Q&A with Walk a Mile in Her Shoes
Question and Answer session with Frank Baird, Founder of Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®,
The International Men's March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence.
How did you come up with the idea for the marches, and how did people initially react to this idea?
I created Walk a Mile in Her Shoes when I was working with Valley Trauma Center, a Rape Crisis Center in the San Fernando Valley. We were working on a number of projects to help raise community awareness about the need to do something to prevent sexual assault. I co-directed Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues two years for Valley Trauma Center as part of the annual V-Day celebrations. I really appreciated the creativity, outrageousness and effects of these efforts. I wanted something that would move men to become actively involved in improving their relationships with women.
Rape is too often seen as a “woman’s problem” or recovery as “women’s work”. But rape doesn’t just affect women, it affects the men who care about them as well. I wanted to help men find a way to acknowledge these effects and help them develop ways of accessing and acting upon their caring.
What type of response do you get from the men who participate in the marches?
You’d think by now we’d understand that any man any where might be willing to take up this conversation and don the shoes. Every year we continue to be surprised.
One year we had a group of bikers Walk. These tough-looking, muscular, tattooed, blunt-speaking men put on their delicate little heels and Walked and chanted and talked about their experiences during and after.
Military bases have hosted Walks and men in uniform have worn the lovely red patent-leather pumps.
Fraternities have become very interested in Walking and coordinating nationwide. Not only are these men enthusiastic about improving their relationships with women, they have a very public opportunity to stand in opposition to the unfavorable stereotypes of fraternity men.
Men in small rural communities, including “no-nonsense” farmers and laborers have been willing participants in these efforts.
Each time I am surprised, I am surprised at being surprised. Men just needed the right venue, the right opportunity. We are elated to see the broad appeal of the Walk and my favorite memories are the conversations with these men about why they’re Walking, what they’ve learned and what they’re hoping can be possible in their lives.
One man told me that his young daughter had years ago been abducted and murdered. Tearfully he told me the courage it took for him to Walk because of the memories it brought forth and his reluctance to cry in public. He also told me of how proud he was to be able to and how grateful he was for the opportunity to honor his relationship with his daughter.
A sexual assault survivor spoke at one Walk and described how she had become convinced by rape that all men were monsters. And she described how seeing the sea of men playing against gender stereotypes in such a public way, of seeing their courage and compassion, helped her remember that not all men are monsters, that most men are good and caring. A man in the audience told me he was so grateful for an opportunity to show women that he was not a monster and how much he appreciated her appreciation of his efforts.
What type of response do you get from the communities where the marches are held?
When we first began the Walk, we were worried that people would think we were being ironic and disrespectful. We were anxious to insure that people got the real message behind the Walk, that men and women get that this is a creative way to begin dialogue, not a rude joke. We were so pleased that men really understood our intentions. No one was confused about or message or our efforts. The men described their experiences in ways we hoped for, in ways we thought helpful and promoting of our intentions. And the media was always spot on message and never confused or critical.
The first Walk had about 50 guys wearing shoes. That’s a small number these days, but a huge number for the first Walk!
We walked around Balboa Park. There were people picnicking and having a pleasant afternoon wondering watching this procession of high heeled guys. They enjoyed the spectacle and cheered us on. Some came by our “after-party” to get more information and congratulate us on our efforts.
The largest Walk yet was in Los Angeles last year. We had about 300 men in heels walking down the busiest intersection in the San Fernando Valley. In addition to our 300, we had other men without heels, women friends and supporters and children. We were led police cars and a marching band. It was very exciting.
In the meantime we’ve had Walks in all parts of the world. We have 88 scheduled for 2008 (so far). We’ve had large Walks in metropolitan areas and small Walks in rural communities.
We’re no longer particularly worried that people will confuse our message or misrepresent us. We’ve got strong momentum behind us. We’re growing. We couldn’t grow if people didn’t this our effort worthwhile.
How can survivors approach the men in their life about getting involved, without pressuring them or making them uncomfortable?
It depends on what you mean by “involved.” There is social and political involvement and the involvement of one person in another person’s life.
Some survivors are interested in taking this up as a cause. For those who are have social or political action as a part of their life, this is a continuation of their ways of participating in the world.
Some survivors become interested in social and political action as a result of their experiences of abuse and violence. Social and political action become a way for them to transform from “victim” to “survivor.” In this effort they get to revise the meaning of their experiences and put their own resilience to work for themselves and others.
Men need only be invited into these activities. I prefer “invitation” as a means for involvement. You cannot require men to participate. It does not pay to cajole or threaten men into participation. These are tactics that might work for to produce punishment or alienation, but not productive and mutually satisfying relations. Too often, even when it’s in someone’s best interest to participate, they may refuse just because they’re mad enough to.
The power of invitation is this: An invitation means men can accept or decline. This acknowledges the reality of the world. If you want men to come to the party, you need an invitation that would encourage them to say yes. Some men might accept an invitation to a fight, but you’ll only get fighting if they come.
If instead you invite men to come because it is in their own self interest, because they get to show up in a way that is meaningful for them, they’ll come ready to listen, ready to talk, ready to learn, ready to try out new ways of pursuing and being in relationship. They’ll do this because they can anticipate being experienced as valuable guests, and they’ll be glad they came to the party. Once they’re glad, maybe they’ll move in and become an ongoing part of the conversation, the effort, the relationship.
For those women who want a particular man in their life to participate in personal efforts to be attentive to these issues or concerns as they show up in their own life and relationship, “invitation” is still the best avenue. Invitation offers the opportunity for the man to “freely” access his willingness and dedication to be attentive, helpful and caring. The benefit of this “freedom” creates the context where he can notice and appreciate that he is doing this because he wants to. This wanting is a powerful motivator.
What changes have you seen in men's perceptions of sexual violence towards women since you started?
Men are beginning to appreciate that sexual violence is not just a problem for some women who have been abused by some men. They are seeing that the roots of sexualized violence are twisted into other cultural discourses and practices that affect us all. They’re beginning to explore those roots in ordinary, everyday life, and they’re starting to do some weeding. This happens in ordinary conversations where men and women can listen to one another. This listening is really important. If we listen and allow ourselves to hear what the other person is saying, not just hear our own preconceived notions or assumptions, then we can better know and appreciate one another. Better relationship means less or no violence.
What changes would you like to see in the future?
I’m very interested in more people becoming more interested and better equipped at creating and participating in conversations about sex and violence and the differences between them.
One of the problems with sex education programs is that they tend to focus only on the biology of sex. Sometimes moral aspects are introduced, like whether you should have sex or not prior to marriage. But the politics of sex are not included. I think this is because too many people are unaware of the politics because they’re too unaware of the undercurrents of feelings and thoughts that swirl around sex. Or they’re just scared.
We need to be able to talk about these things. They’re such a big part of our lives. They have such powerful effects. If we can talk about these things with more courage, we can manage that power more successfully.
How do men benefit from helping stop sexual violence against women?
Men must be part of the effort to end sexualized violence. They are already involved, and it is in their own self-interest to be involved in preferred ways. Sadly, in the world of violence and violence statistics, men already have a “public face.” The current public face does not speak to the values and relationship preferences of most men.
Statistically men are the principle perpetrators of sexualized violence. These may be some of the effects of patriarchy and gender training. Men are considered with fear and suspicion. If we can help men reappraise their relationship to certain embedded cultural assumptions about women and sex and violence, we can save countless potential victims, both women and men. Women can be spared the assault and its aftermath, and men suffer when the women they care about are hurt by sexualized violence.
The new “public face” of men will be more resonant with the care, consideration and responsibility of most men. This will benefit men as they engage in relationships with women. This will benefit men in creating a cultural context that better surfaces, acknowledges and appreciates men’s contributions to the culture and relationships.
In addition to awareness of the issue, what tools does Walk a Mile in Her Shoes offer to men to help them fight sexual violence?
It starts with awareness. The Walk creates an atmosphere where men can become more aware because they’re invited and because they’re invited, they’re willing to listen. While they’re listening, all kinds of information is available. Each local organizer provides statistics, descriptions of services available, opportunities for dialogue and participation. And individually the men start talking with the women in their lives and asking questions or considering aspects of women’s experiences they may not have even known existed prior.
As a fun fundraiser the Walk encourages prominent public officials to become involved. This brings critical political and social support for rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters.
As a fundraiser, the Walk brings money in for support of ongoing services.
I recently formed a nonprofit organization, Venture Humanity, Inc. to further develop anti-violence and relationship materials for communities, schools, families, couples and individuals. We hope to be able to distribute these materials to help people access preferred ways of being in the world and preferred ways of being in relationship. When people are able to live in preferred ways, frustration, confusion and violence will diminish.
How does your organization go about engaging the entire family, including children, to help stop violence against women?
Sexualized violence is not just an adult problem. 44% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 18. 15% under age 12. We mention these statistic to encourage parents to alert and protect their children.
We include families by creating an event that focuses on what can be done. We refrain from male-bashing and prefer to access men’s willingness and ability to be proactive and to create and maintain, to provide safety for their families. I think one of the reasons men are so willing to participate in this effort is because they’ve been cast in a positive role, the positive role they have has been highlighted and leveraged for the benefit of everyone.
Because this positive role is highlighted, we can talk about what can be done, not what has been done, the good that we can accomplish, not the crimes that have been committed. What can be done is broader than just stopping rape. What can be done includes improving relationships between men and women and children in many ways.
So children can be involved in our Walks because they can take up the message, “My dad respects women and so do I.” They can take up the message “Rape hurts all of us.” They can be proud that the men in their lives are proactive and proud. They can benefit from these role models.
Boys can learn to be respectful and caring in ways that are broader than traditional gender training may have made room for. Girls can learn that boys can be respectful and caring. Girls can also learn that they do not have to endure disrespect and abuse because the message has become louder that there are alternatives, that there are men and a community that support better treatment of girls and women.
What do you consider the greatest success of your organization?
So far in 2008 we have engaged 2,672 men in the dialog about gender relations and ending sexualized violence. 1,814 men have worn high-heeled shoes. $191,172 has been raised for local rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, and that’s with less than half the Walks having reporting in. Approximately 4,537 men, women and children have participated in Walks worldwide so far this year. We’ve managed to get people to talk about the unspeakable. We’ve managed to get men and women talking about something that is so difficult for them to talk about together. Women have found ways to talk with women about their experiences of or fears of or concerns about sexualized violence, but now men are part of the dialog. That’s going to make a big difference in the world and in people’s relationships.
We’re pretty happy with these results and we’re looking forward to expanding the dialog and even greater successes in years to come.
If you would like to suggest a Q&A with an activist organization working to raise awareness and end sexual violence, please contact us!