When Rebecca Carl was attacked outside of her university residence one year ago, her attacker taunted her before finally sexually assaulting her behind a dumpster, she said.
“He started walking really close behind me, so that he was stepping on the backs of my shoes,” she said. “When we were back close to my residence [door] there was a dark hallway where all the garbage bins go. He punched me straight in the face and then just started attacking me– there were scratches all over my chest, my shirt was ripped off me, and I just laid there on the ground crying because I didn’t have anything else I could do.”
Carl, who asked that her real name not be used, is one of many Canadian women who experience sexual and physical violence at the hands of men each year. Her attack, and others like it, are motivating young men at universities and non-profit groups across Canada to mobilize with the hope of recruiting men of all ages to stop the sexual and physical abuse of women.
These male activists face what they call a ‘taboo’ that surrounds the public discussion of sexual and physical abuse, and it is one of the most difficult issues they face when recruiting new advocates.
“The conversation with men in Canada about violence against women goes something like this,” said the executive director of the White Ribbon Campaign, Todd Minerson. “‘I don’t beat my wife, or my girlfriend, or my partner– go and talk to those guys who do.’”
“That’s one of the fundamental problems that we have to overcome– realizing that we all have a role to play in finding solutions for violence,” he said.
Ray Ervin is a Carleton student who is active on campus with the White Ribbon Campaign. “It’s really close to home for me,” he said. “My mom was in a very abusive relationship.”
Ervin said that he thinks there is a taboo surrounding the discussion of violence against women.
“I think that people just don’t want to get involved at all, or have anything to do with a cause where it’s easier just to stay quiet,” said Ervin.
“You try to speak up but people tend to really just ignore you,” he said.
Part of the reason that groups like the White Ribbon Campaign find it challenging to recruit men is that sexual assault and gender-based violence has never been seen to be a men’s issue, said Neil Irvine, a vice-president at Men Can Stop Rape.
Men Can Stop Rape is an international organization based in Washington, D.C that runs programs aimed at teaching high school and college men about how they can be allies to the anti-violence movement.
Irvine says that one of the big problems men need to recognize is the sometimes blurred line between consensual sex and sexual assault.
“Men say, ‘Oh, I’m just trying to seduce her and get her in the mood,’” Irvine said. “I think there are a lot of [times] where the guy walks away thinking ‘I didn’t rape her, I seduced her.’”
People need to think carefully about what assault is, said Danny Schwartz, a Carleton University student and anti-violence advocate.
Over the past few months Schwartz has been involved with many of the anti-violence discussions talking place on the Carleton campus, and is using his current involvement in the Carleton White Ribbon Campaign to jump-start his own anti-violence group, he said.
“Myself and a number of other people are starting a group called Men for Equality and Non-Violence,” Schwartz said. “A lot of the time these issues are framed as women’s issues. The group itself is going to be a space for people to discuss these issues, men and women included, because we feel that it’s not just a men’s issue or a women’s issue– it’s a people issue.”
“As much as [men] want to avoid personal connection, the reality is that 51 per cent of Canadian women suffer an act of violence sometime in their lifetime,” said Minerson. “They’re going to be our mothers, daughters, sisters, co-workers. We have to get past this lack of personal connection that [many] men have to the issue.”
There is research out of the United States that indicates one of the ways that adult men express their willingness to get involved in working to end violence against women is their willingness to talk to young men in their lives, said Minerson.
“The everyday heros in all boys’ lives are really influential in their development,” he said. “This means that these adult men have to do some reflection, and do some of their own work around understanding connections with violence against women in order to be really effective in talking to younger men.”
One Carleton fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, hosted the Our Role conference on campus in October to generate discussion among undergraduate men about gender violence under the guidance of two speakers with experience working with cases of violent domestic assault.
“The speakers ended up not so much giving speeches as leading a discussion,” said Schwartz. “They helped people think about the issues of why people are abused, as well as [the question of] what is abuse or assault.”
Given that the vast majority of sexual violence against women is done by men, it will take men standing up as vocal allies against violence in order to create environments where violence doesn’t happen, said Irvine.
“Men who have something to say about sexual violence often don’t speak up out of fear of becoming a target of violence by other men,” he said, “but we can’t just talk about violence against women or rape after it takes place.”
With the White Ribbon Campaign at Carleton, “what we do is ask you to sign a pledge,” said Ervin. “The pledge is that you always stand up against violence against women, whether you see it or not.”
“We’re kind of bringing it full-circle,” said Schwartz. “For the longest time violence has been an issue that mostly women have been dealing with, and we’re trying to balance the scale so we can find a middle ground and hopefully get a better solution.”