In the last year there’s been a lot of media attention on two young high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio. In March 2013, these two young men were found guilty of sexual assault and will each be spending the next year to two years of their young lives in prison. The story leading up to their convictions is, sadly, a fairly common story. In short, high school students had a party where alcohol was involved. A young girl drank too much and was in and out of consciousness. Her friends started taking inappropriate pictures of her and these two young men ended up sexually assaulting her. The next morning she had no idea what happened and only knew that she had been assaulted because videos and pictures began circulating on social media.
It was a fairly straight forward sexual assault case, but oddly, that’s not what most concerned me. What most concerned me were the interviews done with the young men leading up to their conviction. In no uncertain terms, each young man told the media “yes” they had sex with her, but “no” they didn’t think that having sex with a girl who was throwing-up and stumbling drunk was sexual assault.
As an anti-sexual violence educator, the scary thing for me is that I believe those young men. I truly believe that those two young men think that what they did was perfectly acceptable behavior and didn’t constitute sexual assault. Under the veil of ignorance, the attitudes of these young men – and many young men throughout the world – make sexual violence inevitable.
For this reason, we must continue to engage with young men about issues of sexual violence and sexual consent. We have to change the cavalier mentality toward sexual violence and these conversations start with educators, advocates, fathers, and friends.
We can do this by introducing young men to the issue of sexual violence every day. Combating this issue every day can be exhausting, yet it is necessary when we consider the every day sexualization, dehumanization, and marginalization of women. The unpopular truth is that we have created a predatory culture through our music, movies, language, and actions. Therefore, we must constantly work to change that culture. Changing the culture means that we must be willing to speak up and offer alternative narratives on masculinity on a daily basis.
Currently, many young men make fun of the weaker guy because he’s physically weak or he cries. We praise the greatest athletes even when they’ve been convicted of rape or domestic violence. Think about that for a second. An athlete can be convicted of rape and it’s all good as long as he can still compete at the highest level. An athlete can beat his wife and it’s all good as long as he can still win a championship.
Most young men would rather “read” Maxim or Playboy magazine than gender conscious scholarships. Now folks can read whatever they’d like, but we have to get young men to start admitting that Playboy is likely giving them a different view of women than the books they’d read in a Gender Communication class. These messages matter.
And finally, young men try to intimate other men by telling them “You throw like a girl” or “Don’t be gay.” We put other men down by calling them women and gay? What message does that send?
To be a “real” man you have to be aggressive, physically dominating, violent, assertive, and have lots of sex with the sexiest women…and you can’t be gay. This is the culture we live in. These are the expectations that are placed on young men. We are constantly trying to prove our masculinity. Asserting one’s manhood through dominance and power over women has to stop if we desire to put an end to sexual violence.
In her book The Will to Change, bell hooks states that “Mass media are a powerful vehicle for teaching the art of the possible. Enlightened men must claim it as the space of their public voice and create a progressive popular culture that will teach men how to connect with others, how to communicate, how to love.”
Young men are hungry for alternative messages on masculinity and they need messengers to bring these ideas to them! They don’t need more people telling them what not to do. They need more people telling them what to do. Young men need role models who are living this type of anti-sexual violence lifestyle through their every day interactions.
I cannot tell you the number of college-age men – and sometimes older – who have told me their stories of feeling isolated when it comes to engaging with the issue of sexual violence. They want to do something about this type of violence and they need to know that they are welcomed to join this struggle. They need to see role models who are engaged with this type of work. Get them a book. Find them a documentary, a website, a magazine, or music; anything that will show them other men engaged with this issue.
For those of you who missed the Steubenville case, well, unfortunately, there are two similar investigations that recently began in Canada and Los Angeles. Like I said, this is a fairly common story. In both instances, some high school boys gang-raped a classmate. In Canada and L.A., each group thought it would be a good laugh to videotape the assault and pass it around to everyone in an effort to humiliate the girls. No one who viewed that videotape said, “Hey that’s sexual assault, I’m going to turn this video over to police.” Instead, each victim was harassed so much that they ended up committing suicide. In Canada, Rehtaeh Parsons on April 4, 2013 and in Los Angeles, Audrie Pott over Labor Day weekend of 2012. Now, not every survivor commits suicide. But some do turn to pills, alcohol, eating disorders, cutting, or other self-destructive behaviors to cope. In the end, we have to change the culture that shapes young men’s attitudes about sexual violence or these devastating events remain inevitable.