When Pheng Thao’s son was young and threw something because he was mad, it would have been easy to say, “He’s just a boy, that’s what boys do.”
But instead, he decided to sit him down, talk with him and explain that instead of throwing things when he got mad, he should use his words and share his feelings.
Thao, who has been actively building and developing new concepts of masculine expressions and male practices for more than 15 years, was the guest speaker at 21st annual Domestic Violence Awareness Luncheon in Alexandria.
The event, which took place Wednesday, Oct. 20, is put on by United Communities Advocating Non-Violence in partnership with Someplace Safe.
In his opening remarks, Sgt. Tony Kuhnau with the Alexandria Police Department, said that Thao believes that creating healthy and healing connections and interconnections for men and masculine folks are necessary to transform their relationships with others and not limit boys’ and men’s full potential.
Kuhnau also said that Thao has done numerous keynote speaking engagements, trainings and technical assistance to diverse local, national and international organizations and communities on the intersections of gender-based violence, manhood and masculinity.
During his presentation Wednesday, Thao said that people unintentionally teach boys to live by a set of invisible rules where they need to stay in their own lane and to not violate the “man” or “bro” code.
He said boys and young men are taught not to interfere, even when it comes to domestic violence. Men live by a code that they don’t interfere with the happenings of their neighbors, family members, friends, coworkers and others, he said.
But Thao said men need to realize and understand that they need to intervene and interfere when it comes to domestic violence.
“It takes all of us,” he said. “It takes everyone to end domestic violence.”
The norm in society is to teach women they need to be safe, stay safe and learn how to protect themselves, said Thao. But then he stated that the conversations need to be about the boys and the men, and that women shouldn’t have to be afraid. He said boys and men need to learn respect and how their words and actions can devalue a woman.
Men, he said, should be given a sheet with feelings on it and then asked what they are feeling and where they are feeling it. He said he does that with men in classes he teaches.
“It’s not to make men less men, but to make them more human,” he said. “They have to think about how their actions impact a woman.”
His advice for people, particularly men, is to start building connections with other people.
“If we build connections, we can step in when something happens, we can check in with one another and we can say something when something is happening,” said Thao.
He said there needs to be more prevention work and more policing of what is happening in each other’s neighborhoods and communities.
Boys should not be taught that their behavior is unacceptable and that it’s not “boys just being boys.” He said they need to know what the consequences are and that just a slap on the wrist isn’t good enough.
“It takes work and it’s not easy,” he stated. “We need to teach each other how to navigate domestic violence. We need to give people the tools and resources. And we need to stop saying boys will be boys and men will men. It’s not going to help.”
He also said that people need to be vigilant, care for themselves, their neighbors, their friends and if men don’t know where to start, they should start by looking in the mirror.