Rebuilding Manhood, the weekly discussion group for male-identified students at UMBC, focuses on a wide array of topics that relate to manhood and masculinity in our society. The topic of sexual assault, and the role that rape culture plays in perpetuating sexual violence, is one such topic. The issue of sexual violence is often framed as ‘a women’s issue,’ but violence against women, as author and activist Jackson Katz notes in his book The Macho Paradox, is more about men and their issues, as men are the ones committing the vast majority of violence, and the ones “whom women have been conditioned to fear.” This is why the topics of sexual assault and rape culture are an important aspect of Rebuilding Manhood. If we are serious about reducing sexual assault in our communities, it is critical that men understand the role that they can play in helping facilitate this process.
The importance of getting men involved in sexual assault prevention was reaffirmed to me after our campus’ annual Take Back the Night event. For well over an hour, brave individuals shared their stories of sexual assault with the crowd of 200 people that were gathered together to support this important cause. What really struck me, as I thought back on the stories told throughout the evening, was that not a single person victimized by someone they did not know, and quite frequently it was by someone they fully trusted. Whether it was a parent, a significant other, or a friend, none of the attackers were strangers. This is disturbing for many reasons, but understanding why men feel that they have the right to take advantage of someone who cares about them, and someone who trusts them, is what relates most to the work we do in Rebuilding Manhood.
The fact is that most men are not rapists, and would not consider committing sexual violence against someone else. The problem comes when men are told in subtle ways, and women in not so subtle ways, that all men are potential rapists. It is ironic that people think that feminists believe this to be true, when it is actually our larger culture that tells men to be overtly sexual beings, that teaches women strategies to be constantly on guard against the possibility of male violence, and that argues that women are to blame for sexual assault because they were wearing the wrong thing or were in the wrong place or were at a party and should have known better. These beliefs and these arguments are telling men that they are unbridled sexual beings whose default setting is apparently that of a rapist, because all it takes for such a thing to occur is for someone to come along showing too much skin, or to simply exist in a space where they are around men.
As a man, these beliefs offend me to my very core. Men are not debased animals, controlled by primal urges which somehow override their ability to ask for consent, or to respect the decisions that are made by their fellow human beings. In Rebuilding Manhood, we examine the thoughts behind these types of beliefs, and how these are reinforced on a daily basis, whether it is through rape jokes, ignoring the catcalls that women face on a daily basis, or by the constant repetition of phrases like “boys will be boys” and “that’s just how men are.” Rebuilding Manhood believes that men can be so much more, and that they can be allies to women and to other men. Women are not the enemy, any more than men are the enemy, and the cultural ideals about manhood and masculinity need to be rebuilt if the amount of sexual assault and violence against women is ever going to be reduced.