men, masculinities and gender politics

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Redefining consent

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Speech to Take Back The Night, Madison, April 26, 2003.

Good evening.

I’d like to thank you all for coming out tonight. I’d like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to speak; it’s an opportunity I don’t take lightly, I recognize it as a priviledge, and I will endeavor to keep my comments brief.

I’d like to give an extra thank you to the men gathered here tonight. I’m giving an extra thank you to men, because the culture at large gives men every excuse to not be here. We have been told that sexual assault isn’t our problem.

Sexual assault, domestic violence, these have historically been women’s issues – which in my understanding of American culture translates into women’s responsibility. The logic goes like this: "Women are the victims, in other words, women are the ones doing the complaining, so women are the ones who need to do something about it". This too often translates into women need to watch what they wear, watch what they say, and watch what they drink.

This kind of attitude is misleading, let alone offensive. First of all, this belies the fact that there are male survivors as well. And secondly, absent from the dialogue is any examination of the behavior of men. Men who perpetrate assault often are assumed to be guilty of nothing more than being caught in the act of being a regular guy. As the popular saying goes: “boys will be boys”.
While it’s true that sexual assault is not about sex but about power, it’s also true that this power-centered behavior has become normalized, acceptable in fact, so that it’s become integrated with the sexuality of the culture at large. Many men don’t see their behavior as assault at all, even when it is.

Rudimentary examination of the statistics will show that the overwhelming amount of violence being perpetrated, regardless of the gender of the victim, is perpetrated by males. You bet this is our issue, too, fellas.

The sheer number of women, children and men assaulted means that the likelihood is high that men will have a significant other, wife, partner, daughter, mother, friend or student in their lives who is a survivor. Each of us already does even if we don't know it. If this is so, why haven’t more men recognized that this their problem, too?

Many of my female friends and associates have asked me over the years “why don’t men get it?” Truth be told, I don’t fully understand why many men don’t get it either. But then again I’ve been working on this stuff for twelve years now, and I’m just getting some of it, finally. And that, thanks mainly to a large contingent of male and female friends who have helped me navigate the sometimes confusing waters of masculinity, gender, and culture, and I continue to work at it everyday.

The difficult thing is that most men have a hard time understanding the women’s movement. Men often mistake it as an attack on their biology. They can not separate a feminist critique of "the system of patriarchy” from a criticism of themselves as men.

One of the reasons this is true is that historically, men's issues have been absent from rape prevention education programs. Don’t take that as a criticism of the womens’ movement -- they’ve had their hands full responding to the crisis at hand. As we stand here today we have laws on the books, we have crisis centers, we have the SANE program and trainings for law enforcement and self-defense training for women and we have events like this - all very valuable tools, and faught for and hard won by those that came before us.
If as a community we want to truly end violence, we need to go the extra step, and that means getting more men to realize that this is their cause too.

It has been said that if men could get pregnant, maternity leave would last two years; there are variations on that, but I won’t recite the whole list for you here tonight. It’s one of those gems that’s both funny and true at the same time. I bring it up because it is sometimes true that to get people to change, even if you feel that you are right and they are wrong, you have to make them see the good in the change for them. I don’t mean that you compromise what you’re doing for them -- I mean you have to help them understand how what you’re doing is silmultaneously good for them.

To put it another way, allow me to draw upon the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from that o-so-famous speech from years ago. Like most people, I suspect, I have always been more than familiar with the “dream” portion of the speech; but this past MLK Day, I had occasion to hear the speech in its entirety, and a portion of it had special resonance for me. Dr. King was referring to tensions between fractions within the civil rights movement, and said that the work for freedom “must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

For increased inclusion of men into violence prevention efforts to work, we need to educate them about consent. Real consent.
We're still missing the mark when it comes to teaching consent. We have heard "No means No", and I think we're finally clueing in on "Yes means Yes" - in other words that the absence of a "No" is not in itself consent. But the problem is that we are still stuck in the old paradigm. It's still based on the idea of permission: there is this line that once crossed can't be un-crossed, and the woman is just going to have to live with the consequences of her actions (emphasis HER actions). As a culture, we still blame male arousal on women.

This is made worse because “no means no” is really not the issue; it’s that we continue to tell men that a real man can get a woman to say “yes”. It’s practically our job when you consider that we know how shamed women are taught to be about their bodies and about sex in general. It’s 2003, and we still have no positive words for a sexually active woman. We’ve got several hundred negative terms.

We need a new paradigm of consent, that says, clearly, without any question: consent means one thing -- no one, no one has sovereignty over this [my body] but me; twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Period. End of story. There is nothing I can do or say that revokes or forfeits that.

This newer paradigm of consent not only avoids assault by recognizing the sexual agency of each participant, but also (as if we needed loftier goals than ending violence), opens the door to deeper, more trusting, more loving, more enjoyable relationships.

So, what do we do? What can we do? What must we do? How do we get more men to understand that concept?

First and foremost, we must learn to listen more. If you are in a committed relationship, it is never too late to initiate a conversation about consent -- about how safe your time together is for both of you, and about what each person's wants, needs, and expectations are. We must learn to listen to victims and survivors more. If a friend confides in you about an experience, listen and believe. Offer support, encouragement, give information - numbers for local rape crisis centers or on-campus counseling. Offer suggestions - don't give orders.

For us guys, you’ve done the first step by being here. Some of you are here perhaps because you’re survivors; others because you witnessed violence in the home you grew up in; others are here alongside survivors that are significant others. Thank you for doing this; but...

It’s important to get out there and start talking to other men. Learn to support one another, listen to one another, challenge one another.

If you are new to this issue, your timing is perfect; there’s never been a better time to get involved. If you are a student on the UW Campus, check out PAVE or MMD; you have the virtue of having a new dean of students who is committed to this issue - if you haven’t heard Loulou Hong speak yet you will momentarily and you’re in for a real treat - and you have Lori Henn and the staff at the UW Health Services increasing the visibilty and outreach on date rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. If you are a student at Edgewood College, Pete Meagher has initiated a range of programs including a Peer Educator Program; Edgewood students were very instrumental in putting together this rally; and Edgewood and UW have also both put their money where their mouth is, providing funds for this event.

If you’re in the Madison community, I encourage you to get in touch with Men Stopping Rape; we facilitate discussions in the community, and every so often offer the opportunity to be trained to go out and present workshops to young boys and men. I have been doing this work for twelve years. I have gone into college classrooms, dorms, high schools, drug rehab programs, community centers and juvenile detention centers. The work has been fascinating, terrifying, and amazing. It has never been dull.
So in closing, what it comes down to is this, guys: this is not our night. This is not our night, but this is our issue too; it is our problem too; and we must make it our cause too.

Thank you.