From UVA to the White House, James Lorello says when it comes to sexual assault we’re not getting to the root of the issue.
When I engage in conversations about sexual assault, I am reminded of an old home video in the Lorello family archives. In this video, the family is seen opening Christmas gifts. My older brother is putting together his new replica baseball stadium paying no attention to two-year-old me sitting in the corner. In that corner. in between eating gobs of wrapping paper, I am playing with my new favorite toy, a cabbage patch doll. From behind the camera comes the force of my father. “James! What the hell are you doing with that doll?” He shouts to my mother, “Liz, what the hell is James doing with a doll on Christmas? My child is going to be half a fag!”
There is no response since my mom is presumably cooking Christmas dinner already, so my father begins to tell me a different way to play with the doll instead of hugging it. “James, gauge the doll’s eyes out, throw it around, play with it like a man!” This kind of masculine reinforcement is not uncommon for young boys and is not specific to the story of my family. I was being trained from the age of two to use violence as my primary means of activity and to guard my emotions.
The last few months have seen renewed conversation on the topic of sexual assault on college campuses. The conversation is not new and has been occurring for the last several years on many college campuses. Colleges are under closer scrutiny and are being advised to review their policies. In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter highlighting Title IX responsibilities and letting universities know that if they are suspected of not being in compliance with Title IX regulations, they will be investigated and could be subject to fines and removal of federal funding. As of October 2014, 86 institutions were under Title IX investigation for possible violations.
The Rolling Stone article about one survivor’s story at the University of Virginia once again brought the conversation to the forefront of mainstream media. The story provided by Rolling Stone paints a horrific image and now, several weeks later, this story has been questioned, and met by much criticism as to its validity. Sexual assault is a serious problem in the U.S. and world, from incidents in India, to U.S. high schools and college campuses. Statistics released in the last two weeks by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics continues to point to the fact that women ages 18 to 24 experience higher rates of sexual assault than other groups. The data also shows the reality that many of the sexual assaults are committed by “acquaintances” and that most of these sexual assaults go unreported.
Title IX has forced universities to provide equitable rights in supporting survivors, allowing their voices to be better heard. Universities are also working to create a culture of consent, in which we actually ask our partners if they are ready to engage in sexual activity instead of just assuming “they want it”. Universities are challenged daily to make sure their policies are supportive and give due process to both survivors and alleged perpetrators. Addressing sexual assault is a complicated process with administrators learning how best to support students and adjudicate violations appropriately.
The conversation of sexual assault on college campuses has also spurred greater student activism in challenging reality of “rape culture”. Students at Columbia and other universities have brought attention to this issues by carrying their mattresses on campus as a sign of solidarity with those who carry the weight of a sexual violence every day. Survivors must be supported and culture challenged, but what does this do without the conversation about the role of men in sexual violence?
In bell hooks’ (2004) The Will to Change, she writes that patriarchy is a “political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females” (p.18). Patriarchy means that men are the dominant group within society and hold all of the power. Because culture is dominated and led by men, the culture is then created and reinforced by men. This creates male privilege and the ability for men to avoid the sexual assault conversation. A common refrain to combat sexual assault could be, “No, you women need to better protect yourselves and stop wearing short skirts that will fix the problem!” We are beginning to move the conversation to stop this sort of statement. We are realizing that survivors need to be better supported, but we are failing to address the larger system of patriarchy at play.
The ingrained and unconsciousness nature of patriarchy creates internalized oppression and sexism. The internalization exposes itself in examples like women choosing not to go for higher positions of leadership or believing that their place is in the home. Patriarchy tells women that they don’t need to be the breadwinner and convinces them of this fact through the continual reinforcement of social norms. While patriarchy is clearly oppressive of women it does not leave men unharmed. While patriarchy promotes men as the dominant group in society it also harms men by forcing them to constrict to the specific ideal of masculinity. The masculine ideal is trained and reinforced by all members of society from media to parents.
If we don’t challenge the status-quo of patriarchy, and continue to teach our old brand of hyper-masculinity, we will do nothing to actually stop sexual assault from occurring. Patriarchy is a system, which is reinforced by all members of society. It is not just men who keep the cycle of patriarchy going.
The reality is we teach women from birth, how to avoid being the victim of sexual violence. “Don’t walk alone.” “Watch out for your friends at the party.” “Don’t wear that”. We teach men little to nothing about sexual violence, either how not to commit sexual assault (since over 95% of perpetrators are men) or the reality that men can also be victims of sexual violence (until college I did not realize I could be a victim, I assumed I should always want sex.)
My personal story does not automatically mean that in the future I will then become a perpetrator of sexual assault, but it does contribute to the larger system of patriarchy at play. Most men like to see themselves very much separate from perpetrators of sexual violence since the large majority of men do not commit sexual violence. “Good men” (and women) continue to contribute to a sexist and male dominated patriarchal society. This is evidenced by our quick jump to demolish the accuracy of the UVA story, or to originally suspend Ray Rice for a whopping two NFL games after he knocked out his wife in an elevator. Every sexist joke, catcall, music video or half naked woman in a commercial contributes to the narrative that women are less than men, property of men, and sexual objects.
I work with a group at Appalachian State University called Men on the Mountain. The goal of this group is to have a conversation among men about their gender identity, and unpack their past and their current identity. Each week we explore and reflect on the week before, asking questions about “how they operated within the man box this week?” The goal is to first have them explore their gender identity (since most never have thanks to privilege) and to realize the harmful effects certain masculine norms have on the larger society. Eventually, I hope these men will not only become active bystanders but also train others to better understand masculinity while questioning the foundation of violence against women and the cycle of patriarchy.
Until then we need to not only continue to support survivors, adjudicate incidents effectively, but also take education to the next level and address the why behind acts of sexual violence. Suspension or expulsion for a student who commits an act of sexual violence will do nothing educationally if we do not also address how their own beliefs about masculinity and identity contributed to their offense.