Within modern societies, there is a cultural power system of aggressive, sexist and structurally violent masculinity that most heterosexual men, to varying degrees, take part in. As an academic who in the past has described himself as a feminist, yet who occasionally lapses into this same culture, it is important for me to speak out clearly about how this culture connects to sexual violence, predominantly against women.
In its least sinister and most popular form, this culture is one of male bravado and stereotypes that sexually objectifies and commodifies women’s bodies. Many men are socialised and brought up within this culture, and many of us know it when we see it in others. At the same time, as active members of the culture, many of us miss our supporting role in it. The behaviours do not seem wrong when we are among a group of male friends. Often it is part of the membership rites and language of the group.
Social psychologists suggest that somehow, when we’re with other people, we lose our rational capacity or personal identity which controls our behaviour. And that it is acceptance of the norms and the values of the group that becomes most important. To better understand that not all sexual violence means rape, academic Liz Kelly suggests understanding women’s everyday experiences of sexual violence along a continuum from “choice to pressure to coercion to force.”
This helps to understand the subtleties of sexual violence, the point being, sexual violence is more complicated than violent assault such as rape, but starts with and involves far more common, everyday situations, such as harassment or targeting someone who is drunk.
Now many men might take offence to being swept up and placed in a culture that produces sexual violence. Many of us consider ourselves empathetic, caring, sensitive to women’s concerns—ie, men who support women. And in many cases this is true. It is certainly problematic to argue, as some do, that every man is a sexual predator-in-waiting.
This does not avoid the initial claim that many men are part of a sexist culture that generates disrespect and violence against women. What is this culture of masculinity that many are part of? It can begin with actions many feel normal and non-threatening. What some might see as a compliment might actually be an unwanted compliment.
Not all might be offended, granted, but it’s not like women have choice in the matter. Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment, says: “Street harassment is often an invisible problem or one that is portrayed as a joke, compliment or the fault of the harassed person. In reality, it’s a human-rights violation.”
Colleagues in the workplace making suggestive comments—especially superiors—can be classed as harassment too. Men might deem it nothing, a harmless piece of flattery, but again this is part of a culture where men get to decide what behaviours women should accept. These behaviours often become internalised by women and expected of men. This produces the ironic situation that a female’s attractiveness involves legitimation by male heckling or flattery. The male world of objectification becomes the cultural norm.
Another issue within this culture is that men often push the responsibility for crimes of sexual violence onto women. They make claims about the way a woman dresses or claim she gave them signals. Yet no is always no, and harassment is still harassment, no matter what a person wears. Furthermore, people should always have the right to change their minds and remove consent at any point in an encounter—from flattery to sexual relations.
The situation is so bad that we teach women what not to do in order to avoid sexual violence while ignoring that it is men who are perpetrators of 99 per cent of sexual violence, and it is men who need educating. If we want to fix the problem, it requires attack on multiple levels. Research suggests the strongest enabling factor in sexual violence is the idea that such behaviour is covertly condoned. That is the culture I’m talking about here. And that is one level we can attack.
It just takes one man in a group of men to be offended and to make that point in front of his peers for the smokescreen of acceptance to be questioned by others. Many men might feel like they don’t want to be that man because they will lose credibility with their friends. Yet losing that credibility compared with being part of a continuum of sexual violence against women is a straightforward choice all men can and should make.
Hello, Cross-Cultural students, I am writing to express my views on how some of you have conducted yourself in this university course you are taking with me. It is not uncommon for some-to-many American students, who typically, are first-generation college students, to not fully understand, and maybe not even appreciate the purpose of a university. Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed “soft” topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the “right” answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course.
Not only is this not the purpose of a university (although it may feel like it is in some of your other courses), it clearly is not the purpose of my upper-division course on Cross-Cultural Psychology. The purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to struggle intellectually with some of life’s most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be “the better answer” (It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others). Another purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs, behaviors, and customs. Finally, another purpose of a university education is to help students who typically are not accustomed to thinking independently or applying a critical analysis to views or beliefs, to start learning how to do so. We are not in class to learn “facts” and simply regurgitate the facts in a mindless way to items on a test. Critical thinking is a skill that develops over time. Independent thinking does not occur overnight. Critical thinkers are open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to “defend” their views based on evidence or logic, rather than simply “pounding their chest” and merely proclaiming that their views are “valid.” One characteristic of the critical, independent thinker is being able to recognize fantasy versus reality; to recognize the difference between personal beliefs which are nothing more than personal beliefs, versus views that are grounded in evidence, or which have no evidence.
Last class meeting and for 15 minutes today, we addressed “religious bigotry.” Several points are worth contemplating:
Religion and culture go “hand in hand.” For some cultures, they are so intertwined that it is difficult to know with certainty if a specific belief or custom is “cultural” or “religious” in origin. The student in class tonight who proclaimed that my class was supposed to be about different cultures (and not religion) lacks an understanding about what constitutes “culture.” (of course, I think her real agenda was to stop my comments about religion).
Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots—racial bigot or religious bigots—never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like. It seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).
The male student who stood up in class and directed the rest of the class to “not participate” by not responding to my challenge, represented the worst of education. For starters, the idea that a person—student or instructor—would instruct other students on how to behave, is pretty arrogant and grossly disrespects the rights of other students who can and want to think for themselves and decide for themselves whether they want to engage in the exchange of ideas or not. Moreover, this “let’s just put our fingers in our ears so we will not hear what we disagree with” is appallingly childish and exemplifies “anti-intellectualism.” The purpose of a university is to engage in dialogue, debate, and exchange ideas in order to try and come to some meaningful conclusion about an issue at hand. Not to shut ourselves off from ideas we find threatening.
Universities hold a special place in society where scholarly-minded folks can come together and discuss controversial, polemic, and often uncomfortable topics. Universities, including UCF, have special policies in place to protect our (both professors’ and students’) freedom to express ourselves. Neither students nor professors have a right to censor speech that makes us uncomfortable. We’re adults. We’re at a university. There is no topic that is “off-limits” for us to address in class, if even only remotely related to the course topic. I hope you will digest this message, and just as important, will take it to heart as it may apply to you.