“Yes, And.” This is the basic tenet of improv. By design, it’s bound to make most people uncomfortable before they can experience the spaciousness that rule makes for creativity, collaboration, and exploration. Full disclosure: though I’ve never done improv I really like the idea of it; however, as a woman, saying yes to everything, on principle alone, sounds terrifying.
The accounts of #MeToo, combined with the onslaught of Hollywood- and Congress-related disclosures, exemplify a seemingly universal experience for us: no means yes, silence means yes, fear means yes, coercion means yes, fighting back means yes, wanting some but not all means yes, ambition means yes, curiosity means yes, uncertainty means yes, presence means yes … being a woman means yes. Again and again, our boundaries are ignored, our desires are disregarded, and we are treated as expendable.
Right now, we are living through what feels like this watershed moment when men who use verbal, emotional, and physical sexual violence are not only being exposed, they are also going down. We are experiencing the power of solidarity, sharing, and bearing witness. Men are learning, some for the very first time, what it really means when women say yes … to our boundaries, desires, and value. Women are bold and brave and righteous! I love us! YES, and I want redemption for men.
I want redemption for the men whom I love as well as the ones I loathe, because I want more than punishment; I want the violence to end. Accountability and redemption need to be treated as codependent — not mutually exclusive. The cycles of violence will not stop by only picking offenders off one by one. So, what if we keep reclaiming yes and make that a tenet of consent rather than its endpoint? What if we then apply the principles of improv — like listening, intention, character, and team work — to engaging boys and men as allies; to building real inroads for restorative justice, healing, and learning; and to transforming our relationships with each other so that we can be creative and collaborative as we explore what safer spaces for everyone look like?
It’s ambitious, I know. It’s more than a hashtag, PSA, or article can accomplish. It’s also more than punitive measures alone can achieve. It’s complicated and requires that as members of this society we all try to understand gender-based violence on a continuum and through a lens of contribution rather than blame. For men, it necessitates an ability and willingness to do hard work, reckoning, and a type of deprogramming. For women, it means that when we can and when it feels safe enough, we explore these dynamics as shapers of society and not only as victims of it. It may not be our responsibility to prevent men’s violence against women and girls; yes, and it is our opportunity to work with them in doing so.
My own journey has taken me from extreme animosity about masculinity to understanding that holding men and boys accountable must also include understanding how they are harmed by misogyny as much as they are formed by it. As American author, feminist, and social activist bell hooks writes, “the first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
When I began working at Men Can Stop Rape nine years ago, I thought that the kind, respectful, and equitable men I knew were the exception and not the rule; I thought I hated everything about male culture; and I thought of masculinity much like original sin itself. It was an inherent evil to be rooted out, and I could not fathom that there was any expense for men associated with their privilege. I’ve had to do my own reckoning of sorts, both professionally and personally, to get to a place where I can internalize that while most violence is committed by men, most men are not violent. Yes, and the liberation of women and girls is intimately tied to the redemption of men.
At Men Can Stop Rape, we focus on engaging boys and men in gender-based violence prevention through the development of healthy, nonviolent masculinity; and in recent years we have expanded our youth development work to include programming for girls and young women that focuses on empowered womanhood. Women and girls must be included in engaging men work, as the victims of male violence, yes, and also as integral shapers of masculinity and allies to healthy, nonviolent men. The harmful messages that boys and men receive about what it means to be a man do not only come from other men; and girls and women must be empowered and ready to receive a world that is not fraught with men’s violence against them.
Challenging the harmful social norms that create men who use violence and silence those who do not is necessary and important work. I believe that boys and men are our greatest, most under-utilized resource in ending violence against women and girls. If we are to create sustainable change, we must effectively engage men and boys; and to do that we must understand masculinity, empathize with the harm it causes everyone, celebrate the positive aspects of it, and create roads for redemption. We should love boys and men enough to hold them accountable, expect more from them, be willing to teach them, and have the compassion to learn from them. We need to complicate our values about men who use violence; our heroes and our nightmares may be living in the same person. This work might not be for you right now. It doesn’t have to be. Yes, and if any of this resonates with you, perhaps one day you will try. The Talmud — a religious doctrine of Judaism — advises, “do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Rachel Friedman is the Deputy Director of Men Can Stop Rape, a national nonprofit that seeks to mobilize men to use their strength for creating cultures free from violence, especially men’s violence against women and girls. Their primary initiatives are youth development programs for boys, young men, girls, and young women; public education campaigns and technology platforms that address consent, bystander intervention, and healthy, nonviolent masculinity; and training and technical assistance for international, federal, state, and grassroots organizations that seek to engage boys and young men in gender-based violence prevention. To learn more visit www.mencanstoprape.org.