My wife and I brought home Rhodes, our first child, four months ago. Here's what I remember most about those first weeks: the smell of his skin and breath as he slept on my chest in our bed—small, warm, and fragile, like an egg. I breathed in the scent of the newest life I’d ever encountered as he slept.
He wasn’t undersized, but still I marveled at how tiny these newest of humans come. We, the most dominating creatures on Earth, start out so helpless and red and beautiful. I knew, as he lay curled against my heart, that I would do anything to protect him, love him, and bring him up right in the world.
Last month, four men in India were sentenced to death for a rape and murder of such brutality it can scarcely be believed. The week prior, four Vanderbilt University football players were charged with raping an unconscious woman (much like last year's events in Steubenville, Ohio). And during the previous spring, just before Rhodes was born, Ariel Castro was arrested in Cleveland for imprisoning three women—kidnapped as young girls—in his house for 10 years.
These and similar stories constantly fill our network news, cable opinion shows, newspapers, social media, blogs.... It's nearly impossible to avoid stories of violence, rape, and domination. Living rightly is hard enough on your own, and now I must raise a son to do so in a world that is, in part, characterized by men's violence against women.
Louis CK sums it up best: "There is no greater threat to women than men. We are the No. 1 threat to women. Globally and historically, we’re the No. 1 cause of injury and mayhem to women." And I worry that he’s right.
Now that I am a father, this question constantly sits before me: How do I raise a son of compassion and dignity? A man who respects women?
Early on during our pregnancy, my wife and I discussed whether we preferred to raise a boy or a girl. It was completely beyond our control, but the conversation stuck with me: boy or girl? We've created a world of great beauty as well as great terror. Would I rather send a young man into it, or a young woman?
As I awaited our child, my awareness of news about sexual violence reached new heights, and influenced how I thought about raising a boy or a girl.
A girl, my early thinking followed, could be protected. I worried about her safety, but I thought I could shelter her from the particular threats made against young women.
But a boy, that really scared me. Boys are the particular threat to young women. If we had a boy, we would have to raise a man. And what kind of man would he be?
I have difficulty imagining my infant son as anything other than the innocent person he is today. My assumption is this: I’ll be a good dad, and he’ll be a good boy. But I cannot see the future. I love him and want him to love others, to be kind, to be aware of his actions, and to treat people with respect. I want him to learn from the men who have chosen these things instead of power and abuse.
"It is the social air that youth are breathing as they’re growing up," he told me. "The media, the athletic environment, the jeans, the adults who market the jeans, the parents, the teachers that we have in school, the religious leaders—all create an environment that normalizes the domination and the control of women." He chose the right word: endemic. "It’s been that way for some time and will remain that way until something in the social environment changes."
Men as Peacemakers was founded in Duluth, Minn., after the community was rocked by a series of murders committed by men in the 1990s. When citizens gathered to discuss addressing violence in their city, most of them were women.
This concerned some of the men in the community, who convened a retreat with 55 men from the area to discuss their roles and responsibilities when it came to alleviating violence. One of the initiatives born of the meeting was Men as Peacemakers, whose mission is to teach men and boys that there are alternatives to violence, and that violence is unacceptable.
I had called Heisler with an honest question: How do I raise my son to be a man who will do his part, too, to change the social environment that subjugates women?
Men as Peacemakers attempts to counter this environment by embedding its role models and mentors throughout the community.
For example, The Best Party Model, a program in coordination with with College of St. Scholastica, attempts to reshape the party culture in America to one that is safe and equitable for women. They do this by placing mentors in schools, colleges, youth organizations, and other places where young people can have honest conversations about sexuality and partying. And it turns out that language and conversation have a lot to do with shaping young men's attitudes toward women.
I mentioned an anecdote from this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. During Microsoft’s demo for the new Xbox One, the male player and emcee gave a virtual gaming beatdown to a female player before a live audience, telling her, "Just let it happen. It’ll be over soon."
In a culture where dominance and abusive rhetoric are socially permitted (video gaming), this is dominating language—and the language we use matters. Language can both empower and objectify. (Just compare the results of "college women" to that of "college girls" in a Google Image search, and you get the point).
The Champions Initiative, another Men as Peacemakers initiative, pairs college athletes with youths and works directly with athletic associations and coaches to ensure that the prevention of violence against women is part of these associations' missions.
Since the Steubenville rape trial has focused an eye on sports culture and sexual violence, Heisler believes this outreach is critical. He uses the Steubenville case in a guided imagery exercise that asks boys to "think about that young man from Steubenville as a little boy" and to consider what his environment looks and sounds like: "Somehow that kid learned what his sense of humor was or that women were objects for men’s pleasure—things that don’t matter, you can pee on them, use them, do whatever you want with them, and it doesn’t matter. That was not the way he was born."
So perhaps men are the worst thing that ever happens to women, but we are not born that way. We learn it. Even well-intentioned, responsible young men are capable of making terrible decisions if they are not taught, prepared, and encouraged to do otherwise.
So I asked Heisler directly: You’re talking to a new dad. What’s the most important, fundamental advice you can give to make sure that the children we’re raising are not going to add to this human rights problem?
His answer? Create a wholly new environment for young men. "New dads have an opportunity and responsibility to very proactively think about how to shape and provide an environment for that young person, [one] that is going to role model and display and set expectations for equality and dignity and respect between men and women."
This means not just being a model in how we treat mothers, partners, and strangers in public, but also in how we think about our homes and the spaces we inhabit.
"We’re trying to create a world where dads—men—are taking it a step further and really thinking about how they creatively shape an environment that promotes gender equity and respect for women," Heisler told me. "We have a tide pushing in the opposite direction. It takes every effort to create an environment that will stick with our young people."
A few days later, I had a beer with Todd Bratulich and Luke Freeman. After all the research on violence and domination, I wanted to unwind. Todd is a youth pastor at First Covenant, an urban Minneapolis community church; Luke, a high school teacher. More importantly, both, like me, have young sons.
We talked about how to be good men who love our partners and families and friends, and who want to make a warm and welcoming environment for our sons to grow into. We all felt good about our commitment to these issues, thinking we were doing our part—we weren't party to the culture of violence against women.
Then, sensing our self-satisfaction, Luke said: "We pat ourselves on the back because we find exceptions in ourselves, only to go on and enjoy our privilege."
And I realized, I hadn’t really done my part after all. Not yet. Treating my wife with love and kindness is vital, of course. But it also is only the minimum.
We must be active, creative, and purposeful in extending this behavior to every moment of our lives if we are to become peacemakers, to push against the tide and create the space needed to raise sons with empathy and compassion.
We three dads raised our glasses to the challenge, and went home to our sons.
• Christopher Zumski Finke wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Christopher blogs about pop culture and is editor of The Stake. Follow him on Twitter at @christopherzf