We Are Men: Changing how young men think

Will talking about rape through songs and a Jackass-style video change how young men think? Joan Smith looks at a campaign aiming to find out

A young man tries to vault a parking meter and falls flat on his face. A streaker races towards a sports pitch and collides (painfully, one assumes) with a post. A cyclist shows off, lifting his front wheels in the air and careers into a ditch. The soundtrack fills with raucous male laughter, followed by good-natured catcalls when a young woman walks past a group of young men in a skate park. "I tell you what – she could do with a good raping," one of them remarks casually. Everyone falls silent. The man who's just made the crack about rape protests: "What, man? I'm joking."

Words appear on the screen, making the startling claim that every nine minutes a woman is raped in the UK.

"That's not who I am," says a male voice. "We are man. Are you?"

The short film is the brainchild of London advertising agency Kream, whose client list includes well-known names such as Nintendo, Lastminute.com and Bombardier beer.

It's the focal point of a hard-hitting new campaign which aims to get young people to think again about violence against girls and women, calling on schools and other educational establishments to get more involved.

Far from blaming boys, the people behind it acknowledge the pressure young men are under from their peers and the commercial sex industry and they're keen to get them to think in new ways about what it means to be men.

"We wanted to try and promote non-violent forms of masculinity and address issues around peer approval," says Somali Cerise, prevention programme manager at the umbrella organisation End Violence Against Women (EVAW).

"It's one of the factors leading to the perpetration of violence. There's very little community sanction. We wanted a short film to look at the role of the bystander – when one of the young men makes a joke about sexual violence, he gets a reaction from other men. We wanted to have a message that this is not what it means to be a man." EVAW cites a series of chilling statistics in support of its campaign. Surveys suggest that one in three girls aged 16 to 18 have experienced unwanted touching at school; that one in three teenage girls has experienced sexual violence from a partner; and that half of boys and one in three girls believe there are circumstances in which it is OK to hit a woman or force her to have sex. Cultural factors also expose teenagers to violence: it's estimated that more than 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of female genital mutilation in this country, while forced marriage is an issue for girls and a smaller number of boys.

Against this background, EVAW is calling on the education secretary, Michael Gove, to ensure that violence-prevention strategies are a priority for schools.

It wants to see all teachers receive training on violence against girls and women and argues that the national curriculum should include sex education which discusses consent and healthy relationships. But the We Are Men film breaks new ground by trying to speak to young men in language with which they're familiar.

"It's a really hard project compared to an advert," says Lisa Green, a partner at Kream. "This is aimed at young men, what they're watching and how they watch it. We didn't want to make guys feel bad, that was the main point."

In fact, there's evidence that young men are already challenging commonly-held ideas about rape and domestic violence for themselves. Members of the punk band King Blues, who played at Glastonbury this weekend, attack stereotypes in the outspoken song called "Five Bottles of Shampoo". It starts with gender stereotypes as the lead singer Itch complains about a woman pushing in front of him at the checkout to buy five bottles of shampoo and goes on to make fun of both sexes: "I'll never understand women," the singer complains, while acknowledging that some women think "all men are all the same". But then the song becomes darker, about young men touching up girls in a club and calling them "slags" when they reject their advances: "You call her a slag when she don't accept your advances/You just show you got no respect for yourself/show you ain't got the balls to just talk to a girl."

What's so striking about King Blues is that some of their lyrics could have been composed by feminists back in the 1970s, especially when Itch drones "down with the dick-tatorship, that is so cock-sure/they use rape as a weapon of war". Yet Laura Craddock from Eaves, an organisation that campaigns to highlight the damage done to women and girls by prostitution and sex-trafficking, says young men taking part in a pilot prevention-project reacted so positively to the song that Eaves is hoping to work with Itch in future. "Young people know rape is wrong," agrees Susie McDonald, director of Tender, an organisation that uses drama to challenge teenagers' attitudes to sexual and domestic violence. "But they think it's about a stranger jumping out of a bush in the night. We explain it might involve a boyfriend or someone known to them. We also talk about why women stay in abusive relationships. Girls will say: 'If my boyfriend hit me I'd walk out' so we look at pressures on women to stay. Two women each week are killed by a partner or former partner and they know that when they leave, their lives are in danger."

Tender has worked in more than 100 schools across London since 2003. Like other organisations working in this area, it often has to deal with the tricky subject of disclosure. As the course progresses over 10 weeks, some girls and boys gradually realise that what's already happened to them – controlling behaviour, slapping and shaking, unwanted sex – is abusive.

"They've discussed it so they feel able to talk to workshop leaders," says McDonald. "They're able to identify what has happened to them as abusive behaviour."

This is one reason why the subject of rape has to be approached sensitively, says Michelle Barry, of the STAR Project in Southampton.

The project is run by Southampton Rape Crisis and goes into every school in the city.

"If we went into year 10 and said we're going to talk about rape, obviously we know it's going to be very real for some of the young people," she says. "We have to approach it in a user-friendly way and make it easy for young people to engage with the issues. Our starting point is healthy relationships: what you might look for in a partner, why someone might delay their first sexual experience, we talk about non-consensual sex."

Like Lisa Green from Kream, Barry is careful not to demonise young men.

"We're clear that young men can be victims," she says.

One of the chief aims of EVAW's new campaign is to get programmes like the STAR Project into schools and youth centres right across the UK – and that the We Are Men film will provide a lively starting point.

"What we're hearing so far is that it's a very powerful message," says Somali Cerise. "I watched the shoot and the actors were talking about the end of the film, where it says every nine minutes a woman in raped in Britain. It generated a lot of discussion and I heard one young man say: 'Now I know that, next time one of my friends makes a joke about rape I'm not going to put up with it'.

"We're hoping that the film will go viral."

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