’t at all what she heard from him. I witnessed, frankly, abusive behavior intended to silence an upity woman. I left the session feeling broken. Feeling weak. Powerless. This is what I critique. This is why I get in trouble.
When there is no room to critique engaging men efforts, there is no point engaging men. There is a large contingent of well-known prevention experts who share the critiques I’ve spoken aloud. But we rarely speak them. Why? Punishment. They know exactly how and why I was punished when doing this as part of my job, when invited to write about this, to train about this, in the “movement.” And they stay silent. Because that’s the only safe thing to do. I stayed silent in that session. I stayed silent before and after I became known for critiquing these efforts. Because I was chastised, not by men, but by women leaders in the field.
I’ve been retaliated against for suggesting we not have a man speak at a conference just because he’s a man. I’ve been targeted for examining women’s experiences working with men in the movement as my MPA capstone. I’ve been reprimanded for agreeing to present workshops about improving engaging men efforts. I’ve been told not to discriminate against men. I’ve been silenced.
The woman behind me in that session was punished, verbally and visibly by a powerful man in the field, for taking space and asserting herself. And the only other person to speak up was a woman who verbally and visibly punished her too. This is what has become of what was once a movement. Women are now being pushed out of organizations, out of prevention and advocacy spaces, when we speak up. It’s a time of silencing women and if we don’t turn things around, we’re going to end up back at the beginning. We cannot afford this. I am finally able to face the danger of critiquing engaging men efforts, in an attempt to improve them, and I can only hope others will be able to join me. It’s time.
I see it over and over again – I know that women in the field will be quick to seek out men who do this work and ensure them they do not agree with me. I will once more be retaliated against for speaking the truth of this experience. I ask, no, I demand that men who do this work not accept or expect women’s subservience. I left work I passionately believe in, what once was a movement about women’s right to be free from violence and abuse, because I was expected to endure and welcome that abuse. I was told to give up my power. I won’t do it. I refuse to be subservient. We can do better. I know it.