We Need Male Allies

April 16, 2009

“Men are essential to feminism and to ending sexual assault. If they weren’t, we’d already have ended it.”
— Jerin Alam, president, Hunter Women’s Rights Coalition, Hunter College, New York, during a workshop presentation

This week I attended Men Can Stop Rape’s first annual conference, focused on men and women as allies in the primary prevention of men’s violence against women. The conference brought together campus activists, crisis center employees, government officials, and nonprofit employees who all are striving to end sexual assault.

Ritu Sharma and Byron Hurt

Ritu Sharma and Byron Hurt

Timed during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the conference opened with a dialogue between a female and a male ally. Ritu Sharma, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, and Byron Hurt, a director/producer and founding member of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, sat on stage and spoke with each other about their work to address sexual violence and exchanged ideas about how women and men can better work together to address the problem. They talked through issues like the struggle to have women trust men as allies after being violated by violent men and how male allies still have to struggle every day to acknowledge their male privilege and not abuse it. I found the dialogue to be engaging, and I thought it set a great tone for the rest of the conference.

I’m still processing everything I learned during the two-day conference, but I’ll mention one theme I noticed among speakers and workshop presenters.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD)

Basically, every speaker or workshop presenter who had been working on sexual assault issues for many years, like Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Catherine Pierce, director of the Office on Violence Against Women in the U.S. Department of Justice, talked about or at least mentioned how wonderful it was to see men at the conference. When the anti-sexual assault movement began a few decades ago, the focus was helping victims and survivors with direct services and resources. Since most survivors are women, as are most of those who utilize such resources, women were the focus. Men were largely absent. They tended (and many still tend) to see violence against women and sexual assault as a “women’s issue” and not something they had (or have) to address because it did (or does) not concern them. Also, some women were hesitant to trust men as allies in the movement when faced with the question of including them.

Catherine Pierce

Catherine Pierce

Recently, there has been a shift among sexual assault activists and organizations to address prevention in addition to direct services to victims and to engage and include men in this work. Since most perpetrators of sexual assault are male — which is not the same as saying most men are perpetrators, because most are not — it is imperative for men to be part of the conversation and the effort to prevent sexual assault. Men look to other men for approval and for affirmation of their masculinity, so men can really make all the difference. As more men realize that sexual violence is not a women’s issue, particularly when one in six men are victims/survivors, and since most men know women or girls who have been assaulted or worry about being assaulted, hopefully more will help end it.

At the local level, conference attendees shared their experiences with organizing men around the issue on their campus or in their community. For example, a campus “chocolate and sex” night included frank discussions about consent and healthy sexual relations yet was advertised and framed in a nonthreatening, interesting way. It helped expose men to the concepts and opened the door to activism if they wanted to go that route. At a national level, Byron Hurt and Ben Atherton-Zeman talked about using theater, hip-hop, a documentary, and honest conversations to make issues of masculinity and sexual assault accessible to young men.

I left the conference heartened by all the work individuals are doing at local, state, and national levels, on campuses, in communities, and through government agencies. This is a great time to be involved in sexual assault activism because, with the growing pool of male allies, I think significant preventative change can occur.

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Holly Kearl By:   |   April 16, 2009


  1. I loved reading about the conference, and learning how men are getting involved in ways to prevent sexual abuse. I wish every male I knew could help out in some way and show us that yes, there are a lot of good males out there. Sadly, the good guys get under reported, of course, and so we as women, especially those of us who have been sexually assaulted, do have a trust issue. I think the more men are involved the more it can help us trust and the more we will realize that it is like the article said such a small percentage of males who are perpetrators. Go men! Thanks for being involved!

  2. Keith Smith says:

    My name is Keith Smith. I was abducted, beaten and raped by a stranger. It wasn’t a neighbor, a coach, a relative, a family friend or teacher. It was a recidivist pedophile predator who spent time in prison for previous sex crimes; an animal hunting for victims in the quite, bucolic, suburban neighborhoods of Lincoln, Rhode Island.

    I was able to identify the guy and the car he was driving. Although he was arrested that night and indicted a few months later, he never went to trial. His trial never took place because he was brutally beaten to death in Providence before his court date. 34 years later, no one has ever been charged with the crime.

    In the time between the night of my assault and the night he was murdered, I lived in fear. I was afraid he was still around town. Afraid he was looking for me. Afraid he would track me down and kill me. The fear didn’t go away when he was murdered. Although he was no longer a threat, the simple life and innocence of a 14-year-old boy was gone forever. Carefree childhood thoughts replaced with the unrelenting realization that my world wasn’t a safe place. My peace shattered by a horrific criminal act of sexual violence.

    Over the past 34 years, I’ve been haunted by horrible, recurring memories of what he did to me. He visits me in my sleep. There have been dreams–nightmares actually–dozens of them, sweat inducing, yelling-in-my-sleep nightmares filled with images and emotions as real as they were when it actually happened. It doesn’t get easier over time. Long dead, he still visits me, silently sneaking up from out of nowhere when I least expect it. From the grave, he sits by my side on the couch every time the evening news reports a child abduction or sex crime. I don’t watch America’s Most Wanted or Law and Order SVU, because the stories are a catalyst, triggering long suppressed emotions, feelings, memories, fear and horror. Real life horror stories rip painful suppressed memories out from where they hide, from that recessed place in my brain that stores dark, dangerous, horrible memories. It happened when William Bonin confessed to abducting, raping and murdering 14 boys in California; when Jesse Timmendequas raped and murdered Megan Kanka in New Jersey; when Ben Ownby, missing for four days, and Shawn Hornbeck, missing for four years, were recovered in Missouri.

    Despite what happened that night and the constant reminders that continue to haunt me years later, I wouldn’t change what happened. The animal that attacked me was a serial predator, a violent pedophile trolling my neighborhood in Lincoln, Rhode Island looking for young boys. He beat me, raped me, and I stayed alive. I lived to see him arrested, indicted and murdered. It might not have turned out this way if he had grabbed one of my friends or another kid from my neighborhood. Perhaps he’d still be alive. Perhaps there would be dozens of more victims and perhaps he would have progressed to the point of silencing his victims by murdering them.

    Out of fear, shame and guilt, I’ve been silent for over three decades, not sharing with anyone the story of what happened to me. No more. The silence has to end. What happened to me wasn’t my fault. The fear, the shame, the guilt have to go. It’s time to stop keeping this secret from the people closest to me, people I care about, people I love, my long-time friends and my family. It’s time to speak out to raise public awareness of male sexual assault, to let other victims know that they’re not alone and to help victims of rape and violent crime understand that the emotion, fear and memories that may still haunt them are not uncommon to those of us who have shared a similar experience.

    For those who suffer in silence, I hope my story brings some comfort, strength, peace and hope.

    My novel, Men in My Town, was inspired by these actual events. Men in My Town is now available.

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