It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
So without further ado…
Here’s Joseph Vess of Men Can Stop Rape!
Joseph Vess is Men Can Stop Rape’s Director of Training and Technical Assistance. In this role he conducts dozens of trainings, workshops and presentations around the world every year, building the skills of professionals to engage men and boys and guiding MCSR’s Men Creating Change (MCC) program. Before joining MCSR, Joe was a community organizer and educator at the DC Rape Crisis Center, where he worked with young adults and college students, LGBTQ populations, and communities East of the Anacostia River to explore grassroots, community-based solutions to sexual violence.
How did you first get involved with MCSR? How did your personal experiences play into your decision to get into activism, prevention and education?
I first got involved as a volunteer, doing weekend programs with high school men we work with. I started doing more and more, worked at the DC Rape Crisis Center for a while, and came back to MCSR about 4 years ago. I got into it primarily because of my experiences with women I care about. I have been involved in social justice work and activism for many years, but it wasn’t until I was almost 25 that I began to develop a good understanding of men’s violence against women. Around that time two things happened: a friend of mine told me about how she was sexually assaulted in college, and I began dating a woman who shared with me many of her experiences of discrimination, harassment, and just the general garbage she has to put up with as a woman. It really bothered me that these things happened, and I realized that as a man speaking out about these issues I could have an even larger impact because there weren’t (and still aren’t) enough men talking about this. And what we always heard from women about how we could contribute was, “talk with other men.” In that respect and in so many others, we as men who do this work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants, the amazing women who have been doing this work for centuries. They still lead the way and make everything I do possible; my debt to the women who have taught me is incalculable.
Can you tell us a bit about the unique role of men in the fight against sexual assault and rape? Do you think feminist activism has underestimated the potential of men as allies and how you think we can better involve them?
I don’t think feminism has underestimated the potential of men as allies, I think as men we haven’t stepped up and played the role we can and should. I think the feminist movement is still finding the most effective ways to engage men, but the desire has always been there. In terms of men’s role, I think the main thing is that men are playing a role where by and large we weren’t before. Beyond that is the fact that men are often socialized to listen more to men than women; so as men doing this work, our role is to support and back up the things women have been saying to reinforce that message, and to help other men be better able to hear women’s voices. It’s often surprising for men to hear another man speak out against violence against women, so that means it is very much our responsibility, and a tremendous opportunity, to do so.
What do you think are the most prevalent attitudes of young college males regarding sex, consent and boundaries? Why do you think these are the way they are?
That’s such a huge question to answer because I think that college men, like all men, are all over the map with this stuff. One unique thing I’ve noticed recently in many places I go is that many men are disenchanted with their opportunities to have relationships with women, in whatever form. Guys who are looking for a long-term female partner are disenchanted and frustrated by a culture they see as prioritizing hook ups. Guys into hook ups wish that hook up culture was more healthy, with less of a reliance on alcohol as a social lubricant. Questioning and gay or bisexual men are bothered by the heteronormativity and lack of opportunity to explore their sexuality. So many of the men we work with very much want to practice active consent, have good boundaries and positive, fulfilling sex lives, but many feel that they don’t have good opportunities or role models for it, so they’re searching for the best way to do it. I think many are hopeless about the situation, many are resigned, but more and more are actively seeking and exploring, and really taking agency in creating healthier spaces on their campuses and in their communities.
What is the most surprising thing you hear when educating young men, or the thing that gives you most hope?
The answer to both is that most men aren’t happy with the way things are in terms of men’s relationships with women. Men want to have friendships with women, not just sex or relationships. They want to be able to have sex without feeling like alcohol is the necessary third ingredient. They want to have gender-equitable relationships and friendships and families, and they don’t want the women they care about to live in fear. The challenge for all men is that we’ve often been told that we shouldn’t care about these, or that it makes us less of a man to care about these things. More and more men are rejecting that, and realizing that the dominant stories of masculinity and manhood just plain don’t serve us, in fact more often than not they hurt us, and the people we care about. No one is benefiting, when you get right down to it.
Do you feel like sex-positivity is an important part of your work? Is it difficult to include considering the wide range of people and opinions you encounter?
Sex positivity is incredibly important. Sex is a natural and healthy part of life, and unhealthy attitudes toward it are part of the reason that so many men (and women) are unhappy with relationships. I want to support the men I work with in having whatever kind of sex they want with whomever they want—provided it’s consensual. For some people that means no sex, for others that means gay, lesbian, bi, hetero and more, all across the spectrum. So sex positivity looks different for different people, and we believe in supporting all of those options, again, provided it’s consensual. For me that’s the most important thing. But I believe having a positive attitude toward sex goes right along with actively practicing consent with your partners.
What frustrations have you encountered in your work? Or questions that you wish people would ask but don’t? Feel free to add anything else you’d like to say.
Honestly, there’s not much I find frustrating in what I do. I am incredibly lucky and privileged to spend pretty much every day working with amazing women and men who are doing so much to create a better, more gender-equitable world. When I get frustrated I just think about the great impact the college men I work with are having on their campuses, and are going to have as they go out into the world. I think there is currently a bit of a backlash against re-imagining masculinity and gender equity, but I don’t think it is sustainable. We know what the future looks like, and we’re not going back.