In Europe, a group is working throughout the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom to encourage young people to discuss gendered norms.

A Holland ad agency, SIRE, began a drive which called for communities to “let boys be boys.” No strange to provocative ads, this time SIRE triggered a national uproar. What did the company mean? What about the customs? What about the influence to single-mindedly seek sex?

Inspiring Male Action on Gender Equality in Europe (IMAGINE) tackles the hard questions by speaking with boys between twelve and eighteen. The aim: end sexual violence on girls and women.

Broadly Netherlands spoke recently to Gijs Hablous, a 24-year-old IMAGINE instructor.

“When I was in high school, topics like sexuality and gender weren’t discussed,” said Hablous. “A biology teacher spoke regarding stopping pregnancy, and we were shown how to wear a condom, but it was criticized as a joke.”

Later, when Hablous realized being white and well-educated made him privileged, he wanted to get connected in discussions about feminism. Then he heard about IMAGINE and liked the idea they were seeking grown males as role figures for younger boys to emulate.

IMAGINE teachers, like Hablous, focus on physical exercises to illustrate their lessons. One is a ‘boundary exercise’ where two groupings of boys are positioned facing each other and one group advances to the other. The stationery group says ‘stop’ when they believe the advancing group gets too close. The exercise is used to promote a conversation about boundaries.

The boys learn that respecting physical and personal space is a complex concept. How do you understand how far you can go? Many boys think it’s not their blunder when they move too far and the girl hasn’t said ‘no.’

Hablous always tries to bring the discussion around to a topic that applies to the boys in the group. One boy, for example, though a girl wearing a short skirt was asking to be catcalled. A female IMAGINE teacher asked, “How would you feel if someone treated your mom or your sister that way”? The boy realized his reasoning didn’t make sense.

Focus On Boys

As most perpetrators of sexual violence are men — women usually the victims — that’s the direction IMAGINE takes. Hablous says, “There’s much to be gained by talking to men about their behavior. It would be nice if one of several men would speak up when sexual harassment happens.

Hablous finds the boys understand the purpose of the workshops despite the limited time available. “It’s good  the boys talk with each other, and it would be great if IMAGINE could be a permanent part of the curriculum.”