Rebuilding Manhood to Reduce Sexual Assault

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.

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Thoughts on a Gay NFL Player

Note:  This blog entry was originally posted in my personal blog, “A Cornucopia of Michael.”

I was recently reading the comments on a post about Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end expected to be a top draft choice in the NFL and who recently came out as gay.  One of the comments stood out to me in particular, because it might be read (and said) by many as a sign of progress and acceptance.  The individual responded “Really? Who the hell cares about athlete’s [sic] sexual orientation?”  While I think the general message he is trying to convey is that sexual orientation should not affect the way we rate or view an athlete, the problem lies in that it completely ignores the historical situation in which such an event as this occurs.  The truth of the matter is that a LOT of people care about an athlete’s sexual orientation, as can be seen in the comments of mangers and players in a recent Sports Illustrated article on the subject.  A few of the more bold statements found in the article:

“This is going to drop him down,” a veteran NFL scout said in the SI.com article. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?’”

An assistant head coach said in the SI.com article that coming out right now was “not a smart move” because it “legitimately affects [his] potential earnings.”

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

Clearly, all of these quotes are from people who care about an athlete’s sexual orientation.  What strikes me about most of these comments is how much they are based in the argument that we should live our lives and make our decisions based on how other people might react to us.  If there are players who are uncomfortable with a gay man being in the locker room with them, it is not that player who has a problem, it is the man who is gay and had to screw it all up by coming out of the closet.

All of these comments are also based in cowardice.  To say that Sam will be dropped lower in the draft because a team doesn’t want to “break that barrier” is not only sad, it’s shameful. Putting aside the BS statement about human nature (there are very few things that we can safely call ‘human nature,’ but that’s a post for another day), the fact that no one sees a problem with a team NOT wanting to break that barrier is pathetic.  It’s putting politics above humanity, and shows a distinct lack of foresight, as that team will be remembered in the future as the team brave enough to break that barrier.  No one looks back on the Brooklyn Dodgers and says “how sad that they were willing to stand up for what was right and allow the first African-American man to play in Major League Baseball.”  While it is Jackie Robinson, rightly so, who is remembered for his courage and strength, the Brooklyn Dodgers also deserve a nod for being willing to take a chance.  The same will be true for Michael Sam, and the team that drafts him.  I think of a quote from singer-songwriter Derek Webb, from his song “Black Eye”:  ”Time looks the same at the ones who hate and the ones that do nothing.”  Time will not look fondly on those who rejected a player because of his sexual orientation, and then tried to justify it any way they could.

The final quote I listed is perhaps the saddest.  The argument that a group or organization isn’t ready to advance “just yet” is the tactic of choice for those who wish to delay progress indefinitely, or at least want to delay it until someone braver comes along who is willing to do the right thing.  The insinuation that football is still a “man’s-man” game is also thoroughly insulting to gay men everywhere, especially when followed by the statement that calling somebody a fag (i’m assuming this is the deleted gay slur) is still commonplace, implying a clear connection between the two.  Gay men, this individual is saying, cannot be manly-men who are able to keep up with the heterosexual “men’s-men” of the NFL.  While I have major issues with the way that we culturally define manhood, it is ridiculous to say that all gay men are incapable of meeting the same standards of the heterosexual men in the NFL.

A final thought about “who cares about an athlete’s sexual orientation?”  There is one very important group that cares: the gay community, especially gay youth, who have so few role models to look up to, especially in the world of sports.  The fact that Michael Sam is a man of color is also immensely important for gay youth of color, who have even fewer role models than white youth.  Whether his actions in the NFL continue to make him worthy of being a role model remain to be seen, but his courage in coming out to the world before being drafted will serve as an inspiration for thousands of gay youth struggling to simply come out to themselves and those around them.

An additional and related question to “who cares about an athlete’s sexual orientation” is another that is frequently heard: ”why do we even need to talk about an athlete’s sexual orientation?  It doesn’t matter what you do in the privacy of your home when you are on the field.”  Sure, but what about when a player talks about his wife and kids?  Or when a player is seen on a date with a famous actress or model or musician, and it’s all over the gossip magazines?  Like it or not, this is talking about that player’s sexual orientation, but we don’t see it that way, because that is how privilege works.  Heterosexuality is normal and natural, and therefore a man talking about his wife or dating a woman is simply par for the course.  If a man talks about his husband or dating a man, he is forced , by that very action that everyone else takes for granted, to come out as gay.

I wanted to address this question briefly, as well, as it is something that is frequently brought up when this subject is discussed.

Men: You Are Better Than This!

With the recent leak of yet another email from a Georgia Tech fraternity member to his brothers regarding the best ways to take advantage of women and, for all intents and purposes, sexually assault them, I want to offer a response of my own, as well.  While much of the attention (rightfully so) has focused on the misogyny and underlying aggression and violence towards women that this email exhibits, I think it is also important to think about what emails like this say about the view that men have towards themselves and towards other men.  I would be offended if a fraternity brother sent this to me, not just because of the total disregard for the humanity of women, but also because of what that message assumes about me as a man.  If I could give a response to the author, and to those who received the message, and to so many millions more young men in the world who get these messages every day, it would be as follows:

Dear Fellow Men,

You’re so much more than this, and you’re so much better than this.  You are more than your ability to seduce and sexually assault women with copious amounts of alcohol.  You are more than a walking sexual predator-to-be, who just needs the right encouragement and methods to take advantage of others.  You are more than your ability to have sex, or to “score” with multiple women, or to get them drunk or high in order to take advantage of them. You are more than a drunk peddler of alcohol, biding your time between parties so that you can again go through the process of numbing yourself to engage in behavior that you most likely find morally degrading, or at least highly questionable.  You are more than a robot programmed to think only about sex, alcohol, video games and sports.  You are more than a robot who has been programmed without emotions or the ability to show them.

Not only are you more than all of this, you are better than all of this.  You are a complex human being, with a wide range of interests and a wide range of emotions.  You have sadness, you have pain, you have love, you have compassion, and empathy, and kindness, and you have hopes and dreams inside of you.  You have the ability to share these emotions with others, and the need to do so in order to fully function as a healthy human being.  You have the ability to help others, and ensure that they are safe, and ensure that you are doing everything you can to make sure that, at the end of the day, the humanity and dignity of every human being is affirmed.

And, I bet if you look inside of yourself, you realize that not only do you have these abilities, but there is a part of you that really wants to be able to do all of these things, to be free from the self-repression, and the expectations of never-ending toughness, and the day-in, day-out competition that never allows you to relate to another man as anything more than a challenge to overcome.  You want to be able to say that you love your friends and family. You want to be able to say no to sex when you aren’t interested, because there are going to be times when you aren’t interested, and that’s okay.  You want to be a human being, and not a one-dimensional walking stereotype, someone who has to do everything to hide who you really are and what you really feel, numbing yourself with alcohol, drugs, sex and violence.

And the truth of the matter is that you can be that person.  It is not easy, and it takes courage and a willingness to stand against the mainstream, but it can be done.  Because the fact is that there are so many others just like you who are yearning for the same thing, but everyone is terrified that they are the only ones.   So please, stand up and let go of these destructive ideas.  Realize the potential you have to truly be a whole human being, instead of letting yourself be so narrowly defined by people who really don’t care about you outside of the mold they are trying to fit you into.  Doing this may make you different from others around you, but I imagine that you will be a hell of a lot happier, and the world will be a better place for it.

With Brotherly Love,

Michael

Rebuilding Manhood: Yes, Masculinity is a Social Construction

1001924_10101876367780783_916671846_nAs a man who has been involved with the fight for women’s equality for almost fifteen years, I have never felt uncomfortable calling myself a feminist or critically examining the way that our systems of patriarchy have long created oppression for women, and how they continue to do so to this day. What was not as clear to me at the time, at least not as obviously, was how masculinity, and the norms surrounding it, are just as much a social construction as those relating to femininity.

My interest in the development of masculine identities began to grow as I found myself noticing how the roles of stereotypical masculinity were being played out among men in the gay community. While often placed outside of traditional masculinity by society at large, and while often open to challenging some concepts of traditional masculine culture,  gay men still grow up in a society that conveys very specific ideas about how men are supposed to act and what they are supposed to value.  While some gay men may be willing to adopt characteristics that are more traditionally “feminine”, there are many other traits that all too clearly bespeak the cultural training that we all learn from a young age. Many of these, I started to believe, cause issues of conflict in both friendships and intimate relationships between men. When males are taught that they are to be more powerful than women, to be the breadwinners, and to be emotionally stoic, how does that play out when there is a relationship with two men who have similar views of power? How do we have honest conversations about sex when both partners in a relationship are taught the same monolithic view that sex is purely a physical act, all about performance, dominance and one’s own pleasure? How do we discuss relationship violence when we learn that only women are the victims of aggression and spousal abuse, and that if a man is beaten up, it is something to be ashamed of?

As I started to examine these questions more, and started critically reading things written by members of the LGBT community, I started to realize that so many of the conversations we were having were, at their roots, informed by an unexamined, hegemonic view of masculinity. While it is true that gay men have often been victims of prejudice and violence because of this dominant masculinity, many have also absorbed much of what it teaches about the proper way to “be a man.”
These early thoughts and questions began to take more form as I started reading the book Guyland by the pioneering sociologist and critical masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel. I began to see the wider ways that men are taught, encouraged and celebrated for adhering to a certain kind of masculinity, and how this happens through a process that also teaches men to accept it as entirely natural and separate from cultural ideals and values. We may understand, for example, that our system of patriarchy has relegated women to the private/domestic sphere, but how often do we think about how that same system has relegated men to a public sphere where their identity is so intertwined with their ability to make money and achieve other forms of measurable success, keeping them on a treadmill of insecurity, constantly afraid that it will all collapse? We can see that our culture has denied women the right to express anger and sexual desire, but how often do we see that this same culture has denied men the right to express anything but anger and sexual desire, causing great damage, both emotionally and physically, to both parties?

Thinking about all of these questions, and how all of us are influenced to become a certain type of man or woman (while also ignoring the spectrum that is found outside of the male/female binary), I was very excited to learn about the Rebuilding Manhood program that was launching in the fall of 2012 at UMBC. I was a participant during that inaugural semester, and I benefited enormously from taking part, learning a great deal about myself, as well as the larger culture of which I am inextricably bound. When the opportunity arose for me to work at the Women’s Center, and to participate as co-facilitator of Rebuilding Manhood for the upcoming academic year, I jumped at the chance. Not only do I feel that it is crucial for us to discuss these issues relating to masculinity and what it means to “be a man” in our society, but I also love taking part in those conversations and learning from the experiences that all the participants bring with them. I look forward to another great year of the program, and continuing to do what I can to create a culture at UMBC and beyond where we are willing to have these conversations and critically examine what it means to be a man, and how to build positive and healthy versions of masculinity.