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Vigilantism no fix for gender violence

The Vancouver Sun by Catherine Murray and Jen Marchbank 24 November 2011

Public support for the four cloaked young men from Chilliwack, who trolled online for men soliciting young women for sex, shows a desire to take a stand on gender violence in British Columbia. However, outing such pedophiles is not a reality show, and vigilantism is hardly the right response. But this episode proves two things.

First, sexual predation, assault and verbal violence against young people continue to be all too prevalent. Oxfam says that one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some way. In Canada, just under 40 per cent report they too have been a victim of sexual assault over their lifetime. Twelve per cent of women 18-24 report a stalking incident last year. Too often the danger is not from strangers. Statistics Canada finds that the most likely source of such violence in Canada is intimate partners. Among aboriginal women, gender variant, gay or lesbian kids and disabled people, the risk is three times higher.

Second, some young men, far from living the stereotype of beer-fuelled maniacs harassing women in Vancouver’s Entertainment District, want to act and speak out against gender violence in a way that plays on their strengths, both mythical and real. An ally is an individual who speaks out and stands up for a person or group that is targeted and discriminated against or treated unfairly. But how do you recruit more male allies to fight gender violence in B.C.?

As with many other forms of violence, prevention efforts have largely focused on teaching those potential victims most at risk how to avoid abuse — telling women to protect their drinks against the date rape drug. What we need instead are strategies to change the attitudes and behaviours that lead to such violence. Without the participation of men, women and those who challenge the gender binary, primary intervention strategies are bound to fail.

B.C. does have groundbreaking campaigns combating gender violence. The Don’t Be That Guy campaign features posters that shatter stereotypes: “Just because you help her home doesn’t mean you get to help yourself.” It holds potential offenders responsible, and involves local organizations like Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), the Battered Women’s Shelter Services, BC Women’s Health Centre, the Vancouver police department and Bar Watch. Be More Than A Bystander, a partnership between the B.C. Lions and EVA (Ending Violence against Women) is aimed at increasing awareness of and understanding about the impact of men’s violence against women. Lions’ icons will use their status and public profile to urge everyone to “break the silence on violence against women.” The growing coalition supporting this two-year initiative includes We Can BC.

A recent Ontario study by the White Ribbon Campaign (2011) on ways to engage men and boys to reduce and prevent gender violence suggests men respond better to being shown the “right” way to do things than to being scolded about the “wrong” ways. Locate and value what men are already doing right and connect it to positive outcomes that reduce and prevent gender-based violence, which is estimated to cost Canada about $4 billion a year.

The tag line “My Strength Is Not For Hurting” gets further with teens than demonization of masculinity. Effective bystander intervention is one of the more promising and researched areas for men’s positive roles in preventing assault, interrupting sexist/objectifying remarks about women, stopping victim-blaming and sabotaging male enabling behaviours. In addition, the organization Out in Schools involves gay/straight alliances from high schools across the Lower Mainland to produce high-impact public service videos to combat homophobic bullying.

Evoking empathy by acknowledging shared weakness also works. Asking young men if they or their friends have experienced some form of sexual violence (physical discomfort, unwanted personal touching, power imbalance) is a good way to recruit more allies. While, sadly, we know that many boys experience sex abuse and that it is under-reported, girls are still much more likely to be targets.

Unlike Ontario, B.C. has no sexual violence prevention plan. Vancouver, unlike Toronto or Montreal, has no local chapter of the White Ribbon campaign, started in 1992 by Jack Layton and Dr. Michael Kaufman, and active in more than 60 countries. The campaign is run by young men for young men, to engage them in education and intervention strategies against gender violence.

Gender violence is a complicated issue, but more alternative scripts for recruiting male allies in the battle against it have to be developed in the Lower Mainland.

Superheroes come in many guises, but vigilantism isn’t necessary to make real social change.

Jen Marchbank is a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies and explorations and teaches a course on gender violence at Simon Fraser University Surrey. Catherine Murray is a professor of communication and chair of gender, sexuality and women’s studies.