I recently watched a brilliant TED talk by Jackson Katz on violence against women and how it’s a men’s issue.
Katz is a co-founder of a group called Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), an organization that works to enlist the help of men in the ongoing battle with domestic violence against women. So, basically, I had already decided that I liked him before I watched the video. When I watched it, though, I liked him even more. He’s this super down-to-earth, everyman-feeling kind of guy, and here he is talking about power and privilege and using his position as a powerful, priviliged man to expose the injustices in the world. Anyway, he encouraged me to write this blog post. I strongly encourage you to take the time to watch it, but if you don’t have the time, let me tell you what I took from it in a few highlights.
[W]hen we hear the word “race,” a lot of people think that means African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American, South Asian, Pacific Islander… When [we] hear the word “sexual orientation” [and] think it means gay, lesbian, bisexual… [we] hear the word “gender,” [and] think it means women. In each case, the dominant group doesn’t get paid attention to… This is one of the ways that dominant systems maintain and reproduce themselves… the dominant group is rarely challenged to even think about its dominance, because that’s one of the key characteristics of power and privilege, the ability to go unexamined, lacking introspection, in fact being rendered invisible in large measure in the discourse about issues that are primarily about us. And this is amazing how this works in domestic and sexual violence, how men have been largely erased from so much of the conversation about a subject that is centrally about men.
The power behind that realization is potent. The fact if the matter is that the dominant group in the conversation about domestic violence, sexual assault, and harassment is rarely challenged to think about it’s role.
I’m lucky in that I’m surrounded by awesome male allies as a female in the world today. I can still remember having a beer with my brother a little over two years ago. He leaned across the table and said to me:
“So… rape culture. What’s that like?”
What followed was a moment that I will always remember. He acknowledged his privilege and listened to my experiences as a woman. He didn’t bluster or get offended. He didn’t say things like “not all men are like that” or “well I would never do xyz.” He listened and he internalized and tried to understand.
And I know a bunch of guys like that. Self-described feminists and womens’ allies that rock my world when they engage in this conversation. But the fact of the matter is that victim blaming is a part of the conversation about so-called “women’s issues.” The first thing out of a lot of people’s mouths is a question about – or an accusation of – the woman.
Why was she out so late at night?
Why doesn’t she leave him?
What was she doing dressed like that?
She’s a tease.
She’s a slut.
The man is rarely a part of the conversation.
And I get that, actually. I understand where that comes from. It’s hard to think about what we do about men, just like it’s hard to think about what we do with any perpetrator. Perpetrators are scary because they are not a predictable element in our everyday lives. And violent domestic and sexual perpetrators are especially terrifying because they do their work right in front of our eyes, behind the closed doors of our neighbors and friends. But Katz is asking the right questions when he says, toward the middle of his talk, that:
You know, the perpetrators aren’t these monsters who crawl out of the swamp and come into town and do their nasty business and then retreat into the darkness. That’s a very naive notion, right? Perpetrators are much more normal than that, and everyday than that. So the question is, what are we doing here in our society and in the world? What are the roles of various institutions in helping to produce abusive men? What’s the role of religious belief systems, the sports culture, the pornography culture, the family structure, economics, and how that intersects, and race and ethnicity and how that intersects? How does all this work?
It’s absolutely true that perpetrators aren’t alien monsters. They’re somebody’s son. Somebody’s brother. And they are born and raised right alongside men who don’t beat and rape the people around them. And I think that’s what makes dealing with them so difficult and so terrifying. If every abuser were, say, bright purple or something, it would make it easy to avoid them. Just don’t go near that bright purple guy! Easy peasy. But that’s not the case, so the question becomes: What makes those men different?
I believe that Katz is right in his assertion that we have to trace those violent tendencies back to some kind of societal cause. I think it starts with socialization in childhood. Men are socialized to think that they need to be aggressive and big and dominant and powerful in order to be “real men.” I’m sure you’ve heard these lines before.*
Boys don’t cry.
What are you, some kinda pussy?
You’re a little bitch.
In just those few examples, we can see some of archetypes that men are being called to fill. Not only are they expected to perform as men by being emotionally closed off and immune to pain and weakness, but those last two “insults” have always spoken to me – and a lot of other feminists. If you insult someone by calling them a pussy or a bitch, what are you really saying? You’re saying three things, and stick with me here:
- They’re a woman, or possess female genitalia, for one.
- You’re inferring, through that statement, that being female or having female sex organs makes a person inferior.
- You are teaching them, through those two correlations, that women are inferior beings.
It’s not a straight leap, but if you are a boy and you hang out in enough schoolyards with enough other boys, you might come out of it scared of being seen as emotionally or physically weak and female, because those traits are traced back to femininity, and femininity is bad.
Katz asks over and over again in his talk “What’s going on with men?” And if you start back on that playground with that little boy being taught that his “feminine” qualities (and don’t even get me started on gender assignment and heteronormativity) make him inferior, it doesn’t seem too far a leap that the same little boy, once grown into a man, would find it hard to respect the women in his life.
And if that same little-boy-now-man finds himself still experiencing things like emotional and physical weakness, do you think he is likely to express those things? Of course not. Because “being a man” demands that he be a stoic warrior type with no emotional output. And what do you think happens when someone bottles down all of their emotional baggage for years and years out of fear? Will all of those seething emotions just go away? No. Will they come barreling to the surface like a freight train? Yes. And could that barreling stampede of pent up emotion translate into physical and sexual violence? Absolutely yes.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. And I will get back to the issue of male gender roles in a later blog entry, because I think it’s super important to think about. The scary thing is how big that problem really is. How do you socialize men differently? How do you socialize boys so that they learn at a young age that the types of behavior classed as “feminine” are not shameful? How do you teach them that violence is wrong, particularly when it is enacted against those over which one holds power? Well, Katz has a solution to that.
Now, when it comes to men and male culture, the goal is to get men who are not abusive to challenge men who are. And when I say abusive, I don’t mean just men who are beating women.We’re not just saying a man whose friend is abusing his girlfriend needs to stop the guy at the moment of attack. That’s a naive way of creating a social change. It’s along a continuum, we’re trying to get men to interrupt each other. So, for example, if you’re a guy and you’re in a group of guys playing poker, talking, hanging out, no women present, and another guy says something sexist or degrading or harassing about women, instead of laughing along or pretending you didn’t hear it, we need men to say, ‘Hey, that’s not funny. You know, that could be my sister you’re talking about, and could you joke about something else? Or could you talk about something else?I don’t appreciate that kind of talk.'”
Wow, right? I mean, we can enact all kinds of social programs and educational initiatives in order to get some handle on how these boys turn into abusive adults, but Katz is calling for something much more immense. He wants societal change on an individual level to influence these young men and steer them towards healthy, loving relationships. It sounds both incredibly simple and immensely difficult at the same time.
Katz calls silence in the face of things we find objectionable a “sign of consent and complicity,” and I think he’s right on the money with that. In my previous entry on street harassment I didn’t quite get into talking about solutions for that issue. Mostly because I was ranting and didn’t feel like coming up with constructive thoughts. Because… rant! But the attitudes and actions that lead to domestic violence and sexual assault are very much present in the issue of street harassment.
When I talk about it with people, there are always all kinds of solutions offered to me on how to deal with street harassment and the men who do it. Here’s some examples:
Throw your dog’s poop bag at him!
Yell and curse at him and walk away.
Just ignore it.
Turn around and yell “Come and get it, sugar!”
And, my personal favorite:
Maybe you should just move out of the city if you don’t want to deal with that.
As entertaining and groan-inducing as some of these solutions are, none of them come close to solving the problem of street harassment as a whole. And that’s the goal of talking about these social issues, isn’t it? I mean, if I feel better after one incident, that’s great, but if we can eliminate street harassment as a prevalent big city issue in the U.S…. well, that’s the dream!
And that’s what Katz is talking about when he brings up what he calls the “bystander approach.” An approach that I think works for all forms of rape culture awareness and which I believe is the only surefire way to work the attitudes that contribute to rape culture out of our society. Katz says:
[T]he bystander approach is trying to give people tools to interrupt that process and to speak up and to create a peer culture climate where the abusive behavior will be seen as unacceptable, not just because it’s illegal, but because it’s wrong and unacceptable in the peer culture. And if we can get to the place where men who act out in sexist ways will lose status, young men and boys who act out in sexist and harassing ways towards girls and women, as well as towards other boys and men, will lose status as a result of it, guess what? We’ll see a radical diminution of the abuse.
All I could say when he said that was “Yes. Yes. That’s the only way this works.” Because if men are socially rewarded for being big, aggressive, rapey creeps, then they will continue in that pattern. But if they lose status every time they violate the safety of another person – be it with their words or their fists or their sex – then instances of domestic violence and abuse will be dramatically lessened in the general population.
I want to talk a lot more on this blog about men and men’s issues. I thought this was a good place to start, though. And I hope that I gave you all some food for thought.
*If you are interested in learning more about how we socialize American boys, please check out this short preview for the film The Mask You Live In. And be sure to follow the excellent work being done by The Representation Project.