When I was invited to perform at the TEDx Gastown Women’s Conference in Vancouver, the last thing I thought it would do is inspire me to help men.
I came to the Fearless conference in late May ready to speak about the female body and connect with strong women—entrepreneurs, writers, adventurers, healers, artists, and leaders—on women’s issues.
I left with something even more profound: a change of heart.
One of those entrepreneurs, Devon Brooks, co-founder of Blo Blow Dry Bar (a blow-dry-only hair salon with locations across North America), was the one who made it happen. In her talk, Brooks told the story of her rape at 18, being held at knifepoint in her early 20s, and her consequent PTSD diagnosis.
She also told a story called “Sunday Brunch” that shifted my understanding of what it means to heal from harassment and assault. Brooks explained to us in her talk how, one winter day, as she locked her car to join her husband and son for brunch, a group of men hurled vulgarities at her. Later, surprised to see them in the same restaurant, she approached them. “Rage would have been easier,” she told the audience.
Instead, she sat down with the men and asked: “Do you have any idea how you made me feel? I’m a rape survivor. When you say those things to me, I feel unsafe in my own body.”
In her words, Brooks carried the air of someone who, long ago, used to choose rage. Someone like me. Someone like most women. In my own speech, I talked about sexual harassment at a young age, the medicalization of the female body, and the need to speak openly.
“You’re sexy!” the boys would yell at me on the playground, “I wanna have sex with you!”
I’d go home shaken, unsure of what the hell that even meant.
I’d gotten past rage by the time I’d written my poems, but I wasn’t sure what was next. Could it be that Devon was right?
I sat there stunned by her bravery, and unsure of my own.
I asked myself, “Can we really use love—not rage—to reach those men who just don’t ‘get it’?'”
If I’d asked Brené Browne, author of Daring Greatly, the book that inspired the TEDxGastown Women’s Conference, she would have told me that we have no other choice. In one chapter of her book on vulnerability, Browne discusses the difficulty men have with vulnerability. She says, “men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: do not be perceived as weak.” Cue the conquest mentality that leads some men to sexually pressure, assault, and harass women in an effort to prove their manliness.
In light of this, I think that Brené Browne would have re-worded my question to, “How can we use our own vulnerability to access men’s?” After all, like the schoolyard bully and his victim, the true root of the problem is not how they treat us, but how they see themselves.
Amongst our men today there is a gaping collective wound. We are facing a generation of men that is struggling to align itself with ever-changing social norms, while still being constricted by traditional expectations of what and how a man is supposed to be.
In her chapter on men, Browne explains that because they are so afraid of being seen as weak, men live in “boxes” of shame. One male participant affirms, “You only really have three choices. You spend your life fighting to get out [and] you always feel angry and you’re always swinging. Or you just give up and you don’t give a shit about anything. Or you stay high so you don’t really notice how unbearable it is.”
That’s not exactly an environment that encourages love, respect, and intimacy in relationships.
In the media, it doesn’t get better. In Hollywood, our male protagonists are still James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Don Draper—stoic, cool, panty-collecting “lone wolves”—the only kind of man men are allowed to be. We’ve yet to see a male protagonist who shows his children he loves them, listens as his wife talk about her feelings, express his own sadness and fear, and respect himself. These images simply don’t exist, and it’s a tragedy.
On the other hand, we are slowly seeing an increase in strong, independent, feminine female leads like in Mad Max and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games on the big screen. Our young men are falling short of both the impossible and outdated traditional standards of masculinity and women’s expectations of them as equals in the modern world where gay marriage is legal and Bruce just became Caitlin.
In my own research for a project called The Storied City: Montreal, a participant recounted to me how he’d broken down after a female friend pressed him, in frustration, to talk about his feelings after his divorce. “She was more equipped to talk about these emotional issues. I was not. I lacked in training. I didn’t have that kind of connection with my own emotions. When we are growing up men are completely disconnected, or we are demanded to be disconnected, from our feelings. No crying, no vulnerability.”
Yet, in Daring Greatly, Brown writes, “In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us [women] recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.” Women learn these images, too. That’s why it is absolutely vital that, like the damsel in distress, we all subvert harmful male stereotypes that make it difficult for men to be their true, loving selves.
So how do we do that?
In the spiritual systems of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc., the balance between masculine and feminine is essential to growth and wellbeing. We all naturally have our own unique combination of these qualities. The problem is that in the West, we’ve separated ourselves into two genders, each of which is allowed to have but one set.
But over the past 150 years (in the West), women have beat this segregation.
We’ve gone through suffrage, the workforce, and abortion rights with the help of masculine qualities—qualities like assertiveness, forward motion, ambition, analysis, and independence. Heterosexual men haven’t had these same human rights-based struggles, so they need to be encouraged—not shamed or shunned—to express their emotions (not just anger), be nurturing, and speak about their struggles. We need to instill the feminine—receptiveness, emotional awareness, intuitiveness, and communication—in future generations so that our boys can grow up to be well-balanced men who are spiritually strong and have no rhyme or reason to harm or disrespect others.
If we want to truly engage men at the heart level (which is where healing happens) we have to let them wobble, stumble, and even cry. If we can do this as a society, we will not only ensure the well being of boys and men, but the safety and joy of women and girls. Until the roots of male aggression—frustration, pain, a sense of failure, shame—are addressed, they will continue to be expressed at the expense of women.
Yes, rage is easier, and yes, we women still need to defend ourselves and fight for our rights, but if we really want to see a shift, let’s teach through vulnerability, if not through love itself.
Author: Anja Novković
Assoc. Editor: Kendra Hackett / Editor: Renee Picard