I’m going to share with you a paradigm-shifting perspective on the issues of gender violence — sexual assault, domestic violence, relationship abuse, sexual harassment, sexual abuse of children. That whole range of issues that I’ll refer to in shorthand as “gender violence issues,” they’ve been seen as women’s issues that some good men help out with, but I have a problem with that frame and I don’t accept it. I don’t see these as women’s issues that some good men help out with. In fact, I’m going to argue that these are men’s issues, first and foremost.
Now obviously, they’re also women’s issues, so I appreciate that, but calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem, for a number of reasons.
The first is that it gives men an excuse not to pay attention. Right? A lot of men hear the term “women’s issues” and we tend to tune it out, and we think, “Hey, I’m a guy. That’s for the girls,” or “That’s for the women.” And a lot of men literally don’t get beyond the first sentence as a result. It’s almost like a chip in our brain is activated, and the neural pathways take our attention in a different direction when we hear the term “women’s issues.” This is also true, by the way, of the word “gender,” because a lot of people hear the word “gender” and they think it means “women.” So they think that gender issues is synonymous with women’s issues. There’s some confusion about the term gender.
And actually, let me illustrate that confusion by way of analogy. So let’s talk for a moment about race. In the U.S., when we hear the word “race,” a lot of people think that means African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American, South Asian, Pacific Islander, on and on. A lot of people, when they hear the word “sexual orientation” think it means gay, lesbian, bisexual. And a lot of people, when they hear the word “gender,” think it means women. In each case, the dominant group doesn’t get paid attention to. Right? As if white people don’t have some sort of racial identity or belong to some racial category or construct, as if heterosexual people don’t have a sexual orientation, as if men don’t have a gender. This is one of the ways that dominant systems maintain and reproduce themselves, which is to say the dominant group is rarely challenged to even think about its dominance, because that’s one of the key characteristics of power and privilege, the ability to go unexamined, lacking introspection, in fact being rendered invisible in large measure in the discourse about issues that are primarily about us. And this is amazing how this works in domestic and sexual violence, how men have been largely erased from so much of the conversation about a subject that is centrally about men.
And I’m going to illustrate what I’m talking about by using the old tech. I’m old school on some fundamental regards. I work with — I make films — and I work with high tech, but I’m still old school as an educator, and I want to share with you this exercise that illustrates on the sentence structure level how the way that we think, literally the way that we use language, conspires to keep our attention off of men. This is about domestic violence in particular, but you can plug in other analogues. This comes from the work of the feminist linguist Julia Penelope.
It starts with a very basic English sentence: “John beat Mary.” That’s a good English sentence. John is the subject. Beat is the verb. Mary is the object. Good sentence. Now we’re going to move to the second sentence, which says the same thing in the passive voice. “Mary was beaten by John.” And now a whole lot has happened in one sentence. We’ve gone from “John beat Mary” to “Mary was beaten by John.” We’ve shifted our focus in one sentence from John to Mary, and you can see John is very close to the end of the sentence, well, close to dropping off the map of our psychic plain. The third sentence, John is dropped, and we have, “Mary was beaten,” and now it’s all about Mary. We’re not even thinking about John. It’s totally focused on Mary. Over the past generation, the term we’ve used synonymous with “beaten” is “battered,” so we have “Mary was battered.” And the final sentence in this sequence, flowing from the others, is, “Mary is a battered woman.” So now Mary’s very identity — Mary is a battered woman — is what was done to her by John in the first instance. But we’ve demonstrated that John has long ago left the conversation.
Now, those of us who work in the domestic and sexual violence field know that victim-blaming is pervasive in this realm, which is to say, blaming the person to whom something was done rather than the person who did it. And we say things like, why do these women go out with these men? Why are they attracted to these men? Why do they keep going back? What was she wearing at that party? What a stupid thing to do. Why was she drinking with that group of guys in that hotel room? This is victim blaming, and there are numerous reasons for it, but one of them is that our whole cognitive structure is set up to blame victims. This is all unconscious. Our whole cognitive structure is set up to ask questions about women and women’s choices and what they’re doing, thinking, and wearing. And I’m not going to shout down people who ask questions about women, okay? It’s a legitimate thing to ask. But let’s be clear: Asking questions about Mary is not going to get us anywhere in terms of preventing violence.
We have to ask a different set of questions. You can see where I’m going with this, right? The questions are not about Mary. They’re about John. The questions include things like, why does John beat Mary? Why is domestic violence still a big problem in the United States and all over the world? What’s going on? Why do so many men abuse, physically, emotionally, verbally, and other ways, the women and girls, and the men and boys, that they claim to love? What’s going on with men? Why do so many adult men sexually abuse little girls and little boys? Why is that a common problem in our society and all over the world today? Why do we hear over and over again about new scandals erupting in major institutions like the Catholic Church or the Penn State football program or the Boy Scouts of America, on and on and on? And then local communities all over the country and all over the world, right? We hear about it all the time. The sexual abuse of children. What’s going on with men? Why do so many men rape women in our society and around the world? Why do so many men rape other men? What is going on with men? And then what is the role of the various institutions in our society that are helping to produce abusive men at pandemic rates?
Because this isn’t about individual perpetrators. That’s a naive way to understanding what is a much deeper and more systematic social problem. You know, the perpetrators aren’t these monsters who crawl out of the swamp and come into town and do their nasty business and then retreat into the darkness. That’s a very naive notion, right? Perpetrators are much more normal than that, and everyday than that. So the question is, what are we doing here in our society and in the world? What are the roles of various institutions in helping to produce abusive men? What’s the role of religious belief systems, the sports culture, the pornography culture, the family structure, economics, and how that intersects, and race and ethnicity and how that intersects? How does all this work?
And then, once we start making those kinds of connections and asking those important and big questions, then we can talk about how we can be transformative, in other words, how can we do something differently? How can we change the practices? How can we change the socialization of boys and the definitions of manhood that lead to these current outcomes? These are the kind of questions that we need to be asking and the kind of work that we need to be doing, but if we’re endlessly focused on what women are doing and thinking in relationships or elsewhere, we’re not going to get to that piece.
Now, I understand that a lot of women who have been trying to speaking out about these issues, today and yesterday and for years and years, often get shouted down for their efforts. They get called nasty names like “male-basher” and “man-hater,” and the disgusting and offensive “feminazi.” Right? And you know what all this is about? It’s called kill the messenger. It’s because the women who are standing up and speaking out for themselves and for other women as well as for men and boys, it’s a statement to them to sit down and shut up, keep the current system in place, because we don’t like it when people rock the boat. We don’t like it when people challenge our power. You’d better sit down and shut up, basically. And thank goodness that women haven’t done that. Thank goodness that we live in a world where there’s so much women’s leadership that can counteract that.
But one of the powerful roles that men can play in this work is that we can say some things that sometimes women can’t say, or, better yet, we can be heard saying some things that women often can’t be heard saying. Now, I appreciate that that’s a problem. It’s sexism. But it’s the truth. And so one of the things that I say to men, and my colleagues and I always say this, is we need more men who have the courage and the strength to start standing up and saying some of this stuff, and standing with women and not against them and pretending that somehow this is a battle between the sexes and other kinds of nonsense. We live in the world together.
And by the way, one of the things that really bothers me about some of the rhetoric against feminists and others who have built the battered women’s and rape crisis movements around the world is that somehow, like I said, that they’re anti-male. What about all the boys who are profoundly affected in a negative way by what some adult man is doing against their mother, themselves, their sisters? What about all those boys? What about all the young men and boys who have been traumatized by adult men’s violence? You know what? The same system that produces men who abuse women produces men who abuse other men. And if we want to talk about male victims, let’s talk about male victims. Most male victims of violence are the victims of other men’s violence. So that’s something that both women and men have in common. We are both victims of men’s violence. So we have it in our direct self-interest, not to mention the fact that most men that I know have women and girls that we care deeply about, in our families and our friendship circles and every other way. So there’s so many reasons why we need men to speak out. It seems obvious saying it out loud. Doesn’t it? Now, the nature of the work that I do and my colleagues do in the sports culture and the U.S. military, in schools, we pioneered this approach called the bystander approach to gender violence prevention.
And I just want to give you the highlights of the bystander approach, because it’s a big thematic shift, although there’s lots of particulars, but the heart of it is, instead of seeing men as perpetrators and women as victims, or women as perpetrators, men as victims, or any combination in there. I’m using the gender binary. I know there’s more than men and women, there’s more than male and female. And there are women who are perpetrators, and of course there are men who are victims. There’s a whole spectrum. But instead of seeing it in the binary fashion, we focus on all of us as what we call bystanders, and a bystander is defined as anybody who is not a perpetrator or a victim in a given situation, so in other words friends, teammates, colleagues, coworkers, family members, those of us who are not directly involved in a dyad of abuse, but we are embedded in social, family, work, school, and other peer culture relationships with people who might be in that situation. What do we do? How do we speak up? How do we challenge our friends? How do we support our friends? But how do we not remain silent in the face of abuse?
Now, when it comes to men and male culture, the goal is to get men who are not abusive to challenge men who are. And when I say abusive, I don’t mean just men who are beating women. We’re not just saying a man whose friend is abusing his girlfriend needs to stop the guy at the moment of attack. That’s a naive way of creating a social change. It’s along a continuum, we’re trying to get men to interrupt each other. So, for example, if you’re a guy and you’re in a group of guys playing poker, talking, hanging out, no women present, and another guy says something sexist or degrading or harassing about women, instead of laughing along or pretending you didn’t hear it, we need men to say, “Hey, that’s not funny. You know, that could be my sister you’re talking about, and could you joke about something else? Or could you talk about something else? I don’t appreciate that kind of talk.” Just like if you’re a white person and another white person makes a racist comment, you’d hope, I hope, that white people would interrupt that racist enactment by a fellow white person. Just like with heterosexism, if you’re a heterosexual person and you yourself don’t enact harassing or abusive behaviors towards people of varying sexual orientations, if you don’t say something in the face of other heterosexual people doing that, then, in a sense, isn’t your silence a form of consent and complicity?
Well, the bystander approach is trying to give people tools to interrupt that process and to speak up and to create a peer culture climate where the abusive behavior will be seen as unacceptable, not just because it’s illegal, but because it’s wrong and unacceptable in the peer culture. And if we can get to the place where men who act out in sexist ways will lose status, young men and boys who act out in sexist and harassing ways towards girls and women, as well as towards other boys and men, will lose status as a result of it, guess what? We’ll see a radical diminution of the abuse. Because the typical perpetrator is not sick and twisted. He’s a normal guy in every other way. Isn’t he?
Now, among the many great things that Martin Luther King said in his short life was, “In the end, what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” In the end, what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. There’s been an awful lot of silence in male culture about this ongoing tragedy of men’s violence against women and children, hasn’t there? There’s been an awful lot of silence. And all I’m saying is that we need to break that silence, and we need more men to do that.
Now, it’s easier said than done, because I’m saying it now, but I’m telling you it’s not easy in male culture for guys to challenge each other, which is one of the reasons why part of the paradigm shift that has to happen is not just understanding these issues as men’s issues, but they’re also leadership issues for men. Because ultimately, the responsibility for taking a stand on these issues should not fall on the shoulders of little boys or teenage boys in high school or college men. It should be on adult men with power. Adult men with power are the ones we need to be holding accountable for being leaders on these issues, because when somebody speaks up in a peer culture and challenges and interrupts, he or she is being a leader, really, right? But on a big scale, we need more adult men with power to start prioritizing these issues, and we haven’t seen that yet, have we?
Now, I was at a dinner a number of years ago, and I work extensively with the U.S. military, all the services. And I was at this dinner and this woman said to me — I think she thought she was a little clever — she said, “So how long have you been doing sensitivity training with the Marines?”
And I said, “With all due respect, I don’t do sensitivity training with the Marines. I run a leadership program in the Marine Corps.”
Now, I know it’s a bit pompous, my response, but it’s an important distinction, because I don’t believe that what we need is sensitivity training. We need leadership training, because, for example, when a professional coach or a manager of a baseball team or a football team — and I work extensively in that realm as well — makes a sexist comment, makes a homophobic statement, makes a racist comment, there will be discussions on the sports blogs and in sports talk radio. And some people will say, “Well, he needs sensitivity training.” And other people will say, “Well get off it. You know, that’s political correctness run amok, and he made a stupid statement. Move on.” My argument is, he doesn’t need sensitivity training. He needs leadership training, because he’s being a bad leader, because in a society with gender diversity and sexual diversity — (Applause) — and racial and ethnic diversity, you make those kind of comments, you’re failing at your leadership. If we can make this point that I’m making to powerful men and women in our society at all levels of institutional authority and power, it’s going to change, it’s going to change the paradigm of people’s thinking.
You know, for example, I work a lot in college and university athletics throughout North America. We know so much about how to prevent domestic and sexual violence, right? There’s no excuse for a college or university to not have domestic and sexual violence prevention training mandated for all student athletes, coaches, administrators, as part of their educational process. We know enough to know that we can easily do that. But you know what’s missing? The leadership. But it’s not the leadership of student athletes. It’s the leadership of the athletic director, the president of the university, the people in charge who make decisions about resources and who make decisions about priorities in the institutional settings. That’s a failure, in most cases, of men’s leadership.
Look at Penn State. Penn State is the mother of all teachable moments for the bystander approach. You had so many situations in that realm where men in powerful positions failed to act to protect children, in this case, boys. It’s unbelievable, really. But when you get into it, you realize there are pressures on men. There are constraints within peer cultures on men, which is why we need to encourage men to break through those pressures.
And one of the ways to do that is to say there’s an awful lot of men who care deeply about these issues. I know this. I work with men, and I’ve been working with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men for many, many decades now. It’s scary, when you think about it, how many years. But there’s so many men who care deeply about these issues, but caring deeply is not enough. We need more men with the guts, with the courage, with the strength, with the moral integrity to break our complicit silence and challenge each other and stand with women and not against them.
By the way, we owe it to women. There’s no question about it. But we also owe it to our sons. We also owe it to young men who are growing up all over the world in situations where they didn’t make the choice to be a man in a culture that tells them that manhood is a certain way. They didn’t make the choice. We that have a choice have an opportunity and a responsibility to them as well.
I hope that, going forward, men and women, working together, can begin the change and the transformation that will happen so that future generations won’t have the level of tragedy that we deal with on a daily basis.
I know we can do it. We can do better.
Thank you very much. (Applause)