Men have a responsibility to stop sexual violence. Yet for many of us, it may seem like something which has little relevance to our lives – we are taught by society that sexual violence is not something for men to care about or bother ourselves with. However, the truth is we should be the ones who care about it most of all – first and foremost because in the vast majority of cases sexual violence is perpetrated by men. So if you think that all forms of sexual violence are unacceptable, that is not enough. This is not just a series of isolated incidents being perpetrated by a small number of pathological men – it is something which is pervasive throughout society, including at university, and it is enabled by the cultures we create with one another. To stop sexual violence then, we each need to play a part in transforming those cultures and society as a whole.
So how can individual men go about doing this? When Annie Clark and Andrea Pino from End Rape on Campus spoke at Durham a few weeks ago, they powerfully described how ‘everyday activism’ is needed to fight sexual violence. In tribute to the 16 Days of Activism which It Happens Here is engaging in, here are 16 examples of everyday activism which we as men need to be engaging in if we are going to tackle sexual violence and its causes.
- Be aware of your own behaviour and how it impacts upon others.
It is tempting to disassociate ourselves from those ‘other’ men who commit rape. But this prevents us from critically examining our own behaviour and reflecting on the oppressive or harmful impacts it may have upon others, and how it may link to the wider cultural legitimisation of sexual violence. Sexual violence is a continuum, with each act reinforcing one another – for example, catcalling or objectifying women may seem relatively innocuous compared to rape, but think about how these different acts connect with and support one another. As men we need to carefully analyse how things we do may make women and others feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or unequal, and how we can go about changing that behaviour.
- Help make spaces you inhabit inclusive for everyone.
Something which we as men can often be unaware of is how we dominate space and how society says that it is acceptable for us to do so. For example, think of a bar – how often do men dominate these spaces, through our bodies, our voices, our actions? How might that make other people using that space feel? It is therefore important to be mindful of how, consciously or not, we might be exerting dominance in different environments, why we feel the need to do that, and how we can behave differently to make them more inclusive and welcoming for everyone. Violence and abuse are the ultimate acts of dominance, and power and control is at the core of sexual violence – as well as more subtle acts of domination.
- Challenge your peers.
You might be completely against sexual violence, but nothing will change unless we challenge the perspectives and actions of others too. Staying silent about the words and deeds of our peers is one of the main ways in which we as men can be complicit in sexual violence and its social sanctioning. We therefore have a duty to speak out and challenge the behaviour of other men, whether they seem to be making someone uncomfortable, or dominating space, or objectifying women for example. This could also mean intervening as a bystander to prevent an act of sexual violence being perpetrated, or a situation developing where it could take place. This can be tough, and sometimes it may not be safe to intervene (in which case, call the police). But in many cases, if you speak up you might be surprised about how many people support you, whilst it is through staying silent and doing nothing that sexual violence is perpetuated.
- Shut down rape myths and victim-blaming.
Have you ever noticed that so many of the victim-blaming ideas that are propagated around sexual violence carry pretty negative connotations about men – as if men’s behaviour is somehow uncontrollable? Men who use sexual violence against women choose to do so, and the only ones responsible for acts of sexual violence are those who perpetrate them. It is up to us as men more than anyone to make that clear, and to challenge our society’s obsession with the behaviour of victims, and its implication that men simply can’t help but commit sexual violence unless we police women’s behaviour in various ways.
- Join Yes All Men!
Some of us here in Durham have started a group called Yes All Men, as part of the Durham University Feminism Society. The name is based on the recognition that all men benefit from patriarchy, but all men can also be part of the solution, in terms of fighting for a more equal society. We formed the group in an attempt to play an active role in bringing about positive change, especially around issues such as men’s violence against women and sexual violence. We are eager for new members, so to get involved, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or Twitter. If you are not in Durham, why not start your own pro-feminist group, or support the White Ribbon Campaign?
- Support sexual violence organisations.
Organisations such as Rape Crisis carry out absolutely vital work in supporting survivors of sexual violence, yet these services are being decimated under the current government’s austerity programme. What does this say about our priorities as a society? Donating and raising money, for example for Durham and Darlington Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre, is therefore urgently needed. Even closer to home is of course It Happens Here – we are always looking for new members, and anyone can get involved! (To do so, email email@example.com.)
7 Question your motivations.
Taking action against sexual violence as a man does not warrant any special reward or praise – it is simply the basic, decent, human thing to do. Yet society heralds men as heroes simply for not raping women. We must demand so much more of ourselves and of each other. This includes questioning our motivations with every instance of everyday activism we engage in. Are we really doing it because it is the right thing to do, or because it might win us praise and attention?
- Counter sexist and misogynistic behaviour.
Acts of sexism and misogyny contribute to a culture in which women are dehumanised and seen as ‘less than’. This kind of dehumanisation makes sexual violence and other forms of men’s violence against women possible and culturally tolerated. Every instance of sexism and misogyny therefore helps to create a context in which sexual violence is legitimised, as well as maintaining power relations in which men dominate. As men, we therefore have a responsibility to challenge such behaviour wherever we encounter it, particularly among our male peers – whether it takes place in your lecture theatre or your flat kitchen.
- Take down rape jokes.
Jokes about sexual violence and other forms of men’s violence against women may seem trivial, but it is because they trivialise acts like rape that these ‘jokes’ are so harmful. They are a key way in which sexual violence is minimised, excused, and therefore legitimised within our society. Not to mention the impact they can have on the people around you, and the numerous other reasons why you should do anything but laugh next time you hear one. If the person making the ‘joke’ claims they are just having fun, then why is it they feel entitled to have fun at the expense of victims of sexual violence?
- Listen to women’s experiences.
If the statistics about sexual violence at university sound shocking to you, then maybe you need to listen more to the women around you, about how acts of sexual violence, harassment and abuse are so routinely directed at them by men. Sexual violence remains an issue which is largely ignored and dismissed by our society because on a structural level we do not take into account women’s lived experiences. Instead of getting defensive when women talk about their experiences in relation to sexual violence because they don’t fit with our own view of the world, we need to start listening and learning from women much, much more, both individually and structurally. This is also another reason why it is important to be mindful of dominating discussions as a man, for example.
- Support those around you.
Given the pervasiveness of sexual violence, it is quite likely that there are people in your life who have experienced it. It is therefore really important to think and learn about how you can support the people in your life if they are a victim-survivor of sexual violence and decide to make that known to you. This goes for your male friends too for example – whilst women make up the majority of victims of sexual violence, it is perpetrated against people of all genders – demonstrating that you are ready to listen, believe and support them could make a huge difference.
- Deconstruct male privilege and entitlement.
One of the most difficult things to come to terms with as a guy is how the pervasiveness of sexual violence privileges us as men. It is simply not something most of us have to worry about in our day to day realities in the ways that women do. Sexual violence, and the threat of it, constrains women’s lives and liberty in ways that most men do not have to deal with, which in turn advantages us in all sorts of ways. This then helps to reproduce the patriarchal society in which we live, and is just one of many manifestations of men’s power and privilege and women’s oppression. However, feeling guilty about this will not help anyone, and it is not as easy as simply disowning our privilege either. Instead, we need to reflect on ways in which we might unconsciously be acting to maintain that power, and use the privilege we have to try and make the world around us more equal and safe for everyone.
- Challenge institutions and organisations.
One way in which men can use the power and privilege that we have is to make the institutions and organisations we are part of more open and inclusive for women. This has to include improving their response to sexual violence. For example, many of our fellow students will not be able to engage in or complete their university education because they have experienced sexual violence, and because the university fails to support them or hold the perpetrators to account. We each therefore have a duty as part of the Durham community to demand that the university stops burying its head in the sand when it comes to this issue. And what about societies you are part of, or your college common rooms, or your workplace, or your department? Can you think of things they could do to be more inclusive, welcoming and safe for women, and ways in which they can help to fight, and improve their response towards, sexual violence? Then start pressuring them to make changes, and encourage others to join you in doing so.
- Promote different ways of being a man.
At the core of why men perpetrate sexual violence, and our wider complicity in enabling and excusing it, is how we as a society define being a man and acceptable and desirable forms of ‘masculine’ behaviour. There is tremendous pressure on men to conform to these norms – failure to do so can mean castigation and ostracism for not being a ‘real man’, including if you care about and speak out against sexual violence. It is therefore vital that we encourage different ways of being men that involve treating women, and all people, with respect, as equals, rather than denigrating those who fail to meet the existing standards we set around masculinity based upon male dominance.
- Encourage healthy and respectful sex and relationships.
Particularly damaging norms exist around what kind of behaviour we expect in heterosexual sex and relationships. For example, at university predatory behaviour towards women can be encouraged among young men, which prioritises men’s sexual experience at all costs – regardless of the experience, or consent, of women. The reproduction of men’s dominance runs throughout our norms around heterosexual sex and relationships, from the expectation that sexual activity will be initiated by men, to the acceptance of men applying some degree of pressure on women to consent, to our expectation that men will be the ones ‘in control’ in heterosexual relationships. What’s more, a sense of entitlement to sex and to women’s bodies among men is nurtured in society, and manifested most clearly in sexual violence.
- Defy the objectification of women.
The objectification of women permeates throughout our society, and helps to legitimise sexual violence by again dehumanising women and presenting them as objects for male consumption, reducing women to their bodies and their bodies to things, which men are then deemed to be entitled to use. As men, we must refuse to engage in this objectification and challenge it where we encounter it – whether it is in a throwaway comment about a woman’s appearance, or the sexualised promotion of a club night, or the pornification of our culture, for example.
This list is by no means exhaustive, it describes just some of the forms of everyday activism which all of us as men need to engage in to fight sexual violence. Hopefully it demonstrates that when we think about its social underpinnings, there is a lot more to do than simply opposing sexual violence itself. Some of these things may not always be easy – many of them run counter to what society says makes a man, and the pressure to conform to that is very powerful. And of course, none of us will get everything right all of the time. It is therefore vital to constantly, critically reflect on ourselves and our behaviour; to learn from our mistakes; and to have the courage to make a real, continuous effort to change our behaviour and challenge others on theirs. This is a constant, ongoing struggle which we must all engage in. If we are serious about stopping sexual violence then nothing less than deep-rooted individual and structural change is going to be able to tackle it, and the social and cultural context which enables and excuses it. As it is primarily men who are responsible for sexual violence, this has to be our responsibility first and foremost – so let’s get started.