The Best Way to Fight Sexism Is to Make Men Experience It

The lessons I learned at a now-closed summer camp for LA teens hold up in the #MeToo era.

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Apr 19 2018, 7:37pm

Illustration by Nico Teitel

“Hey, I like the way you jiggle.”
“Come on, give me your number.”
“Smile, bitch.”

These were just a few of the abusive phrases I heard young women, ages 15-18, hurl at young men at the now-defunct Brotherhood-Sisterhood Camp in the mountains near LA. The exercise is called the Gauntlet, and I experienced it with a wildly diverse group of other teens, which included everyone from gang members to private school theater geeks. Nearly 100 girls would stand in two long lines facing each other, creating a corridor through which the boys, one by one, had to walk.

During this reverse catcall, the young women yelled, whispered, insulted, and humiliated the young men. It was a tsunami of fake flirtation and real rage. They weren't supposed to touch the guys, but the girls did jump in front of them and get right in their faces. The young men could not say or do anything. Next, the guys were ordered to sit and silently listen while girls shared their stories of harassment, abuse, and rape. Then, after meeting separately to debrief, both genders came together as one group to talk.

This exercise might sound brutal, but it was meant to get young men to understand the harassment and microaggressions that women endure regularly, to sensitize them to the nuances of that pain, build empathy, and ultimately, change their behavior.

The author at NCCJ's Brotherhood-Sisterhood Camp in LA (bottom right, on the floor in jeans with her elbows out)

In a city as sprawling, stratified, and segregated as LA, Brotherhood-Sisterhood Camp brought together people from disparate backgrounds. From its inception in the 1950s to is closure in 2004, it led campers through deeply personal interrogations of not only sexism but racism, anti-Semitism, classism, and homophobia. It was all in the effort of creating dialogue that would "build a multicultural, multiracial, and interreligious community.”

Its premise was this: In order to dismantle prejudice and bigotry, we each must examine our biases, head-on. We have to acknowledge that we all discriminate, we all have stereotypes no matter how enlightened we perceive ourselves to be. There’s no way to grow up in this country as a white person and not be racist to some degree, no way to be a man and not be sexist. Admitting our biases, interrogating them, and looking at them in their ugly face is the only way to actually make them dissipate.

Many of us who signed up for the camp thought it would just be a fun week in the woods. Instead, we got our asses handed to us. But the highly trained staff were experts at breaking us down and building us back up. While the week was, indeed, brutal, it was also transformative and led to some of the most honest and long-lasting friendships many of us have ever had.

The camp was run by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, an organization formed in the 1920s around religious inclusion but soon encompassed human relations and social justice more broadly (and changed its name in the 1990s to the National Conference of Community and Justice). The camp was far from some hippy-dippy California experiment.



When women started coming forward about harassment and abuse last fall, I wondered if the #MeToo movement is actually changing men’s day-to-day behavior and attitudes, or if men are now just worried about getting caught. It made me think about the camp, the real transformations in perspective it inspired, and how experiential tactics like the Gauntlet might impact men’s understanding of sexism more deeply than hashtags and other screen-based activism. I know that most people don’t have access to a camp like the one I attended, but here’s a case for why America should invest in training like this to encourage empathy that can lead to action.

I reached out to men affiliated with the camp (campers, youth leaders, staff, and directors) to ask about their experience with the Gauntlet. They described it as intense, overwhelming, confusing, and even distressing. Some walked through it quickly, head down. Others got angry and defensive. Some cried.

Reactions often morphed during the walk, as Rodney Lazar, 46, who participated in the camp from 1987–91 and now works in finance as an EVP explained: “My first instinct was to laugh. A woman telling me, ‘Nice ass,’ that’s funny. But as I walked, it became hurtful, eerie, and uncomfortable to just be a body: I’m a butt, I’m a chest, I’m no longer Rodney.”

Another man, Daniel Solis y Martinez, 35, who was at the camp from 1999–04 and is now Associate Executive Director at the California Conference for Equality and Justice said, “My fear at the start of the Gauntlet quickly shifted into shame—seeing the pain, anger, and sadness of women I’d befriended that week, and knowing I was part of it.”

Being put in women’s shoes, even temporarily, had a strong impact. Lazar stated, “It gave me insight into what it felt like to have my personal space invaded, be verbally attacked, marginalized, made to feel like a piece of meat, and to not have control—what women deal with everyday.”

That said, I remember that some guys clearly didn’t get it. They’d strut through the Gauntlet, lift their shirts, and rub their chests. While this peacocking could have been a defense mechanism, it may also be that they enjoyed the attention. I reached out to a few experts, not affiliated with the camp, to get their perspectives on the Gauntlet.

Dr. Kate Manne, a feminist philosopher at Cornell explained, “Men often have a hard time understanding why women wouldn’t like being catcalled or even complimented.” They don’t see it as denigrating, or how a man’s expression of attraction can be inextricable from a woman’s fear of violence.

Dr. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale who’s critical of empathy and argues that it’s a poor guide for moral decision-making, said that an exercise like the Gauntlet might actually increase a man’s scorn for women if he thinks, I like the attention, so women should too; I’d fight back if someone called me a bitch, so women should too, and if they don’t, it’s their fault.

The male campers I spoke with agreed that the importance of the Gauntlet didn’t truly click until they had to sit down silently and “hear women’s stories of how the catcall statements directly connect to real incidents of harassment and abuse.”

Dr. Julie Anderson, an LA-based psychotherapist who specializes in gender and sexuality, confirmed why this act—just listening—was critical: “It focused on women’s experiences from their perspective and context, not the men’s beliefs and experiences.”

But listening to women wasn’t easy. It forced teen boys to confront powers and privileges they didn’t realize they had: “Women were running everything, barking at us what to do, and I realized how normal it felt that men ran things. The flip was really shocking, disconcerting,” said Mike Chavez, now 49, and a Senior Communications Specialist for a healthcare workers union.

Matthew Gibson, who was a camper and youth leader, said, “I was very aware of my lack of power in society as a young black male. What hadn’t dawned on me was my power position as a man. That really hit me.”

Gay men such as Solis y Martinez, who assumed they weren’t complicit in sexism, were forced to grapple with how they still wield power and sexualize women (by enforcing beauty norms, for example), even if they are not having sex with them.

At the camp, I witnessed this exercise turning young men’s worlds upside down. But did it stick? Did it change their behavior after the camp? Chavez said he became estranged from some of his high school friends because, “I was constantly getting on their case about saying ‘bitches.’ Before the camp I was typically sexist, so this was a pretty big transformation.”

Another, a football player, stood up at his first frat meeting as a new pledge at college and told his 50 frat brothers to respect women, to not refer to gay people as “fags,” and why. He got made fun of but kept saying it until they started to listen. This exemplifies what Anderson describes as the most effective way to make men positively change their attitudes and behaviors toward women—by hearing other men talk about sexism and why it’s wrong.

The young men who attended the camp thought an experiential exercise was a more powerful way to understand sexism than reading a book or watching a video. Both Anderson and Manne confirmed the importance of visceral learning and its connection to behavior change. Anderson said, “An integrated catharsis (physical, emotional, intellectual) can start to change behaviors that haven’t served you well.” Manne explained that visceral learning “can play a key role in equipping people to put moral values into action.”

So what might exercises like the Gauntlet suggest for the #MeToo movement? A hashtag can’t communicate the experience of being harassed. Perhaps experience is what’s needed. According to Manne, “People morally rationalize their actions to avoid seeing themselves as misogynist, creepy, or a harasser.” Visceral experiences can help combat this, she said, but people also must accept that they are perpetuating unjust actions and not retreat into denial, excuses, or victim-blaming. “They have to be willing to face their shame.”

If nothing else, the camp was brilliant at encouraging people to face that shame. While #MeToo leans toward the punitive, shunning “bad men”—as perhaps it should—the camp called guys out on their shit but also called them back in to work through it. There was room for redemption. Not given, but hard-earned. And it wasn’t the responsibility of women to do that work, which is why the young men met among themselves.

For many guys, the camp started a difficult, self-reflective process of disconnecting their masculinity from sexist behavior—not just catcalling but mansplaining, taking up space, and dominating conversations. But unlearning sexism is a lifelong process. They still wrangle with it, even decades later, cognizant, as Chavez said, “of all the ways I still fail as a feminist.”

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