This past fall I had the great honour and privilege to be a part of some ground breaking new training happening at the country’s largest University: The University of Toronto. Through the Athletics Department, I conducted 30 workshops with hundreds of varsity athletes, intramural teams, as well as Athletics and Kinesiology department staff. The training was comprehensive---with the aim of preventing sexual violence, the University committed to training every varsity athlete.
The workshops went extremely smoothly, and I’m pleased to share that what I saw filled me with hope and optimism. First off, because I worked with athletes across the spectrum of gender identities, it’s important to note that everyone has a part to play. Men and boys of course have a special role because they frequently have more power and privilege. The unique thing about these workshops is that I worked with not only men, but also women, trans, and non-binary athletes—because everyone has an important role here. Everyone got to step up and see how they can be part of changing the paradigms that lead to violence against women and girls, but also men and boys and those who identify outside the binary.
When we address male trauma as a cause of men’s violence, and encourage seeking resources and supports as not only a key step in healing, but also as a primary prevention approach to ending violence, participants are ready to get onboard. For many it may be the first time anyone has acknowledged their deep wounding, and this need for healing. When we discuss examples of the way that men’s violence against women intersects with their own lived experiences (as son’s of fathers who are using violence), a vital connection is made for many in the room. Those who have not experienced this from their fathers sit in acknowledgement of the lived experiences of their friends. And then we can move into talking about ways of ending violence against women and girls and everyone else impacted by toxic masculinity.
The principles of eradicating toxic or unhealthy gender norms that lead to violence against women and girls, are translated into key skills that they can use in the struggle to end gender-based violence---tools in their toolbelt.
By the end of a workshop, participants can:
Identify their feelings in difficult situations so that they can communicate in a good way without anger;
Understand the importance of consent, how to practice it, and perhaps most importantly how to overcome the emotional blockages in the way of asking;
Intervene using emotional intelligence in a safe way;
Be great allies by listening to survivors;
And understand the toxicity that Bro Culture spreads (which still prevents many men from being in alignment with believing survivors);
Finally they can encourage their peers and other men and boys to work towards realizing gender inequality and ending violence against women and girls.
It’s not the evaluations done, or the answers that I get from participants that most convinces me that these young folks have got this, it’s the energy in the room, both during and after the workshop. The material is heavy, but they are in it. I know they’re in it because I can read the emotion in their faces. I see sorrow, disbelief, anger, inspiration, creativity, hope, and a heartening coming through. For many I see a softening in their stance and body posture as we weave through the workshop. I see this as an opening in the work. I see their opening to the work. It in turn fuels me, and we have a delightful recipe to move young folks out of caring and into action on violence against women and girls.
In one particular workshop I was especially bowled over by what we discussed. This workshop was with the men’s soccer team. We talked about seeking resources and supports to heal our own wounding. We explored emotional intelligence and how this can make us healthier partners within intimate relationships. We discussed how to build consent, and how to support friends to make healthy decisions. We practiced intervening when it's not present. And finally we talked about the nuances of supporting survivors. We really got into why that's so challenging for some men to do. We dissected bro culture and the way that it encourages men and boys to stand by their ‘bros’ no matter what they have said or done.
What was particularly impressive to me and stands out is that these young men were engaged from the first minute and held it for the entire three hours (from 7-10pm!). At the end, after discussing the benefits and challenges athletes can experience supporting survivors, an earnest and humble young Muslim participant asked if it would be appropriate for them to share with the community that they support a survivor who has come forward and disclosed sexual violence.
I cannot emphasize what a watershed moment this was for us all. I welled up with tears. I said yes....and we can ask what she needs around that. What does the woman targeted with violence want to see happen? What does she need?
While there were brilliant moments through all of the workshops there were also uncomfortable moments. Not everyone is going to agree with all of the approaches and all of the ideas being spoken. What makes the workshops for athletes unique though is the space that is created to authentic and transparent. One participant noted that what they liked the best was“the informative and open way in which all the information was conveyed in an environment that facilitated understanding and honest discussion of the material.” Through innovative facilitation that considers different perspectives, we can shift rape culture, homophobia, toxic masculinity and bro-culture. For example, a couple times participants brought up the fact that within toxic masculinity, toughness exists as a behaviour that can lead to violence against women and that it’s also a necessary attribute to exhibit in sports. Drawing out the nuances of how we can live within our society (playing sports), advance gender equality, and shift out of harmful norms simultaneously, is crucial and exiting! We can move the conversation forward in a way that everyone comes out a winner.
There’s no way I’d rather spend a day.