I remember the scene like it happened yesterday. A group of approximately fifteen middle-school boys were bantering each other in the front yard of a classmate’s house as the party began. Out of nowhere came two well-respected high school males confidently strolling towards the group of younger boys. As they approached, the young guys in the yard, of which I was a part, froze and gazed towards them with a sense of pride and delight in the fact that these older males would join the party.
The two teenage guys wasted no time in getting to the point, “Where’s all the girls?” With nervous smiles and laughter, each of us said in a jumbled chorus, “In the house…waiting for us!” Then they raised the question and moment of reckoning, “Who’s gonna get some?!” We all paused, not real sure what “getting some” meant, but sure that if these older guys thought we should, we better all resound an assured, “Yea… I am!” They laughed and followed with, “Ya’ll better!” and headed on their way. Here we were a group of middle school boys fifteen or so strong, on a mission to “get some” as we ventured in the house to join the girls.
As you can imagine, the goal for us was clear, emulating and impressing our older and wiser “heroes” by compelling the girls to engage in sexual activities. The environment was established. Our encounters, however they would end up, were not about a mutually desired intimate connection, but about girls being a means to the end goal of older male approval. This extremely dangerous atmosphere that encompassed the young girls that evening is dreadfully common at social gatherings all across America.
This common danger is one reason all men should be involved. All men are implicitly and/or explicitly educated and given tools to be sexually aggressive.
What do I mean by that? (I can imagine that this idea could be a little alarming). Do I believe that all men act in sexually aggressive ways? No. Do I believe all men have the education, tools, and ability to make sexually aggressive choices? Yes.
I will make sense of this by explaining the way Men Stopping Violence, an Atlanta-based social change organization dedicating to ending men’s violence against women, defines male sexual violence. Male sexual violence is male expectation of sexual acts combined with tactics to compel submission.
Here are some of the expectations that countless men have described from their own experiences:
Men should have lots of sex
Men should have access to sex on demand
Sex should be a trade-off for dinner, nice evening, etc.
Women’s bodies are available for men’s gratification
There is a point-of-no-return during sexual encounters
All men get these messages and ascribe to them in various degrees. Many men are very uncomfortable with these messages, but don’t know what to do with these feelings. Some men loyally follow these expectations and use tactics to fulfill them in relationships with women.
Some of the tactics are:
Name calling and whistling
Looks and gestures
Emotional and psychological manipulation
Sulking and guilt
Drugs and/or alcohol
Physical manipulation and/or aggression
When we combine the expectation with the tactics, sexual violence occurs. As I mentioned many men are very uncomfortable with the expectations and the tactics and never choose to internalize or act on them, but they also don’t challenge them in other men. Society normalizes this equation and in many ways makes a case for its acceptability.
Because of this reality, men need to hear from each other that this is not acceptable, it’s not part of the game, and it is not normal or natural. Men need not only to find this uncomfortable but despicable and intolerable. This is a lie that destroys the lives of women and children in our lives and communities and dehumanizes men.
For this reason, all men should be involved because there is no possibility for neutrality. If we as men are not challenging this belief system, we allow it to be perpetuated through the many messengers delivering it.
Working to change the messages men are getting will take the majority of men speaking a new narrative. If more voices are not raised in contradiction to the sexually aggressive narrative explained above, then more and more young men will adopt and adhere to it.
I talk to men all the time that say, “I would never sexually assault, rape, or violate a woman and your request doesn’t apply to me.” I then respond with something a college professor once said, “Once you are aware of the problem, you cannot be neutral, you are either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.”
Men shouldn’t join the efforts to end men’s violence against women for charitable reasons, because of special talents, or to become heroes. We should join because it is our, all of our, responsibility.
In Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King is responding to white clergy’s critique of his direct action against racism. In their critique, they said that, if Dr. King and the SCLC would have given the new Mayor of Birmingham time, changes would have been made. Dr. King responded, “Time itself is neutral, it can be used constructively or destructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Men’s silence will only allow more perpetrations against women and children by men who continue to operate from the sexually aggressive narrative that powerfully instructs beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. We know that most men would not want that to happen to someone they love. Therefore, it is in men’s self-interest to be part of the solution because we all have women and children in our lives for whom we deeply love and care.
Most men can identify women in their lives that they would never want to see suffer the unimaginable horror of sexual violence. If men can begin to empathize by considering how they themselves would be affected by knowing a women they care for has been violated, maybe they could get to a place where they would not want to imagine any women going through this nightmare.
Not all men will be directly impacted by sexual violence, but as long as any woman is in danger, all women are in danger, including the women men know and love. Our mothers, sister, daughters, cousins, friends, co-workers, and lovers will never be truly safe until all women are safe.
John Tramel, friend of MOCSA and formally of Men Stopping Violence