Is anybody out there?
What men and boys do matters. It matters to how women and girls are viewed and treated. I am asking men and boys to tune into the struggle of being female in our society, to pay attention and draw conclusions. I’m asking them to see the privilege being born male has afforded them. I am asking you to observe the differences between moving through the world as a male versus as a female.
Here are some notes: You will not be catcalled when you’re walking down the street in tailored pants. You will not be told to use karma, rather than your negotiating skills to secure a higher-paying job. You will not stand in line at the grocery store with magazine headlines blaring you’re too big, too ugly, too unfashionable to matter. You will not need to watch your back walking alone. You will not be called a bitch when you’re expressing confidence. You will not be called a slut when you enjoy sex. You will not be judged for what you’re eating, how much, and when. You will not be expected to smile, wear makeup, and soften your tone to get people to trust you.
This is the world of girls and women. Imagine it. Think about it. Watch for it.
I’m asking you to start by bearing witness to our struggle. Just watch the ways we’re disadvantaged, put down, held down, held back. Do not turn a blind eye. Do not allow the cultural narrative to take over with its excuses and reasoning for why things are the way they are. Just witness. Take it in. You are part of it. Take ownership.
Allow me to illustrate. Years ago when I was in my master of counseling psychology internship, I ran a debrief session for students who walked through a student-led initiative called “The Tunnel of Oppression”. The Tunnel was an interactive installation in the student union building for the purpose of illuminating the struggle of oppressed groups in society, and featured intense imagery and live acting. I was there as a student counselor to lead a short discussion and sort of come-down session for other students.
A group of undergraduate men, who happened to be fraternity brothers, sat down in a circle with me, avoiding eye contact, slouching down in their chairs, legs spread wide (the “manspread” had not yet entered the lexicon). In a pre-smartphone era, there was nowhere else to look other than around the room or at the floor.
Let’s talk about the rape scene, I suggested, seizing on the opportunity to go for the jugular, get their attention, and maybe even educate them. Addressing each of them with direct eye contact, I posed the question, what is your responsibility for preventing rape? Crickets. It was clear that never once in their lives had they been asked to consider that they might have a role in rape. (Exactly the opposite for women; we are taught to walk fast, find safety in numbers, dress right, learn self-defense, watch our drinks, and a whole host of other behaviors to prevent our own rapes.)
We sat in silence until I spoke to the alpha of their little group, OK, let’s say the house is having a party and a woman is so drunk she can’t take care of herself. What is your responsibility to her? On the spot, he began to think out loud, um, well, you know, I’d try to find her girls and get her to her girls. Challenging him to think of himself as the responsible party, I pressed. And what if her girls are nowhere to be found, or she showed up alone? What is your responsibility? The group began to shift with palpable discomfort. Gentlemen, seriously. Please tell me your responsibility for preventing rape. What would you do if you saw one of your brothers, or another man taking advantage of an incapacitated woman? They looked at me in disbelief. Others began to speak up. I would beat the shit out of him. I would throw him off her. I’d kick his ass. I’d touched on their machismo. It was a start.
Here’s where I’d like to leave things with you, I told them. I want each of you to think of yourselves as directly responsible for preventing rape. This means paying attention at parties to your brothers’ and buddies’ behavior. This means finding a safe ride home for an incapacitated woman. This means challenging sexually-aggressive behavior. They were silent again, and eye-contact avoidant. They got up en masse and walked away, session over.
I’m not even mad at that group of young men, not now, not in that moment ten years ago. It was clear that they had never been asked to see themselves as people who could effect change in this way. They were non-plussed by my directives, and my fondest hope is that I may have created some awareness that eventually lead to behavioral change. Perhaps they are all fathers of sons today, and they speak man-to-man with their boys about the meaning of consent and the terrible societal plague and costs of rape. Maybe they have instructed their sons about their responsibility in prevention. Maybe they have checked their own behavior throughout the years, becoming safer members of the community, people to trust.
Will you join us? Will you take responsibility? Will you talk to your fellow men and boys about your collective responsibility? Will you tune in to the struggle of women in the culture and find ways to use your male privilege to challenge it? Will you take it a step further and commit to putting us up, in any way you can? Here is your call to action. Now is the time for you to start seeing yourself as someone who can effect change in the culture.