This story appears in VICE Magazine's Power and Privilege Issue.
Walking down the halls at his high school in Ottawa, Ontario, Noah Abraham said he would often see boys sharing nude pictures of girls behind their backs. “People do it without consent,” the 17-year-old volleyball player said. “They’ll keep a collection and show their friend to create that clout, the coolness that they get from it.”
Abraham, a graduate of Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School, has been a leader in ManUp, an initiative that aims to get high school boys to reject toxic masculinity and to learn about sexual consent. The group organizes students to attend talks and hold “buddy lunches” where boys get together to shoot the shit and talk through problematic behavior like catcalling and sharing nudes without consent. But beyond that, they try to explain to boys who do engage in that behavior that it’s not OK. “The biggest thing is to just have that conversation with them and tell them what they’re doing is wrong,” Abraham told me.
Abraham first became inspired to take action against sexual violence after he attended a talk given by Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old girl from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who was allegedly gang raped when she was 15 years old. Parsons attempted suicide 17 months later. The attempt left her brain-dead, and she was eventually taken off life support.
Canning frequently gives public talks about his daughter’s story and the need for criminal justice reform for sexual assault victims. No one was ever charged for raping Parsons, though two men (who were minors at the time) were convicted of disseminating child pornography and given probation for taking and sharing a photo of the alleged assault, which had been circulated around her school and on social media.
Abraham was in the eighth grade when he heard Canning’s speech; his teacher took him and his classmates to Ottawa City Hall to sit in on a conversation about violence against women. Abraham said the fact that Parsons was close to his age when she was allegedly attacked hit “so close to home.”
“All you see is this father speaking to an audience about the death of his daughter,” he said. “Not a lot of people get that experience of ‘Oh my God, wow.’”
The experience inspired him to join ManUp soon after. The initiative is currently running in 23 schools around Ottawa and receives funding from organizations like the Ottawa police and Crime Prevention Ottawa. Within the next five years, the plan is to expand throughout Ontario to Kingston, Oshawa, Toronto, London, and Windsor.
Abraham was involved with organizing events for ManUp throughout high school, but he wasn’t able to become a full-fledged member until he hit senior year. There’s a good reason for that: Seniors have the most influence.
Abraham recognizes how deeply entrenched some toxic male behaviors are. Just recently, he said, he was walking down the street with his girlfriend and a driver rolled down his window and yelled “Yo, what’s up sexy?”
“I was so mind-blown. There’s a standard being set that’s allowing men to objectify women,” he said. “We’re trying to create the new standard.”
Travis Wing, a teacher at Longfields-Davidson who oversees ManUp, said the program is counteracting “boys will be boys” messaging by giving boys the responsibility of becoming good men. “We have young men from our school approaching us in droves wanting to take part and to learn,” he said.
“It seems to us that boys are starving for this type of positive approach to masculinity,” Wing told me. “In a way, they are desperately seeking permission to be kind, gentle, and caring.”
In the era of #MeToo, which has revealed to men what many women have known for a long time—that sexual harassment and abuse are widespread issues—Wing said a program like ManUp is more relevant than ever. He believes that boys need more resources and attention to steer them in the right direction—or any direction.
“Quite frankly boys have been left to their own devices for far too long,” Wing went on. “Add in a constant onslaught of social and mass digital media and we have ourselves a recipe for disaster.”
The urgency of discussing toxic masculinity in young men became especially clear this past April, when a young man, alleged to be 25-year-old Alek Minassian, killed ten people in Toronto by running them over with a van. Minassian was a partisan of the “incel rebellion,” incel being short for “involuntary celibates,” used by an online community of misogynists who feel women owe men sex.
According to Judith Taylor, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, this type of ideology festers when boys or men don’t interact with one another in real life, but instead turn to the internet to commiserate. Specifically, she said things like “men’s clubs” where guys get together and complain about life are a good, healthy outlet. It seems on a small scale, ManUp is filling that gap for teenage boys in Ottawa.
The program teaches its members to practice bystander intervention if they see something problematic happening, like if a girl’s nudes are being passed around. Abraham said that particular scenario is one he encounters often, and he will jump into a conversation to “redirect” it.
"There's a standard being set that's allowing men to objectify women. We're trying to create the new standard."
“I’ll even just say, ‘What you guys are doing right now is not cool, it’s just stupid,’” Abraham told me. It’s a pretty simple message, but we are talking about teens, where coolness is rated highly.
Abraham was quick to point out his role isn’t to “judge” other boys, but to try to shift their mind-set. “We’re not here to shame them, we’re just trying to make them better guys.”
Wing said that it’s difficult to quantify how many sexual assaults are being prevented by programs like ManUp. But he said he’s seeing more students reference ManUp when resolving conflicts, and more girls are coming forward and seeking support for issues related to harassment.
The Ottawa-based women’s rights advocate Julie Lalonde, who frequently does outreach work in schools, said programs like ManUp are so effective because they flip the peer pressure model on its head by encouraging younger boys to be “cool” by not harassing women.
“The number one thing I hear from young women at the high school level and elementary school is they’ll come up to me and they’ll talk about the pressure to send nudes,” Lalonde said. In the age of #MeToo, and with Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government reverting to old sex-ed curriculum that doesn’t discuss consent, grassroots programs become even more vital, Lalonde added.
“We’re gonna create more ‘incel’-type men if there’s no outlet for them to talk about their frustrations. There’s no shortage of places to find the worst ways to be a man online,” she said.
Abraham started at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, this fall, studying social work. “My whole life I’ve always wanted to make a change in the community around me, so I believe this will be the best fit for me,” he said. He plans to continue to attend ManUp events and still use the values the club taught him.
“If someone is being disrespectful or harassing a girl, I won’t be a bystander and I will do what is right,” he went on. “It’s almost like setting the new standard on how men should act.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.