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  • Olga Ellinghaus

It Starts Here: Deconstructing Narrow Ideals of Masculinity to Confront Gender-Based Violence

By Olga Ellinghaus

For many women, the realization of gender roles comes at an early age, when made aware of earlier curfews, told not to walk alone at night, not to wear a skirt, or to cover their shoulders in public. The harsh reality of victim-blaming educates women not to look or act provocatively. Teaching young girls and women preventative measures has become a matter of course, but misses the ultimate causes of gender-based violence. “It doesn’t make sense to only talk to the people who are vulnerable, who are victims of sexual violence. If you want to tackle this problem at its root, you need to incorporate the perpetrators, or possible perpetrators, into the conversation,” says Paul Ikpia, the 24-year-old ambassador of the Amsterdam-based campaign It Starts Here.

The campaign advocating against harmful masculine behavior and gender-based violence was launched in late 2020 by the social design agency Burobraak, with financial support from Emancipator and Knowledge Mile and in cooperation with the University of Amsterdam’s Our Bodies Our Voice (OBOV). Posters of the three ambassadors Paul, Noah Schmitt (22), and Frederico Sgarlata (22) were put up around Amsterdam, the university campuses, and on electronic billboards around the city. The three ambassadors share their own experiences of their gender, particularly with masculinity, with the hope of opening up and normalizing this conversation for men. “I would say the basic idea is displaying different forms of masculinity and saying there’s different ways to be a man. You don’t need to fit into this one stereotypical masculine popular idea – and if you don’t, that’s okay. And to take away from the pressure to fit into this one idea. To be strong, or to have lots of girls, which in my eyes can lead to negative side-effects, sexual violence being among them,” Noah says.

In interviews published on the official It Starts Here website, all three ambassadors give personal accounts of their struggles to conform to society’s expectations of manhood. These anecdotic insights are the main focus of the campaign and touch upon themes like friendship, family, emotions, dating, and the discomfort to deal with pressures of acting a certain way. The relatability factor is central to the ambassadors, as the conversation about masculinity can be difficult to start.

The liberal and enlightened environment we associate with Amsterdam’s universities and their students is deceiving. In a recent PanDam article about the HeForShe x UvA initiative, the founders of the association stated their demands for more allyship with the gender equality movement at the university level. For female students, the university period is a vulnerable time, where sexual assault and violence occur at high rates and the Amsterdam student landscape is not free from this. On the contrary, cases of sexual misconduct involving both students and professors occur time and time again – and the UvA is the university with the highest rates nationwide.

“There is kind of a pseudo-awareness,” Paul says. “People know toxic masculinity is a thing, a topic, and it’s a liberal environment so people try not to say negative things. But there is very much a disconnect about what is said, what is said in a classroom, compared to how people actually act. There is still a culture of talking about women in a certain way, especially when there is alcohol involved. I remember being at certain parties and hearing men’s strategies to get women, where that was surprising to me. And it made me realize for many men it’s still an abstract thing and we shouldn’t forget how internalized this idea of one ideal type of man, one ideal type of masculinity is.” The campaign mainly targets male students, as the period between adolescence and adulthood is a valuable transition phase where young people are particularly perceptive to shifting norms and critical thinking.

Terminology like toxic masculinity and sexual violence are very loaded and may deter young men from engaging in vulnerable conversations. “The thing I find challenging is to bridge the gap between masculinity and gender violence. To create the link of how we identify as men, and what that can lead to. What I talk about, for example, is what it feels like going home at night. That’s different for women in our friend group. That’s sexual violence in the conversation there, even if it’s not explicit,” Noah shares.

Common misconceptions of toxic masculinity include associations with well-known sexual predators who personify our most extreme imaginations of malice, especially in conduct with women (such as Donald Trump, Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein). It is often understood to attack masculinity altogether, which can make the conversation bumpy to start with. But what toxic masculine behavior tries to describe are the problematic expectations of manliness young boys are raised to live up to, and the harmful behaviors that develop as a result. “Being a man isn’t wrong or toxic. I really try to draw attention that it is part of the idea of masculinity, this social idea, that you can become a victim of,” Paul says. “I try to talk about harmful practices of being a man. How does my behavior negatively affect the people around me?” Noah agrees.

The immediate connection between forms of harmful masculine behavior and sexual violence may seem hard to grasp at first, but Noah points towards the rape culture pyramid for clarification. “If you look at the rape culture pyramid, when you look at the expression of masculinity, it’s the most fundamental part of it. Only the tip of the iceberg is physical abuse. That’s often what you think about when you talk about sexual violence, but when you talk about belittling people, that’s talking about sexual violence, too.” Physical acts of sexual violence are at the top of the pyramid, yet, by normalizing sexist attitudes, less aggressive and physical forms of harmful masculine behavior such as catcalling and sexist jokes, contribute to it at large.

These expectations start at a young age, Paul adds. He describes the daredevil tests of courage, for example, jumping down from somewhere really high. Other common examples are driving fast, getting into physical fights, drinking a lot. “When boys feel like they have to do something because it’s the manly thing to do. And as we grow older and become more adult, there is a connection to women for sure, also to discriminated against groups that differ. For example, to talk badly about queer people, gay men especially.” There is also the expectation to sleep with many women. “How many women do you need to sleep with to be cool?” asks Noah. “And what does that mean for your behavior?”

Starting these conversations as a woman can be tricky, especially when confronted with male group dynamics. The obvious power differences make women feel like there is little in her ability to do when surrounded by a group of guys who are making inappropriate comments about or towards women or the queer community. In my personal experience, reprehension or protest are often simply waved aside or met with belittlement. It Starts Here tries to overcome this invincible power dynamic by engaging men to make other men think about possibly harmful words and actions concerning themselves and others.

From personal conversations sparked by the campaign, the two ambassadors have realized that for some men, a discriminatory attitude towards people who express their genders in different, non-conforming ways can come from insecurities about one’s gender. A friend of Paul shared his self-reflections on his past attitudes which he now understands were a result of his own struggles with masculinity. “In a larger context, maybe more men may feel this way and that could be a motivation to put other men down because if you’re playing by the rules, they should as well.” Noah also calls attention to the lack of awareness about male privileges: “A lot of guys just don’t have a good perspective for people who identify as women and different genders around them. I think that comes from being raised as men who don’t need to look out for other things. Who don’t need to have a second perspective, who don’t get interrupted when they speak and dominate group discussions.” Opening up these conversations with their friends or men around from all age groups has often led to moments of revelation and self-reflection.

As with many things, Corona put a damper on It Starts Here. Without the pandemic, they would have been able to physically reach and recruit more students to join the team. The website got over 600 views and Paul was approached by someone from his work to speak at the bi-monthly gender equality meet-up at the company he works at. In the future, the current representatives want to get more ambassadors to participate in the campaign and reach beyond Amsterdam’s student environment, possibly even to other cities in the Netherlands. Expanding the group of ambassadors, they hope, will create a domino effect for the campaign. The more the conversation about masculinity, gender stereotypes and gender-based violence is opened up, the more it will become normalized.

It Starts Here contributes to the paramount shift concerning the discourse around gender expectations and stereotypes by moving away from a one-dimensional understanding of manhood. Opening up the conversation about harmful practices of masculinity, the campaign unlocks new room for gender expression and a more multifaceted understanding of the scope of gender violence.

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