One in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. This isn’t just a statistic, this is a woman’s reality. In Canada, this experience applies to almost 50% of all women. This isn’t just a statistic, this a woman’s reality. In fact, 67% of Canadians report knowing at least woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. This isn’t just a statistic, this is a woman’s reality.
There are approximately 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada every year, and only 140 of those perpetrators will be convicted for their crimes. That’s 459,860 perpetrators walking freely in our communities. This isn’t just a statistic, this is our reality.
There are a slew of examples I could share where men have made creepy, sexist, and even ‘rapey’ comments to me and my friends, both intentionally and absentmindedly. I hope I have illustrated that sexual assault statistics are not just statistics for many women, trans people, and men: it’s our reality. And truthfully, it’s a harsh reality to swallow when you realize rape culture is everywhere and handled so insensitively by the media and those around you. That’s why high profile cases of sexual assault can be difficult for survivors to read and hear about. There’s a quote that really resonates with me that goes something like, “Be careful what you say about sexual assault cases, survivors are listening and determining whether they can trust you.”
When I first heard about a group of Ryerson RTA students pitching a film from the perspective of a male perpetrator titled Victim, I felt extremely uncomfortable. Where was the narrative of the 459,860 individuals who had experienced sexual assault this year that didn’t see justice served? A classmate of mine actually reached out to one of the students in the group for an explanation. The student explained, “Having the male as the main characters [sic] perspective is extremely important. I hope that my film will reach the demographic of male college students by showing them that one’s actions can lead to losing everything like your closest friends and your previous life.” To which she responded, “I’m sorry but do you not understand how dehumanizing that message is? You’re still saying rape is only bad because the rapist loses their friends.”
As I followed updates of this story, I felt saddened that there was such a narrow narrative on such a heavy topic. Did this group mean well when they pitched this story? Quite possibly. They quite possibly had hopes of creating dialogue on a larger issue: rape culture on university campuses.
Over time, I became a little consumed with the entire story. Like most topics I feel strongly about, I felt compelled to reach out to anyone that felt comfortable sharing their knowledge and experience with me. It was around this time I learned about Jesmen Mendoza’s work within Ryerson University, and I knew instantaneously he was someone I wanted to speak with to address accountability, rape culture, and power.
Dr. Jesmen Mendoza is a Registered Psychologist at Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling. He is also a forensic psychologist by training, with over 17 years of counselling experience within the violence against women community and the partner assault response community. He has also done substantial work with perpetrators of sexual violence in what he calls, “accountability programs.” I had the opportunity to chat with Mendoza to discuss his work, accountability and responsibility, good vs. harmful types of power, rape culture, Jian Ghomeshi, the controversy that surrounded a group of RTA students’ green-lit production of a film titled Victims, and The Men’s Room: what it’s all about and why it is important.
Mendoza will be launching a program at Ryerson in late spring called The Men’s Room, “a space to help men understand how particular societal messages, cultural messages, and messages about their gender may empower privilege and give them reasons to act out in very aggressive and harming ways.” He hopes this important program will allow men to openly discuss these issues, while learning how to take accountability and responsibility for harmful behaviours.
I think some men may to come to this group knowing some of what their male friends are doing is bordering on being wrong or harmful, but they don’t know how to talk about it. Each group will really challenge men to figure out what do they want to do next. What can you do differently so that we live in a healthier, better, and safer community?
On The Men’s Room and Discussing Masculinity, Accountability, Responsibility
JH: To begin, why is it important for men to be able to openly talk about how the patriarchy affects them?
JM: Most men are taught not to talk about their emotions. Most men are taught not to talk about their vulnerabilities. I think it is important to talk about masculinity, aggression, sexual assault, and the intersections of this. How do we respond to this as a community? Hopefully, this is a space where they can be honest and find different ways of acting and behaving that is respectful to all. It would be a facilitated discussion that takes a pro-feminist approach to discussion.
JH: If men are taught not to address their vulnerability, how will you convince men to willingly attend?
JM: I will be relying on stakeholders, allies, and people to refer men to a group like this. We can’t just go to regular student sand say, “Hey! Would you like to come to this group that talks about masculinity?” Most people would say, “No.” It will take a lot of effort and community partnerships to be able to get this program going in some ways, [but] I have faith.
JH: So you’re hoping men will become more aware of their problematic actions and the actions of men around them?
JM: Yes, it’s a consciousness raising group. It’s hard to see a problem if you don’t know what the problem is. Part of the focus on the group is being able to give vocabulary to these issues. Whether we’re talking about sex offenders, transphobia, or gender differences: you don’t know what you don’t know if you don’t have the language.
I think some men may come to this group knowing that some of what their male friends are doing is bordering on being wrong or harmful, but they don’t know how to talk about it. Each workshop will really challenge men to figure out what do they want to do next, [such as answering], “What can you do differently so that we live in a healthier, better, and safer community?”
JH: Why is this program important to our community on campus specifically?
JM: I think being a university student in particular means being a really good academic citizen, [and] a citizen implies responsibility taking. I will [also] be talking a lot about power. Sometimes when we talk about power, we think that all power is bad. And certainly power over others is hurtful and harmful! However, there is such a thing as power sharing [and] that’s another form of power. The other type of power is empowerment, such as someone coming to one of these groups. They’re trying to empower themselves so they can make better sense of the world.
JH: So, what sorts of activities can we expect to see in the Men’s Room?
JM: I will expose them to some type of popular media that is relatively available on YouTube or on a TedTalk. We could be looking at masculinity and homophobia, masculinity and slut-shaming, or masculinity and pornography. They will then be asked to take a moment to reflect on what they had just seen in a space that allows them all to answer [openly]. There will be cross talk discussions afterwards.
JH: You’ve been doing this kind of work for 17 years, why did you decide to launch this program now in your career?
JM: Part of it is that there’s now a space for me to launch a program like this. It’s [also] what the community is wanting. Various stakeholders, like Farrah Khan’s [Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education] or the Student Conduct Office have identified that we want to help people that have been sexually assaulted or have been harmed in violent ways, but what do we do with the people that committed that violence? One solution I don’t think is helpful is to actually say, “You can’t come back to this community.” The reality is: they have to return to some community. So how do we want to integrate people into it?
JH: Statistics have shown that most perpetrators aren’t convicted for their crimes. Are you suggesting this is an alternative?
JM: This is a very layered question, meaning that I think there are different paths to restoration. [Restoration] could mean coming to a program like mine or a more specialized program. It could mean being referred out to the community or even criminal proceedings. It’s bit harder for me to answer, but in my attempt to answer: this program is really a service to the survivors of any violence against women. [So, I’m asking] what would a survivor want this group of men to hear or understand more fully and how can I facilitate that discussion accordingly?
JH: It’s not as simple as saying, “Teach men not to rape,” – or is it?
JM: We can be as explicit as that, but we also need to understand that there’s social and cultural pressure, all the individual differences [between people], people’s personal capacities and different personalities, and people’s own resources to handle situations. [We also have to] throw into the mix how alcohol and drugs intersect with all of this. So, I think it is one of the many different things we have to do, [but] we have to take a multi-layered approach to make sure sexual assault, rape, violence against women decreases.
JH: I know you work with perpetrators in your office. How do these perpetrators hear of your service?
JM: Most often, they are referred to me by a stakeholder in the community. Most [perpetrators] aren’t aware of their harmful behaviours, or have somehow rationalized their behaviour as being okay. It’s until they run into problems within their institutions that it’s brought to their awareness. Their behaviour is not okay; it is disruptive and it is harmful. They are then strongly encouraged to see me.
JH: Correct me f I am wrong, but is ‘perpetrators’ the correct term to refer to someone that has committed violent acts?
JM: This is a current discussion in the community. What do we call those that harm others? We can call them perpetrators, offenders, OR people who cause harm. What we want to do is accurately capture what they do, but at the same time not villainize individuals either. If we start to villainize people, we start to come to the conclusion that this person should be out [of our community] for good and never come back. I don’t think that serves us well because if we are kicking them out of our community, they will just find another community and re-offend or hurt others.
We need to have accountability programs and access to individuals like me who are trained to talk to men and encouraging them to take accountability and responsibility in a very substantial way. That doesn’t mean they go back to the survivor and apologize! We are talking about asking “how do you change your life in a way that is respectful?” The ultimate responsibility is to those individuals that have survived sexual assault.
JH: What is the prognosis of these perpetrators who underwent your counselling?
JM: We don’t keep track of those stats, [but] certainly those are things we are currently considering, [specifically] how to do it and how to do it well. What kind of complicates this too is that students come and go or transfer programs, so we don’t know how they are doing afterwards. [In fact], some of the interventions might not see its fullest effects until after graduation!
But to [answer your question and] give you a typical trajectory of what happens: people usually get referred to me for particular disruptive or offending behaviours on campus. Sometimes, we [then] discover some tough family situations or trauma. So, it becomes a balance of even though we understand their [background] context, that doesn’t ever excuse someone to use violence against anybody. So [we ask them], “How do you take responsibility for that?” That is a constant question that I am asking. Anecdotally, I can say people come to a better place in their minds of what has happened so that they can carry on and learn from it. [I think] not examining and not learning from it just means they’re going to repeat their hurtful behaviours.
JH: Is there a pattern you haven’t noticed between male perpetrators?
JM: I don’t know if there is a pattern or demographic per say, [but] I can say that the one commonality is having this idea of power and control being very important to them, and they must maintain it and have it. As I was saying before, it’s more than just having power over other people. Sharing power and empowering yourself makes you feel better [about yourself].
JH: Is this type of service relatively new?
JM: It is relatively new – at least in the university setting. I don’t think many universities have someone on staff that is trained to talk to those that have been hurtful or disruptive on campus. From what I understand, I am somewhat unique at least in the GTA universities.
JH: It’s clear to me that we need to have these discussions, but there will be people who will be quick to dismiss a space that is called the Men’s Room. What would you say to these people?
JM: I think the best way to approach this is to have one-to-one conversations to explain to people it’s more than just a space. It’s a space that has pro-feminist values as the top priority.
JH: Could someone who identifies as a woman or trans person attend?
JM: It mostly is targeted to men, but I wouldn’t deny entry to anybody if they have a willingness and appetite to discuss these issues. A person [also] doesn’t have to have committed or offended [to attend]. They can be anywhere on the spectrum. For instance, a participant could be a silent ally that doesn’t know how to voice themselves in appropriate ways.
On Clinical Psychology and Difficult Conversations
JH: What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
JM: That moment when a student is able to take full responsibility for their actions. When a student really, truly understands that, “Oh, I hurt somebody and I need to do something differently and this is what I am going to do differently,” [that’s fulfilling to me]. Whatever that “different” is for that person, it’s fulfilling [to hear].
JH: Why did you decide to become a psychologist?
JM: I found out I was really good at challenging people [laughs].
JH: And how did you come to that realization?
JM: At the middle of my Master’s program. One of my first placements was at a male battery treatment agency and realized I had a way of being able to challenge people that didn’t make them more defensive. In fact, it makes them more curious. That’s not easy to do and that’s a talent I have. [My work is] my own version of doing advocacy for the world; my own sense of social justice.
JH: How are you able separate your work from your personal life? Is it difficult to leave your work at the office?
JM: It becomes easier [laughs]. Any emerging clinician is trying to find that balance, but hopefully towards the middle of their career they’ve got that figured out. I think I’ve got that figured out. The work is transformative. It helps strengthen some of the ideas I have around holding others accountable. The world is better when we all take responsibility. If anything, not resisting that, having good boundaries, and having a really fulfilling personal life helps [me separate work from my personal life].
JH: How about highly publicized news coverage that relates to these topics, such as the Brock Turner rape or the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault cases? How do you digest these issues that are being dissected left and right?
JM: When I read things in the media, I recognize that there are multiple angles that are either being considered or not considered. I always ask the question, “What is not being told?” For instance, the Jian Ghomeshi case. I’m thinking, “What about the institutional betrayal that was going on? What responsibilities did Jian Ghomeshi’s employer have? If they had ideas that something was going on, why weren’t some of these things investigated? How did they come to that conclusion of not doing more?” And so, those are the questions I ask. There is responsibility that wasn’t taken by certain players in all of this. If anything, these media reports create more questions for me.
JH: There was a bit of controversy recently surrounding a group of Media Production students creating a short film from the perspective of a male perpetrator, in which many students felt that the story simplified rape to, “Rape is bad because your friends will shun you if you are found guilty.” What are your thoughts on this? And in your opinion, what kind of dialogue needs to be put forward when writing or producing stories that contain sensitive matter, such as rape?
JM: We need to recognize that certain impacts aren’t being considered. That’s part of the responsibility-taking. I would hope that any discussion, whether that’s a documentary or media or blog stories, is actually focused on how does this person take responsibility and accountability. Part of it is recognizing the loss and consequences for sure, but that’s only one small part of the discussion. A balanced conversation is needed: without minimization, without denial, without blame. Yes, you can talk about their loss, but it can’t just be a story that’s, “Don’t do this because…” There has to be more to it. And these are hard discussions. I just hope that anyone that invites discussion can show the full picture. It requires broader strokes if it’s to be depicted.