In the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, women spoke of experiences of harassment, violence and fear ingrained in their daily routines with a roar so deafening that it’s impossible for men and boys to ignore even those who were sure to be aware and to do their bit.
But while it ultimately forces many to face the uncomfortable question of how to be a better ally, soul-searching comes late in most men’s lives.
To help solve this problem for the next generation of men, I’m one of the hundreds of volunteers who run workshops with teens in schools across the country – and I hear their straightforward, unvarnished take on it. that they think they are a “man” and a “woman”.
We encourage them to be honest and open about what they think, based on their individual identity influenced by factors such as race, class and sexual orientation. But, equally important, we wonder how these things are shaped by the world around them, through advertising, the media, their peers and their families.
And while the conversations are always private, it’s safe to say that there are some common themes.
My colleague Amer Chada, another volunteer from the Beyond Equality charity that runs the sessions, says: âThe standard stereotypes we come across for men are physical strength, power, dominant qualities; for women, it’s basically caring, then sliding left, cooking and breasts – pure objectification. “
He adds that “everyone should be responsible for their actions, but children are innocent”. While this is true, it is rare for a workshop to go by without you encountering some form of shocking feeling.
It’s OK and we encourage it from the boys. In fact, the exercises we offer them are designed to get them to consciously think about why they hold these opinions so strongly from an early age.
We are not there to tell them what is morally right or wrong – for example, whether it is okay to cry in school. We let them talk to each other and let them challenge or be challenged by their peers on each other’s opinions.
But we try to dispel misconceptions, for example about the real rates of sexual assault of women and suicide of men.
A three-hour workshop is not necessarily going to cause boys to give up their worldview and sense of self, built from a myriad of factors. But it’s often the first time they’ve been seated together in class with a non-judgmental figure with whom they have no previous relationship – especially another man.
So it can spark an open mind, curiosity to learn more about themselves, and thoughts about how each person’s actions can affect others.
Ben Hurst, Facilitation Manager for Beyond Equality, says it’s “sometimes easy” for boys and men to “fall into this make-believe world of” we’re all fine, so everything is fine, “” but the events recent years have made more people realize that sexual harassment is not just a statistic.
âStatistics come from attitudes that exist, they don’t come out of nowhere. It often takes something really big and shocking for us to all notice it, âhe says. “It was the same last summer with George Floyd [whose killing by a white police officer sparked a global wave of protests]; it should be a time when people realize that these issues are real issues.
The ultimate goal of our work, which has reached around 5,000 schoolchildren so far, can best be summed up by the association’s general manager, Daniel Guinness, as âcreating safer streets and classroomsâ.
âThe message from women is so strong: we need men involved in this. This is not an attack on men, it is just a desperate call for men to take this seriously and think about ways in which they have been part of the problem and can now be part of the solution, âhe says. .
So men, if you want to be part of the solution, then look where the problems start. With impressionable young people who are ready to open their minds if only someone helps them to do so.
Aubrey Allegretti is a political correspondent for the Guardian and a volunteer host for the association Beyond Equality