Ben Atherton-Zeman on men’s role in stopping violence against women and girls
Ben’s a renowned American campaigner against violence against women and girls. He’s also an advisory board member of the White Ribbon Campaign UK.
Voices of Men deals with sexual violence, gender stereotypes and prevention issues in a unconventional way. Dawn Kofie caught up with Ben to find out more about what he does, and why he does it.
When and why did you decide to start challenging sexism and gender based violence?
When women asked me to! In 1986, I walked across the USA on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, and some of the women from the Wimmin’s Collective were kind enough to explain feminism and gender-based violence to me. Learning about this made me angry. They told me very few men were speaking out on this issue, and I should do something with my anger. So I volunteered at my University’s Women’s Center so I could continue to listen to, and learn from, women.
You’ve described yourself as a “recovering sexist” how would you define this?
Some men have chosen to speak out against gender based violence, and support women’s leadership. But all men have been socialized to believe that our gender is the superior one, and all men benefit from male privilege. So even as I speak out against gender violence publicly, I have to remain accountable to my own sexism in my relationships with women and men.
How did Voices of Men come about?
Many of the women I listened to and learned from were very funny! Two of them, Detective/Sergeant Anne O’Dell (now retired) and Ellen Pence, were also national speakers in the USA. Seeing them talk to audiences of hundreds of police officers, none of whom wanted to be at those particular training sessions, was inspiring. They used humour and engaged their audience in such effective ways. I’ve always been an actor who can do accents and impressions, and I wrote “Voices” more than 10 years ago as a way to use humor to educate audiences about gender violence.
Why do you think humour and celebrity male voices are effective in terms of getting your message across?
I think laughter reduces an audience's defensiveness, especially male audiences.
What kind of reaction do you get from members of the Men’s Rights movement?
First, I believe that movement is mis-named. Men are paralysed by traditional male socialization. It’s the feminist movement where I learned about that socialization, and also where I learned to be human, not just an unfeeling man! So, in my opinion, the feminist movement is the real ‘men’s rights’ movement. But I understand many of them feel threatened by feminism, and see it as ‘anti-male.’ Some of these women and men accuse me of being a traitor to my own gender. This doesn’t bother me; I see it more as a badge of honor. And I hope they will discover the REAL feminist movement, beyond the stereotypes. Perhaps their lives will change for the better, as mine has, if they discover feminism.
Any tips for people who would like to be bystanders, but aren’t quite sure what to do, or how to do it?
Women have taught me that male violence does not exist in a vacuum. An individual man: raping a woman, throwing acid in a woman’s face, hitting a women or killing a woman cannot exist without a culture that favours my gender, my race etc. So bystanders have an opportunity to interrupt sexism at a daily level. Stop laughing at sexist jokes and challenge the objectification of women. Or just listen to, and honour, the voices of women and girls. And make it a priority to donate to, and volunteer for non-governmental organisations like Rape Crisis Scotland!