The Aha! Moment: Being A “Good Guy” Is Not Enough

This is an abridged version of a longer piece by Breakthrough Senior Program Manager Joe Samalin, originally published by Yes! Magazine in its Summer 2016 issue.

In 1993, the bombshell that would change my life came quietly. Slowly over time my mother began to remember memories that she had suppressed for decades, memories of sexual violence she had experienced and witnessed as a child. And when I was in 11th grade she shared this with me, my brother, and my dad. It was my first Aha! moment about violence against women. Now, at 40 years old and given the work I do, I know how common child sexual abuse is, and how often survivors repress memories of that abuse. But at the time I simply felt stunned, angry, sad, and at a loss for what if anything I could do.

My sophomore year of college at SUNY New Paltz, I attended my first Take Back the Night rally, a common event at colleges and universities designed to raise awareness about gender-based violence. Over the next 3 hours or so nearly every woman in that room took to the stage and shared a personal story of being abused by a boyfriend, of being stalked, sexually harassed, and/or sexually assaulted. At the time of the rally I had already met and become friends with members of the feminist group on campus, but that rally was my second Aha! The experience and power of all those women sharing their stories was clear to me that night as it had never been before.

I often liken these Aha! moments to Neo taking the red pill offered by Morpheus in The Matrix. Once you have that moment, take that red pill, there is no turning back. You can’t unsee the culture of gender-based violence around you once you see it. You can deny it, minimize it, ignore it, but you know it’s there.

There is a somewhat hard and important truth here. It is a responsibility that comes along with these Aha! moments. However and whenever we as men first really begin to accept the reality of gender-based violence, we are all already playing one of two roles on it. We are either supporting and enabling domestic and sexual violence – directly by perpetrating it, covering it up, or colluding with it through our silence. Or we are actively working to end that violence. There is no neutral ground.

In all my years working to engage men in ending violence against women, the question I am asked most often is: Why. Why, as a man, do I care about gender-based violence? The underlying assumption is that it is not a man’s problem; gender-based violence is still seen as a “women’s issue,” so it can be easy to dismiss the question. But in fact, the question is a critical one for individual men and the movement as a whole. And after so many years of asking and answering questions of men and myself, I really believe that questions lead to more questions, which in turn leads to more effective and accountable work to end violence and oppression.

In the last 10 years there has been an explosion in the numbers of men and boys globally doing this work. And so we must make sure that we do not stop asking and answering these questions.

“How do my male privilege and white privilege enable each other?”

“How am I taking up space in this work?”

“How can I continue to deepen my empathy for myself?”

“What can I do to hold accountable men in this work who commit acts of violence and discrimination themselves?”

These are my questions right now, and I am still searching for my next Aha! moment. As I search I struggle with doubt as I always have, wanting to ensure I do more good than harm, striving to live up to the trust that women and others in this work have invested in me, wanting to do right by the countless victims and survivors I have encountered in my life. In my current job with the global human rights organization Breakthrough our programs help men realize we do not need advanced degrees in social work or gender studies, nor do we need to work for a non-profit organization to challenge and transform the culture of violence against women and girls we are a part of.

It simply starts with a question. And then an Aha! And then another and another, until an action you can take to help end violence becomes clear. Followed, of course, by one more question.