Men's Violence Against Women

by Christopher Kilmartin

 

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 a woman.

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 attacked?

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 is responsible?" 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 our differences. 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 her). 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 violence. 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.