The right way to change male attitudes
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/01/2015 (3057 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It just doesn’t seem to stop. From the rape chants at the University of British Columbia and Saint Mary’s to the hateful comments of male student leaders at the University of Ottawa, and now the disgusting Facebook page of senior dentistry students at Dalhousie, Canadian women and men are rightly appalled. We need, though, to move past outrage and figure out what can be done.
The question is, how can we be more effective in ending this climate of verbal abuse and the spreading of poison and hate? And not just that. How can we end the sexual assault that happens on our campuses every day and usually goes unreported?
Too often, school administrators are left to scramble as each new scandal emerges. Some universities and colleges are working hard to develop codes of conduct, provide greater oversight for frosh orientation and better train residence-life staff for example, but sadly, the problems won’t easily go away.
Which is exactly why many of us are talking about a rape culture. The thing about cultures is they constantly and often invisibly reproduce beliefs and attitudes that start to feel normal.
This culture is pervasive because of some of the ways we’ve defined manhood. This has led to a strange combination of entitlement and fear that pervades the lives of men, particularly when they’re young. The entitlement is not about individual men being bad, but the result of centuries of men controlling women and their sexualities. It wasn’t long ago, for example, that men would not be charged with raping their wives because she was considered his sexual property. Nowadays, some men still feel sex is theirs to have and theirs to take. When women resist their actions or the very notion men should exercise this control over them, some men believe the best response is denigration and revenge.
Men’s fear is even more complicated. The very ways we define manhood — always strong, in control, powerful, a sexual player, never weak and so forth — are impossible for any man to live up to. Most men, particularly when young, carry a lot of insecurity about living up to these ideals. They have to prove they’re real men, which far too many do by self-destructive risk-taking, fighting, verbal domination or engaging in sexist or homophobic behaviour. Many men don’t challenge sexism or homophobia because they worry doing so would prove they aren’t a real man.
Here’s how this adds up. Some men use violence — verbal, physical, emotional, and sexual — to control women or other men and because of a sense of entitlement. But they also do so as a way to compensate for fears of not being a real man. Studies in Canada and around the world also show many men who use violence witnessed violence against their own mother or experienced violence and bullying themselves.
How is this analysis useful? We now have a sizeable body of international evidence about what works to engage men and boys to end gender-based violence and promote gender equality. I know from my own work and that of my colleagues (in UN agencies, national and international NGOs and women’s rights organizations) that men’s violence can only be successfully challenged if we start with a strong gender-equality framework. That is, we have to confront the underlying issues of unequal power that still exists between women and men if we’re going to help all men redefine their relationships with women and with other men in healthier and happier ways.
But the evidence tells us to do so, we can’t just wave a scolding finger at young men. We can’t demonize men and use language that young men experience as collective guilt or a blanket accusation. What works are approaches that celebrate men’s capacities to be good men. What works are approaches that recognize the diversity of relationships and aren’t judgmental about students who might simply be looking to hook up for one night. What works is the use of appropriate humour to invite men in as partners for change. What works is recognizing most men support women’s rights and are appalled by men’s violence against women.
The problem of campus sexual violence is indeed pervasive. But a growing body of evidence tells us it is not insurmountable.
Torontonian Michael Kaufman, co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, is the author of ManTalk: What Every College Guy Oughta/Gotta Know About Good Relationships.