Lisa Hickey explains why we talk about the very difficult subjects here at The Good Men Project. And why we’re not going to stop.
Trigger warning for difficult, adult topics such as sexual violence and violence.
I wasn’t going to talk about my part in all this. You know, the pieces of me that are just stories now: sexual abuse, alcoholism at age 14. College life filled with non-consensual sex. I’ve told a small part of all this already. If you haven’t read it, you can, here. Or here.
But I will tell you what came next. A lifetime of not talking to people.
I talked enough to get by, sure. It’s really hard to survive in this world without ever speaking. I could talk at work as long as it was only on the project at hand. “Focused” was what they called me. No one realized I was scared to death to say a word because I was afraid something really, really, really bad would happen to me.
Is that what happens when you are told, repeatedly, “don’t say a single word or I’ll kill you?”
It took me 40 years before I was able to say the word “rape” out loud.
One thing is clear. An incident like Penn State doesn’t happen because people talk too much. I haven’t heard of a single undercover sex scandal where large groups of people were all talking about it before it became known. The underreporting of rapes isn’t because people are walking up to authorities with confidence and are telling them all they know.
Those things happen, and stay hidden, because people are afraid to talk.
So how do we actually change behavior? Is it better to allow people to talk about things as openly as possible? Or is it better to try to control and limit the conversation?
If you look at the way Alcoholics Anonymous does it – they get people in a room to tell stories. You hear from people at every stage of addiction. People who have been sober for years. The drunk on the street who is still drinking but knows something has got to change. The person who doesn’t yet understand that it is the drinking that is the cause of their life going downhill, but is still blaming their bad luck, the bullying of others, the economy, the weather, anything but themselves and the alcohol, as the cause of their demise. The person who is in AA grudgingly, perhaps because of a court-ordered mandate. All are given a platform. All are allowed to talk. All in the room are allowed anonymity when they leave. All are allowed to say “hey, I’m an alcoholic.” Alcoholism, as you know, is bad. They are allowed to say they are bad. AA gives them a place to figure out – with people who let them talk – just how bad their behavior is and how they can change.
Scientific American quotes a study done by Rudolf H. Moos of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Stanford University. In a 16-year study of problem drinkers who attended at least 27 weeks of AA meetings during the first year, 67 percent were abstinent at the 16-year follow-up.
This correlates from my own experience — I know that I, myself, did a 180-degree turnaround from addictive drinking behavior. I also know, personally, dozens of people who were helped by AA who beforehand were engaging in risky behavior, illegal behaviors, and behaviors that would most certainly harm themselves and others if left unchecked. Through the power of hearing and telling stories about addiction from every side, people doing very bad things were able to change.
Let’s look at smoking. I worked on a campaign for many years to help stop smoking in the State of Massachusetts. We had a clear goal – get the rates of smoking in the state to decline. Around that time, 815,000 people were smoking in Massachusetts. A lot of people to try to change. I worked in advertising and mass media, on the creative messaging side of things.
The group we were working with, the Mass. Dept. of Public Health, did tons of studies over the years to find out which messages were most effective in actually creating change. What they found was very insightful to me – that the most effective strategy was to alternate messages – some positive and then some negative. It wasn’t all STOP NOW, and it wasn’t all “Look how great it is if you stop”. It was a coordinated effort that talked about both the good and the bad. That looked at smoking from the *smokers* point of view, as well as others. The people who harmed, the people who were harmed. One of the commercials I did was with a guy named Rick Stoddard, whose wife had just died. He had put in her obituary that she had died, at age 46, of lung cancer from cigarette smoking. It was something you didn’t see often – talking about the cause of death as a personal choice that could have been prevented.
So we, at the ad agency, called up Rick Stoddard and asked if he would like to be in a TV commercial. “No. Absolutely not. My wife just died.” He hung up the phone. But he called us back a day later and said, “I’ve reconsidered. This needs to be talked about. No one else has talked about it.” In one of the commercials, he talked about how, as his wife was dying, she asked him to light her cigarettes for her. The lighter she used had a smiley face, he said. A smiley face.
One commercial we shot with him eventually aired during the Super Bowl. We were one of the “most liked” commercials by USA Today the next day. Imagine – among Superbowl ads filled with tortilla chips, beer and scantily-clad women, a heartfelt story of a husband who lost his wife through smoking was one of the most liked. The commercial was him telling his story straight to the camera. We had gotten a conversation that most people didn’t even want to talk about into the mainstream.
In another commercial, done by others working on the same goal, we talked to the original Marlboro Men. The ones who, by that time, were dying of lung cancer. One agreed to sing through his tracheotomy hole. Had he done something destructive by helping sell all those cigarettes? Had he hurt people by becoming an American Icon for cigarette smokers? No doubt. No doubt. He certainly thought so. Did that stop him from talking about the harm cigarettes caused? Not even through a trach hole.
Rates of smoking in the state declined by 9% over the time I was involved – Massachusetts was the state with the second biggest decline out of the 50 states.
We didn’t talk less about smoking. We talked more. We allowed people who were harming themselves and others to tell their stories.
Drunk driving is a behavior that seems like it would be easy to change because of the potentially horrific consequences — you drive drunk, you might go out and kill someone, including yourself. On the other hand, it’s a stubborn behavior because people have the best of intentions – “I’m not going to drive drunk, I’m only going to have 2 or 3 drinks, I can handle it.” There’s active denial, especially among people who abuse alcohol, the idea that “this time it’s going to be different.”
One of the most successful ways that has cut down on drunk driving is to say to people, “Don’t wait until you get to the point where you’ve had two or three drinks. Hand over your keys before you go out drinking, so you don’t get into that place where your judgment has already been impaired and you run the risk of driving drunk even though you didn’t intend to.”
In order to be effective at changing actions, the person has to admit to themselves, “I am a person who might be capable of doing something bad even if my intentions are good.” In order to be effective, that person who might do something bad has to actually talk to someone else and say – “I will be drinking. If I drink, I might do something bad, like get behind the wheel of a car. Please don’t let me do that.”
The solution is not to keep potential drunk drivers from talking.
When I talked to someone about an early draft of this, he pointed out that the above examples were all around “substances”. Was there a case, before The Good Men Project, where I thought I could uncover truths by talking to people engaging in bad behavior – not with their judgment clouded by substances, but by something else? I remembered an idea I had for a series of TV commercials. The idea was to interview the mass murderers, the ones who killed others but not themselves, and get them to be advocates for gun control. Please note, this was an idea only. If these TV commercials had been filmed, which they were not, the killer would have to say what he truly thought, in his own words. The campaign was not produced, however, I’ll note that David Berkowitz was interviewed in August, 2012, saying we should “Take the glory out of guns”. The image below was updated to include some of his own words.
Please note: In light of the Sandy Hook massacre, there was once again a very hard decision as to whether to show this. My heart goes out to all the families, friends and loved ones. And to the millions of people triggered by the violence. But as we keep talking, perhaps we can collectively figure out a way to change. The time is now.
What would happen if we said to the addicts in my first example, “Don’t ever talk about your addiction”? What if we said to smokers, “Don’t talk about the fact that you smoke?” What if we said to people who were drunk drivers, “Don’t ever talk about the fact that you might drive drunk?” What if we said to shooter, “Don’t tell us why you did it?”
And what if we also said, “Don’t ever talk about the fact that you might be a rapist?”
To set the record straight, we, at The Good Men Project, aren’t apologists for rape. Ever. We don’t condone, endorse, or support it in any way. We’d like nothing better than to eradicate it from this planet. But we firmly believe that in order to do so, we need to talk about it. Honestly. Openly. Sometimes painfully. We have to understand why it happens and have the conversation with people who might not think about it in the same way we do. We believe that sometimes – not all the time, but certainly on occasion – people can actually be good before they do one stupid thing. That while consent is clear, not everyone knows how to give and take and express consent with 100% certainty, no matter how much we would like that to be true. We’d like to change that. But we’d like to change that with a wider audience – including people who don’t usually talk about rape.
I looked at what happened after we ran two very controversial posts about rape, (here, and here). I looked at the comments. I looked the reactions of our community. I listened to what people said. Did any good come out of it? Here is what I heard:
Some people said, “that was me 10 years ago.”
Some said, “wow, I didn’t realize some of the things I have been doing might be construed as rape.”
Others said, “that could be my son. I’ll need to talk to him more about these issues.”
Some said, “I need to talk to my daughter. Without shame. Without telling her to change her behavior. Just to talk.”
More than one person had the insight, “OH. Consent is not just something a girl gives a guy. It needs to be mutual consent. And consent every step of the way. Not just intercourse. I get it now.”
Some had the following ‘aha’, “OH. If a women is aggressively flirting, she MIGHT want to have sex. But even if that is what it means, it could mean some distant point, far into the future. It doesn’t have to mean tonight. And she might not want it ever. That needs to be respected. I’m glad I was able to articulate that. I’m glad we could talk about it here.”
It’s important to note that we are mindful of ALL the criticisms we are getting. That we read them, discuss them, and take action. We value suggestions even from our harshest critics. We want to get this right.
Let’s get back to silence for a minute. What is the worst that can happen if people talk about rape too much? If people are open and honest about their fears? If people look at their activities when they drink, and wonder about how that might affect their judgment? If people talk together about consent, so they understand it’s mutual consent, not just something girls give out to guys? What would happen? What would the world look like?
Now what would happen if people didn’t talk about rape enough? If people were afraid to talk about it for fear they’d be shut down? If they didn’t talk about their behavior despite realizing it might be wrong? What if rape became something that people didn’t ever talk about? What if people were afraid to even say the word? What would the world look like then?