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Steubenville, Rape Culture, and Male Responsibility

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April 25, 2013

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In the aftermath of Steubenville, pundits and reporters have been discussing the different factors that drove the perpetrators to commit such a terrible crime. Some have suggested that it was a lack of parental involvement. Others have wondered if teen drinking is to blame. One factor that has not been discussed in great detail – and one that our society is reluctant to ponder – is our cultural definition of masculinity. One of the ways privilege functions is that we don’t question the socialization of those with power. For instance, when white men commit violent acts of terrorism the news media classifies them as “lone gunmen” who are mentally ill. Compare that to a person of color who commits a crime – that person’s race or religion is almost always the first topic discussed. Or, when women commit violence, gender is the topic of conversation.

In order to understand why some men choose to perpetrate sexual violence, it’s imperative we examine what we’re teaching our boys about what it takes to be “real men.” Looking at media depictions of masculinity, it isn’t difficult to see that we’re teaching boys, from an early age, that being a man is about being strong, tough, and never displaying vulnerability. The only culturally sanctioned emotions for men to display are anger and rage. Think about the words we use to describe men who show their sadness, their frustration, or their fears – all of the words one can think of are either homophobic or sexist. This teaches boys that the worst thing you can be is either gay or a woman, and more importantly, that gay people and women are deserving of hate.

Naturally, this behavior encourages men to be violent towards gay men, women, and trans* people. And any straight-identified, cis-gendered man who doesn’t fit inside the “box of masculinity” is at risk of being ostracized. Make no mistake, this is not saying that men are oppressed because of their status as men, nor is this saying that men can experience sexism (we can’t). Rather, this is to say that men are constrained by gender straitjackets and in order to prevent rape, as well as support male survivors of sexual violence, we need to begin addressing the way men and boys are socialized.

Some of the most troubling responses to Steubenville were posted on Twitter, by men, who suggested that any man given the “opportunity” the perpetrators were given would have done the same thing. As disgusting (and hopefully untrue) as these statements are, they show how important it is to change the conversation about masculinity and what it truly means to “be a man.” We would all like to think that the vast majority of men, upon seeing a woman passed out, would aid her in getting home, or to a hospital, or somewhere she would be safe. This victim-blaming behavior assumes that all men are potential rapists – and frankly, I think men are better than that. Until men stop making excuses for other men who perpetrate violence – whether it’s street harassment or sexual assault – we will not fully begin to see change.

Women have been doing anti-violence work for years. All aspiring male allies owe a debt of gratitude to the founders of the rape crisis and domestic violence movement, as well as the women who overwhelmingly run it. Without their hard work and consciousness-raising, men would not be aware of the ways that gender socialization impacts us and our relationships with the women and men in our lives. It’s important to always remain accountable. Unfortunately, too often women’s demanding of male accountability – and demanding men be better – are met with resistance. When men decide to remain silent to victim-blaming language, or remain inactive when they see violence taking place, other men begin to think that this abhorrent behavior is acceptable. In order to change the culture of violent masculinity, men must change themselves.

What do men gain from challenging sexism and rape culture? For one, it allows us the freedom to display a wide range of emotions. It encourages healthier, kinder relationships with our female counterparts. Challenging traditional masculine constructs allows us to be better fathers, partners, and friends. When we take responsibility for our gender and are honest with ourselves about our role in upholding rape culture, we are able to move forward. Here are ten ways we can challenge ourselves, our culture, and other men to be better:

1. Watch how much space you take up. Often when we are sitting on the train or bus, men tend to take up more space than women. In some cases, it may be because we are physically bigger than women, but in others it is an unearned (and unnoticed) sense of entitlement. When you ride the train, compare and contrast how much space men take up versus women. Remember that your size can be intimidating.

2. Learn to step back… From an early age, boys are encouraged to voice our opinions and to speak when we feel something needs to be said. However, that can lead us to dominate a conversation or meeting. Instead, practice not talking. Let others, particularly female-identified people, speak first. If they have said something you thought about saying, you don’t need to echo it.

3. …and to step up! Use your voice for good – when you hear other men telling a sexist joke, or statements that support rape myths, or words that belittle survivors of domestic and sexual violence, interject! You’ll be surprised at how effective (and appreciated!) a statement such as “I really don’t think that (joke/comment/remark) is funny” really is.

4. Attend feminist events. If male-identified people are welcomed at the space, show your support by attending talks by feminist authors, film screenings by female filmmakers, and concerts with feminist performers.

5. Support feminist media. Go one step further – if we want to put a stop to rape culture, we need to work on dismantling it. Supporting alternatives to mainstream, corporate-owned media is imperative. Get a subscription to Bitch magazine, buy albums of feminist performers and buy tickets to movies that feature strong female leads and/or positive depictions of gender non-conforming folks. As the old saying goes, “money talks”- if companies see these movies doing well they are more likely to continue making them!

6. Volunteer! If you have the time, volunteer for a rape crisis or domestic violence center. Men NEED to be doing this work. Most of the time violence is perpetrated, a man is the perpetrator. This is not being anti-male, it’s just being honest. Call your local rape crisis or domestic violence center and find out how you can help. You may not be able to work directly with survivors, but you can do prevention work – which involves talking to other men – and that is equally important.

7. Make your space feminist. We don’t want to take up more space than necessary, but rather, to make the space we do take up feminist. If you work in an office, push for a sexual assault 101 training. Hang up posters in your cubicle that are supportive of gender-equality. If you’re a member of a fraternity, do a service project that benefits a local rape crisis or DV center. It’s possible to do this in any space – not just the social work field!

8. Be an active bystander. Obviously if we see a sexual assault taking place we should intervene, as anyone would do. However, sexual violence exists on a continuum. Verbal street harassment and groping are also forms of sexual violence, though they are commonly accepted. If you see a man talking to a woman on the train, ask the woman if the man is bothering her. When you see a man taking upskirt pictures on his iPhone, tell him that is not only illegal but wrong. If a man grabs a woman, tell him, in your own words, to leave her alone. Most of these behaviors continue because the men who perpetrate the actions feel justified since they have never had another man call them out on it. Equally important, we want to think of our own safety – intervene if you feel comfortable, but we’re not superheroes, nor do we want to feel that just because we are men we need to be “strong” enough to fix everything. Taking your own safety account is imperative!

9. Reflect the type of masculinity you want to see in the world. If we want to break the association of masculinity and violence, we need to portray the type of masculinity we want to see. This means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, being nurturing and supportive of children, taking responsibility for our actions, and apologizing when we’ve hurt someone’s feelings. It also means supporting men who are “outside the gender box,” as well as supporting women and gender non-conforming folks. If we continue to harbor the negative qualities of masculinity, we can’t effectively change it.

10. Be accountable. Finally, recognize the ways that you are being oppressive. Always keep yourself in check. Being an ally means being accountable to feminists and to female-identified and gender non-conforming people. Though we may have the best of intentions, it is common to make mistakes. That’s how privilege works, after all – we will always be unlearning sexism. Being an ally is a lifelong process, and you’ve started on the road to making the world a safer place for women and girls (as well as boys and men!). That should be commended. However, we do not deserve praise for doing the work we should be doing; for taking responsibility. Make sure you are self-critical, self-aware, and knowledgeable about your words and actions.


Stephen Adler is the Prevention Education Specialist with Rape Victim Advocates. He started volunteering with RVA in 2007 and has been on staff since August 2011. He graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2010 with degrees in Gender & Women’s Studies and Applied Psychology. In addition to working as a prevention educator with the Campus Advocacy Network while at UIC, he founded Men Against Sexual Violence, a pro-feminist men’s group dedicated to engaging men in ending sexual assault on the college’s campus. Stephen believes in an intersectional approach to sexual violence prevention education and is passionate about working with men and boys to recognize their role in ending gender-based violence.

Follow him on Twitter – @ProFeministBro


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