Since the #MeToo movement took off in fall 2017, men have occupied the role of outed alleged sexual predator (producer Harvey Weinstein, morning show host Matt Lauer, Sen. Al Franken) and to a lesser extent the role of sexual assault victim (actor Terry Crews).
But what about men who are neither victim nor victimizer? What role do they have in the burgeoning #MeToo movement?
Answering that question was the goal of an all-male panel hosted by RISE San Luis Obispo on Thursday evening; despite the event taking place on the same night as the downtown Farmers Market, the San Luis Obispo Library community room was packed with attendees.
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The panel was composed of five men: Abe Lincoln, executive director of the Noor Foundation; San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow; San Luis Obispo City Councilman Dan Rivoire; Nick Bilich, Cal Poly Men & Masculinity Program coordinator; and Matias Bernal, RISE interim associate director.
Each man brought a different perspective to the panel.
Lincoln said he views the problem of sexual assault and harassment as a healthcare crisis, saying that sexual aggressors “are not healthy people.” He asked the audience to raise their hand if they had gotten the flu this season and noted the eagerness to volunteer. Sexual assault and harassment victims often are much less willing to share their stories.
“There’s stigma in how we’ve treated sexuality for generations,” he said.
Lincoln said it’s important to believe the women and men who come forward with stories of abuse.
“When you told me you had the flu, I believed you,” Lincoln said.
Dow provided a brief explanation on the legal differences between sexual harassment and sexual assault; the former being a civil offense and the latter being criminal. Dow said there is little he can do about sexual harassment, but that his office has “a very aggressive stance on sexual assault.”
He said it is important to remember that, in California, consent must be given for all sexual activity, and it can be withdrawn at any time for any reason.
Dow also called on all men to use their “spheres of influence” to speak up against offensive behavior that they witness.
Rivoire said that toxic masculinity has led to “a society where sex assault is pervasive,” and that the subject touched on a number of municipal concerns. As an example, Rivoire said the city has to take sexual assault into concern when approving land-use permits for alcohol-serving establishments.
Bilich said he’s asked male students what it means to be a man, a question he said few of them had ever been asked before.
He said it’s important to recognize the men who genuinely want to change, and to “give them the space to mess up.”
Bernal voiced concern for sexual assault survivors who are afraid to report their attack to the authorities out of fear of reprisal or the damage it could do to their lives.
The panel on Thursday also took questions from the crowd, ranging from how best to reach out to high school boys (Dan Dow said he wished he had a teacher or coach sit him down and say, “Don’t cross this line (by treating women like objects)”) to what ways men can show their support for the #MeToo cause.
One woman urged the men in attendance to attend a performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” an episodic play featuring a collection of female voices (2018 marks the 20th anniversary of V-Day, a nonprofit that works to end violence against women using funds raised from “Vagina Monologues” performances).
In response to Tuesday’s “March Against Rape Culture” on Cal Poly’s campus, where several sexual assault survivors voiced frustration about how local police and the university treated victims, The Tribune asked what people in authority can do to make victims feel safer when coming forward.
Before handing the question to panelists, moderator Robert Diaz of RISE apologized to those victims for having to march “in the first place.”
“As a man, and as a guy that’s here, I’m sorry you have to deal with that,” he said.
Dow praised the courage of victims who speak out, and said he regrets that the legal system isn’t always able to provide justice for those victims.
“Sometimes we don’t file a case because, in a totality of the circumstances, it’s going to be the wrong thing to do for that victim,” he said, adding that before his office can file a case against a suspect, it needs to be sure “that 12 members of our community will find that person guilty.”
“I don’t make excuses for the system. It’s imperfect,” Dow said. “But it’s what we have, and we will use it to the fullest extent whenever we can.”
Before the event wrapped for the evening, RISE Executive Director Jennifer Adams offered encouragement to the men in attendance.
“Listen, men. Listen. Show up. Be willing to be wrong. Be willing to take a chance. We are all in this together,” she said.
Interested in getting involved? RISE is hosting a men’s discussion group on Feb. 6. More information is available here.