Teaching men about consent is everyone’s responsibility, not just women’s.
Statistics can get old fast. They can become numbing, dehumanizing, and detached. They can be misunderstood, ignored, and can become nothing more than a dull hum in the fabric of society. Never has this been more true, or more tragic, than in the case of the statistic of one in five women being the victims of sexual assault or rape.
What most people do not understand, other than those who have experienced sexual violence firsthand, is that what lies beneath the surface of these numbers are stories of lives wrought with severe depression, a dismantled sense of self-worth, PTSD, and self-harm. Put into context, the statistic of one in five should hit like a shockwave from a bomb. Anyone reading this more than likely knows at least one woman who has been sexually assaulted in one form or another.
This has been a problem since the beginnings of civilization, yet the conversation revolving around this is relatively new. And while it is necessary, it is unfortunately very lopsided. Coming from personal experience, I can’t think of an instance where I have heard a discussion about this that was initiated by men. There’s no real measurement of this, but when I Google searched articles about sexual assault, the vast majority I found on the first few pages of results were by women.
This doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Naturally, it would be expected that women would be the first ones to speak out about this. This is an essential step that has massive significance in its own right. It is necessary for women to be heard.
But being heard is not enough. What’s important is for men to listen, and to respond. Unfortunately, the response has been discouraging.
I ran across an article by Gretchen Kelly that trended recently entitled “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About.” This describes the oppression women face daily, the sexism that pervades in society, and the rampant sexual abuse and rape that occurs in the U.S. It served as a raw and unprecedented look into the hardships women face. She ends with a heartfelt plea for men to listen.
While this article was incredibly insightful, what was almost more revealing were the comments attached to it. Just about every comment given by a woman gave massive praise to the article and expressed agreement. And while there were some positive comments from men, there were a large amount that were extremely defensive, even though she acknowledged that there are good men out there. Other comments from men were dismissive of the post. I even noticed a positive comment by a man that was replied to by another man, calling him a “bitch” and a “pussy.” There were other replies similar to this on other positive comments from men.
This sort of phenomenon is an unfortunate reflection of the conversation at large between men and women when it comes to issues of sexism and sexual violence. Men view it as a women’s issue, a feminist “agenda,” or women attacking men. The perception of the conversation has been reduced to an “us versus them” dynamic. This causes men to become defensive when these issues arise.
Recently, George Lawlor, a student at Warwick University in the U.K. went to The Tab posting in objection to consent classes. He posted a picture of himself holding a sign reading “this is not what a rapist looks like.” Predictably, men were quick to take to the comments section in agreement, while women voiced their frustrations. He argued that most men know exactly the definitions of rape and consent, and that it comes naturally to “the overwhelming majority of people you and I know.”
That last line hangs in the air like a rancid stench. The sad reality is that for most victims of rape, “people you and I know” is a phrase that haunts them daily. According to the National Institute of Justice, about 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses reported by women were by someone they knew. About half happend on a date. Lawlor himself may not be a rapist, but his assertion that people that look like him, clean cut looking college males, are not rapists falls completely flat.
The idea that the definitions of rape and consent are general knowledge to men is also fundamentally flawed. A study done by the University of North Dakota studied male perceptions of rape and found results that are very revealing and frankly, deeply disturbing. Of the males who responded, 31.4 percent reported that they would act on intentions to “force a woman to sexual intercourse” if they knew they would get away with it. However when the word “rape” was used, the amount of respondents who said they would act on these intentions dropped to 13.6 percent.
These findings bring to light a multidimensional problem. On one hand, there’s the fact that these findings suggest that one third of college men don’t see any problem with rape. On the other hand it demonstrates that a large portion of men do not see the most clear definition of rape-forcing someone into sex-for what it really is.
To say these findings are difficult to hear is like saying it difficult to swallow a jetliner. They hit like repeated blows to the gut. As a man, I can’t help but think to myself, “What in the hell is wrong with us?” But I can’t live with this. I can’t handle it. It’s simply too much to bear. I can’t be ashamed to identify myself as a man. In this world that we live in, men and women were never meant to live at odds with each other. We were meant to live arm in arm, side by side, as equals in good standing with each other. Perhaps a more difficult, yet more necessary question to ask is this: what went wrong with us?
All men were once boys. Boys who grew up in a world that told them they had to be strong. A world that told them they had to be aggressive. A world that told them they had to be dominant. A world that told them women were objects to gratify their sexual desires.
Another aspect of the aforementioned study linked willingness to rape a woman to views of women as sexual objects, as well as callous attitudes towards sex and high levels of aggression. This all feeds into a socialization of men they call “hypermasculinity”, in which aggression towards women is seen as acceptable.
When men commit the vast majority of sexual assaults, and sexual assaults are happening at pandemic rates, it can be very easy to just call men out as the problem. And with the continued rhetoric of the subject being talked about as a women’s issue, or being labeled as a feminist topic, it will only continue to fly over the heads of those who need to hear it most. The problem lies not with men themselves, but within the current socialization of men and the pressure to fit into the mold of hypermasculinity.
This is why the conversation surrounding the issue of sexual assault needs an overhaul. The focus needs to shift away from simply pointing out men as the typical culprits, discussing what does and doesn’t constitute consent, or even addressing the hypermasculinity and sexism that perpetuates and excuses sexual assault. While these issues are necessary to talk about and should continue to be talked about, the focus absolutely needs to shift towards a call for men to listen with humility, step up in responsible leadership, and to call out the aspects in male culture that excuse the abuse of women. The change has to come from men. Because, as Jackson Katz puts it, this isn’t a women’s issue. It is a men’s issue.
This change happens when powerful, responsible men intervene in the realms of male culture where these sorts of conversations happen. It takes crushing hypermasculinity by calling it out for what it truly is: a twisted, parasitic set of ideals masquerading as manhood. This needs to happen in the locker room when degrading comments are made. It needs to happen on a poker night when a rape joke is made. It needs to come up between close friends when they talk about women they date. It needs to be talked about when a father talks to his son about how to treat women.
Change from men also needs to come in the public sphere. After Lawlor made his post objecting to consent classes, another student, Josie Throup, swiftly made a post explaining why consent classes are needed. All her points are sound and based on fact, but at the same time it felt a little hollow.
Her post contained photos of her in front of a sign reading “women’s campaign” and of her holding a sign that read “this is what a consent educator looks like.” Her first sign exemplifies the very thing men so often misunderstand and get defensive about with the use of the word “campaign”. Her last sign unintentionally points out another issue. It reinforces the notion that teaching men about sexual assault is a woman’s job.
Now we owe a lot to the courage and leadership of women who have spoken up on this issue in world that has tried to keep them quiet. I know I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for the women who have so boldly brought it to light. But change won’t happen if the conversations on sexual assault continues to be filed away in the “women’s issues” section.
There needs to be men on college campuses speaking out against sexual assault in front of signs reading “men’s campaign.” Men need to become regulars as consent educators—as peers, teachers, and fathers.
We must continue to listen, with humility and integrity. We now must also show that we have listened, with change, and with action.
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Photo: Getty Images