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Why sexual assault is a men’s issue

April 9, 2012

According to the national group RAINN – Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network – someone is sexually assaulted in the US every 2 minutes.

The bulk of those sexually assaulted are women and children. However, the primary perpetrators of such acts are men. So what is it about our culture and the way that men are socialized, which leads them to sexually assault women and children?

Well, there certainly is no single factor that determines the fact that men are the primary perpetrators of sexual assault in the US. Some of the predominant factors are male privilege, gender socialization from institutional structures and the how the media normalizes the objectification of women.

We know what the research tells us about how frequently women are objectified in the media, whether it is to sell products, to get TV ratings, pump up sales of video games or to sell tickets at the box office. The objectification of women is so frequent that it is seen as the norm in this society. Women are presented as objects for male pleasure, always available, always tempting and ready to be consumed.

Remember the Superbowl ads from this past February? Women were either objects of male fantasy or they were presented as cold bitches who don’t want to have any fun.

In addition, we have a news media system in the US, which not only tends to ignore male violence against women, it misinforms the public on this critical issue. Sexual Assault is under-reported for several reasons. First, many women will not report it to law enforcement, since the legal system will stigmatize and vilify them as causing the rape or sexual assault. Second, newsrooms rarely present information in a systemic way, thus they tend to report on individual cases of sexual assault instead of a broader view. Lastly, newsrooms treat sexual assault as a crime story and not a public health issue, thus they don’t ask the question of why men rape and sexually assault women.

However, media is only one mechanism that determines how men are socialized to see women. Most major US institutions also socialize men in very narrow gender roles, often affirming the messages of the media about the status of women in US society. Women do not make equal pay for equal work. Women still hold a disproportionately small amount of leadership positions in the US. The legal system still unjustly favors men over women and there has been a three-decade long backlash against the feminist gains of the 1960s and 70s with government policy not favoring the rights of women.

Then there is the issue of male privilege. Many men do not even realize the tremendous privilege they have in this society, around issues of safety, wealth and opportunity. Men disproportionately make more money, they are rarely at risk of being sexually assaulted and when that does happens it is almost always other men who are the perpetrators. On the flip side, if one thinks in terms of pure cost to society, men are less cost effective. This is the thesis in Men Are Not Cost-Effective Male Crime in America, June Stephenson. Stephenson argues that because of the crimes committed by men, both street and corporate crimes, the cost to society is outrageous, thus making them case that men overall are bad for the economy.

Male privilege is also manifested in the fact that men’s intent and their attitudes are rarely questioned in this society and when they are, there are plenty of men who will step forward to defend other men to maintain their privilege.

This is exactly why sexual assault must become a men’s issue. For decades, women have done amazing work to help each other heal from sexual assault through social services, programs and education. However, the rate of sexual assault has not significantly declined and that is because there has not been enough done to educate and challenge men to confront male privilege in this society.

Men need to do the hard work of self-reflection and come to terms with how they have gender privilege. Men need to do the hard work of developing better and more meaningful relationships and men need to engage in more bold acts of solidarity with women. We need to support and affirm the women in our lives. We need to support and attend events and participate in campaigns organized by women.

However, it is equally important that we hold other men accountable for their actions, particularly their behavior towards women. Until men take a public stand against male violence against women and challenge the institutional support for the objectification and abuse of women, sexual assault by men against women in this society will not decline.

Lastly, it is problematic to frame this discussion around traditional gender binaries of men and women. This can be seen is some circles of men wanting to do the right thing by saying, “be a real man and stop violence against women.” While I applaud the intent, what we should encourage is the notion that we all need to be better human beings and prevent sexual assault in our relationships, families, neighborhoods, workplaces and communities. No one is truly free while others are oppressed.

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