men, masculinities and gender politics

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When it comes to violence against women, “the passivity of good men” is an atrocity. And we should be ashamed.

 

This week saw the launch of One Billion Rising, a global effort to end violence against women and girls everywhere it occurs. (Which is pretty much everywhere). The campaign was launched by Eve Ensler, the amazing writer and activist, and the author of the brilliant (and most decidedly non-seminal ) play The Vagina Monologues. And to this day Ensler continues to do amazing work worldwide to try end violence against women and children.

And as if to underline the critical need for an end to violence against women, on the same day that One Billion Rising was launched we also saw the arrest of the world-famous South African Olympic and Paralympic “bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius for the brutal murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

It’s true that most men don’t murder their wives or girlfriends. But it’s just as true that most men aren’t doing much to help to end the violence, either. And that’s shameful.

Last year, as Ensler prepared to launch the One Billion Rising project, she published a piece called “Over It” about how she was “over” rape, and about the critical need for a worldwide endeavor to end this scourge.

And in that piece she wrote:

I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you?

You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, brother us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren't you standing with us? Why aren't you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of us? (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eve-ensler/over-it_b_1089013.html )

Reading those words a year ago made me feel angry. And it still does.

But I’m not angry because I disagree with Ensler. Not at all. In fact, I actually couldn’t agree more with what she wrote. And when I think about the implications of her words, I am frustrated. I am disgusted. I am grief stricken. And I am angry.

I think Ensler asks a hell of a question. And it’s a complex one. But I think it deserves an answer. So let’s break it down:

“The passivity of good men” is the term Ensler uses. That’s a pretty damning phrase. And the worst part about it? It’s all too true, for the vast majority of us. Most of us men are good. But most men are not involved even one iota in trying to make this a good and just and fair world for women (if we even support such a vision). And even most of the men who actually do voice support for women’s equality are quite content to let women try to get there by themselves.

Even most of us “civic minded men,” who are highly active in our communities, in our faith organizations, and within our extended families, are totally uninvolved in the struggle to end violence against women.

We’ll coach your daughter’s soccer team on Saturday afternoon. We’ll roast hot dogs for her church youth group picnic. We’ll even help your family build a fence or change the oil. But we won’t do one damn thing to help your daughter to be one bit safer when she goes out on a date or heads off to a party later that night. When it comes to trying to prevent the male violence she will almost certainly be threatened with at some point in her life, we are totally passive. Silent.

Which of course raises the question: just how “good” are we, really? Do we even deserve to be thought of as “good” when we remain so passive, doing nothing?

“Where the hell are you?” Ensler asks. I’ll tell ya where we are. Sometimes we’re working. Or in school. And when we’re not at work or in school, we’re gaming on our computers. We’re watching sports on t.v. We’re mowing the lawn. We’re playing basketball or hockey with the boys. We’re hanging out. We’re surfing the net. We’re watching porn. We’re carousing with our friends. We’re eating at some restaurant. We’re at the bar. We’re at a strip joint. We’re getting drunk. We’re getting high. We’re asleep on the couch.

Some of us (albeit still far too few of us) are doing chores around the house or rocking the baby to sleep.

But we sure as hell aren’t actively working to end rape.

Okay, a few of us are. Probably something like 1 in 10,000 men is actually doing something to try to end the problem of men’s violence against women. I initially wanted to say that 1 in a 1,000 men is actively doing something about this issue (a pathetically small one tenth of one percent). But even that number is too high. It would mean that in a city of 100,000 people (approximately ½ of whom are men ), there would be 50 men actively engaged on a regular basis working on this issue. And that’s just not the case. It’s probably more like 5. If that.

So, at most, 1 man in 10,000 is working hard to end something that brutalizes 1 in 4 women. And that is truly pitiful.

Where the hell are we? We’re in a lot of places. But we’re not standing with Ensler or with other anti-rape activists. We simply haven’t shown up.

You live with us, Ensler notes. Yes, yes we do. And at least one-in-four women has experienced sexual assault. And if we widen the lens some to include experiencing any form of sexual aggression (sexual harassment, offensive catcalls on the street, leering, groping, unwanted sexual comments, men staring at her body parts or exposing themselves in front of her, calling her sexualized names, etc.) then it’s pretty close to every single woman who is experiencing this kind of mistreatment. And most of us guys are doing nothing about it. We are doing nothing to reduce the level of sexualized abuse.

We guys, it turns out, are pretty crappy housemates.

You make love with us, Ensler says. And yes many of us do. (And somehow, despite all of this sexually abusive behavior that gets heaped on women, most women still find a way to embrace a sexual existence. One that even often includes us men.)

Most men like to have sex with women. But if we really love women, we should care a lot more about women’s experiences of sexuality in general – and not just in the bedroom. We need to care about what happens in women’s daily lives that might negatively impact their sense of themselves as sexual beings. Sexual harassment causes trauma. Being called sexually abusive names causes trauma. Having a man expose himself to you causes trauma. Being sexually traumatised causes sexual trauma. Being made to feel like a whore or a slut causes trauma. Being shamed for being sexual causes trauma.

And we men who make love with women have a duty to work toward the creation of a society that provides space for the safe exploration and experience of female sexuality. One that does not objectify, violate, brutalize, or dehumanize. We need to create a world that is safe for our lovers.

You father us. Yes, we do. Despite the advances of technology, every human being on the planet is still the result of the meeting of a sperm cell and an egg. And most kids have a father (either biological or adoptive) that they know – or at least knew at one time. And whether or not we men who are fathers are still romantically involved with the mother of our children, we still owe it to our daughters to work for a world where they will never face the threat of rape. Or harassment. Or assault.

And we owe it to our sons to build a world where those things don’t happen to them, either.

And we also owe it to our sons to ensure that they themselves do not become the sort of men who perpetrate these horrible behaviors – because if nothing changes in the way we currently raise our boys, then we are raising among them the rapists of the next generation.

You befriend us. Yes, we do. But I sometimes think we are pretty crappy friends. Because what kind of true friend sits idly by while his female friends daily have to face a world that holds within it the very real threat of sexual aggression and harassment? Guys, which one of our friends would you single out to have to run this gauntlet of abuse? Because that’s exactly what we are doing when we do nothing to end it.

You brother us. A lot of brothers become fierce protectors when their sisters face imminent threat. But here is the deal – the piece we haven’t yet put together – that our sisters face imminent threat of sexualized abuse nearly every day. From misogynist males on the street. From the guy at the bar. From men who stare at them in dehumanizing ways. Some of our sisters face this kind of abuse from their very own husbands. As brothers to these women, we owe it to them to intervene in this situation.

You get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us. Most of us do. Most of us have received incredibly generous support from women. Most of us got this from our mothers. But even those of us who didn’t have still found a supportive ear, a helping hand, from women. From the people who changed our diapers. Who dried our tears. Who taught us to read. Who showed us love. We owe it to the women who have nurtured us – be in it their personal or professional roles – to build a world that treats them well. We owe them a debt. It is time to repay it. We need to help build a better world for women.

So why aren’t you standing with us? Well, excuses for male’s lack of involvement that I have heard include:

I don’t know what to do. Well figure it out, man! You weren’t born knowing how to ride a bike, or how to read and write, but most of you figured it out! You can learn how to do new things!

I don’t want to do the wrong thing. Well ask, dammit! And try to do something, at least! If you are doing something wrong, women will let you know. And if you find out that you are doing something wrong, then try to do something different. We men are incredibly creative and resourceful beings.

When we want to be.

The feminists are mean to me. Well boo freakin’ hoo! Not everyone is gonna love you. Put on your big boy underwear and deal with it. And if you continually find that feminists are pissed off at you, chances are you are acting in ways that demean women. As the saying goes: “If you feel attacked by feminism, it’s probably a counterattack!”

So suck it up, get with the program, and do something to end violence against women, dammit!

Why aren't you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of us? Ensler asks. I can only answer for myself here:

I am!

I am driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of women. How can I not be? The knowledge that women are being beaten, being assaulted, being raped, being brutalized makes me mad, in both senses of the term. It makes me feel incredibly angry. And it makes me feel crazy. It enrages me and it fills me with grief.

It is madness. It is madness that we men continue to accept the unacceptable: the existence of a world where men rape our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, our friends, our partners!

So, if I may pick up on Eve Ensler’s challenge, and be perhaps even a little bit stronger:

Men! The time has come for us to get our heads out of our books, out of our television sets, out of our computer games, out of our porn – out of our asses – and join the global struggle against violence against women!

Our inaction is shameful.