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 cultural 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.
Today’s Badass is Joseph Samalin. Joseph is the Training & Technical Assistance Coordinator at the organization Men Can Stop Rape, where he has been working since 2009. He has an MA from Columbia University in Contemporary Japanese Feminism, and he has been working in community organizing and the struggle to end gender-based violence since his time at Columbia.
So let’s hear what he had to say!
What sparked your interest in feminism? And how did you become interested in the topic of rape and rape prevention?
I was raised by my parents with general ideas about social justice and equality. But I didn’t really start to think about and discover feminism until, when I was a high school student, it was disclosed to me that there was actually a lot of different types of violence perpetrated within my extended family, including physical abuse, sexual assault and child sexual abuse, something I hadn’t known about before then. I now know, having done work on these issues for over a decade, that this is unfortunately the reality for the majority of families in this country and others. But at the time I really didn’t know exactly what to do with the information.
It is actually the way a lot of guys like me (straight, white, cisgendered, lower-middle class guys) start to become aware of issues of gender-based violence (GBV), through someone they know being directly affected by it, if not witnessing or experiencing it ourselves.
It was at a Take Back The Night rally I attended as an undergraduate student at SUNY New Paltz, listening to hundreds of women share story after story of violence and abuse, that it really struck me how ridiculously and unforgivably prevalent domestic violence and sexual violence really are. I joined the campus women’s group as their token male member, and at that time saw feminism as something important for me as a man to do to help protect women. Since then my view has grown and shifted, and I see that the work of feminism, the work of Men Can Stop Rape, is as essential for the health and well-being of men, as it is for men to be visible allies to women and girls in all communities.
While I have done work with youth around relationship abuse, facilitated batterer’s groups, done anti-stalking work and more, I have focused on sexual violence and the overlap with other forms of GBV. Part of this comes from the prevalence of sexual violence and anti-sexual violence programming in college, which is where my initial awareness of GBV began, but it also comes from having spent about 4 years living in Japan and studying rape culture in Japan as a graduate student.
How did you get connected with MCSR? What is your role there and what would you say you hope to achieve through your work?
I first came into contact with MCSR as a graduate student at Columbia University. A friend and I had inherited leadership of Columbia Men Against Violence, a student men’s group on campus, and were trying to figure out how to make it successful, mostly making it up as we went along. We discovered an upcoming training in DC advertised online by a non-profit with an intriguing name (Men Can Stop Rape!) and immediately signed up for it. The training was intense and powerful, and for the first time I was introduced to both the ideas of primary prevention of GBV and that men could and were dedicating their lives, their careers, to this issue. It was a critical moment for me. I finished up my grad degree and then immediately went out in NYC and got myself a job doing dating violence work with teens. Six years and a few jobs later I was hired full time as MCSR’s Coordinator of Training and Technical Assistance.
My job at MCSR is to work with communities across the country to develop the skills and support they need to create sustainable, long-term programs engaging men and boys in primary prevention, addressing the root causes of GBV as it exists and presents in that given community. We work with and provide programming to non-profit organizations, middle schools, high schools and universities, the military and law enforcement, religious and faith based organizations, local and federal government agencies and more. Our programming consists of tailoring a combination of trainings, presentations, lectures, workshops, curricula and program design, and more – all geared to help the community begin or enhance sustainable efforts to engage men and boys as allies to women and girls.
Where do you see the role of men in effecting change in our culture? Most of the efforts to combat rape are focused on instructing women on how to stay safe, placing the onus on the potential victim, rather than the potential perpetrator. Why do you think it is that we, as a culture, are so reluctant to go to the source of the problem?
At MCSR, we are fully committed to seeing men and boys as agents of cultural change, and work to help communities see men as potential allies to women, as opposed to potential perpetrators of violence. One of our key roles is to challenge the societal notion that addressing domestic violence and sexual assault are entirely the responsibility of women, which is the societal and cultural norm.
All too often the ‘job’ of addressing rape is placed solely on the shoulders of women, and is usually focused only on risk reduction, which is all too often framed as prevention. That is extremely problematic. Framing risk reduction education of women as prevention, saying that it is a woman’s job to prevent rape, is the same as saying it is her fault if she gets raped, because ‘she didn’t do her job in staying safe’. Victim blaming like this is one of the key reasons why rape remains the least reported violent crime in the US, and is a huge barrier to eradicating sexual violence. There are also some huge flaws with how we teach risk reduction, such as the huge focus on ‘stranger danger’ when the majority of sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows, and the flawed notion that how you dress is a factor in being assaulted or not.
The question of why our culture has been so reluctant to change this view (though we feel it is slowly changing) is a huge one. For our work, we put a lot of emphasis on questions of gender socialization, obviously focusing primarily on masculinity and the question of what society says it means to be a man. This question is at the core of all of our programming. Our approach begins with examining what we refer to as the ‘dominant story’ of masculinity in society - that men are supposed to be tough, in control, strong, non-emotional, know how to navigate violence, have lots of sex – but only with women, etc. This allows us to address masculinity as a factor in individual men’s choices to commit violence, to stay silent about it when we see it, and also to not speak out or seek help when we as men are victims or survivors. It allows us to address both the damage that the dominant story of masculinity can do to us as men and to those around us, as well as the privileges we receive from playing into that dominant story. We then work to create space in for the ‘counterstories’ of masculinity – those men who have decided for themselves what kind of men they want to be, and how to use their strength to build communities free from men’s violence.
As socialized beings, both men and women (and especially men) have to unlearn and then re-build our ideas about gender and then act accordingly. This is slow and hard work! But we’re slowly seeing change – person by person, community by community.
The organization’s most recent project is the Where Do You Stand campaign. Who is it targeted at, and what message do you hope to send with it?
Where Do You Stand is MCSR’s comprehensive “bystander intervention” campaign – designed to help and encourage the men who often stand by and stay silent when violence takes place. Most men aren’t violent perpetrators but the majority of us, don’t intervene, partly because we don’t know how to. This campaign tries to address that. While targeted primarily at college aged men, it has been used in a variety of communities nationally. The campaign combines social marketing (posters, billboards, postcards, and more), a full day training, and a curriculum for peer education. All of this aims to allow men and women in a community to help young men to be able to recognize the full range violence – from subtle to extreme forms of violence – around us, and to intervene in safe and effective ways to interrupt it. The campaign was designed using both MCSR’s vast experience engaging young men around violence prevention, and research speaking to how masculinity plays a role in men intervening in a given situation or not, as well as how we as men intervene when we do.
Have you seen any positive examples recently of men stepping up to speak out about rape culture? Where did you find it and what did it look like?
All the time! I actually make a living where I work to create those examples, and feel truly blessed to do so. Recent examples include: some of our high school Men of Strength (MOST) Club members from DC and Baltimore travelling to the United Nations to participate in the Commission on the Status of Women Girl-Boy dialogue, New York University’s Men of Strength partnering with Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity and Omega Phi Beta Sorority to hold a campus forum on men’s roles in preventing domestic violence, a MOST club member holding a teacher accountable for homophobic language used in a classroom, and the young men we work with participating in events and programs for the upcoming International Anti-Street Harassment Week in multiple cities.
Unfortunately, while the tide is turning, and more men and boys than ever are receiving messages about respecting women and preventing violence, we obviously have not reached a tipping point quite yet. We see more and more examples like these everyday in our work at MCSR and in the world around us, and yet still they are outnumbered by examples of gender-based violence all around us – from street harassment of women and girls, to domestic violence in our homes and on our streets, to the homophobic language and bullying in our schools, and more. Our mission at Men Can Stop Rape is to help reach that tipping point as soon as we can.
For more information on Men Can Stop Rape, please check out their website, or contact Director of Training and Technical Assistance Joseph Vess: Jvess at mencanstoprape dot org.