Sexual assault has affected the lives of everyone on this campus whether they know it or not. Our society’s sexual assault problem centers around the way in which we educate men, and in order to solve it, we must prevent acts of violence rather than teach victims to avoid risk. Conversations surrounding gender violence often frame it as a “women’s issue”–a label that puts the burden on women to solve the problem and absolves men from taking responsibility. This paradigm ignores the fact that, regardless of the victim’s gender, perpetrators of rape and sexual assault are . Violent behavior stems from the perpetrators rather than the victims, and thus our strategy for ending gender violence must focus on teaching men to both not commit violence and to construct a positive, inclusive male community.
Our world, especially at Duke, faces a destructive gender violence problem. A Spring 2017 found that 40 percent of Duke women and 10 percent of Duke men experienced sexual assault since enrolling at Duke, with other identities such as race and sexual orientation corresponding with even higher rates of violence. Globally, women experience sexual assault. In the United States, men will be sexually abused in their lifetime. Too many people of all genders experience gender violence, and it is imperative that we find a solution.
When I first heard the term “rape culture” and its supposed implication that society encourages men to rape, I resisted the idea. I denied having ever been told that rape is acceptable, and concluded that rape culture was a myth. I reacted defensively because I understood the destruction of rape but didn’t understand how I contributed. I didn’t understand that rape culture also includes when people make or tolerate statements that or objectify potential victims. Furthermore, of rape does happen. Men commit sexual assault for a variety of reasons, but simply blaming biology is grossly inadequate.
In male spaces, masculinity and prestige is often measured by heterosexual activity. Defining masculinity through sex leads men to feel that they deserve sex, sometimes validating the use of violent measures to engage in sex. Men often treat sexual pursuit as a game or conquest, a notion that diminishes the importance of partner consent and encourages men to take advantage of women. Treating rape as a joke trivializes sexual assault. Violent pornography normalizes sexual domination. Sexually objectifying people of any gender reduces their humanity, and accordingly, the moral consequences of sexual violence. Behaviors like these often seem like isolated incidents, but their accumulation and combination with other harmful acts create a culture in which sexual violence is not unusual: exactly what “rape culture” describes.
Conversations that center around “false accusations” or focus exclusively on the wellbeing of privileged peoples also contribute to a culture of sexual violence. When confronted with sexual assault, many men point to false rape accusations–even though percent of reported assaults (most assaults go ) are untrue. This narrative, unfortunately furthered by the Duke lacrosse case, intimidates survivors and , absolving them of responsibility to fight sexual assault. The conversation should instead center around preventing sexual assault and changing the culture that permits it.
Anyone frequenting male spaces knows that “locker room talk” is all too pervasive, that culture is immersive and hard to see, and that implementing change can be hard. I have struggled for a long time with recognizing problematic behavior, identifying why it’s problematic, and engaging with people in ways that make them feel called to movement rather than targeted. I have certainly made and given implicit agreement to problematic statements in the past–no one is born the perfect advocate, and we’re all constantly learning and growing.
While all men exist in rape culture, it is true that not all men commit sexual assault. It is also true that not all men engage in “locker room talk.” Lumping all men together as equal contributors is both wrong and unfair, leaving no room for personal growth. The argument that “Not All Men” contribute to sexual assault, and therefore only rapists bear responsibility, however, is woefully wrong. This argument makes rape seem exceptional and absolves men from the responsibility of fighting rape culture. We as a community of men have an enormous problem: . Something is inherently wrong with the way that we exist as a community and we must each acknowledge the role that we play in order for anything to change.
Our identity as men gives us a responsibility to fix this culture. We have exclusive access to the male-only spaces that foster toxic masculinity, and to be true opponents of sexual assault we must use this access to confront and deconstruct harmful ideas. Silence conveys implicit approval and makes bystanders complicit.
How then do we as men fulfill this responsibility to prevent sexual violence? It starts, of course, with not committing sexual assault. That means taking the initiative to learn about and not placing the burden on women or a partner to do the labor of teaching. We must also teach other men about consent. This is how men can best contribute to gender equity: taking the labor burden off of oppressed groups.
We must use our access to male spaces to encourage healthy culture and amplify the voices of the oppressed. We must actively deconstruct rape culture by not engaging in it ourselves and by calling other men into the gender equity movement: this means engaging in conversations about violent language with other men and teaching them how to communicate in a productive way.
Lastly, as men, we must actively prevent sexual assault in our daily lives and lend our unconditional support to survivors. If you see someone clearly unable to give or receive consent, step in. If a situation looks dangerous, step in. Taking initiative to intervene can be awkward but the potential to prevent violence is infinitely more important. This isn’t about being an activist or being affiliated with a political party; it’s simply about being a decent human.
Ethan Ready is a Trinity sophomore and member of the Duke Men's Project.
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Ethan Ready is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.