"Mate, she was lovin' it when I was rubbing up against her titties"
I overheard this brief snippet of conversation while queuing for a kebab one evening with some friends several years ago. The leering tone and ensuing discussion made clear to my male friends and I that the woman in question was unlikely to have welcomed the advances of the speaker.
However, beyond an intuitive sense that the guy's actions were creepy and plain wrong we didn't dwell on the matter, other than making light of it on several occasions as a comical caricature of aggressive male sexuality.
We didn't discuss how it might feel for that woman to live in an environment in which groping was a frequent hazard on nights out.
A majority of the group would have certainly been oblivious to the legalities of the incident (it's worth noting for example that under the Sexual Offences Act (2003) the definition of sexual assault includes any intentional sexual touching of somebody else without their consent).
And at the time it didn't occur to me to ask any female friends whether they had ever had similar experiences, or whether they would have confidence in any individual or authority to appropriately deal with it if they had.
Until quite recently I also didn't consider that there was much that we, as men, could do collectively to try and tackle the issues of sexism and misogyny which persist in our otherwise liberal society.
This has changed since I started volunteering with an organisation called the Good Lad Workshop (GLW). It was set up in 2013 by a group of male postgraduate students at Oxford University. The founders of Good Lad sought to challenge some of the norms of male behaviour and thinking towards women which they had witnessed at university, and which they felt uncomfortable with.
The organisation started off running workshops with male sports teams at Oxford University. Since then it has expanded to universities across the country, reaching both sports teams and the wider student body. We've recently also piloted workshops in schools and with professional sports teams, including several mixed or all-female groups.
I decided to get involved with Good Lad because of the experiences of many of the women in my life. I was raised in a traditional British-Pakistani family and community, in which the women of various generations were, in the private sphere, strong-willed and vocal. Yet, their ability to express themselves freely with regard to their education, career and romantic choices was inhibited by the heavy weight of cultural and religious expectation. Over the years I also saw the different, but related, challenges faced by my female peers who had spent their entire lives in a western society. I came to appreciate that female disadvantage and discrimination cuts pervasively across ethnic and class boundaries and persists unless openly challenged. Good Lad seemed like a good place to try to do just that.
The workshops themselves begin with a brief discussion of why we believe it's important for men to discuss gender relations in the first place. The Good Lad facilitators start by discussing their own personal experiences before moving on to present some statistics on sexual violence. Our main take-home point is that by exploring some of the complex situations that men face in their interactions with women, they can improve our relationships with both women and men in their lives.
The workshops are designed to create a space in which groups of men can openly discuss a wide range of gender issues. We seek to facilitate an honest discussion rather than to prescribe the correct or appropriate response in any given situation, despite the understandable urge to give our own opinions at times!
We adopt this approach because we believe that the best way to effect behavioural and attitudinal change is for the participants in our workshops to reconsider their relationship to women in a way which is internally understood and not just externally imposed. While the laws and regulations which outline our rights and obligations towards one another are vital and must be respected, equally important are the internalised values which direct how we interact with others.
So, we don't coach or train men on how we think they should behave. But what we do ask of participants in the workshops is to consider the impact of their actions on those around them and to promote positive outcomes both for themselves and for others in any given situation.
We call this approach Positive Masculinity and in essence we are simply encouraging men to see themselves as a potential force for good in all of their daily interactions. In the workshops the concept of Positive Masculinity is discussed using several realistic scenarios, designed to illustrate problematic interactions between men and women, around issues including sexual consent, catcalling and workplace sexual harassment.
By engaging our male peers in discussion about their relationships with women we believe that we can encourage the often silent majority of well-meaning guys to bring about positive change. The growing demand for the workshops shows that there's a strong desire to engage men positively in this way.