By Stephen Burrell
Sexual violence is endemic at our universities. One of the things It Happens Here fights for is recognition of this fact – that it does happen here, at university, in Durham. However, if it is hard for us to accept that so many female students have experienced sexual violence, it is seemingly even harder for us to acknowledge that many male students are perpetrating these acts. Yet we cannot hope to tackle the problem if we do not recognise and confront this hushed reality. What’s more, the sheer pervasiveness of sexual violence at university means that we are not just talking about a few pathological, deviant ‘monsters’ – no matter how much easier it might be to think of perpetrators of sexual violence in this way. No, the extent to which sexual violence is perpetrated at university not only means that these are normalised experiences for women, but that they are also normalised acts, committed by normal men.
So how can it be that so many young men think it is acceptable to sexually assault, harass, abuse, and rape women? I think it is in no small part because that is the message given by the society in which we live. And we as men have to recognise that this is particularly true in the cultures we share with other men. If we look closely at ourselves, consider the things that we do and say in our everyday lives, and ask ourselves how we may have helped to create a context where sexual violence is tolerated, then how many of us can honestly say that we have never played any part in that? This can be in acts which might seem small and insignificant. It could be laughing at a joke about rape, or objectifying women among friends, or joining in with sexist assertions about women in academia as ‘banter’, or encouraging predatory behaviour towards women on a night out, or unthinkingly repeating myths around sexual violence which minimise the crime or blame the victim, for example. It can often be simply not doing or saying anything at all; staying silent when confronted with sexism or misogyny, and leaving it unchallenged. By staying silent, we are complicit in the epidemic of sexual violence, because we are helping to maintain a situation where this violence is legitimised among men, and signalling that we are fine with that. No matter how big or small they may seem, no matter how insignificant we think they may be, our actions and inactions always have consequences, whether we know about them or not. However, this also applies when we challenge the everyday perpetuation of this culture. So, if we as men refuse to participate in the condoning of sexual violence which takes place on our campuses, if we speak out against the violence that is being perpetrated by men towards women all around us, the reverberations can go further than we might realise, in opening up possibilities for change.
Clearly, sexual violence cannot simply be dismissed by men as a ‘women’s issue’. The idea that this is not something which concerns men is a bit like saying that climate change is an issue for the planet, and not for the humans who have caused it. It concerns us, first and foremost because sexual violence is not only perpetrated predominantly by men, but also because men create a culture among ourselves which makes it possible. This is a culture in which women are routinely dehumanised through sexism, objectification, and misogyny, and violence by men against women is dismissed, joked about, excused, and encouraged. And it also concerns us because we have the power to challenge that culture, and play a positive role in proactively standing up and saying that the status quo of everyday sexism, misogyny, violence and abuse by men towards women is not okay, that these acts are not carried out in our name, and that we refuse to stay silent or continue to condone them.
This is not something which can be limited to one group of men. There are so many things each of us can do, and in the university setting, every man has a vital part to play. It doesn’t matter if we are undergraduates, postgraduates, academics or staff, each one of us can help to bring about change. This doesn’t just mean lending support to It Happens Here – although of course, that would be great. It should also mean, for example, challenging the next misogynistic joke or sexist comment that you encounter. And listening to women when they talk about their experiences, rather than immediately dismissing, disagreeing or disbelieving them because what they say doesn’t fit into your view of the world. And questioning ideas about what it means to be a man in our society, and why so many of those ideas seem to involve not treating women with respect, as equals. And intervening when a friend appears to be making somebody feel uncomfortable or pressured. But it has to go much further, too. At every level, from policy through to the day-to-day interactions which make up our lives, radical change is needed if we are serious about tackling sexual violence at university and beyond. Men can play an important part in that, and men have a responsibility to make that change happen in our relations with one another.
This must begin closest to home, with ourselves. The point many feminists have long made that the personal is political could not be more relevant here. As men, we have to carefully and constantly look at our own assumptions and behaviours, and think truthfully about how they may help to reinforce, or challenge, the ways in which sexual violence is viewed and legitimised in our society. Everything we do in our personal lives also has political consequences, and it is primarily through interpersonal, everyday interactions between men that the legitimisation of sexual violence is perpetuated. This is not inevitable. But it will need men to stand up, individually and collectively, and refuse to be silent about this anymore, for change to happen. University should be a place which is welcoming, fun, and inspiring for everyone. Every student should be able to feel safe, and no woman should have to fear sexual violence. Every one of us as men has to take responsibility for the part we play in allowing the legitimisation of sexual violence to persist, and each of us has to take responsibility not to be complicit in that any longer – and to be part of the struggle towards a world where sexual violence no longer exists.