April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and too often we see domestic
violence and rape defined as “women’s issues.” Since men do the vast
majority of the damage, I think it’s a men’s issue. I’ll begin with
a story, not a very happy one, to set the tone.
A little while back, The Washington Post ran a story about
a Northern VA country club that held an event called the “Vodka challenge.”
It was a men-only event, a standard country club golf tournament.
What made it newsworthy was the mode of celebration in the men’s
locker room. The day before the tournament, one of the club managers
purchased an ice sculpture of a nude woman, sitting down with her
legs spread. The vodka was served in the locker room from a fountain
stream that came out from between her legs.
When some of the women members found out about this ice sculpture,
they were outraged. Most of the men seemed puzzled by this reaction.
After all, this was a sculpture, not a real woman, and it was in
the men’s locker room, where none of the women would even see it.
Quite predictably, there were a lot of statements about angry feminists
who have no sense of humor, and the overly rigid atmosphere of political
correctness. After all, any one with an open mind would see this
as harmless. I think it’s good to have an open mind, but it’s not
good to have a mind so open that your brain falls out.
What does this vodka challenge story have to do with violence against
women? There was nothing in the story to suggest that any of these
men had ever beaten their wives. But, although I’m sure they didn’t
realize it, every one of them made it just a little more possible
for any one of them to commit an act of violence against
In order for violence to occur, several things have to be present.
First, there has to be a lack of identification with the victim.
Second, there has to be a perception of the situation as one that
calls for violence. Third, there has to be a decision to act violently,
and fourth, there has to be a means of doing harm to the other person.
All-male social groups that are disrespectful towards women provide
the first part of this formula: a willingness to view women as being
different from and less valued than men. Symbolically, the ice sculpture
provided an atmosphere that says women are here for men’s pleasure,
and we will bond around our shared masculinity in this place where
we don’t have to deal with women as human beings. Seeing them as
lower status others allows us to justify mistreating them
in many ways, including violence. There is an attitudinal undercurrent
of women as enemies, in spite of the fact that most of these men
were married to and raising children with the enemy.
Unfortunately, this vodka challenge was most likely not some isolated
incident of insensitivity. In fact, country clubs have a history
of the exclusion and disrespect of women, from men-only eating areas
and tee times to the outright banning of women members. Many clubs
also have a history of excluding Jews and people of color. The controversy
over the exclusion of women from Augusta National is a case in point
– Martha Burk has been called every bad name in the book just because
she has pointed out the bigotry of this incredibly wealthy group
of men and suggested that we all do something to ensure that they
don’t become wealthier from the Master’s tournament.
I am only using country clubs as an example of all-male enclaves
that implicitly and subtly condone violence against women. Other
institutions, like many fraternities and corporations, also have
these histories. And, of course, all-male social groups do not have
to be organized and institutional to provide this violence-condoning
atmosphere. We can find informal men’s groups in workplaces, college
dorms, athletic teams, and corner bars, telling demeaning jokes about
women, calling them by animal names or the names of their genitals,
and these men rarely confront each other for fear of being attacked
or ostracized. There is an unconscious, implicit conspiracy in many
men’s groups to keep women in their place. What better way to do
it than by causing them to feel perpetually fearful of being physically
Men’s violence is the single most serious health problem for women
in the United States. It causes more harm than accidents, muggings,
and cancer combined. For women aged 15-44, an estimated 50% of emergency
room visits are the result of violence at the hands of their husbands,
boyfriends, ex-husbands, or ex-boyfriends. Every year male partners
or ex-partners murder more than 1000 women – that’s about
3 per day. It happens so often that people don’t even pay attention
to it. When a stranger murders someone, the story is on the front
page of the metro section. If it’s an intimate, it’s at the bottom
of page 4. A stranger rape always makes the papers; an acquaintance
rape never does unless the rapist is somebody famous. The two most
frequent crimes against women are largely invisible to the media.
We expect it so much that we don’t even notice it.
I want to point out that I chose my words very carefully there
I very intentionally did not say “when a person is murdered by a
stranger.” Maybe it’s just because I’m a college professor, but I
am an absolute believer in the power of language, and there is some
everyday language that smuggles in prejudices against women and contributes
to the cultural atmosphere that enables gender-based violence. I
have 5 examples.
The first is the one I just pointed out – passive voice – 1000
women are murdered. The victim, not the perpetrator, is the subject
of the sentence. When you see this language often enough, the perpetrator
becomes a kind of afterthought. Imagine if sportscasters talked like
this: “The score was tied when a three-point basket was scored.”
“Many dollars were earned.” Wouldn’t everyone ask, “Who did it? Who
Example #2: the use of the term “opposite sex” and the phrase “battle
of the sexes”. I challenge you to tell me one way in which the sexes
are opposite. Calling men and women opposites is like calling an
IBM computer the opposite of an Apple. And “battle of the sexes”
implies that men and women are at war. We will never solve this problem
until we work together and emphasize our commonalities rather than
I see research studies reported in the popular press – “a recent
study proves what we have suspected all along – that men’s and women’s
brains are different.” And what they do is find some infinitesimally
small portion of the brain that has some minor difference that accounts
for 5% of the variance in a population with wide variability, completely
ignoring the fact that men’s and women’s brains both have frontal
cortex, amygdalas, thalmuses, hypothalamuses, and on and on. And
at the end of the story, the anchorman on the news says, “Well, that
explains why I can’t understand my wife at all.” (If you can’t understand
your wife, I recommend the much-overlooked method of listening to
Example #3, when I tell people I’m a psychologist specializing
in gender-based violence, people always ask, when a man is beating
his wife, why does she stay with him? That’s question #2; they never
ask question #1: Why would a man hit his wife? Men’s violence is
considered to be a given, and women’s responses to that violence
are seen as choices. This subtly makes women responsible for the
Example #4: self-defense classes for women that are advertised
as “rape prevention.” Is it women’s job to prevent rape? Don’t get
me wrong – I’m all for women learning self-defense if they want to,
but let’s call it what it really is – risk reduction. It is men’s
responsibility to prevent rape.
Example #5 comes from the recent scandal over sexual assaults at
the Air Force Academy. It turns out that there numerous male cadets
who have sexually assaulted female cadets, and the men who run the
Academy intimidated survivors into keeping silent about it. The newspaper
stories said something like, 54 rapes occurred between male and female
cadets. I’m sorry – rapes do not occur between people. Does
a bank robbery occur between a robber and a teller? Does
vandalism occur between a kid with a can of spray paint and somebody’s
property? And here’s another flash of brilliance – in reaction to
the scandal, the head of the academy said that the problem was that
men and women live in the same residence hall and that men would
see women walking down the hall in their bathrobes, and that he was
going to now have the men and women living in separate residence
halls. So, let’s get this straight: the problem is that men are raping
women and so the solution is to get rid of the women?! It’s a new
height in victim-blaming. I know I get out of control when I see
a woman in a bathrobe. How does that work, physiologically? Prostate
exerts pressure on the spinal cord, cutting off oxygen to the brain?
And, newspapers reported the Air Force problem as a “sex scandal.”
I would submit that the victims were not having sex, and we could
also argue that the perpetrators were not either.
When we see gender-based violence, women-hating is just around
the corner. Therefore, if we can turn this attitude around, we can
go a long way toward solving this problem. And, the people who are
in the best position to do so are men -- we have the social
status, power, and privilege. We can speak out and affect the attitudes
of our fellow men. Just as white people have a special role to play
in ending racism, rich people have a special role to play in ending
economic inequality, and heterosexuals have a special role to play
in ending homophobia, it is vitally important that we, as men of
conscience, take seriously our role in ending sexual violence.
In the locker room at the vodka challenge that day, I’m betting
that there was at least one man who was uncomfortable with this ice
sculpture, just as there is when someone hires a stripper for a bachelor
party or makes a woman the butt of a joke. It’s not unlikely that
more than one man felt this way. But nobody spoke up because each
man feels that he may be the only one, and taking on the collective
opinion of the rest of the group can leave him out in the cold. There
is tremendous pressure to laugh along with the boys or at least not
say anything. It would have taken tremendous courage for a man to
stand up and say, even matter-of-factly, “That ice sculpture is really
offensive; what could you have been thinking? Why don’t we just get
rid of it before we’re all embarassed? We can have just as much fun
without it.” And it’s ironic to me that courage is supposed to be
a hallmark of masculinity, but there are so many men who find it
impossible to display this kind of courage. They would sooner run
into a burning building or have a fist fight. Men are also supposed
to be independent, but there is tremendous conformity in most all-male
peer groups, whether they are adults or younger men.
Social psychologists have known for a long time that one of the
biggest barriers to being able to disagree with a group is unanimity.
When the group opinion is unanimous and you don’t have an ally, the
pressure to conform is tremendous. But if even one person voices
a disagreement with the rest of the group, others are much more likely
to follow suit. There were probably several uncomfortable men in
that locker room that day. If one of them had spoken out, he might
have found that there was more support in the room than he had imagined.
But somebody has got to go first. Somebody has got to take a risk.
Someone has to be the leader. It’s masculine to take a risk, to be
a leader; why are so few of us doing it? The research indicates that
75% of college men are uncomfortable when their male peers display
these kinds of attitudes. Most men don’t like it; we need to let
other men know that we don’t.
Along with changing our attitudes toward women, we’ve also got
to change our attitudes toward ourselves. For several years, I have
been involved in efforts to fight the alarming prevalence of sexual
assault on college campuses. When this problem was first identified
in the 1970s, colleges began to provide self-defense training, teach
women how to avoid dangerous situations, and provide better lighting
and emergency phones across the campus. Obviously, these are very
important measures. But, these kinds of strategies constituted the
basic extent of campus programming for about twenty years, and all
of these measures have one thing in common: they only address potential
victims. It is only been the last few years that people have begun
to try to do something about the potential perpetrators? Why did
it take us so long to come to this obviously important strategy?
I think it is the pervasive perception boys will be boys and the
only thing we can do is to wait until they commit a crime, and then
put them in jail. Some still consider rape an act of male sexuality
gone awry, rather than an act of violence. But we know different,
just as we know that if a person hits another person over the head
with a frying pan, we don’t call that cooking.
If men’s violent behavior is perceived as an unchangeable constant,
then violence toward women is a women’s issue, never a men’s issue.
“Boys will be boys” not only provides a measure of excuse for violence
against women, it is a very disrespectable attitude toward men,
as if we are animals, with absolutely no control over ourselves.
And again, there’s an irony here. Self-control is another hallmark
of traditional masculinity, but aggression and sexuality are considered
to be completely out of control -- a man’s gotta do what
a man’s gotta do. I want men to have more dignity than that. I saw
this book title recently, “All men are jerks until proven otherwise.”
It made me sad – and I also realized, how am I ever going to prove
what I’m not? Maybe I was a nice guy today, but who knows what’s
going to happen tomorrow. It’s a sad state of affairs when so many
men have behaved so irresponsibly that the rest of us have to carry
the burden of understandable suspicion from women.
So, besides becoming more respectful toward women, we have to regain
our self-respect. We are human beings who are capable of
caring for others. We are not animals who lash out instinctively,
poisoned by testosterone.
Violence against women is a men’s issue, and men have to take
a leadership role in building a more positive male community. A man’s
gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Thanks to those of you who have been
doing this work.