Rejecting Masculinity Won’t Help Us Fight Rape

Why is it such a struggle to get men on board with rape prevention efforts? I have an idea.
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Why is it such a struggle to get men on board with rape prevention efforts? I have an idea.

Kitchener-Male

Art Credit: Kitchner Photography

Discussions about campus rape—and what to do about it—are all around us today. Unfortunately, such discussions could use a little less rage and a little more reason.

Most recently, Columbia Journalism Review released a report showing that there’s no real evidence to support the facts behind a horrific rape case that Rolling Stone magazine alleged took place at the University of Virginia. And yet, the president of the National Organization for Women inexplicably says she still believes the alleged rape victim at the center of the Rolling Stone story even though key details of her account are untrue. Similarly, last fall, the president himself asserted that one in five college girls are victims of rape or attempted rape and rolled out a national campaign to address sexual assault on campus. Alas, even the president is not immune from stating the grossly misleading rape statistics that too often define the terms of the campus rape debate. If what Obama said was true, sexual assault at American colleges would be nearly as prevalent as it is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape has been an instrument of war.

Given this monumental journalistic failure, you could almost understand why many are casting doubt upon the hysteria over a rape culture on college campuses. But—and this is a big but—anyone who says that the booze-fueled revelry on college campuses isn’t causing harm to women is lying to you. The recent revelation that a fraternity at Penn State was keeping a private Facebook page where members posted nude photos of women, some of whom appear to be incapacitated, is undeniably disturbing. Even if the campus rape problem has been vastly overstated, it’s enough of a problem that we all ought to be looking at what we can do to address it.

In response to such disturbing and misogynist manifestations of “bro culture”—the colloquial term for the kind of competitive, hypermasculine environment fostered by fraternities—campuses are increasingly implementing rape prevention efforts specifically targeted at men. In February, Columbia announced a new mandatory program aimed at preventing sexual assault. Students are required to attend an hour-long workshop on the subject, watch and discuss a relevant TED Talk or YouTube video, and write a reflection paper on the topic or do an anti-rape art or poetry project. Tellingly, Barnard—the women’s college affiliated with Columbia—is exempt from the new requirement.

The White House’s new campus rape prevention program, “It’s On Us,” is primarily directed at men. “From the beginning of the initiative, which was launched this past winter, the president has framed the issue in terms of what young men can do,” says an article atThink Progress. In addition to an extensive public awareness campaign, the program urges men to take a public pledge to “create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.” More than 200 campuses have agreed to participate in the “It’s On Us” campaign.

And The Atlantic recently profiled sociology professor Michael Kimmel, who’s earned the nickname “the bro whisperer” after spending the bulk of his career working on rape prevention efforts directed at college guys. Kimmel recently founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. “He is preparing to survey college campuses across the country in order to discover the best male-oriented efforts to prevent sexual assault, and then replicate them nationwide,” reports The Atlantic.

Kimmel’s got his work cut out for him. While there’s been a renewed interest in male-oriented rape prevention programs, they’re not exactly a new idea. Previous efforts to get men on campus to address rape have been less than effective. Or at least that’s the takeaway from a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Men’s Studies, not-so-subtly titled “‘I’d Rather Be Doing Something Else:’ Male Resistance to Rape Prevention programs.” The paper surveyed 157 college men and found just 5 percent said they’d want to participate in a mandatory day-long rape prevention program. While not too surprising a finding, it's still worth asking why?

The paper is itself illustrative of why college dudes might be hostile to rape prevention efforts. For a normal person with a low tolerance for deciphering politically correct academic gibberish, the experience of reading “I’d Rather Be Doing Something Else” renders that title more accurate than the authors intended. If bro culture is a problem, it’s not encouraging that efforts to police campus sexual assault are so often influenced by a force that tends to stifle even men's good intentions—a radical academic feminism that denies important differences between the sexes and often falls back on unjustified assumption that traditional male impulses are bad. To that end, the paper explicitly dismisses male responsibility and chivalry as sexist notions that encourage sexual assault, rather than combat it:

“Although these men earnestly felt that their role was to protect women, their patronizing tone and reliance on images of helpless women who need protection from and by men are problematic and aligned with rigid gender roles.”

(Wait, isn't this protecting-women theme sort of a good thing for the #HeForShe and "It's On Us" campaigns? We'll get back to that.)

At the same time, the authors reject what’s good about masculinity, and the paper is chock-full of alarming and unsubstantiated generalizations predicated on treating huge swaths of the male population as potential rapists. For example: “Although we cannot conclude that the most resistant men in this study are the ones most likely to sexually assault women, we did see in their responses a subscription to multiple rape myths, a lack of empathy toward women, and a strong tendency to see themselves as victims.”

Of course, resistance to the progressive sexual agenda on most campuses is not evidence that you’re a male oppressor, let alone suggestive that you’re a rapist. Anyone who’s ever found themselves on the receiving end of the academy’s attempts to inculcate social justice in students knows that such programs rarely exist outside a spectrum that runs from the merely patronizing to something resembling a Maoist struggle session.

Thankfully, Kimmel takes a different and healthier tactic. When addressing college men, Kimmel frames the issue of preventing sexual assault in terms of being a better man and ascribing it to honor, integrity, and doing the right thing. All of which are crucially different, in Kimmel’s mind, from the words used to describe ‘being a man’—words like "to win, get laid, get rich.”

Alas, Kimmel’s endgame for solving campus rape is to create some unworkable libertine utopia where everyone’s romantic intentions are safe and well understood and teenagers can have “better and more equitable sex.” A hopeful solution, for sure. But short of going to college in Utopia, one of the keys to getting men to act honorably probably does reside in helping them find better models. And on this point at least, President Obama has spoken out admirably about one of the root causes of sexual abuse:

“I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure, in terms of how they’re supposed to behave and treat women. That starts before they get to college. Those of us who are fathers have an obligation to transmit that information. We can do more to make sure that every man out there—in junior high, high school, and college—understands what’s expected of them, and what it means to be a man, and to intervene if they see someone else acting inappropriately.”

At a time when 64 percent of mothers have given birth to at least one of their kids out of wedlock, there are not nearly enough fatherly role models to go around. On this matter, the White House is only willing to go against the prevailing culture so much. Mad Men star Jon Hamm is the celebrity spokesman for the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign. He might be a good choice to reach the target demographic, but Hamm’s place in the cultural firmament sends a wildly conflicting message for rape prevention efforts. Hamm’s character on Mad Men, Don Draper, has become a hero among campus bros precisely because he’s the Genghis Khan of adulterous sexual conquests. That Draper is otherwise destroying multiple marriages and ignoring his screwed-up kids doesn’t much detract from how cool he is.

Still, Obama’s correct that teaching men to respect women will be a lot more effective if it begins long before college and starts at home. That’s not to say that rape prevention efforts aimed at fraternity bros should be considered a lost cause. In fact, the authors of “I’d Rather Be Doing Something Else” were pleasantly surprised to report the college men they surveyed looked quite favorably on male peers who volunteered to work on sexual assault issues. However, getting smash-the-patriarchy academics to consider that one of the best ways to stop sexual assault might be encouraging fatherhood and traditional family values is tough sell. And until that happens, we can expect the debates over how to best address campus sexual assault to rage on.