I recently had a discussion with some high school aged youth (mostly males) regarding gender roles. More specifically, the discussion was about how males and females are socialized and how that creates space for sexual and domestic violence to occur. The youth ranged in age from 14-18 and were assigned to the juvenile justice alternative education program for a variety of offenses on their home campuses. The group participated at a high level and had some fantastic insights during the group activities we did. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement of these youth. Honestly, my expectations were somewhat lower.
The discussion was only scheduled for an hour each day for two days. Everything went very well until the last minute of the first day’s discussion. It was in that last minute that I realized just how much work there is to be done. As I was wrapping up the group I pointed out that in today’s society men have most of the power. I paused for a moment to let that sink in and before I spoke again one of the young men looked at me with a hint of disgust and said “whose side are you on anyway?”. I was shocked. I knew that there was a certain amount of sexist attitudes and beliefs in the room, but this comment caught me off guard. I guess I had never really look at it as men vs. women or us vs. them. The notion of being on one side or another hadn’t occurred to me. At first I thought he might have been employing a bit of sarcasm, but the stone cold look on his face told me otherwise.
I responded to him by saying that if preventing rape and violence against women is the women’s side, then I am on the women’s side. However, I knew immedately that my answer was wrong…but I wasn’t sure how or why. It sounded right, but it didn’t feel right. I spent the rest of the day doing my daily grind, but this young man’s question kept resurfacing into my consciousness. Finally, I realized that the young man had unintentionally asked me a trick question. It occured to me that there is no men’s side and women’s side. We are all in it together and we are all part of a much larger picture.
The next day, I made sure I brought this up again in the group. I had to make sure they young people in that room understood that there is no “us vs. them”. There is just people. This young man seemed to appreciate the fact that I had really considered what he had to say even though he didn’t agree with me. He also used it as an opportunity to push me in other ways. While that was frustrating, it was refreshing to have someone in the audience who was willing to question what I was saying. It made me do some deeper thinking about what I really believe and how I convey that to others.