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Meredith Holt, Published March 30 2013

Local men getting involved in sexual assault awareness, education, prevention

MOORHEAD – Last Sunday, 230 people registered for MSUM’s third annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” An estimated three-quarters of them were male college students.

Members of three North Dakota State University fraternities, one Minnesota State University Moorhead fraternity and several MSUM athletic teams raised over $1,000 for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead by slipping on, squeezing into and fastening donated pairs of oversized high heels.

The men clearly had fun trying on, showing off and hobbling around in the women’s shoes, but the afternoon spectacle had a bigger purpose – to show that they, too, want to help prevent sexual violence.

“The overwhelming majority of men don’t abuse women, and the overwhelming majority of men care for women, are compassionate toward women, have those women in their lives – mothers, daughters, nieces, sisters – that they care about, and they want to be able to create a community and an environment where this violence is not present and it’s not a constant threat for women,” says Daria Odegaard, education coordinator for the crisis center.

“Walk a Mile” is just one way men are getting involved locally.

Aaron Lund, a graduate student at MSUM who’s coordinated all three “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” events, started a new student organization called Extraordinary Gentlemen this semester.

Across the river in Fargo, RACC Executive Director Greg Diehl has been running the Men’s Action Network since 2008 and hopes to implement the Minnesota Men’s Action Network MENding program here.

Although women have been delivering the same or similar messages for years, Diehl says it’s important for some people to hear them from a man. Odegaard’s even noticed audiences respond differently to male co-presenters.

“Being of the male gender, I have to assume responsibility on behalf of all men for the fact that we didn’t seem to care that much. It took, for the most part, strong, determined women to say enough is enough, 35-40 years ago,” says Diehl, who’s been working in the field for 25 years.

He says the men he knows and works with are aware of and grateful for the work women have done to raise awareness and prevent violence against women, and they don’t want to come across as trying to take over – they just want to add their voices and work on the problem together.

Although men, too, are victims of sexual assault, statistics from the RACC and local law enforcement continue to show that women still make up the majority.

“It seems clear that it’s my gender who are the primary perpetrators of this violence, whether it’s against men or women. It’s also up to us to try to stop it as well as just make sure there are services available after it happens,” Diehl says.

Nationally, men and boys have been organizing and posting memes and videos in response to recent cases.

After his March 8 win at an international competition, professional cyclist Mark Cavendish delivered an International Women’s Day anti-violence message, and a few days later actor Patrick Stewart spoke out about his own upbringing, calling for men to help end abuse.

“Like so many things, it’s going to take people at those higher levels, who have that respect or admiration of other men, to take a stand,” Diehl says.

The movement to shift the conversation from what women should do to keep themselves safe to what men shouldn’t be doing in the first place has also gained momentum.

Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell received backlash for saying, “Tell men and boys not to rape” on Fox News’ “Sean Hannity Show,” but she’s not the only one saying, “Let’s teach our sons not to rape, not our daughters not to get raped.”

“Certainly risk-reduction education is important – for all of us – but when it comes down to it, what seriously can you say a person could do that would make them deserve to be sexually assaulted?” Diehl says.

Odegaard adds: “Remove the perpetrator, and you don’t have an assault.”

Chances are, she says, you’re not going to be able to change someone who commits sexual assault because of his predatory nature, but you can empower well-intentioned men.

“With these issues, the frustrating thing – but the hopeful thing – is that they are preventable,” Diehl says.

One of the goals of Lund’s Extraordinary Gentlemen group, which currently has 10 active members, is to challenge thinking by countering mainstream messages about gender, sex and violence.

He’s seen the impact a sexual assault can have on an organization, athletic team or fraternity, and he says challenging his peers to take a stand with him can create a bond that helps keep each other accountable.

“If we can get to the root of the problem, which is changing the behavior of men, and getting to understand and believe in being a great guy, then we won’t have to go toward the circumstances,” he says.

Lund grew up in a family that “consistently taught respect, integrity and what it means to be a gentleman.” His mother initiated Rape Aggression Defense classes at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and his two brothers before him also put on a “Walk a Mile” events.

With the work he does on campus, the 24-year-old Moorhead man aims to “create a culture of honesty and respect toward women,” even if it means putting on a pair of high heels for a few hours.

“That’s what the ‘Walk a Mile’ was really for, was to open yourself up to a different perspective, someone else’s life, their situation, and say, ‘No, I will never understand what you have been through, but I’m here for you,’” he says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590.

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