'Social norms around sexual assault need to change'

Todd Minerson, executive director of the White Ribbon Campaign

    Todd Minerson is the executive director of the White Ribbon Campaign.

    I’ve been doing non-profit work for almost 20 years, worked on HIV/AIDS and affordable housing, poverty, homeless youth. And in a lot of those spaces I saw how women were bearing the brunt of gender inequality, but also how masculinity was messing things up not only for women and girls, but for men as well. I saw that most of young men I was working with in the homeless shelter system didn’t have great male role models in their lives. They didn’t know how to treat women with respect, didn’t know how to ask for help. I became interested in solutions, and came to understand what my role is.

    Social norms around sexual assault need to change. For guys, it’s an awareness that this is a huge problem. Even if you’re not a perpetrator, you have a role to play: educating yourself about things like why is it so hard for women to report, the prevalence of violence against women, and the things that you can do as a man, whether it’s listening, helping women get their story out there if they wish, or how to be a more effective bystander when you witness things that are problematic.

    When I first started this work, I didn’t know any survivors of violence. Since taking this job, I’ve met hundreds of survivors and families. Also in that time, I’ve become a father of a son and a daughter. Making sure my daughter has a safe and free life, making sure my son understands what respect is about and that he’s not constrained by these unhealthy ideas of masculinity, have added a more personal motivation to my work at White Ribbon.

    We need to change the narrative for men, from being silent about it, or not understanding how extensive and damaging the problem is, to speaking up about it, to intervening, to taking action. We must work with men on issues of gender inequality, because the link between inequality and violence has been well-documented, and then we must transforming outmoded ideas of masculinity into more humane, equitable and more passionate forms that aren’t just beneficial for women and girls but also for men and boys.

    This is an ongoing learning experience for me; it takes overcoming some of your own inhibitions and fears as well. I find myself more, as a parent, trying to have these conversations with other dads. It’s about trying to break the stigma around sharing with other men. I’m trying to be a father in a way that is open and compassionate, trying to teach some of things my generation didn’t get taught. We didn’t have the depth of knowledge that we do now when it comes to things like consent, sexuality and tolerance.

    We also need to explore the costs of patriarchy and sexism on us as men. It leads to living shorter lives, it makes it more likely men will themselves be victims of violence from other men due to war, crime, bullying. And men will be more likely to experience the pressures to provide and protect and some of the gendered roles that we’re told to embrace. It’s not the same cost to men as it is to women, but understanding that there’s a cost can also help motivate change.

    — As told to Rachel Browne. This interview has been condensed and edited.

    This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.

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