Who’s the man?

Ben Atherton-Zeman debunks popular myths Photo: K. Ananthan

Ben Atherton-Zeman debunks popular myths Photo: K. Ananthan   | Photo Credit: K_Ananthan

A rape changed Ben Atherton-Zeman’s life. He was 18 and in college when his girlfriend told him she’d been violated. “I was deeply saddened and furious. I went about campus speaking to other girls about their life,” recalls Ben, now 48. They spoke to him about harassment on campus, unequal wages, and every form of violence against women.

That saw him take a life-changing decision that he has stuck to for 30 years.

Ben, a spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (, travels across the U.S. and the world teaching people about changing gender definitions and why ‘feminist’ is not a bad word.

“When a woman says ‘no’, even if she says it softly and while smiling, it still means a ‘no’,” says Ben. Sadly, many tend to miss that, and the tell tale body language, and persuade a woman to agree.

Respect is strength

He spoke of Strength campaigns across the U.S., where men get together to say ‘Men Can Stop Rape’, where the partner’s willingness is paramount, where it is considered macho to step back, and where showing respect is a mark of strength.

Myths abound about sexual violence. “They speak about a ‘point of no return’. There is no such thing. You can choose when and why to stop,” he says. Similarly, the first reaction is to blame the victim. “That’s so wrong. Blame the offender, not the victim. Ninety eight per cent of the time, the victim is stating the truth.”

Relationship violence is growing the world over, and Ben says the need is to train people in gender equality from a young age so that they grow into responsible adults. The effect of such violence can last for years.

The Lisa Project

On November 21, 1991, a distraught little girl called Lisa dialled 911 saying her step-father was attacking her mother and baby brother and little sister. The call has been recorded and used extensively to educate people about the effects of domestic violence on children. Even 23 years on, the girl’s cries echo in our ears.

People often blame the victim for not taking acting fast enough. “They forget that usually the victim is in love with the abuser. So, the abuse must stop, not the relationship.”

The triggers are many- jealousy, the need to control... -and they are deep-rooted.

“It starts from something as mild as jokes against women,” he says.

That is the foundation on which crimes rest. It is also the foundation for various social mores-women must dress modestly, women can be paid less, women need to behave in a particular manner, women can be looked at as sexual objects…

The world will be a better place once men accept and act upon the thought that “we are part of the solution”, he says. And that is the kind of world he hopes to see in some years — where women don’t suffer small daily indignities, where they don’t have to be part of a culture that favours one gender over another and where coercing a woman is not considered funny.

Being a man batting for women has seen Ben at the receiving end, but “not as much as women,” he says. Men, he says, are given a lot of credit for doing much less than women do on a daily basis.

Feminism, he says, is not a bad word. “Instead of listening to the words of feminists, we have turned them into a joke. They are not male-haters. I am a feminist. I love myself. I am a man,” he smiles.

Be the change.


Call women by their name, not sweety, sugar or baby.


Create a situation where women feel safe to go to work.


Redefine gender definitions.

Rings a bell?

Many campaigns are working to curb relationship violence. Remember India’s Ring The Bell campaign? It calls on men and young boys to take a pledge to end violence against women. Internationally, the White Ribbon Campaign has men working to end male violence against women.

City connect

Ben dedicated the session, organised by Dr. GRD School of Commerce and International Business, GRD Institute of Management and the UN Consulate General, Chennai, to women in the city and elsewhere who are victims of violence. He banked on humour to get his message across-he came dressed up as Rocky, James Bond and Austin Powers, using clips from their movies to prove that the woman is usually not taken seriously. Ben concluded the show with an act with two finger puppets-Elmo from Sesame Street and Kermit the Frog. “It’s not easy being pink…you’re judged by how you look and not how you think…”sang Elmo.

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2020 7:25:16 PM |

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