What About the Men?
Men are violent.
Women are victims.
Last week the Ontario Government rolled out a number of initiatives against sexual violence. I support this effort 100% and I hope that it works as intended. There has been a lot of discussion about the public service announcement that is part of the campaign. I have been doing a lot of thinking as a result of the campaign and discussion.
If you have been a victim of sexual violence and you have not yet seen this video, be aware that it contains portrayals of assaults.
Before I get into my thoughts I want to make the following things clear.
- I support this campaign. I strongly support the message to bystanders to stand up and step in to stop harassment, abuse and violence whenever you see it. I think it is more effective than the approach to would-be rapists telling them not to rape. I don’t think those campaigns ever prevent a rapist from taking action. I do think campaigns to educate people about consent and what it means are effective. I think some rapes occur as a result of ignorance. I’ll dig into that a little more in a minute.
I believe women when they say they have been harassed or assaulted. This is my default position.
3. The majority of violent acts are committed by men.
- Women are considerably more likely than men to be victims of sexual harassment and violence. I am not going to get into statistics to bolster this belief. There are lots out there and, like any statistics used as evidence, I believe they only tell part of the story.
Men also suffer from sexual harassment and violence. Again, I am not going to dig into statistics because there are lots out there and they don’t tell the whole story.
The majority of victims of harassment and assault – sexual or otherwise – do not report to the police.
Rape culture is a real thing and it exists because we allow it to exist.
Sexual violence and harassment have nothing to do with sex or sexuality and everything to do with power.
I am a straight white male, 6′ tall and because of that I occupy a place of privilege that I did not earn and that I have benefitted from. Because of my size I do not live with any fear of violence against me in my life. I also happen to be a former martial arts instructor and am confident that I can defend myself if someone were to attack me. As a straight white male I have experienced fewer challenges in life than a woman, a person of colour, a queer person or a poor person is likely to encounter.
I am a father of three daughters and I want to help make the world a better place for them. This would also be true if I had sons.
I am not an expert on any of this and I do not know as much about this issue as many others. As with most things in my life, I am learning as I go and frequently make mistakes as part of that process.
The issue of sexual violence is more complex than just stating that men are violent and women are victims. Those are stereotypes that do all of us as humans a disservice.
Of course not all men are violent. Men are however, more likely to be violent than women. How do I know this? I read it somewhere. I’m not using stats here, remember. There are more men locked up in prison for violence than women, so that seems like a pretty good piece of evidence. Of course there are racial and class issues that result in many of those men being locked up. I am not going to dig into those issues in this post because I am not an expert on the prison population, racism or class issues. Women can also be violent and can also commit acts of violence, including sexual violence against men. Again, no stats on this. As evidence I point to recent cases in the US with charges laid against female teachers accused of raping male students. There was also a case several years ago in Toronto where a man accused three women of gang-raping him. I don’t recall if charges were ever laid in that case.
Likewise, not all women are victims. More women are, however, more likely to be sexually victimized than men. Pretty well all the statistics agree on this point. This has origins in historical social structures and laws which saw women treated as property for men to abuse as they saw fit. This situation is still the case in some parts of the world, and while women are no longer considered property in the eyes of the law in Canada and the US, there are those who wish they were and treat women as such. Men can also be and are also victimized. Often the attacker is male, sometimes they are female.
We have a culture which encourages us men to assert our masculinity (and heterosexuality) by making sexist jokes and comments about women. We are encouraged to look at women as sexual objects, and discouraged from speaking out against those comments and actions that demean women. There is a powerful disincentive for boys to stand up against this culture that usually involves threats of violence or challenges to their maleness and heterosexuality, which leads to more violence and harassment.
When I watch the PSA above I see it as a direct challenge to this culture. It is a call for men to stand up to the indoctrination that we go through which says it is ok to look the other way, to smile at a sexist joke rather than challenge it, and it is a call for us to step in and put a stop to those things.
Rape culture does not mean that every man is a rapist. It means that we have a culture that promotes dominance over women as part of our definition of masculinity, where it is OK to joke about raping women and that ultimately leads to harassment and in some cases rape.
As much as women would like to put an end to rape culture, they cannot. It is on us as men to change our behaviour. Women can certainly call out examples of rape culture and sexism, and they can raise their sons to be respectful of women and value them as equals. That will help, but it will not put an end to the man box. It will not reshape our definition of masculinity. We men have to challenge the jokes and comments. We have to call out sexism and report violence. We have to provide role models for boys and younger men. We have to teach our sons and fellow men that real masculinity is about respecting one another as individuals. It is about smashing the definition of maleness that says we have to be straight and strong and devoid of emotions other than anger. It is about teaching other men that it is ok to fail and show ‘weakness.’ We must do this.
Men as Victims
This leads me to men as victims. Men can, of course, also be victimized as referenced above. Their harasser/attacker is more likely to be another male than a female. The harassment and violence is pretty well always about power, regardless of whether it is sexual violence or a good ole beatin’. It is about the assertion of dominance and about putting boys and men in their place, whether that is putting them back into the man box or in their place in the social pecking order.
I have never worked in the sexual violence field. I did, however, work in a youth drop-in centre one summer and during my time there one of our clients asked me to come to the police station to help him file a report about an incident in which he had been assaulted. He asked me to go with him to read the report to him once it was filed as he could not read. When he made his statement to the officer I discovered that he had not just been beaten, he had been raped. All of this at the hands of several other men, and it was entirely about punishing him for stepping out of line.
Men can, of course, also be abused by women. This can be emotional or physical and is just as destructive for men who are victimized as it is for women. Since the government rolled out these initiatives there has been a great hue and cry from men’s rights organizations about how it is ignoring male victims and that it suggests that all men are abusers.
I agree that the ad only shows women as victims and only shows men as abusers. I disagree that it is somehow anti-men. This ad is targeted at bystanders and challenging us to step up. That will benefit men too. Sexual harassment and violence by women is also about power, just as when men are the abusers. The men’s rights groups claim these numbers are higher than the stats show and that may be the case, but then I also think that the number of women assaulted by men are higher than the stats show.
I don’t know whether the government will also do a PSA challenging the notion that men can’t be raped or than women can’t be abusers. These initiatives seem primarily targeted at protecting women and challenging the culture that protects men like Jian Ghomeshi. I support and encourage that objective.
I would however like to see more resources for men who are victimized, whether the abuse happens when they are boys or men and regardless of whether the attacker is male or female. In most communities there are no free resources for male victims of sexual assault. Perhaps this is on us men to resolve. Most of the shelters and sexual assault centres that exist out there were created and built by women. Women identified the needs, women raised the money, women lobbied for the support, women fought to create these spaces and they are essential. These places are not equipped and should not be forced to also provide services to men. If a woman has been assaulted by a man, the last person she wants to see in the waiting room is a man – even if he too is a victim.
So this is where I struggle. I want to support victims of sexual violence. I want to step up and intervene to stop rape culture. I want to change the world. I want my daughters to grow up feeling safe and reduce the likelihood that they will experience any form of sexual violence in their lives.
Throughout my university career I was a volunteer with, and eventually the director of, our campus safewalk program. We existed to walk people to and from campus and between destinations near to campus so that they wouldn’t be walking alone at night. At the time it felt like I was doing the right thing protecting primarily women from the bogeyman who might drag her into the bushes and rape her. Now I wonder if we were just contributing to the culture of fear and the myth that most rapes are committed by strangers. I think safewalk services are important for those who want them and who do feel uncomfortable walking alone, or who just want someone to talk to on their way home. I do however now think that we would have been better to do away with our bright yellow jackets that advertised that we were a security escort service.
I want to be an ally and support without being a knight. I want to protect my daughters without making them afraid or putting the onus on them to protect themselves from would be abusers and rapists. I want to challenge the predominantly male culture that says it is ok to treat women as chattel. I want to be a role model for younger men and teach them how to be men without having to subscribe to a rape culture. I don’t care who the abusers and the victims are in the ads. It doesn’t change the need for men to step up to stop violence. We just need to find the courage to do it.