Boys to men

It’s a depressing time to be a woman.
I could’ve happily lived out the rest of my life without knowing that there was any such thing as “hate sex,” but Jian Ghomeshi and the “gentlemen” of the Dalhousie University dental school have changed all that.
Add in the tragedy of Rehtaeh Parsons and the disturbing accusations dogging Bill Cosby and it’s easy to think there’s no way to change the conflicting realities for men and women around sexual consent and sexual violence.
But there are people working to change things, right here in Halifax, and their approach makes so much sense it seems painfully obvious. How do you change the world for women? You begin with boys.
Pathways to Education is a national non-profit that provides support for students who live in neighbourhoods with historically low high-school graduation rates. Chebucto Connections Pathways to Education is an arm of the group that operates in Spryfield.
This year, with the support of a similar program offered through the province’s Department of Health and Wellness, it has developed specialized curricula for Grade 9 boys and girls in three of the four junior-high schools in Spryfield.
Ostensibly about “leadership,” the program also aims to correct an imbalance in “male help-seeking behaviour” before the guys hit high school. (Officials have observed that girls willingly seek help at the youth health centres in Nova Scotia high schools, while guys don’t).
To eliminate some of the posturing that tends to go with mixed classes, the program separates the guys from the girls during their usual “Healthy Living” class block. Student Parent Support Worker Derek Smith leads some of the guys’ groups. The work he and his colleagues are doing with these 14- and 15-year-old guys is groundbreaking.
Although Smith is trained as a teacher, he comes from outside the school system, which helps him connect with students. He says the kids react well to the sessions because they’re different from traditional classes: the guys sit in a circle, they don’t write things down and there’s no homework.
Most importantly, the dynamic is designed to create a safe space for teenage boys to talk about their experiences in an atmosphere of trust and open, nonjudgmental communication.
The program tackles issues around sexuality and consent; it challenges thinking around stereotypes, body image and relationships. Vitally, it encourages young men to become freethinkers who resist the herd mentality.
The organizers wouldn’t put it like this, because they go to great pains to avoid judgmental language, but I’ll come right out and say it: it’s about helping young guys become better people.
And, unlike a typical health class, it’s handled with great sensitivity and compassion. “We are very careful to build a safe space beforehand, because a lot of this could be intensely personal,” Smith says. “You have no idea what people are bringing to the table. You would never just walk into a classroom and talk about consent with kids that you have not built trust with. But once that’s there, you can just talk about anything. There is nothing off the table.”
Smith says the year begins with conversations about things like STIs, and then gradually gets into talking about issues like homophobia and consent “as early as we can, and still provide a safe environment.” He says allowing the guys to talk about their preconceptions in a safe space can make a difference, because almost none of them are having these conversations anywhere else.
“When people feel safe and able to voice their opinions, things are probably better,” he says. “I don’t claim to have the right answers, I just want to expose them to these ideas and let them think about them.”
The sessions can be eye opening for the guys. “We have this activity we do at the beginning: ‘Expectations of Manliness,’ we call it,” Smith explains. “We lay down things that guys feel are pressures on them: be loud, eat a lot, drink a lot, be homophobic, be violent. And the one that is always identified is: Fix your own problems. Don’t ask for help. But the thing I love is, at the end of that activity, you just lay them all out and you go, ‘So a person that lives up to all this, who is that?’ And the first thing they say is ‘Nobody.’ And the second thing they say is, ‘He’s an asshole. I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.’”
Smith grins. “When I hear them say these things, I think, had we not had this conversation, they would be 25 and still thinking that.”
You can see where this is going. “I would like to think that had the Dal dental students had these conversations at any point, it could have been when they were 24 but definitely if they had had them when they were 14, there would be something in their heads that said ‘Wait, I’m talking about rape here. I’m talking about non-consensual activities,’” says Smith. “They didn’t have that in their heads, I guess, and lots of guys don’t. But that’s because they’ve never talked about it.”
Would that they had. Big ups to Smith and his colleagues for leading those difficult conversations with these young men.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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