A child asks me to define myself … in one word
One morning over breakfast, my 11-year-old daughter posed a seemingly simple question: “Dad, if you had to describe yourself with one word, what would that be?”
I couldn’t come up with an answer, so I did what I think many parents do when their children stump them – I turned the tables. “How would you describe yourself with one word?” I asked.
“I’m creative …” she began, “ … and I like to help people,” her voice trailing off as she realized she exceeded the word limit. We laughed about how difficult it is to describe any person with one word.
I never did give her an answer, but my daughter did an important thing. She forced me to think about who I am, what my role is in this world and what my role is in the lives of my family members. I am the marketing and communications manager at 360 Communities, a nonprofit that works to prevent sexual and domestic violence, ensure school success and promote long-term self-sufficiency. I spend much of my time at 360 Communities working behind the scenes to tell the stories of the heroes that work and volunteer here to better the lives of others. It has been easy for me to keep a distance from the actual work of advocating for others.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and 360 Communities is one of many organizations in Minnesota working to end sexual violence against women and children. Did you know that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetime? This statistic is not new to me, but with my daughter’s question still swimming around in my head, it now moves me to define a role for myself in changing this.
360 Communities believes that engaging more men to be our allies in the fight against sexual and domestic violence is critical to achieving progress. Without men standing up to be counted, meaningful change is difficult, if not impossible. We need men like me – the silent majority who don’t usually put themselves forward on issues like these.
It is daunting to look at complex issues like sexual and domestic violence and think about how to even begin to affect change. But advocates tell me they are not looking for male heroes to come and rescue them. In fact, they have already been doing the hard work on the front lines for decades. They are looking for male allies to walk beside them in this fight – allies who will stand up to sexist, degrading behavior toward women in the absence of women. These are men who will work to change what passes as acceptable in conversations, in bars, on social media and more.
This may sound simple, but it takes courage. It is much easier to stay silent. I used to believe that by simply not participating in sexist behavior or refusing to join in conversations that were degrading toward women was good enough. After all, I was not part of the problem. But as one advocate friend pointed out, silence can be perceived as tacit approval.
When it comes to sexual and domestic violence, too often we want to believe that these things only happen to others and their children because of something they may have done wrong. That makes it easy to compartmentalize and tell ourselves it won’t happen to us and our loved ones. However, the statistics tell a different story.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 42 percent of female survivors of sexual assault experienced their first rape before the age of 18 and almost 80 percent before the age of 25. One quarter of all male rape survivors were assaulted before the age of 10. This is an incredible amount of risk for children and young adults. I have two children. If someone told me that one in five kids were going to be hit by a car in our neighborhood this year, I wouldn’t rest until speed bumps, stop signs and cameras were installed on every block. Why do I advocate differently for women and children when it comes to sexual and domestic violence?
None of us are immune to this. We need men to embrace the work of violence prevention and intervention with the urgency that these statistics we read about do not represent somebody else’s problem – these are our daughters, our sons, our wives, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, our co-workers, and our friends.
Change will take critical mass. We need men from all walks of life – business executives, teachers, police officers, members of the military, construction workers, bus drivers, athletes, college students and more – to play a role in shifting the conversation.
This is new territory for me and I will be the first to admit that I am no expert. However, these are things I am doing that you might consider:
• Learn about sexual and domestic violence. Talk to advocates at 360 Communities Lewis House (360Communities.org) about the issues. Visit the websites of other organizations like the Joyful Heart Foundation’s NO MORE Project (NOMORE.org), Minnesota Men’s Action Network (menaspeacemakers.org), Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW.org) and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA.org).
• Model respectful and healthy relationships for children. Call out degrading and objectifying portrayals of women and girls on television, in movies and in the media. Teach boys to respect women and girls.
• Stand up and voice opposition to sexist and degrading behavior toward women.
• Educate others.
Recently I attended the fifth annual Sexual Assault Awareness Walk in Eagan. More than 100 people braved the rain in order to raise awareness about sexual assault and honor survivors of sexual violence. I was encouraged by the number of men of all ages who participated in the candlelight walk.
We live in a world full of safety admonishments for women and girls: don’t dress that way, don’t walk alone, don’t drink, and many more. These messages are meant to keep them safe, but it places the ownership of their safety on them. Why don’t we work toward a world where women and girls are not, by their very existence, at greater risk for harm? We need men to help shape that world.
And for my daughter, I will now describe myself with one word: ally.
Tony Compton is marketing and communications manager at 360 Communities, a Dakota County nonprofit which works to prevent violence, ensure school success and promote long-term self-sufficiency. He is also a husband, father, brother and son.