Parents send their daughters into the world with pepper spray and panic button apps, rape whistles and well-intentioned warnings. Unattended drinks. Short skirts. Revealing tops. Reckless drinking. High heels that inhibit the ability to run away. Sending the wrong signals. Sensing bad situations. Deserted parking lots. Unknown delivery guys. Entitled fraternity brothers. Aggressive Uber drivers. Dark walks home.
All are meant to prevent the sexual assault that women are taught to anticipate and expected to prevent.
The same parents send their sons off with a box of condoms and a wry nudge.
“By teaching women to prevent rape more than we teach men not to rape in the first place, we treat rape as something that’s normal and expected,” Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and survivor of sexual assault, wrote in a 2013 Ebony article. “… The underlying belief here is that rape is a normal part of life, and if you don’t protect yourself from it, then you deserve it. When people ask questions like, ‘What was she doing there?’ or ‘How drunk was she?’, they imply that rape is expected in certain situations. These questions normalize rape and blame the victims for the actions of their perpetrators. In order to end rape, we have to change the culture in how we treat women and girls.”
Plenty of men agree, and take the sentiment a huge step further.
“Ending rape starts with men, and with the parents of boys,” writes Larry Harris, Jr. in HuffPost.com.
“We are teaching people that boys/men are natural aggressors who always want sex and that the onus is on girls/women to keep boys’/men’s unrelenting urges in check,” says psychologist Christin Bowman.
Violence against women is just as much a men’s issue that requires real men to stand up against it and to stop the attitudes and jokes that normalize it, says Jackson Katz, whose gender violence prevention program is used by the U.S. military and elite athletic teams.
In 2011, such “sexualized jokes” prompted Yale University to suspend its chapter of Delta Kau Epsilon fraternity for five years after a viral video showed pledges shouting pro-rape chants of, “No Means Yes, and Yes Means Anal.”
Can we fix the problem?
It starts with parenting. With fatherhood. With positive male role models who are seen to treat women with respect and to speak out against jokes and attitudes that reinforce the stereotype that men are inherently entitled to sex.
National programs such as Men Can Stop Rape are changing the conversation and rewriting the rules about rape.
Here in the Florida Keys, social worker Billy Davis has launched the Southernmost Fatherhood Initiative that aims to end the cycle of absent or abusive fathers. The program is designed for fathers who are in jail and those who aren’t. It covers anger issues, respect for women as their children’s mother, modeling positive behavior and recognizing the traits in their own father that they’re often mirroring, Davis said.
“This all starts with holding men accountable for their actions, attempted assaults and entitled expectations, Simcha Fisher writes in her 2018 essay, “When Do Girls Matter?”
Fisher points to the high-profile example of Brock Turner, the Stanford University student and “gifted swimmer,” who was convicted of three sexual assault and misconduct felonies in 2016. Two eyewitnesses saw and stopped Turner’s rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a fraternity party. He faced up to 14 years in prison. Prosecutors asked for six years. Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to six months in county jail, fearing a harsh prison would jeopardize Turner’s bright future. The judge made no mention of how Turner’s attack would impact the victim or her future. (Turner ended up serving only three months of his six-month sentence.)
“When grown men [like Judge Persky] tell teenage boys that a smattering of attempted rape is normal, expected, excusable behavior; that all boys do something like this because they’re still developing…,” Fisher writes, “they’re educating a whole new generation in the uses and abuses of the bodies and psyches of girls and women, for the sake of men …. Think about what you’re implying when you are willing to wave away accusations of rape and attempted rape. Think about what you’re telling girls about what they’re for. Think about what you’re telling boys about what they’re for. Think about what you’re telling victims about what they’re worth. Think about how you’re talking about these things. Think about who is listening.”
The rules are changing
The approach to, attitude toward and prosecution of sexual violence against women is maddeningly unfair, inaccurate and skewed in favor of the perpetrator, particularly elite and powerful political perpetrators, celebrities, star athletes and fraternity brothers from wealthy families, states a 2018 article in The Atlantic that criticizes the all-too-familiar boys-being-boys defense, which normalizes rape.
“What red-blooded guy, after all, its logic assumes, hasn’t done, in some way, the kinds of things described? Who, as a younger version of himself, hasn’t gotten stumble-drunk, pinned down a woman, groped her, tried to undress her, and then, when she resisted, held his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams?”
But, (and here’s the hopeful part), The Atlantic article states, “As women raise their voices, demand to be heard, and command change and justice, men … get scared as their male privilege is threatened. …men might start having consequences for their actions.”
Plenty of men, most men, in fact, feel differently.
The Turner case, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and the #MeToo movement are lessons for men that “rules have changed” as a new normal for their behavior emerges, Katz says. “I always say that boys and men can rise to our expectations or sink to them. We are raising our expectations.”
Many college campuses and athletic organizations are supplementing their sexual violence prevention efforts with lessons aimed not just at women, but at potential perpetrators. Such programs increasingly educate men and women on the concept of legal consent.
“What if, instead of just the absence of ‘no,’ an enthusiastic ‘yes’ was required as a standard for sexual consent?” writes author Jaclyn Friedman. “The men and boys in your life should want for their partner to be not merely submissive, but excited at the idea of having sex. Let them know you don’t want a girl to ‘give it up,’ you want a mutually enjoyable experience that both parties went into willingly.”
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