AYER/SHIRLEY — With the student Human Rights Squad sitting in the front of an auditorium full of Ayer High School students, Principal Don Parker introduced the school’s Oct. 4 special guest, who later also performed at Ayer-Shirley Middle School.
“We are very privileged this morning to have Ben Atherton-Zeman, who will be having a discussion with you,” Parker said. “Ben is a spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism and is a public speaker on issues of violence prevention.
“He has given presentations in 36 states, Canada, China, and the Czech Republic. He has spoken at colleges, high schools, public theaters, conferences, houses of worship, and juvenile detention facilities. For the past 17 years, Ben has worked as a prevention educator for rape crisis centers, domestic violence programs, and state coalitions. He is a board member of the Sudbury/Wayland/Lincoln Domestic Violence Roundtable and an advisory board member for the White Ribbon Campaign in the United Kingdom.”
The production that the students were about to witness is called “Voices of Men.” Its originator and presenter has received recognition and praise for his work to end men’s violence against women, sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of oppression.
Before this presentation for Ayer High School students, Atherton-Zeman had returned to his home in Maynard after performing at a college in Michigan, and offered training and technical assistance for employees in Alabama.
Every 12 seconds…
He began his performance at Ayer High by ringing a chime several times.
“I am ringing this chime every 12 seconds because somewhere in the U.S. a man abuses the woman that he has promised to love. Every 2 minutes in the U.S. a man rapes a woman, and it’s usually a woman he knows. Every second a man abuses a woman — but most of us don’t rape and don’t abuse,” he said.
“Where are the rest of us who do not abuse women? The voices of men should join the women fighting against violence against women,” he offered.
Changing the culture one voice at a time
“The victims I have worked with are real and their stories are real,” Atherton-Zeman said. “The first time I heard a woman tell me her story about violence I felt angry and sad, but I also wanted to do something about.
“…Most of the victims I have worked with are girls and women, and most of the perpetrators are men. Because of that it is our responsibility in particular, as guys, to try to do something about it.
“When you think of a men’s magazine you don’t think of men raising their voices against violence, you usually think of magazines with pictures of naked women.
“Some of you may approve of that, but that says that we don’t care about the lives and dreams of women. Do you want those things to happen to the girls and women in your lives?” he asked.
During his performance, Atherton-Zeman also expressed his dismay at the kinds of roles that men play on television, in movies and in violent sports.
“We need more roles written for men where part of that guy’s character is where a man stands up against violence against women and is accountable to his own use of sexism, racism, and homophobia. That is a guy who supports women’s leadership on this issue. I am convinced we can change the culture one man at a time.
“This show is about what could happen if this were to happen,” he said.
In different public service announcements throughout his presentation were messages like, “If it’s against her will, it’s against the law. To get respect you give respect.”
‘No’ does not have to be verbal
In between PSAs, Atherton-Zeman portrayed various characters, the first of which was the character Rocky Balboa from the movie Rocky.
“Hey…Yo…How you guys doing?” he asked, as he sauntered on stage in a robe, parroting Sylvester Stallone’s stereotypical machismo.
“A few of you remember my girlfriend Adrienne from the movie. Adrienne, she dumped me… I said, ‘How could you break up with this?’ ”
“She said, ‘You never respected me, even when I said ‘no’ to you.’ ”
Through the Rocky character, Atherton-Zeman made the point that there are many ways that women say ‘no’ to sexual advances, and that each one of them really means ‘no,’ even if the woman is giggling nervously when she says it.
He demonstrated this by using clips from Rocky. In them, Adrienne uses body language that says ‘no’ by tensing up, making faces, moving away from Rocky, and trying to leave. As the scenes continue, the number of times she says ‘no,’ either in body language or words, is ticked off on the screen. The number of times that Rocky continues to ignore her wishes also shows up on the screen.
When “Rocky” asked the students in the audience what he did wrong, they pointed out that he ignored her desire to leave, used his larger size, and even physically blocked the exit as ways to intimidate the object of his affection.
“Have you ever seen a date of yours on the big screen? I didn’t like it. I really loved her; I didn’t mean to mess up like this…so I better do something about this, right? So I did a search on the Internet and found ‘Men can stop rape’ (http://www.mencanstoprape.org).
“I figured these guys knew what they were talking about so I called them on the phone and told them what happened and they said, ‘You messed up.’ ”
Myth-busting sexual violence
“That is one of the myths about sexual violence –that she can say ‘no’ and you can keep going. It is a myth that she is playing a game, and even if she is, you have to stop, because if you are wrong you are guilty of sexual violence. Consent has got to be verbal, enthusiastic, unmistakable, that you work out between the two of you,” Atherton-Zeman said.
He said that myth No. 2 is if somebody is drunk and they get raped, it is somehow their fault. “It is never the victim’s fault for being raped. Actually, if you are drunk or high, then you can’t be with somebody because they cannot give consent. If they are drunk or high, you have to wait until they’re sober.”
Myth No. 3, he said, is that strangers are usually the perpetrators in cases of rape. Most of the time it is somebody you know, trust, and like.
Myth No. 4 is that female victims lie about rape. In reality, this happens only about 2 percent of the time, he said.
Myth No. 5 is what he called the “Point of No Return.” The reality, he said, is that men can choose when and why they stop sexual advances toward women.
He then set up an example: “The girlfriend’s parents are gone for the night and I go to her house. I want to make this a nice romantic date, so what should I bring?” As the audience made suggestions, he brought out flowers, a condom, chocolate, and a candle. He then put on some romantic music.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” he asked the audience. “The parents come home!”
In character, Atherton-Zeman ran to answer the door and let the audience help him make excuses for what he was doing there to the girlfriend’s imaginary parents.
Finally, he said, “We are at the ‘point of no return,’ so we can’t stop just because you came home. If you would just give us the house for 10 minutes…
“Would I really negotiate with the parents!? I would leave, or hide. But all of your suggestions involve one thing,” he said to the audience. “I would stop, wouldn’t I? You see why it’s a myth, right? We can stop on a dime.”
Abuse is not always physical
In his stint as James Bond, Atherton-Zeman demonstrated that abuse is not just about physical violence. “If you tell people what they can wear or who they can see, or call or text when they don’t want to be contacted, you have just got to stop,” he said. “If you instant message them every time they are online and they have asked you not to, you have to stop. Some of you may think that that’s OK, but it’s actually a warning sign. If you say ‘Don’t talk to that guy,’ that’s a warning sign.”
Rather than blaming victims for staying with abusive partners, the question should be why the men are abusive, and what we can do as a community to give safety to women, he said, adding, “abuse doesn’t discriminate — men and women, gay and straight.”
The White Ribbon Campaign
Another PSA showed men cheering as other men pummeled each other during sporting events. The message of the video was, “Why is it when a man hits another man, it’s OK to make a lot of noise, but when a man hits a woman, it’s OK to stay silent.”
The clip is part of the White Ribbon Campaign (http://www.whiteribbon.ca), the largest effort in the world of men working to end Violence Against Women.
WRC was started in 1991 by a small group of men in Canada who decided they had a responsibility to urge men to speak out about VAW. They chose the white ribbon as a symbol of men’s opposition to VAW, as well as a personal pledge to never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” – Paula Treichler, co-author of For Alma Mater: Theory and Practice in Feminist Scholarship
As Atherton-Zeman transformed into Austin Powers, complete with “Grooooovy, babies” jargon, he told the story of flirting with a woman who said that he could only have her number if he first read a book on feminist theory by Paula Treichler, Cheris Kramarae, and Beth Stafford.
He said that after reading the book, he went to the woman’s house, where she turned down the lights and showed him a video called Killing Us Softly 3, produced by Jean Kilbourne.
“Jean Kilbourne’s point was that these sexy images of women are used by companies to advertise. What she minds is that the images are violent, degrading, of bodies and body parts…this sort of things creates the sort of climate where that violence is tolerated. When you turn a human being into a thing like that, violence is inevitable,” said Atherton-Zeman as Powers.
“After the movie, I said, ‘Crikey, baby, I love those images. And some of the guys in the audience also love them. Are you saying that I made a career of this and I am part of the problem, baby?’ And she said, ‘How would you like to start being part of the solution?’ ”
“I said, ‘Yeah, baby.’ ”
“She said, ‘You can start by calling me by my name. My name isn’t ‘baby,’ it’s Cindy.’ And I said, ‘You’re right, Cindy.’ ”
“She said, ‘You’ve got to see women and girls as full human beings. We have every right to be any size we want, to be and wear what we want, to be what we want to be. Our place is in the house, when we want it to be in the house. But some women can be Speaker of the House. Or president, or president of the Human Rights Campaign at Ayer High School.’
“…I am still objectifying women occasionally, but I am still trying to change, and aren’t we all?”
In his last video clip, Atherton-Zeman showed part of a documentary called “Breaking the Silence,” about a group of men from Gloucester who are part of an organization called Strong Men Don’t Bully (www.strongmendontbully.com).
Atherton-Zeman said that he signed the group’s pledge to support women who work to end VAW.
At the conclusion of his presentation, he said, “Some people feel preached to or don’t agree with the message, and if that is the case I want to say I’m sorry. But even if you don’t agree, you will still be arrested if you rape or abuse someone.
“If this has happened to you, you may have never told anyone. It was never your fault, you are not alone, and help is available. If you have never told anyone, today is a good day.
“A third group of people who see this want to join the campaign or the human-rights club. I am happy to give a white ribbon to anyone who wants one.”
He asked the men in the audience who would like to take the White Ribbon Campaign pledge to stand. First one, then two, and then all of the men in the audience stood and read together, “I pledge to never commit, condone, or remain silent about men’s violence against women. I choose to respect, listen to, and seek equality with every person I date, and every person I know.”