British Columbia

How 'good men' can start difficult conversations about sexual violence

As more and more women come forward with stories of rape, sexual assault and unwanted sexual attention, educators like Ryan Avola say men need to be having conversations of their own, and coming to terms with their own behaviour.

"A lot of 'good men' are committing sexual assaults without being fully aware of it," says educator

B.C. premier Christy Clark recently came forward with her own story of sexual assault. (CBC)

Like many, Ryan Avola considers himself to be a "good man."

But, also like many, he also has a few experiences in his past that he's not proud of — and if most "good men" were to think about it, Avola is sure they would too.

The trouble, he says, is that they almost never do.

"A lot of 'good men' are rapists," Avola told On the Coast host Stephen Quinn. "A lot of 'good men' are committing sexual assaults without being fully aware of it."

As more and more women come forward with stories of rape, sexual assault and unwanted sexual attention — including B.C. premier Christy Clark — educators like Avola say men need to be having conversations of their own, and coming to terms with their own behaviour, privilege and understanding of consent.

Recent high-profile sexual assault cases — including comments by Kathryn Borel on the aqcuital of Jian Ghomeshi — are sparking conversations about the role men play in sexual assault. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Changing the focus

Avola runs a program called iGuy where teaches middle school-aged boys to think critically about masculinity and society's ideas about what that means. He says the conversation about men's role in sexual assault is a difficult one, because some men perceive any critical discussion as an attack.

"Men are so defensive when it comes to talking about male privilege," Avola said. "It becomes such a difficult conversation for people to break down experiences in a critical way where they're actually accepting some of the things that they've done."

So, his approach is to try to flip his students' perspectives, focusing on the negative experiences that many women have at the hands of otherwise "good men."

Michael Kasdan agrees. He's a writer with the Good Men Project, and he says that the discourse in high-profile sexual assault cases tends to focus on the wrong aspect entirely.

"The thing that got people so upset in the States about the Stanford case is, you know, the father and the mother and the judge all basically said, look, this guy's a good kid, he was a straight-A student, he was a great swimmer," Kasdan said.

"The fact is, none of that matters. What matters is what he did to the victim and how her life has changed."

Stanford student Brock Turner was recently sentenced to six months in prison, which his father called "a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action" in a letter to the presiding judge. (Stanford Department of Public Safety )

Starting the difficult conversation

Avola and Kasdan agree that conversations around men's role in sexual assault are happening more and more in their own lives. Kasdan's son is 14, and Kasdan is just starting to talk to him about consent and what that means, even though he's only just starting to be interested in girls.

Avola says a major part of the problem is the way gender roles are socialized for young men.

"We're harming boys themselves in the way that we're socializing them to devalue feminine characteristics in themselves — things that are are really important, like being sensitive and being emotional," he said.

Neither men claim to have the definitive solution for how to get men to critically examine their own behaviour, but both agree that these conversations need to keep happening, especially when sexual assault is in the news.

"When you have events like this," Kasdan said, "it provides an opportunity to have big, serious, uncomfortable discussions about these types of things that require social change."

With files from CBC's On the Coast.