Trigger warning: This post contains description of sexual violence.
What a very beautiful and uplifting evening we had on the Rutgers University-Newark, NJ campus. I was the speaker there for one of its Sexual Assault Awareness Month events. I talked about it from many angles: from my perspective as a man, and how my own past behavior led me to this work over 20 years ago. And how I continue to learn, heal, grow, understand and do the work.
But most important was when we opened the floor for the conversation. I asked males in the audience how they defined manhood. A lot of the usual terms came up like "provider" and "strong" and "responsibility." I responded those words could also apply to my single mother and most women I know. I added that it is interesting to me that wherever I go, terms like "peace" and "nonviolence" and "love" are rarely ever used to describe men and boys.
One young student, only 19, spoke about being drugged and raped when she was 17, losing her virginity in the process, followed by a massive wave of shame. She said she came out tonight because she wanted to hear what men had to say about sexual violence. She cried as she told her story, but it was powerful for her to share. She said he has gone from "victim" to "survivor" to "victor." And that she wants to write and share her story with others.
The audience likewise talked about practical ways to bring more awareness and involvement around sexual violence. Yes, there are some males who've experienced it, no question. In fact, BK Nation, our organization, will be posting a blog very shortly on our website from a male who survived sexual abuse in his childhood. But statistics repeatedly show that women and girls worldwide are the most consistent victims of sexual assault and abuse.
One thing the 19-year-old said that truly resonated: "This is not just a woman's issue. This is everyone's issue." That made me think of how women like Bell Hooks and Gloria Steinem said to me many, many years ago that violence against women and girls will not end until we men and boys help to make it end.
I also want to shout out my friend Joy Latahara Smith for being there. She is a proud Syracuse alum originally Jersey now working at Rutgers. Joy offered some great insight around the intersections of race, gender and class, mental health, the equality of women and men and what community institutions like churches, for example, should be doing to lead these kinds of conversations on a consistent basis. I was also struck by the words of one gentleman, an ex-Marine, who talked so very honestly about the kind of manhood he was taught, and how he had to re-program himself differently after leaving the military.
This re-programming allows him to work on campus to confront sexism/sexual violence head on. After the conversation, we marched around campus with flashlights as part of "Take Back The Night," and then had a candlelight vigil in a circle as we again discussed ways to continue this work. And we had a moment of silence of victims and survivors of sexual violence. We were told more males were present than in previous years, a very good and necessary thing. But still so much more work to do, so many more lives that need healing and empowerment.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read all posts in the serieshere.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit theNational Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.