I found myself struggling to hit the pad. With 12 other adult men, some of them martial arts experts and others trained in self defense techniques, it was difficult, in an adrenalized state, to really go for it and attack. I knew the person holding the pads, Cat. He and his wife, Liz, run a Dojo in Nashville, Tennessee and they teach everything from advanced martial arts to self-defense for women to ballistics training for SWAT teams to teen and youth organizations. This was not a matter of trust. For the past four days, Cat had gained my trust and I hopefully his. But this was, as I soon learned, part of the problem. The very fact that I knew him was a stumbling block to me using real force to defend myself.
Twelve of us had been brought together from all over the world. Me from Los Angeles, Vikrant from Nepal, Sergio from Costa Rica, Cat from Nashville, Daniel from New Jersey, Karli from Slovenia, James from Haiti, Dan from Maine, Eden from Israel, Abraham from Oregon via Mexico, Mark from Australia, and Jeremy from Boston. All of us, as we would learn, brought unique skills, background stories, and experiences to our work over the course of the week. We came with backgrounds in martial arts, education, international peace building, teen sports, domestic violence and abuse programs, self-defense training, and gender sensitivity training for camps and teen organizations. We ranged in age from 25 to 58.
Differences in color, language and ethnicity and religion were not seen as an impediment but were quickly recognized as an asset by the group. The common language and memories of our male upbringings and identities connected us quickly in both concrete and deeply emotional ways. All of us brought stories, concerns, pains, struggles which would bond us in ways I never could have imagined. And, our facilitator and leader for the week, Dr. Yaron Schwartz, was already equipped with years and years of professional experience and background regarding the question of masculinity, gender and how to raise and educate our boys and men.
This was not a matter of trust. For the past four days, Cat had gained my trust and I hopefully his. But this was, as I soon learned, was part of the problem. The very fact that I knew him was a stumbling block to using real force to defend myself.
We were all invited to apply and then were selected to participate in the first Men’s Incubator run by the brilliant and inspirational Yehudit Zicklin-Sidikman and her global organization ESD Global, which has trained well over 100,000 women across the world to assert themselves, be clear about their physical boundaries, to use their voices as a tool of strength, and when necessary, to take the physical action necessary to defend themselves against predominantly male perpetrators. The goal is to expand the range of options and choices that a woman has at her disposal whereby all situations are governed by nothing less than her own consent.
The statistics regarding sexual assault are devastating and break my heart everytime I read them. One in 5 women will be raped and 1 in 3 will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. This is in the United States and around the world, these numbers can be much, much worse. One in 4 girls will experience their first sexual assault before 18 in the United States. Over 96% of these abusers and attackers are men.
So, you must be asking, why were these 13 men being brought together? What problem were we being asked to solve? Were we being asked to somehow figure out how to stop males from violent behaviors against women? The answer is No and Yes. More directly, we were being asked to address another problem which may feed into the first one.
1 in 5 men are also sexually assaulted or abused by the time they are 18 and, as with females, a preponderance of these victims know or are related to their assailant. The vast majority are assaulted and abused by other men. The numbers in other parts of the world are even more damning, sometimes 2 to 3 times as high.
Young boys and men are abusive toward one another for specific reasons. Much of the initimatation, taunting, physical and sexual abuse that young men face serves a purpose: to perpetuate and maintain a particular social construction that gives men the sense that they have control over their world and the world of others, justified through intimidation and acts of physical agression. Hegemony does not magically or mystically materialize in our culture because of a hand shake, a wink, or a few convincing conversations. Male hegemony is a brutal force and those who do not conform to it, fear being ostracized and becoming victims of its violence. This behavior ranges from simple rejection of valid emotional responses and expressions to targeting, shaming, humiliation, and threats. As an educator of almost 30 years, I have seen this play out in schools from as young as 2nd grade all the way through high school. Everyone feels it, everyone knows it is happening in school bathrooms, empty classrooms, PE classes, locker rooms, hallways when adults are not looking, and in the school yard. We all turn ourselves into ostriches, sticking our heads in the sand because we just do not know what to do about it.
So, the 13 of us were brought together to seek solutions to a problem that has plagued humans and males for thousands and thousands of years. The work felt ambitious and audacious. In a future blog, as we continue to contribute to a more final product of our work, I will spell out the specifics of our program and what we intend to do. I can say, ironically, that we decided we need to teach our young men how to stand up for themselves, how to demand that they get to define their own masculinity, allowing them to be their best selves. This is why men need to be taught how to defend themselves, how to minimize and reduce the potential for real violence while maintaining their personal dignity.
Hegemony does not magically or mystically materialize in our culture because of a hand shake, a wink, or a few convincing conversations. Male hegemony is a brutal force and those who do not conform to it, fear being ostracized and victims of its violence.
While many of us recognized, over the course of the week, how we have benefited from this age old male social construction, we acknowledged that in our personal lives we had also suffered because of it, unable to stand up for others who needed our help against bullies or not being able to express our deepest emotions and fears to fathers, spouses, significant others and our children or being targets of violence ourselves.
While we worked for five and a half days and completed the awesome foundation for future programs and initiatives, 40 women were also being trained as trainers through the ESD global initiative/Impact model. They were attacking their own personal fears to bring back to their communities in Japan, the Domican Republic, Albania, Africa, Australia...etc, the tools to reshape the lives of the women (and men) in their communities. In their final graduation ceremony, I watched as Yehudit and Arlene Limas (an Olympic gold medalist and world champion in Taekwondo) motivated and urged and cajoled these women to push past their insecurities and fears to create something new for themselves. Every woman broke through.The tall ones, short ones, the strong ones and the small in stature. Every board got broken; every woman felt proud and raised up in their work.
Cat held the pad up and the other men cheered. I did my best. Violence terrifies me, the violence that I experienced growing up and the fear of the violence I might cause if I completely let myself feel worthy enough to defend myself. But after this past week, I felt hopeful that we can break through, to help our children become the best versions of themselves.