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Our teachable moment

Using Valentine’s Day to end sexual violence

For me, Valentine’s Day is a teachable moment more than a holiday. It’s a perfect time to promote healthy relationships more than romantic gifts and candlelight dinners. Don’t get me wrong. I like a sweet evening out with my honey as much as anybody. I just have a hard time being dreamy-eyed if I’m simultaneously turning a blind eye to the outbreak of domestic and sexual violence still plaguing us. It’s a disorder very difficult to treat.

Domestic and sexual abuse strains have long been resistant to vaccines of chocolate, champagne, diamond brooches, and bouquets of flowers. This year, though, there’s a potent new injection available — One Billion Rising! It carries no live yeast, and was not developed in a pharmaceutical laboratory. It came out of the cauldron of change playwright-activist Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”) and her cohort at Vday.org devised as a prescription for peace and vitality. It’s one the World Health Organization would be wise to consider including in its protocols.

Vday, launched on Valentine’s Day 1998, has long worked to end sexual violence internationally. It chose its 15th anniversary to call for a global strike, a time to “walk out, rise up, and demand an end to violence against women.”

One Billion Rising is certainly a protest against violence and a demonstration of the collective strength, numbers, and solidarity across borders of so many. Yet it offers an unorthodox work out plan that calls for exercising the muscles of change through dance, song, and speaking up. As organizers say, “It breaks the rules … it’s free. No corporation control it. It joins us and pushes us to go further.”

In 200 countries around the world today, women and men are on the streets saying yes to peace in the home and in our hearts as much as emphatically declaring no to violence everywhere. From Springfield (Tower Square) to Greenfield (Greenfield Community College), to a flash mob at 5 p.m. in downtown Northampton, activities are happening, including at the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College and in Brattleboro and Pittsfield. Activists are literally turning Valentine’s Day on its head.

As the blood stimulates our collective brain, hopefully more people will be moved to challenge rape and rape culture, sex trafficking, sexual abuse of children, and domestic violence. One Billion Rising is airborne now, an avian vaccine carried by doves of possibility. In the days that follow, as reports pour in from around the world describing demonstrations and celebrations, teach-ins and speak-outs, it will mark a time to reflect on our common course in the struggle to end violence, from the Congo to the Massachusetts Commonwealth.

Eve Ensler and Vday have long recognized men’s role in working to prevent violence. She has partnered with men and men’s organizations for many years and cites men’s violence prevention efforts as integral in the work of creating a world where all are safe. Last month, she wrote a “Man Prayer,” a moving invocation recited in 16 languages in a film by Tony Stroebel that’s available on YouTube.

In it, she invites men to consider being the kind of men “whose confidence comes from the depth of my giving/who understands that vulnerability is my greatest strength/who creates space rather than dominates it/who appreciates listening more than knowing/who seeks kindness over control/who cries when the grief is too much/who refuses the slap, the gun, the choke, the insult, the punch.” She encourages men to “not be afraid to get lost … (to) cherish touch more than performance and the experience more than getting there.” She invites men to “be brave enough to share my fear and shame and gather the other men to do the same” and to “stop pretending and open the parts of me that have long been numb.

The prayer concludes, “May I cherish, respect, and love my mother. May the resonance of that love translate into loving all women and all living things.”

However we celebrate Valentine’s Day — including those candlelight dinners — take a moment to consider Eve Ensler’s “Man Prayer.” When married to commitment and action, it is a key ingredient in the vaccine necessary to cure the influenza of violence that, sadly, too many still contract.

Rob Okun, who is speaking at a One Billion Rising event in New York, is editor of Voice Male magazine (www.voicemalemagazine.org), a national magazine based in Amherst. He can be reached at rob@voicemalemagazine.org.

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