When we become divided trying to Break Stereotypes
This year, we began talking about the ways our society builds a foundation for sexual violence. We looked at unpacking the way privileged individuals inherit an entitlement to other people’s bodies, and how cis-gender straight white men carry more privilege than anyone who identifies as anything else. We also spoke about how the ways people are expected to behave in our society impact the way we treat one another.
Gender roles are just that: cultural norms that govern the way people are expected to behave depending on their gender identity. In a time when “Gender Reveal” parties dictate the clothes and toys we buy and language we use to reference an unborn baby, it is clear that gender is still very strictly regulated in our society. We demand that male identifying individuals assert dominance in life, take charge and be empowered, while women are shaped to take up as little space as possible, nurture the people in their lives and experience wide arrays of ever-changing emotions. There are very clear lines between what is acceptably masculine and feminine. Anyone who falls outside those boxes is vulnerable to shaming, ridicule and even aggression.
Over the past few years, women have been shedding their mild manners to deconstruct and name the oppression they face on a daily basis. Women are feeling empowered to stand up and reclaim their bodies as they rip wounds wide open for the whole world to see in the #metoo campaign, call out the pillars of our communities for sexual violations and demand restitution for the pain the world has taught them to accept for generations. Women are screaming for change, breaking the silence and shattering the echo chambers they have been living in. I, too, am screaming for change; I, too, feel the frustration as I run into the walls of apathy in our community. I feel hopelessness as I watch survivors be told their trauma is not actually violence, rage as women’s equality starts being discussed as though we have surpassed its achievement.
Sexual violence has long been thought of as a women’s issue. It happens predominantly to women—which means women have fought hard throughout the years to make it stop. Grassroots organizations developed into house advocates and support workers who could help other women in need, and they became the faces of the movement. Although women have led the movement to challenge sexual violence, sexual violence is not an issue for women alone.
According to Statistics Canada data from 2014, 94 per cent of the time, perpetrators of sexual violence are men. So how do we get men to stop perpetrating these crimes? Men have to start talking. We need men to start talking about women—but more importantly, we need them to start talking about themselves. These crimes are not happening because men need to understand women better, but because they need to understand themselves better. We need to help them deconstruct the gender box that society puts men in—where we tell men that they should deal with their problems in isolation, that feeling anything but anger is being a “pussy” and that they should use all their tools available to assert dominance in their lives. But when the only tools we give men are physical force and anger packaged in a privileged body, are we surprised that violence is the outcome?
This month, the UNBSU launched a campaign to do just that: to start reflecting how masculine stereotypes restrict male identifying individuals from accessing all the tools at their disposal. Were there missteps in this campaign? Sure; no campaign will hit every target and speak to every audience. However, the campaign has garnered so much negative attention that the initiative has been grounded and the conversations it hoped to spark have stopped.
Critical reflection and dialogue about this campaign are important parts of unpacking complex issues like gender roles and stereotypes. However, when this criticism is such that it effectively shuts down dialogue, we miss the chance to better understand each other and, in this case, the various perspectives—including men’s—on masculinity in the post-secondary space. This is not helpful to any of us. By annihilating efforts made with the best of intentions, we don’t allow space for conversation, nor the evolution of thought.
This is not to say that the UNBSU won’t bounce back with an even better campaign next semester—because maybe they will—but this knee-jerk criticism has caused this conversation to regress to the point where people are afraid to discuss “masculinity” at all for fear of backlash.
For example, the UNBSU and engineering student groups have been working intensely at developing an approach to dealing with issues surrounding masculinity—particularly the rates of sexual violence in STEM—by preparing events such as a panel on sexual harassment in the workplace, toxic masculinity and inclusivity within engineering. However, because of this antagonistic climate, people are veering away from conversations that examine masculinity at all at a time when male-dominated faculties like engineering need this conversation the most.
Men involving themselves in conversations about the ways gender roles and stereotypes contribute to sexual violence in post-secondary institutions is an integral part of the real work of creating gender equality. So let’s not silence one another as we all stumble through our attempts at societal improvement. Let’s lift each other up and work collaboratively to end gender based violence through whatever steps are necessary.