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Eleven might sound like a young age to talk to a boy about the birds and the bees, much less educate him on how his gender is responsible for the majority of sexual assaults that occur in the world. Most parents would probably want to table that one until their son is older. But one nonprofit, MenCanStopRape.org, is hoping to start just that conversation through school outreach programs that target boys and men ages 11-22. Their goal, says Adrian Valdivia, manager of national programs for the organization, is to begin a dialogue early on about healthy masculinity, gender bias and what it means to be a man.
“Healthy masculinity means you have a man who can communicate with women … as peers and allies, instead of the traditional way where women are objects or less than men,” says Valdivia.
Founded in 1997, MenCanStopRape.org promotes “strength without violence,” and advocates there say their end goal is to “prevent all forms of physical and sexual violence.”
On average, there are more than 237,000 victims, age 12 and older, of rape and sexual assault each year in the U.S. Nearly half of these victims are under age 18.
Teach Kids About Gender Bias, Changing Stereotypes
Valdivia says the overall effect of their outreach is helping to bring about a renaissance. In schools where young men had never before been challenged to define what masculinity meant, exploring the definition of a “strong man” can open up a whole new world. “We’re teaching males to confront negative stereotypes that tell men they’re not supposed to cry, they’re supposed to be strong, and they need to be aggressive and violent.
“We ask them, ‘Who’s the real man—LeBron James or the Pope?’ And then we ask them to start thinking about who are the strongest men in their lives. They might say their grandfathers or uncles. The strongest men cry, are affectionate toward them—they’re not strong by hurting someone. It has nothing to do with what society says a ‘real’ man is.”
Valdivia says MenCanStopRape.org has also started programs targeting girls and young women to talk to them about femininity. “I’ve had young men say to me, ‘You tell me it’s OK to cry, but when I meet a woman, she’s still reacting in a particular way.’” A way, he says, that doesn’t often support nontraditional masculinity.
All of these lessons, says Valdivia, help young people recognize their gender biases, something so internalized that they don’t even realize they exist. “We get young men to understand how they might contribute to rape culture by the way they treat women. They might think there’s nothing wrong with whistling at a woman, calling a woman the b-word or telling their daughters they throw like a girl,” says Valdivia. But underneath those actions, he says, is the idea that women are less than men, or that women are men’s servants.
“It takes some time [to understand], but then they come to this place where they can say, ‘If this is happening to me, what’s happening to other young men, to women?’”
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