By Rus Ervin Funk
Since the fall of 2017, we have heard women sharing stories about sexual harassment and violence in what has come to be known as the #MeToo movement. Since the movement began, most men have been silent, with periodic affirming comments and displays of support.
This minimalist response from men has been the same in Louisville, Kentucky, where I live. In the midst of the national #MeToo movement, we have seen a member of our city council ousted for sexual harassment, along with a host of sexual harassment accusations coming out of our state capital. There have been multiple speak-outs and other public displays by and for women, with men’s role relegated primarily to expressing solidarity.
As a consultant and activist who focuses on gender and racial justice, I believe it is critical to engage men’s voices more directly in the dialogue, focusing particularly on our role responding to and preventing the harassment and violence that women—and some men—face. To hear men’s voice, I organized a panel in April including representatives from our metro (city) council, a school board member, a dean of students and Title IX coordinator at an area university, an evangelical Southern Baptist minister, and a professor who focuses on the study of masculinities.
The panel focused on two concerns: men’s responsibility to respond to #MeToo and men’s collective experience with #MeToo. From the outset, we acknowledged that the #MeToo movement had exposed the despicable reality that sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the threat of sexual violence is so prevalent that it has become normal for women. Since men make up roughly half of any community, if sexual harassment and violence is normal for women, it must also be normal for men. That led to the unavoidable question: what does it mean for men that men’s sexual harassment and violence is “normal”?
In the ensuing rich conversation several key points emerged:
- Men’s response to #MeToo needs to be informed by intersectional theory and practice. (By that we mean recognizing the ways that sexual harassment often intersects with other forms of oppression and harassment [racial, class, age, etc.] and as such, the responses and efforts need to take into account multiple forms of oppression. Similarly, men need to recognize and unpack, often, multiple expressions of privilege and entitlement that emerge and influence harassing behaviors.)
- We need to create more entry points for men to actively participate in #MeToo.
- We need to invite—and mobilize—men without shaming them, but rather supporting men to experience the full range of their emotional response to #MeToo, including their potential involvement in it.
- The focus of such efforts must include addressing the environments that foster men perpetrating harassment or assault more than on the individual men who choose to perpetrate such behavior. (This perspective makes it easier for men to see roles for themselves in the movement.)
- Efforts to mobilize men to respond to and prevent sexual harassment and violence must be accountable to women’s leadership.
Rather than a one-time “public awareness” event, the panel was designed as the kickoff for an ongoing initiative where men’s panel discussions (with some of the same and some other panelists) could be held in various communities in Louisville.
While I continued to organize additional panels, I realized there was a potentially more impactful process. I used the panel to launch a series of community conversations exploring men’s role(s) in responding to and preventing sexual harassment and violence. (The findings from these community conversations will be integrated with some lessons learned and data collected from the global gender equity community and incorporated into a city-wide strategic plan for engaging men that I’ll be submitting to Louisville officials in late 2018 or early 2019).
In addition, as a result of the panels and the work that emerged from them, I was able to work with Louisville mayoral candidate, Ryan Fenwick to develop a plank for his campaign platform on preventing sexual violence. (It is believed this marks the first time in Louisville’s history that preventing sexual violence has been a part of any campaign for a city-wide office). What follows is Fenwick’s proposed policy:
“Ending gender-based violence will be a priority for the administration. I will install a coordinator in the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods to focus on the unique circumstances surrounding violence targeted at a person because of their gender. The city should use a strategy with a particular focus on mobilizing and organizing men in our community to prevent gender based violence. We should focus on ending human trafficking to make sure we are not bringing in more trafficked men and women along with our increased tourism. We also have to prioritize funding our Office for Women to make sure we are building a city that is a great place for women to live and work.”
What began as a single panel has evolved into a much broader community conversation perhaps leading to real opportunities for substantive lasting change through longer and sustained efforts to help women feel safer and men to be more engaged in preventing violence.