Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Champions at UC Irvine

By Michele Tran

“Break the silence! Stop the violence! Break the silence! Stop the violence! Break the silence! Stop the violence!” These words are chanted vigorously and melodically as the sound of many pair of heels, clicking and clacking against the cement, make their way around Ring Road. As the group begins to circle around campus, eyes of students and professors passing by start to squint and creases begin to appear right above their noses, in between their eyebrows but the marchers don’t care. They keep on walking, striding, and yelling. “There is no excuse, for abuse! There is no excuse, for abuse! There is no excuse, for abuse!” While they are marching, they are also holding signs that carry their message in purple, red, and black fonts. Merely five minutes into the mile around Ring Road, the walk has already taken a toll on their bodies, especially their thighs and calves.

This women’s rights activist group does not fit into its stereotype. They call themselves “C.H.A.M.P.S,” which, they really are but are too modest to admit. Nonetheless, it is an acronym for “Challenging All Men To Prevent Sexism.” CHAMPS is a small dynamic group of men who strive to create a better future for women everywhere, but to be specific and reasonable, they focus on educating the group of men who attend University of California, Irvine. There is an old saying: “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” so today, these men are walking a mile in high-heels to prove that they have what it takes to understand how it feels to “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.”

CHAMPS is an on-campus organization at UC Irvine. There are a total of six members: Stephen, Geraldo, J.J., Matt, Alex, and Howard. Stephen Marley is the president of the club but everyone just calls him Marley; Geraldo and J.J. are the returning members; and Matt, Alex, and Howard are the new kids on the block, so to speak. They hold their meetings at the administrative building every Monday in Room 107. The room is relatively peaceful and quiet, with the occasional muted sounds of footsteps and doors opening and closing from the other offices. The north wall is completely made up of windows, exposing the intercepted sunlight hitting the green plants and shrubbery.

Although CHAMPS is dedicated to protecting women’s rights, they believe that ending sexual assault against women can only be achieved through educating men and spreading knowledge amongst men. Marley explains that there are two gendered-specific groups, “Right To Know” for women and “CHAMPS” for men, because “studies have shown that men are more responsive to men talking about sexual assault; they don’t have to put up a front for some reason…What we do though and sort of how we differentiate in our tasks, if you will, in this entire thing we have the ability to do more than Right to Know does with men because we are men so are we more important in the education of men on sexual assault prevention and what we can do? Yes.” As a group that is completely comprised of men who primarily categorizes men as perpetrators and women as victims, CHAMPS’ goal isn’t to “blame men,” but instead, they want people to acknowledge that “99% of people who rape are men.” Note: this is not the same thing as saying, “99% of men rape.” CHAMPS is adamant about clarifying the difference between these two statements. Going off of the right statistic, it becomes clear that although, usually, “rape and sexual assault are considered women’s issues,” it is also a men’s issue.

Before beginning the training session on how to deliver the programs, Marley proposes an exercise that he believes will make the members more comfortable talking about sex, sexual assault, and rape. First he asks if everyone is comfortable with saying the words “penis” and “vagina” out loud. Heads nod. Marley isn’t convinced. “Penis!” I look around at the other five members and see a lack of a particular expression that I know is definitely on my face. “Penis!” Marley is insistent. The next time I hear “penis,” which is in about 10 seconds, it is no longer resonating from one person. Marley turns his attention to me and looks at me like I was one of the people who nodded my head as an answer to his previous question, which, I have to admit, I was. There was probably a two-second hesitation on my part but it felt like forever. I quickly realized that I had no choice so I sucked it up, closed my eyes and shouted, “penis!”

They meet in Room 107 to discuss upcoming fundraising events and possible opportunities where they can spread information to the public. They also meet in this room to practice their “program.” The “program” is a PowerPoint presentation that is packed with dense information about sexual assault, emphasizing the most important concept: consent. “Consent” has it’s own slide in the presentation and on it there is a picture of a stoplight. The note-taking section of the PowerPoint reminds CHAMP members to tell the audience, “by saying that it is your partners responsibility to stop you or say ‘no’ when they are uncomfortable with what you are doing, you are operating under the assumption that the green light is always on—everyone is completely sexually available—until they say ‘stop.’ Of course that is not true…we need to assume that the red light is always on until someone explicitly says ‘yes.’” During this time of the year, the “CHAMPS” are just beginning to learn the method to deliver the programs. Because they are talking about a sensitive subject, CHAMPS members have to take every precaution in order to ensure that they do not offend anyone in anyway. That is why they’re devoting all of their time perfecting the presentation this quarter—to be prepared to present whenever they receive requests.

The Oxford Dictionary defines feminism as, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” The question that comes to my mind is: just because it is a women’s issue, is it solely a woman’s responsibility to advocate equality amongst a world where 99% of rapists are men? According to Mandy Van Deven, author of “Is Feminism Men’s Work, Too,” “the idea of a male feminist as either mythic or oxymoronic persists today. The reasoning seems to be that since feminism is a struggle about women gaining rights, there is no legitimate role for men in that struggle. However, Rick Taylor, a professor of English and women’s studies at East Carolina University, offers proof that men have an important role to play…‘Feminism is…a response to the terrible damage done by gender oppression and continued inequality, and an expression of the urge within towards liberation and freedom of self-expression.’”

CHAMPS does take on some qualities of the feminist views or as Marley puts it, “ Where the feminism, feministic view comes in to it is that if we are all equal, and that we are supposed to treat each other as such, sexual assault and sexual violence wouldn’t happen. And so that is the feminist point of view. I am a feminist. Proud of it. And I know Geraldo would say the same thing. As far as our individual political affiliations I can’t tell you but as far as the group goes, we are at the very least, allies of feminists.”

So why are these “champs” adamant about getting knowledge about sexual violence across to young men on the UC Irvine campus? Matt tells me that he “had a girlfriend that was sexually assaulted and the thing is that, honestly there’s nothing that I could have done. There was nothing that I could really do for her that would make her feel better about what happened because it had affected her that deeply and I was really aware, at the time, of how sexual assault affects people, affects them psychologically, which is the biggest factor, and then how that kind of psychology that comes from that affects people around them…The thing that people don’t realize is that it affects everybody. It affects how women look at men. It affects how men look at themselves. It’s not even about being a feminist. It’s about being a person.”

Marley does not disagree. He confides that, “I was molested as a kid, my best friend was raped when I was in middle school. Most of the partners, most of my girlfriends that I’ve had, most of them have had some sort of experience with this.” Although most of the CHAMPS members are involved with the organization due to personal reasons and experiences Alex does not. He says, “I joined because I thought joining the organization would give me a sense of fulfillment, especially a fulfillment being a part of campus.” And when I asked him how it affected him he replied, “it totally changed me, it changed my mindset and my perspective on the issue of sexual assault and violence against women. So before, I knew nothing about it so I think it’s important especially not knowing that it occurred on campus.” If they can recruit and change just one person at a time, it will make all the difference.

At about 1 P.M. on Monday, February 8, 2010, CHAMPS begins to get ready to “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” Marley is wearing a pair of black, shiny, rounded pumps with a pretty good-sized heel. Matt is wearing a more conservative shoe—black, moderate heel—a business shoe with a square tip. Howard is a little bit bolder. He is wearing black pumps equipped with a fairly sized heel with men’s white socks. Alex has guts. He is wearing a pair of red, shiny, strappy pumps; the only criticism I have is that they had teeny-tiny heels but I suppose going for the red shoe compensates for the small heel. They are awaiting and encouraging students to join them in their walk to promote awareness against sexual assault. As of right now, they have gathered 20-25 students who will join them when they march. Some of them are friends of friends in the same fraternity and sorority. Some of them just happened to see the gathering and decided to participate. No matter the reason, it is always nice to see men in a pair of heels. They have a white plastic table set up, filled with brochures and pamphlets advocating women’s rights, an attempt to disperse information out to men. The afternoon was filled with rays gleaming from the sun, warming the day to about 75° Fahrenheit. The men who are wearing the not-so-fashionable and not-so-high heels also light the day with their brilliance, charisma, and determination to get their message out there.

Right before they start to take off, Marley looks down at his legs, heels on, jeans rolled up and says, “I should have shaved my legs today.”

Reporting Notes:

-An extensive interview with Stephen and Matt

-An interview with Alex

-Observation and participation of/in "Walk A Mile in Her Shoes"

-Online article from JSTOR: “Is Feminism Men’s Work, Too,” by Mandy Van Deven

-Observation of 2 hour meetings in Admin. Building

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