DISCLAIMER: This post is rooted in a feminist/pro-feminist analysis, and as a result, it may lead readers to assume certain things about me politically and personally (e.g. that I am living, have lived, and will continue to live a responsible, pro-feminist lifestyle). The fact is, I committed a crime in January 2007, sexually violating a woman who was under my care as a resident advisor in college. I ask that you keep this information in mind when evaluating my comments in this post, as well as if you engage me in dialogue. Please read this post (listed as “Because you deserve to know” on the “ARCHIVES” page) for more information.
In a recent editorial published in UMD’s student newspaper, A.J. Cooke describes the University Health Center’s recent media campaign against men’s violence featuring the slogan “Man up. Get consent.” The thinking behind this campaign, of course, is that rape is not merely an act of violence, but a particular type of violence that asserts male dominance over women. And naturally, since men are the ones doing the raping, assaulting, and plundering of all-things-female, it makes sense that they be responsible for resolving this injustice. Long story short, we could provide self-defense classes, pepper spray canisters, and “date rape drug test kits” (whatever those are) to every woman in the world, and that would not stop rape. In fact, by placing the burden of prevention on women (and giving men a free ride), the problem would likely escalate.
While I dislike the slogan for reasons already mentioned by Twisty – namely that whole business of trying to repair the damage of a corrupt system (gender) by reinforcing it (i.e. redefining manhood when frankly, manhood as a concept is the problem), and of course, oversimplifying consent – I value its emphasis on men’s responsibility for change. And really, it’s a slogan. I don’t expect it to be perfect, clear-cut, free from multiple interpretations, and without ideological hang-ups. It’s simple, direct, and as Twisty pointed out, has a clear mission – “to get rapists to cut it the fuck out already.”
Cooke, on the other hand, identified the slogan and the corresponding media campaign as “staggeringly insensitive,” stereotyping all men as “potential rapists” and “monsters.” To make his point, Cooke argues that you would not tell your doctor not to use an AIDS-infected needle when administering a flu shot. True, though it’s not a bad idea to ask about things of this nature – and any doctor well-versed in professional ethics would address such questions and concerns with respect. On the other hand, I’m not sure if this example really pertains to a discussion of rape. Are doctors targeting women (or any other group in society) as a class and getting their jollies by infecting them with AIDS? Are we living in a culture in which doctors routinely fantasize about giving patients AIDS? Are there mainstream magazines, films, internet sites, and other media specifically catered to doctors who wish to see this disturbing fantasy acted out? Well, of course not. However, any doctor who was so inclined could find similar themes of exploitation represented in mainstream pornography.
Despite his admitted self-centeredness in the article, Cooke is familiar with rape prevention strategies. He makes several positive references to the “One in Four” program created by John Foubert that, according to Cooke, is not so “confrontational” (as compared to the work of other pro-feminist (or “anti-sexist” *sighs*) men such as Jackson Katz and Byron Hurt. This raises a lot of developmental questions about reaching men where they are, speaking their language, and of course, being careful not to feed into men’s defensiveness on sensitive matters. For the moment, I would like to bypass those questions, not because they are irrelevant or insignificant to this discussion, but simply because they ought to be preceded by a much more basic philosophical point that Cooke misses altogether.
If we are serious about rape prevention – in other words, not rape avoidance, defense, or something along those lines – we need to begin with where rape begins, in men’s decisions to assert dominance over women through sexuality. Ultimately we are talking about subverting patriarchy as a system, but of course, it is largely men’s choices that maintain that system. We are talking about taking rape away from men, along with their unearned advantages in this society, and of course, their unjust (as if there were any other kind) dominance over women. If a public health campaign adopts a feminist mission and men are offended, upset, frustrated, ashamed, or angry, then we are doing our job.
Now, since I recognize that is not an encouraging message for anti-violence educators (and I’m speaking as one), perhaps I ought to state the obvious – men’s anger at feminism, or any other movement that strives for peace and justice, is not our fault, and by the same token, it is not our responsibility to ease or resolve. What we can do, however, particularly those of us who are pro-feminist male educators (since male audiences seem to get so excited and attentive when a speaker has a penis), is help men frame the problem and direct their anger in ways that are productive. In Cooke’s editorial, more confusing than his mention of “date rape drug testing kits” is simply the tone of his remarks. As several commenters asked, why so defensive? If asking men, who are rather notorious for violence and abuse (in all sorts of social arenas, including the bedroom), to establish consent is so offensive, if it harms this precious self-concept you have of yourself, then what do you want? What do you expect women to do that will get you to pay attention to men’s violence and do something about it?
In my work with men and through my own critical reflection, I have become very familiar with a paradox of power. Simply put, men have a great deal of control in our society – and could, for instance, stop rape. As the old Penn State urinal cake saying goes, “You hold the power to stop rape in your hands.” And seriously, guys, you really do. But while women are the primary victims of what we could aptly describe as male terrorism, men and boys are also harmed. Ingrained in them, and in all of us, is a fear of men. So, while I do not presume to know exactly what Cooke was thinking when he wrote his article, I imagine he was concerned, as I am, about the idea of being feared (and thereby losing any chance at meaningful relationships with other people). Without those relationships, without a feeling of genuine connection and engagement, men are likely to find a false sense of empowerment in domination. And my gosh, think about all the opportunities. There is the more traditional “violent brute” approach, the postmodern “sexism makes me laugh, so I don’t have to take it seriously,” and of course, Cooke’s selection, the “I’m right , you’re wrong, and I get angry when feminists encourage me to think.”
There are alternative approaches, on the other hand. Not different models of what it means to be a “real man,” mind you, but really provocative ideas about what it means to be human. I recommend them highly. When faced with a message that challenges men’s violence, rather than reacting defensively (or, as Cooke does, dismiss a worthwhile campaign for not being effective without clarifying what, in his opinion, would be), we can call into question our own attitudes and behaviors about gender, sexuality, and power. As men, rather than merely checking off “did not rape today” on your checklist for moral conduct, perhaps we ought to think about what we have done to empower women and girls in ways that treated them genuinely as human beings. And along the way, let’s consider what we have done to confront sexism among male peers. Finally, what have we done to put a stop to the pornographers’ assault on women and a rape culture that systematically turns women into fuck objects?
In the simplest of terms, there are good and bad ways to organize anti-violence campaigns, just as there are good and bad ways to evaluate them. But if we merely sit back and criticize, generate no meaningful alternatives, and ignore our own potential – and indeed, our responsibility – to make change, then we are likely to get nowhere very quickly.